SANTA FE SOUP

Everyone should go on a honeymoon thirteen-and-a-half years in.

Santa Fe aspens | Blue Jean Gourmet

People keep asking us if it “feels different,” being married, and I think we keep disappointing them because the answer is that it doesn’t, really.  I mean, things are different—that was the whole point, to be able to now think about filing taxes jointly, to be able to have Jill’s name listed on Shiv’s birth certificate, too, for us to both be able to use the funds in my FSA account.  These are the things that we wanted, that we didn’t think we would have until a time farther off in the future.  I still sort of can’t believe it, like it was all just too easy and I should have known it wouldn’t last.

But you know what is different?  Other people.  Like, referring to Jill as my “wife” elicits a completely different set of reactions than when I used to call her my “partner” or fumble for some not-awkward or clinical way to explain who she was.  But you say “wife” and everyone knows.  Boom, simple, done, easy.  Likewise, I am amazed by how excited people are about our marriage.  Old friends, acquaintances, even strangers—never mind that we’ve been together for, like, ever, but people want to throw us parties and send us presents and line our mantel with congratulations cards.  Not that I am complaining, mind you, but it struck me as a bit odd until a friend explained: “It’s so nice to have an official occasion to celebrate y’all and your relationship.  It’s not that we love or respect you any more now than we did before—we just have a reason to make a big fuss.”  And make a big fuss they did: some of our incredible friends actually sponsored most of our honeymoon—offering the use of a beautiful Santa Fe vacation home, covering & booking our flights, and sending us off with a guidebook, decadent spa reservations, and a super-generous gift card.

From the start, Jill & I have always worked to keep “us” a priority in our family dynamic.  We had ten years together before Shiv arrived on the scene, and on some level don’t know ourselves, the people that we are now, without the other.  And while we spin out to live our individual lives, do our work, pursue our interests, parent our child, it’s essential that we spin back in together to touch base, to re calibrate True North.

honeymoon hike! |Blue Jean Gourmet

We do this in all kinds of little ways, of course—piling on the couch with the dogs after Shiv has gone to sleep, grabbing lunch together on a day when Shiv’s in school but I’m not, greeting each other when one of us arrives or leaves the house (Shiv threw a kitchen towel at us yesterday when we were kissing “hello.”  Somebody doesn’t like being left out!)  But to have four days and three nights of that kind of time was pretty swell.

So, I think we should make the “thirteen year stretch” honeymoon a thing.  Honestly, I think we appreciated the time more than we would have five or ten years ago.  But one of the best parts of taking a honeymoon thirteen years in?  We weren’t even devastated when it was over, because it meant coming home to this nugget.

Shiv with pumpkins

***Extra-special shout out to my incredible mom, Veena, who really made this whole thing possible by taking care of Shiv while we were gone.  She even had dinner ready for us the day we got back!  Talk about spoiled—sheesh. ***

 

SANTA FE SOUP

One of the best things we ate on our honeymoon—along with some excellent local lamb barbacoa tacos from this place—was a creamy, corn-and-chipotle soup that was the daily special at a museum café where we ate lunch on a windy terrace.  Once back home, we tried to recreate it and came pretty darn close.  We’ll keep tweaking and re-trying, grilling/charring the onion and pepper next time, maybe adding more cream, but as-is, it’s still definitely worthy of a fall supper, with some crusty bread and a salad.

Santa Fe Soup

ingredients:

1 yellow onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

8 cups creamed-style corn (we had some frozen from the epic freezer stash that we moved when we moved Jill’s parents to Houston…but you can buy it canned or make your own)

2 cups chicken stock

1-2 T chipotles in adobo

1 pint heavy whipping cream

butter

smoked salt (substitute regular salt, of course, but you might want to bump up the smoky flavor with a few dashes of Liquid Smoke)

This soup is supposed to be a hearty indulgence, so start with a generous knob of butter (1-2 T) over medium-low heat in a heavy-bottomed stock pot.  Add the onion, garlic, and pepper, season with a few generous pinches of salt, and cook until translucent, stirring regularly.  At this point, turn the heat down to low and add the corn.  You may also want to add a bit more butter or olive oil, and be sure to stir regularly so the corn doesn’t stick.

