Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Garbage Soup

Garbage soup is one of my favorite, favorite things to make. It is immensely satisfying to create such yummy and healthy food out of stuff that would ordinarily be thrown out. (Especially if you live, as I do, where grocieries are ridiculously expensive.)

But the grocery bill is just one reason I routinely make soup out things other folks toss out as inedible, undesirable, or just plain tired. (Well, people who cook from time to time, anyway. If you live on takeout and microwaved frozen meals you won't be producing the basic ingredients for garbage soup in the first place.) True, I'm not producing a finished bowl of soup out of this stuff... but the base, a delicious homemade stock, is going into your kitchen garbage can, little bit by little bit, day after day. So why not collect the usable bits in a large ziplock bag in your freezer, as I do?

I don't use everything that ends up in the garbage can, of course, just what you might as well make soup out of: chicken, turkey, lamb, or beef bones; carrot peelings; the little bits around the stem ends of bell peppers and tomatoes after you've cut the rest off; parsley and cilantro stems; the leafy bits and root ends of celery stalks; wilted kale and swiss chard leaves; mushroom stems; the ends you slice off of zucchini, onions, shallots, even garlic cloves; the trimmings from bok choy, celery root, and fennel.

When the bag is full, on a day when you'll be home for a couple of hours, dump it out into your largest pot (no need to thaw first), cover with lots of filtered water, and set on the stove over medium heat. A scattering of whole peppercorns and, if you're feeling daring, a slice or two of fresh ginger root -- and maybe some fennel and/or cumin seeds while you're at it -- are useful for adding a little something extra. If you've got whole bay leaves in the house, toss in a few of those as well. Throw-caution-to-the-wind types might add a dried hot pepper pod or two, and three or four green cardamom pods.

When your pot comes to a boil, turn down the heat to maintain a healthy simmer and let it sit there, burbling happily to itself, for 90 minutes or more. If you want to feel involved, lift the lid from time to time and give the contents a stir, although that's really not necessary. If you've included meat or poultry bones, the stock is done when the joints disolve and the meat has fallen off the bone. Veggie-only stocks will be done sooner, although "done" is a very flexible concept here.

Take the pot off the heat and let it cool a bit with the lid off. If you've used meat or poultry bones it's a good idea to get the stuff into the fridge or freezer reasonably soon, but that doesn't mean you have to deal with it while it's still super hot. When it's cooled down a little, use a large strainer to scoop out most of the solids. Dump the contents of the icecube bin into your kitchen sink (drain plug in place) and fill the sink about half-full with water. Plunk the entire pot into the ice water and stir from time to time. It will cool down fast.

Now you can strain the stock into whatever you're going to keep it in and either freeze or refrigerate until you're ready to use it. Fat-phobics can refrigerate the stock overnight for easy fat removal before putting it into the freezer. (This is unlikely to be necessary unless you have included large quantities of chicken skin in the pot.) I suggest freezing some of your delicious homemade broth in 1-cup containers so you'll always have some on hand for braising, gravy, or to include in the liquid measure next time you cook rice or lentils or make mashed potatoes.

Having made your own garbage soup, the next time you see a recipe for stock in a cookbook, you'll have a good laugh. Sure, if you are trying to exactly duplicate a specific haute cuisine creation, you might want to do things "by the book." But that's not what we're after here; this is just plain old toss-what-you've-got-in-the-pot home cooking.

A few caveats:

1) Skip the broccoli, cauliflower, or cabbage trimmings; these veggies just don't taste good when boiled for a couple of hours

2) Potato, sweet potato, or winter squash make a cloudy, very sedimenty stock. If that will bother you, don't use them.

3) Keep an eye on your mix to make sure you haven't loaded it down with an excessive ratio of onion to everything else. Not that the result will be bad, exactly, but it will be intense. It's a good idea to collect enough carrot and celery bits, etc., to balance the onions.

