Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Roasted Tomato Soup with Cheddar Crouton

When was the last time you enjoyed the classic combination of tomato soup and grilled cheese?  Last winter?  A few years ago??  Before you had a drivers license???  I will only assume that you have at least once in your life paired these items, a childhood classic.  If it's been a while, and you need something warm in your belly for the upcoming chilly fall nights, this is it.  If you've never dipped a melty grilled cheese into a bowl of steamy tomato soup, you have problems.  They even make serviceware for it. 

You are going to make this soup.  I repeat, you will be making this soup.  Sure, it takes some time- but it's not laborious.  It's so worth the time commitment.  This recipe combines tomato soup and grilled cheese into one, in the style of the fantastique soupe l'oignon

The garden is still kicking out tomatoes, those that haven't been canned already are being eaten daily in salads, on sammiches, and a bunch were used to make this soup.  If you don't have access to homegrown or farmers market tomatoes, try to find some heirloom varieties at a specialty grocer.  Although standard plum tomatoes will work too.

No fresh basil?  That's certainly optional, although tomatoes and basil are like Batman and Robin, they work so well together.  Don't have an obsession with garlic like we do?  Only use 1 or 2 cloves.  Tongue can't handle spicy food?  Reduce the amount of hot pepper chili flakes to 1/8 ts.  Of course the soup will be super ass hot right out of the oven, but don't let it sit around too long or your crouton will become mush.  Enjoy responsibly. 

If you don't have soup crocks, here's another yummy autumnal soup to justify gettin yourself a few.  But anything broiler-proof will do the trick. 

Roasted Tomato Soup with Cheddar Crouton
2 servings as main course, probably would serve 4 as a starter

3 lb heirloom plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
1 ts kosher salt
4 cloves garlic, whole and unpeeled
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme, about 1 ts (or 1/2 ts dried)
1/4 ts red pepper chili flakes
2 C homemade or low-sodium chicken stock
3-4 leaves fresh basil, chiffonade, optional
8 1" slices from a sourdough baguette, or 2 or 4 slices from a large loaf- whatever fits in your ovenproof crock
1.5 C freshly shredded good quality cheddar cheese, best be from Wisconsin or Vermont

Fire up the oven to 400F.  Place the garlic cloves in a little foil packet and drizzle with a bit of EVOO and close.  Onto a sheet pan, lined with parchment if you like easy clean-up, place the tomatoes cut-side up.  Sprinkle with kosher salt and then drizzle some EVOO over.  Add the garlic packet to the sheet pan and roast for 60 minutes, your kitchen and most of the house will be smelling all delicious.

Let the garlic cool slightly before squeezing out the cloves.  Add them to a food processor or blender along with the tomatoes and any accumulated juices from the sheet pan.  Pulse until you have a chunky puree, you don't want large chunks and you don't want a thin liquid.  Pour into a medium pot and add the thyme, red pepper flakes, and stock.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and then reduce to a simmer, cook for about 20 minutes.  Season to taste with S&P. 

Considering the size of your ovenproof crocks or coffee mugs or bowls, cut sourdough bread slices accordingly.  I had a small baguette so 4 slices fit on top of each soup.  Pour the soup into your holder of choice, then top with the bread and then heap on the cheese.  Place the crocks/mugs/bowls onto a sheet pan, lined with aluminum foil if you like easy clean-up, and bake at 400F for about 20 minutes, until the cheese is all bubbly and browny at the edges.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Spinach Salad with Strawberries, Toasted Walnuts, Blue Cheese, Strawberry-Champagne Vinaigrette

Summer can be defined in various ways.  Meteorological summer occurs during the entire months of June, July, and August (for those in the northern hemisphere).  Astronomical summer is the time period between the summer solstice and autumnal equinox (June 20 to September 22 for 2012).  Some like to bookend the warmest season with Memorial Day and Labor Day.  All of these methods are pretty close, but they are static.  To me, summer is a dynamic entity which fluctuates from year to year.  Those in the Midwest know that some years you may have all four seasons, others you might get only get 3...the shoulder seasons of fall and spring can be fleeting moments where that sweet vest never makes it out of the closet. 

I prefer to define the summer season by planting day and harvest day.  That's roughly delineated by the time between frosts, which varies slightly and of course is not foolproof.  I follow a simple rule, which fittingly my mother taught me- don't plant until after Mother's Day, at least around these (zone 5) parts.  Calculating when to harvest is much easier these days, thanks to the advancement of modern weather forecasting.  You know this guy kills it.

The end of summer/harvest day this year was yesterday, September 18th.  A buckling Canadian air flow threatened the delicate basil plants- they are the first to succumb to the lack of heat.  Other herbs are much hardier, like the rosemary last year that made it through the winter, as it was quite mild. 