Once the mixture looks homogenous and some of the moisture has evaporated, pour in the chicken stock and stir in the chipotles.  Bring up to a simmer and cook for 5-10 minutes.  Turn off the heat and remove the stockpot from the stove.  If you have an immersion blender, you can blend the mixture directly in the pot, though you may want to let it cool a bit, depending on how much clearance you have.  If you have a regular blender, cool the mixture considerably before processing it in batches.  (I left some texture in the mix, but you can make yours as smooth as you like—just remember, you’re still adding cream so it’s okay if the soup seems thick at this point.)  Check the mixture for heat (again, remember you’ll be adding cream, which will tame the heat a bit)—if it’s way too mild for you, blend in a bit more chipotles in adobo.

Return the mixture to a clean stock pot and warm over low heat.  Stir in the cream and cook, stirring continuously, until the cream has been fully incorporated and the soup is warm but not hot.  If you’d like thinner soup, stir in a bit more chicken stock.  Check for seasonings and add as much smoked salt as suits your liking.  Ladle into bowls and enjoy!

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EGGPLANT-LENTIL STEW

As seems to happen from time to time, I took a longer-than-expected hiatus from blogging.  And as has become my custom, instead of discussing the circumstances co-occurring with this hiatus—which are not interesting in the least—I’d like to just jump right back in, like a conversation with an old friend that stops and starts over the course of weeks, months, years, but feels somehow natural and continuous.

Oregon | Blue Jean Gourmet

I went to a funeral today.  The father of two  former students died very, very suddenly, and we gathered outside, in the cold, to remember him.  I didn’t know the man well outside of knowing his children, but to the extent that they are a reflection of and a credit to him, I do.  Given the circumstances, it is impossible for me not to feel zoomed into their shoes; they are a handful of years younger than I was when I lost my dad, also suddenly.  That handful of years is a distance, though, a flight of stairs’ worth of footing that I had and they don’t and still, still, the unmooring.  The despair.  The heavy, daunting work of grief and the seeming impossibility of absence.  I can imagine–and I can only imagine–what this feels like for them.

Death is where Judaism really gets it right, I think.  One of the things I love about Judaism is its pragmatism, its sensibleness; Judaism knows that what you need in the face of mind-numbing loss is someone or something to tell you what to do.  You need ritual.  You need rules.  You need to hear the same prayer you’ve heard recited your whole life, only this time it’s being recited for your father, and that means something.  You need some kind of structure, because making a decision—even one as seemingly insignificant as figuring out what to wear or what to eat—feels like an impossible uphill.

Jewish funerals aren’t sentimental.  Today’s service contained no explanations, no assurances that everything would be alright, or indication that this death is anything other than tragic, awful, and hard.  And yet, and also within the service came affirmations of God’s goodness: despite circumstances, despite loss.  If God is only good when God is good to us, then what, indeed, are we worshipping?  As it says in the Book of Job: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Death is the condition we are all bound by, but seem much too easily to forget.  And while I do not think it healthy to live in fear of death, I think it essential that we live in remembrance of it.  To acknowledge that we are, in fact, entangled with death all the time, whether we let us ourselves see it or blind ourselves to it.  Lessons don’t offset the loss, but that doesn’t mean death doesn’t have things to teach us.  I saw it today in the faces of my students as they sat in support of their classmates, as they let their parents hold them at the gravesite, as they enacted the very beauty and terror that are the poles of human existence.  It’s always both.  It’s always, always both.

EGGPLANT-LENTIL STEW

adapted from this recipe

This has become my go-to meal to gift to new parents or to deliver to a grieving household.  It freezes well, so there’s no obligation to eat it right away, and it’s vegan, which makes it friendly for almost everyone.  Pack it up with a nice, crusty loaf of store-bought bread, a green salad, maybe some goat cheese.  Makes a big batch so you can keep some at home, too.

ingredients:

water, chicken stock, or vegetable broth

1 medium-to-large Italian eggplant

1 cup green lentils

1 yellow onion, diced

diced peppers of your choice—depending on desired heat level, you could do anything ranging from very mild bell peppers to Anaheims, poblanos, jalapenos, or (much spicier) serranos .  We always have fresh peppers from the garden, the heat levels of which vary, so I usually taste a bit and then gauge from there.  Keep in mind that removing the seeds & ribs from the peppers will also turn down the heat!