4) An excess of kale, herbs, or other leafy greens will give the broth a greenish hue, and beets will turn it noticeably red. On the other hand, if have beets in the fridge you haven't gotten around to cooking because it seems like a hassle to boil them for an hour, go ahead and plop them in the stock pot, whole, next time you make garbage soup. Salvage them when you strain out the solids, or fish them out after an hour, whichever you feel inspired to do. The skins will slip right off, and the beets will be yummy for having been simmered with other delicious stuff.

To turn this base into a yummy soup, just add some each of:

Veggies: diced carrots and frozen peas (or snow peas in 1" pieces) are my favorites, but just about anything will do

Meat: diced cooked meat or chicken, or cubed tofu if you're vegetarian

Starch: cooked rice, barley, lentils, or pasta (you can also start by cooking the grains in lots of stock then add the other stuff when the grains are done).

Heat and serve.

I don't usually add salt to my soup or base stock. Instead, when serving, I first ladle a little of the broth into my bowl and stir in a spoonful (about 2 tsp) of miso before filling the bowl with soup.

Chicken soup is especially good with a dollop of plain or herbed yogurt stirred in. To make herbed yogurt, put about a half-cup of plain yogurt in your mini-food-processor and add whatever fresh herbs you have on hand (basil, parsley, and/or cilantro are obvious choices) and whiz it up. If you happen to have some cream or sour cream lurking in your fridge, a tablespoon or two of that added in is delicious, but not essential.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Mmmmm: Hummus!

Hummus may seem an unlikely food for me to be excited about, but when it’s good, it’s very, very tasty indeed. In an earthy, good-for-you, kind of way. No chance it will ever dislodge cake from the top tier of my food pantheon, but it deserves a place in the good eats hall of fame nonetheless.

That said, it’s also true that I can go long periods of time without thinking about, eating, or missing it. One of those hummus-free cycles ended recently as I was reading Jane Smiley’s 10 Days in the Hills. There I was, happily lounged on a deck chair with book in lap, when one of the characters spread some roasted garlic hummus on a piece of whole grain toast, and I immediately planned a trip to the store to pick up a tub of the stuff and a nice loaf of whole grain bread. Later that day, standing around the toaster getting crumbs on the floor, hubby and I unanimously agreed that we’d been fools to forget what a great combination that is…

… and how easy it is to make, if you’ve got a food processor in the house. Since the two health food stores in town already rake in a monstrous portion of our disposable income every month, I did not feel disloyal about picking up a can of garbanzos and a jar of tahini instead of a tub of house brand hummus the next time I went in. Here’s how the essential ingredients came together in my kitchen:

1 15 oz. can garbanzos (chickpeas), drained but not rinsed (reserve some of the water from the can, just in case)
1/4 cup tahini (roasted, not raw)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic
1 T fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric (if you’ve got it, for color)
1/4-1/2 cup fresh basil, parsley, or cilantro leaves (or a combination)
salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Dump all the ingredients in the bowl of your food processor and whiz away. If it’s too dry, drizzle in a little of the reserved garbanzo liquid. Keep blending until it’s nice and smooth.

There are several tricks to getting hummus just right. These are important because, in my opinion, not-right hummus just mopes in the fridge feeling sorry for itself as you consistently pick something else to eat day after day, until it turns sour and slimy and takes that long leap to the trash bin. Worst, in my opinion, is a hummus is that is both runny and lumpy at the same time: pleh. Double pleh if it’s been made with so much tahini you might as well just stick a spoon in the tahini jar as bother with the hummus.

Trick #1: Hummus should be as smooth as pureed chickpeas can get. Be patient. If you process it long enough it will smooth out.

Trick #2: Hummus should be neither dry nor runny. It may be a little thick while it’s pureeing, but take care when adding additional liquid. It doesn’t take much to push it over the edge into drippy territory.

Trick #3: Tahini is a grace note, not the main player.

Trick #4: Garlic, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper are all essential, but too much of any one can tip the flavor balance from oh-so-good to not-your-best-effort.

But that’s all just my opinion. Your favorite hummus may break all of my rules, so go ahead and have it your way: go wild with the tahini, double the garlic, squeeze in the lemon juice until your fingers hurt! Or fancy it up with chopped olives and roasted red pepper: hummus is infinitely flexible and very forgiving, and it wants to make you happy.