Speaking of last winter's warm temps, this summer was quite hot.  Alarmingly fucking hot.  There are no more icebergs to hide under, those who disagree with scientific claims of global warming, because they melted.  I don't see how one could argue against it.  The drought this summer was the worst in over 50 years, but that pales in comparison to all the other jacked up weather events that have occurred the last 2-3 years.  The most jaw-dropping statistics?  According to NOAA, the globally averaged temperature for June 2012 was the 4th warmest June since record keeping began in 1880.  It was also the 36th consecutive June and the 328th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th-century average.  June 2012 also broke or tied over 170 all-time high temps across America and contributed to the warmest 12 month period our nation has experienced since 1895.  There will soon be a point where any action taken by the world's leaders will be too late, and we'll see irreversible consequences.  But I'm pretty sure the burning of fossil fuels has nothing to do with it.

And I digress. 

You know why caprese salad is so damn delicious at the end of summer? Cause you waited all mfn winter and most of summer to enjoy it.  Ever see that on a restaurant menu in the dead of winter?  That's a sign you're at the wrong restaurant. 

My first attempt at canning was a success- I think, we'll find out in a few months.

Spinach Salad with Strawberries, Toasted Walnuts, Blue Cheese, Strawberry-Champagne Vinaigrette
2 servings

3 strawberries, hulled, roughly chopped
1 TB champagne vinegar
3 TB good EVOO
1/2 small shallot, minced (about 1 TB)
1/2 ts dijon mustard

1 bunch fresh spinach
1/2 C chopped walnuts, toasted
1 rib celery, halved, thinly sliced on the bias
1/2 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced in 1" pieces
2 oz good blue cheese, crumbled
3 large strawberries, hulled, thinly sliced

Using a stand blender, stick blender, or food pro, combine all vinaigrette ingredients and process to combine thoroughly.
Wash and dry the spinach, remove any large stems and tear up some of the big pieces.  Throw in a large salad bowl, then add the celery, red pepper, and the vinaigrette.  Toss well, then add in the strawberries, walnuts, and blue cheese.  Mix gently and serve immediately.  Chill your plates for bonus points.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Zucchini Fritters

As recently mentioned, this vegetarian dish was a great change-up to the onslaught of summer's grilled protein.  I like to make fun of strict vegetarians and vegans, but every now and then a non-meat dinner is a great refresher.  

These fritters hit the trifecta- quick, easy, and yummy.  You do, however, have to adhere to a few notes about concocting this recipe.  First, techniques like frying is why you should own a cast-iron skillet.  I recommend Lodge brand because they are cheap, durable, and come pre-seasoned.  Pay attention to how to care for your skillet- no soap, no rust.  After all, you should be frying your bacon in a cast-iron skillet, which not only tastes fantastic it keeps your hardware nicely seasoned and oiled.  Secondly, don't crowd the fritters when cooking.  Give them room to heat up nicely and give you those delicious browned edges.  So, you'll most likely have to cook in 2 batches, unless you have a huge skillet.  Keep the first batch in a warm oven (200F) on a rack over a sheet pan- don't place on paper towel like so many recipes tell you to do- sitting in its oil will rob you of the crispy crust and you'll have a soggy fritter, which is no good.  Thirdly, gas ovens introduce a ton of moisture, so don't keep them in there too long. 

If you don't want to buy greek yogurt, you can let regular yogurt strain though a fine-mesh sieve for 20 minutes to thicken up.  Like most vegetables, zucchini is mostly water- don't skip the salting step, you need to draw out most of the water.  Water+hot oil= problem. 
Zucchini Fritters
makes about 6 fritters, good for light meal with a green salad

for the sauce-
1/2 C greek yogurt
1 ts lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, minced
pinch S&P

for the fritters-
1 large or 2 medium zucchini, shredded
4 green onions, green part only, split lengthwise
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 C AP flour
1/2 ts baking powder
1 ts kosher salt
freshly cracked black pepper
2 TB veg or canola oil

Combine all sauce ingredients in a small bowl, mix well, and stash in the fridge to chill.

Shred the zucchini with a food pro or on the large holes of a box grater.  Place a colander in the sink and layer the zucchini, spreading them out.  Spinkle with 1 ts kosher salt, let sit for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, fire up a cast iron skillet over medium high heat.  In a medium bowl, lightly beat one large egg, then add 3 of the green onions which you have sliced thinly.  In another small bowl, mix the flour and baking powder. 

Strain the zucchini  by using cheesecloth, a clean towel, or a few layers of paper towel- squeeze out as much water as you can, then add to the egg mixture.  Stir in the dry goods (flour and pow) and season with a few grinds of pepper.  Mix everything well so all is distributed evenly.

Pour about 2 TB of cooking oil into your skillet, the fat should be hot enough to be shimmering but not smoking.  Using a TB or small spoon, scoop portions a bit larger than a golf ball and place into the skillet.  Smash down gently with a spatula to form fritters.  Cook on one side until golden brown, about 3-4 minutes, then flip and cook for about the same amount.  Place onto the rack in the warmed oven until ready to eat. 

Slice the remaining green onion into small pieces, top the fritters with the yogurt sauce, then the onion.