1 twenty-eight ounce can of diced or crushed tomatoes (I like the Muir Glen organics fire-roasted kind)

4-5 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup pomegranate molasses

Handful of fresh mint (you can do cilantro instead—different flavor profiles, but both work with the stew!)

½ tsp. ground cumin

¼ tsp. smoked paprika

¼ tsp. crushed red pepper (again, balance/adjust this against the amount of fresh chiles you’re using)

Salt

Olive oil

Peel the eggplant in strips, then cut into planks length-wise and score each plank with your knife, making a cross-hatch pattern.  Place the eggplant on a baking sheet and salt, letting stand for 30 minutes before rinsing, squeezing, and dicing.

If you plan to make this on the stovetop (as opposed to the slow cooker), you can par-cook the lentils in water, vegetable broth, or chicken stock.  Let them simmer for about 15 minutes before draining & reserving; they should still be toothy.

Meanwhile, sauté the onion in a good glug of olive oil, adding the peppers after the onion starts to soften.  Toss in the garlic last, and let everything get fragrant over medium-low heat, adding in the spices last.  Turn off the heat and pour in the tomatoes, stirring to incorporate.

To bring everything together, you can use a slow cooker (cook on low for 4-5 hours), or a large pot on the stovetop (simmer, covered, for 45 minutes to an hour).  Either way, you want to layer everything together; tomato mixture on the bottom, topped with some lentils, topped with some eggplant—repeat.  Pour in enough stock/broth/water to cover it all, drizzle in the pomegranate molasses, and let it do its thing.

After cooking but before serving, taste for spice and salt; you’ll almost certainly need to add the latter.  If the stew lacks “zing,” add a bit more pomegranate molasses.  Top with the fresh herb of your choice.  As is the case with all soups/stews, this is even better the day after you make it.

GAZPACHO

Last week, my in-laws came to visit for the Fourth of July.  We see them more often now—every 4-6 weeks, as opposed to every 2-3 months—than we did before Shiv was in the picture.  Behold, the power of the grandchild.

gazpacho | Blue Jean Gourmet

Having Jill’s parents here, or going to visit them disrupts our normal family schedule and seriously messes with our generally pretty healthy eating habits, but when I hear Shiv on the floor, squealing with delight as he plays with his Papaw, or get to watch Jill’s mother’s face light up when her grandson smiles at her, there’s no question that it’s worth it.

This visit, though, the most valuable and memorable experience I had wasn’t about Shiv at all; it was the twenty extraordinary minutes I spent with my mother-in-law, while everyone else was out running an errand.

My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s; she is in some kind of middle stage, with a practically non-existent short-term memory and total inability to complete tasks.  She is easily confused, and repeats herself a lot: asking the same questions over and over, reading us the same story from the paper five or six times in the course of a morning.

There is no part of this that isn’t awful.  There’s watching my father-in-law watch his best friend of fifty-five years slowly lose her mind, there’s watching him watch her—his grief, his denial, his futile hope that she will “get better,” there’s watching her in the moments that she becomes embarrassed by her inability to remember or tries to cover up the fact of her forgetting.  There’s watching Jill gently answer the question “Whose baby is this?”

But every once in a while, the clouds part, the fog is lifted away, and there are brief, fleeting glimpses of the blazingly competent, inexhaustible, opinionated woman that she once was.  Such were the twenty minutes I got to spend with her last week, listening to her tell stories of her days as an ER nurse in the 1950s.  About how rewarding the work was, and how she misses it; about the days she went home and cried, but never in front of patients; about meeting Jill’s father, a detective with the Shreveport Police Department, at the hospital when he had to bring in a suspect to be stitched up.

I believe in the power of stories—telling them, listening to them.  I am so grateful for that twenty-minute reminder of the deeply human person who is trapped inside of my mother-in-law’s uncooperative mind and aging body; it is easy to forget her, sometimes, when I am frustrated at having to repeat myself or move around the dishes that she puts away in all the wrong places.