I think hummus (creamy and earthy) is at its best on a slice of toasted whole grain bread (warm and chewy), topped with very thinly sliced fresh radish (cool and crisp). What a great combination of flavor, temperature, and texture!

BTW: I’ve been inching towards a really good all-purpose whole-grain bread recipe to be a worthy companion to a great batch of hummus. I'm very close to getting it just right. Watch for that in a future post…

Saturday, April 12, 2008

April Showers bring… Pumpkin Pie?

I’ve been nibbling away at spring cleaning tasks lately, including tidying up the kitchen cabinets and clearing ancient and frost-bitten mysteries from the back of the freezer. Among the still-usables unearthed were a couple of cans of organic pumpkin and a package of frozen whole wheat pie crusts.

Why wait ‘til November for pumpkin pie? Lack of evaporated or sweetened condensed milk wasn’t gonna stop me (I don’t really like using that stuff anyway, although the SCM does make a creamy, creamy, yummy pie, I’ll admit that). I did have eggs and raw sugar and whole milk yogurt on hand, and even some heavy cream. A little fiddling with a basic recipe ended up as this:

1 pie crust
1 15 oz. can organic pumpkin
3 large organic eggs
1/2 cup raw or light brown sugar
3/4 C plain whole milk yogurt
1/4 C heavy cream
1 T blackstrap molasses
1 tsp ground dried ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 375. If your pie crust comes in a flimsy aluminum foil pan, place the whole thing on a heavy baking sheet.

Place all the other ingredients in your food processor and process until smooth. Pour into pie shell. Bake in the middle of the oven until custard is set (it will wobble when you jiggle the pan, without being liquidy) and the top is a darker shade of brown than it was going in. This took about 45 minutes in my oven, but my pie shell was on the small side and rather shallow. A larger/deeper pie may take an hour.

Cool completely on a rack, then store in the fridge. The custard may crack as it cools. If that bothers you, a generous dollop of sweetened whipped cream will hide it.

This pie (which I made last night) was supposed to be for dessert tonight. But if I’m posting the recipe here, surely I ought to do a taste test?... (I wasn’t gonna serve it to guests, just me and hubby. He won’t be surprised that a piece is missing.)

ummmm…. Cool and creamy, nice pumpkin flavor, not too sweet. The spices are subtle, but give depth to the flavor. Don’t know about you, but I hate a pumpkin pie that’s so overloaded with cinnamon and cloves you can’t taste the pumpkin.

The only problem with this whole venture is that the pie crusts I buy at the health food store don’t hold the amount of filling you get from a whole can of pumpkin + requisite amounts of other stuff. Last time I made pumpkin pie (a more seasonable November baking moment), I looked at what was left in the Cuisinart (a fairly generous amount) and thought, “If I add a little flour and baking soda, I bet that could be turned into pumpkin cake.”

So I tossed in a couple of squishy apple bananas that were lying around (“apple bananas” are a local thing, very small, about a third the size of regular grocery store ones), another egg, a little more yogurt and sugar, and some of the usual cake-type dry ingredients (flour, baking powder), whizzed it all up, poured it in a 8” square pan, and put it in the oven with the pie.

Now you may think I’m at expert at the baking game, seeing as how it’s a main feature of this blog, but believe me, I’ve turned out some duds in my day. I was thrilled and amazed when the impromptu pumpkin/banana cake turned out just like a real cake from a much-tested recipe! It was good enough to serve to guests, which I did.

The only problem is I didn’t measure anything, or even make any notes of what I did. So it was with a false sense of confidence yesterday that I tried to make "extra pumpkin filling cake". The result was, well, a little odd. Tastes okay, but total failure in the texture department. I’ll keep trying. I have another pie crust and another can of pumpkin to use up one of these days. And eventually it will be pumpkin pie season again. That means more leftover pumpkin goop to play with. If I ever get it right, I’ll let you know how I did it.

BTW: 154.5 two days in row. Whoohoo... progress may be slow in this cake-lover's house, but it's a lot better than seeing the numbers creep the other way!