The stories we tell become who we are; if we don’t get to tell them, things get lost.  Go ask someone—your parent, your spouse, your grandparent, your child—to tell you a story.   Then listen.

GARDEN GAZPACHO

After the parade of fried things that comes with a visit from the in-laws, I was craving fresh, fresh vegetables.  Also, it’s approximately a zillion degrees in South Texas right now, so easy, no-cook dinners are a win for everyone.   The tomatoes came courtesy Jill’s parents’ garden, the cucumber my mom’s, and the onion, bell pepper, & jalapeno were from ours.

gazpacho ingredients | Blue Jean Gourmet

We paired this gazpacho with a light salad topped with leftover shrimp, some wine, and ate cherries for dessert.  I heart you, summer.

ingredients:

2 ½ lb. tomatoes
2 cups cubed bread
½ cup almonds
½ large red onion, peeled & roughly chopped
2 small or 1 large bell pepper, seeded & roughly chopped
1 cucumber, peeled & roughly chopped
1 jalapeno, seeded & roughly chopped (or leave seeds in for a spicier soup)
3 cloves of garlic, smashed
4 T sherry vinegar
½ cup olive oil
salt & pepper

serve with: sliced avocado, crumbled feta, and/or homemade croutons

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and process using a stick blender.  Alternatively, process in an upright blender, working in batches if necessary.  Taste and season accordingly.  I found that I didn’t need to thin my soup at all, but you can do so with olive oil or water if you like.

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FRENCH ONION SOUP

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness.

French onion soup | Blue Jean Gourmet

For the last few years, I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 with my eighth graders; though written in 1953—making it a tough sell at first—the novel’s themes continue to be resonant on a personal and political level.  Every year, the kids get into it.

From the political angle, there’s plenty to cover regarding censorship and totalitarian regimes, China and North Korea and the Arab Spring, revolution and the power (and danger) of knowledge.

From the person angle, take the question that one character (Clarisse) asks another (Guy Montag) very early on in the book: are you happy?  The question serves as the inciting incident of the plot, and forces Montag to view his life with a new set of eyes.

In order to answer the question “Are you happy?,” we must first, of course, define what we mean by “happy.”  We may even have to decide whether or not happiness is what we’re after.

In this recent article from The Atlantic, author Emily Esfahani Smith explores the writings of Viktor Frankl, well-known Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who wrote extensively about his experience in Nazi death camps.  (He was the only member of his family to survive.)  Frankl is famous for arguing that man’s attitude need not be dictated by circumstance, and that making meaning, rather than pursuing happiness, is life’s ultimate goal.  Happiness, Frankl argues, “can not be pursued; it must ensue.  One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”

Which brings me to the question of where we derive meaning.  In our culture, I would argue, meaning and self-worth are equated with achievements, with successfully reaching our goals, with what we do.  There is, of course, nothing wrong with accomplishments and goals—believe me, I’ve worked on my fair share—but the trouble comes when our entire identities, our sense of self-worth, our meaning, our measure of happiness, becomes solely dependent on them.

At least this is proving true for me.  There is a limit, I’m finding, to my project-based identity.  In a recent interview from the podcast “On Being,” John Kabat-Zinn said that he thinks about the experience of having children as equivalent to having tiny Zen masters parachuted into our lives; they show us things we never knew were there.  This has proven true for me.

My “achievement girl, I-will-do-all-of-the-things!” identity is totally threatened by the idea that “Nishta” might actually be something other than, beyond, or regardless of what I do or don’t cross off of life’s “to-do” list.  That there is an essential self underneath the kinds of things we list in bios or on resumes or holiday newsletters: the kinds of things that will someday be written in our obituaries when we die.

I’m with Frankl on the idea that we have the power to create our own meanings, regardless of circumstance.  But I’ve realized that I have been living as if the things I do are equivalent to the person I am.  But if I look back to Fahrenheit 451, Clarisse changes Montag’s life not by virtue of any grand thing she does, but simply out of being who she is.  And when Montag begins to create his own meaning for his life, instead of simply accepting what’s been given to him, an electric aliveness–dare I say happiness?–emerges for him, despite some truly harrowing circumstances.

At their most powerful, books (or art in general) can force us to access and question the way we live.  Which is why, of course, totalitarian regimes like the one in Fahrenheit 451 tend to want to burn them.

FRENCH ONION SOUP RECIPE
adapted very slightly from the Tartine Bread cookbook

As I always do when I want to invoke good cooking “juju,” I used Jill’s grandmother’s cast iron Dutch oven to make my soup.  A coated enamel pot would also work well; just make sure you’ve got at least a 3-quart capacity to work with.  The onions will cook down, of course, but you’ll have a hard time stirring in the beginning if your pan is too small.

caramelized onions for French onion soup | Blue Jean Gourmet

ingredients:

4 large yellow onions, peeled & sliced ¼ inch thick
1 ½ quarts (6 cups) chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 ½ cups dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
2 T unsalted butter
1 tsp. salt

half a loaf of day-old, crusty bread, sliced ½ inch or thicker
5 oz. Gruyere, thinly sliced

Combine the onions, cream, butter, and salt in the pan of your choice and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and growing translucent, about 10 minutes.

Adjust your heat so that the onions and cream come to a slow boil.  Spread the onions as best you can along the bottom of the pan and turn up the heat just a bit; leave the pot alone until the bottom layer of onions begins to brown, about 5 minutes.  Add ½ cup of the wine to deglaze the bottom of the pan, stirring with a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits.  Repeat this process twice more, cooking the onions without stirring for about 5 minutes so that they brown, then deglazing with another ½ cup wine.  In the end, the onions should all be deep caramel in color.

Pour in the stock and bring the soup to a simmer over medium heat.  Cook for at least 15-20 minutes to infuse the broth with onion flavor; I let mine simmer longer, to reduce the liquid a bit.

In the meantime, preheat your oven to 400°.  Lay the bread in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast until dry, about 15 minutes.

When ready to serve, ladle the soup into heatproof bowls or ramekins, filling almost to the rim.  Top with a piece of toasted bread and layer generous slices of cheese on top of the bread.  Transfer the bowls to a baking sheet and bake until the cheese is bubbly and brown, 20-30 minutes.  Serve hot.

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SAFFRON/CAULIFLOWER SOUP

Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.

‘Twas in the moon of this particular wintertime that I just can’t seem to get enough of Christmas music.  Hymns, carols, Jingle Bell Rock, You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch…you name it, I’ve been belting it out.

I know it’s become fashionable to berate the holiday season, to dread, to preemptively tense one’s shoulders, to decide ahead of time that things will go wrong and family will be dreadful, to pretty much be grumpy from Thanksgiving until New Year’s.  But not me.  Not this year.

This blogger is filled with the holiday spirit.  The magic!  The cheer!  The food!  The party dresses!  Last weekend, there were latkes.  This weekend, there will be a Christmas tree.  The list of friends and family I’ll get to see (that I don’t normally) in the next few weeks is long and lush.  How can I not feel exuberant?

It very well may be the most wonderful time of the year.  Or at least, I’m going to treat it that way.

SAFFRON/CAULIFLOWER SOUP

This recipe is incredibly simple to make but stole the show at our last “Blog Day.”  Friends kept returning for bowls of seconds and thirds, and pretty soon there was no soup left.

ingredients:

1 head cauliflower florets, broken into 1-2 inch pieces
2 carrots, peeled & chopped
2 yellow onions, peeled & diced
a knot of ginger, about 2 inches long, chopped
2 T butter
2 T olive oil, plus a bit extra
1 tsp. cumin
pinch saffron
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups water

salt, to taste

In a heavy-bottomed stock pot, sauté the onions and ginger in the butter and olive oil until fragrant.  Add the carrots and cauliflower and crank up the heat in order to get a bit of color on the vegetables.  Once the cauliflower has browned to the desired degree, pour in the stock and water and bring the mixture to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer, adding cumin and some salt.

In a small saucepan, warm a bit of oil and “bloom” the saffron, releasing its flavor and color.  Add to the soup mixture.  Cook for about 15-20 minutes, or until the cauliflower is tender.  Use a stick blender or transfer the soup in batches to puree the soup until smooth.  Taste and add salt, if needed.

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VEGETARIAN BLACK BEAN CHILI

Sometimes what you need is a turkey antidote.

Don’t get me wrong, I like turkey just fine—I plan on eating quite a bit of it myself, and I love the traditional trappings it comes with, the dressing, the cranberry sauce, the green beans.  I love standing in a pool of light from the fridge, pulling apart breast meat with my fingers, slapping it onto bread slathered with mayo and layering it with a few spears of Jill’s pickled okra for the best midnight sandwich ever.  I even like making turkey soup, simmering the carcass with carrots, tossing in some barley and kale, sopping up bowlfuls with hunks of sourdough.

But at some point, we all tire of the turkey.  Don’t we?  And it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.  AND WE JUST WISH IT WOULD GO AWAY.  Because we’d like to eat something completely different (but still tasty and homey and wintry) now.

Enter this chili.  If you’re planning to host or be hosted this holiday, if you need to feed a passel of people on the cheap (and before you can bust out the turkey, or after you’re exhausted its ability to feed you), I recommend this recipe.  Toss it in the slow cooker, preferably a few days ahead of when you plan on serving it, and set it out with cheddar, sour cream, chips, & cornbread.  The best part?  If you get tired of it, you can throw it in the freezer for later.

VEGETARIAN BLACK BEAN CHILI

a former coworker brought this in for lunch one day & I fell in love.  adapted slightly from the recipe he kindly provided

2 medium eggplants, sliced into thick rounds

3 zucchini, sliced into thick rounds

2 portobello mushroom caps, stems removed

2 green bell peppers, seeded & halved

2 onions, diced

4-6 cloves garlic, minced

1 28-oz. can diced, fire-roasted tomatoes

2 14-oz. cans black beans, drained

2-3 cups vegetable broth, depending on how thick or thin you prefer

½ cup chopped cilantro

2 ½ T chili powder

2 T ground cumin

balsamic vinegar

olive oil

salt & pepper to taste

optional: ¼ – ½ tsp. cayenne

Line a baking dish with paper towels, then layer the eggplant on top.  Generously with salt and let the eggplant sit for about an hour.  Rinse & dry the eggplant, then toss it in a bowl with the bell peppers, & mushrooms.  Drizzle in balsamic vinegar, salt, & pepper and toss the vegetables to coat.

Grill the vegetables (or use a grill pan, as I did) to achieve a bit of char.  Cool before  charred a bit on the outside and cooked through, then dice them all.

In a large soup pot, sauté the garlic and onions in olive oil until fragrant.  Add the grilled vegetables, tomatoes, black beans, broth, herbs, & spices.  Salt to taste and cook over low heat for at least 45 minutes or up to a few hours.

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GREEN LENTIL SOUP

Forgive me in advance for my discombobulation.  Is “discombobulation” really a word?  No, it’s not.  But I’m an English teacher and so I think my made-up words should count.

Tomorrow morning I leave to chaperon the eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C. We’ll be packing in some l-o-n-g days of sight-seeing and I just don’t know that any blogging is going to happen while I’m gone.  I bet I’ll have some excellent stories to share when I get back, though; I’m fairly certain this trip is going to be exhausting, educational, and highly entertaining.

After D.C. comes Passover break!  (Some of you may recall that I work for a  Jewish school).  And, what do you know, Jill and I are actually GOING ON VACATION.  To a resort.  On a beach.  Just the two of us.  Where they make drinks with little umbrellas in them.  Aside from road trips to see my mom or her parents, Jill and I haven’t taken a non-work related trip since I graduated from college.  Which was five years ago in May.  So, it’s time.

Fret not, though, while I’m lounging on some sunny beach and finally reading The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, two excellent guest bloggers will be taking care of things around here.  And once April rolls around, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming.

In the interim, I present you with some lentil soup.  Should you be experiencing the “cold snap” (feels more like the weather BROKE if you ask me, since it was sunny & 70 degrees yesterday, now blustery & 41, what gives?) that we are, or should you live somewhere that’s just straight-up cold, give this soup a try.   It’s very hearty but actually healthy at the same time, doesn’t take too long to throw together but gets better as it sits in the fridge for a few days.  Should you prefer a vegetarian version, Jess from Sweet Amandine read my mind and posted one.

Last but not least, I’m very proud to share that the Houston Press named Blue Jean Gourmet one of ten “Blog Stars” for the city!  You can read the full story here (and find me on page 5).

GREEN LENTIL SOUP

ingredients:

1 ¼ lb. sausage*
2 small yellow onions, diced
3 carrots, peeled & diced into small chunks
3 ribs celery, diced into small chunks
2-3 gloves garlic, minced
3 cups green (French) lentils, picked over & rinsed
6 cups water or chicken/vegetable stock (I used ½ & ½)
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes (I like fire-roasted)
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
½ tsp dried thyme
splash of red or white wine vinegar
salt & pepper to taste

Slice the sausage into thick rounds and brown it at the bottom of a stockpot or Dutch oven.  There’s no need to cook it all the way through, just get good color on both sides, then remove it from the pot and set aside.

My sausage wasn’t very fatty, so I added a little olive oil before tossing in the onions.  You might not need any extra fat, or may even want to remove some of the sausage grease—it’s up to you.  Either way, get the onions going, and once they become translucent, toss in the garlic, carrots, & celery.

When the vegetables have lost a bit of their “tooth,” throw in the lentils, liquid, tomatoes, & aromatics (bay leaf, cinnamon, thyme, & about a tablespoon of salt).  Cover the pot and let everything cook until the lentils have reached your preferred softness, about 30-45 minutes.  You may need to add additional water or stock as you go.

At the end, stir in the vinegar and generous grinds of pepper, along with extra salt to taste.  Serve up in big bowls with a hunk of crusty bread or wholegrain crackers.

*I used a garlic sausage that we get from our meat share, but I think a mild Italian would work well here, too.

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MINESTRONE

I didn’t grow up with many males in my life—twelve years in an all-girls’ school and no brother will do that to you—so it wasn’t until high school that I really began to build friendships with them.

Now, thankfully, there are these men in my life whom I love.  I mean, really, really love.  Men who can make me laugh with a one-line email, men who appreciate the noise my high heels make on pavement, men who care deeply for the people in their life, who watch “The West Wing” on DVD and keep Lincoln biographies and cookbooks and Spanish poetry and young adult fiction all stacked by their bedside.

Who have crushes on Mary Louise Parker.  Who have held my hand in art museums, or held me on a couch the night after my father’s funeral, or held their palm gently against the small of my back, ushering me into a door or through a crowded room.  Who write the most incredible letters, which I will save forever.  Who love their wives, their fiancées, their girlfriends, their sisters, mothers.  Who chide me into staying a little longer and drinking another beer (or Scotch or glass of wine).  Who will happily eat anything I put in front of them.


I look at my fourteen-year-old male students, who are so earnestly figuring out how to be men, how to flirt, how to build character, integrity, and swagger, and then I look at these men in my life: Dave, Phil, Stephen, Wayne, and I feel tremendous joy for the men I know my boys will grow up to become.

MINESTRONE

This recipe makes a big batch, but minestrone is the perfect “it’s still cold outside” refrigerator space-taker.  I always like to have mine with a good, golden-crusted grilled cheese.

1 large yellow onion
3 cloves garlic
3-4 small zucchini
3-4 small yellow squash
2 bunches fresh spinach (can substitute frozen), washed & roughly chopped
1 large (28 oz.) can crushed, fire-roasted tomatoes
4-6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cans kidney beans
2 T tomato paste
1 T dried oregano (double if using fresh)
¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt & pepper
olive oil

secret ingredient: Parmesan rind
optional: a few cups of cooked pasta

Dice the onion & mince the garlic.  In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat a fair amount of olive oil over medium-high heat.  Throw the onions in first and cook until they are a bit brown, then dial back the heat to medium and add the garlic.

While those two ingredients are making your house smell incredibly delicious, cut the zucchini & squash into small cubes, trying to keep them uniform without worrying too much over precision.  Add to the pot & sauté 5-8 minutes, until soft.

Now it’s time to toss almost everything in and let soup magic happen.  Tomatoes, stock, herbs, tomato paste, & Parmesan rind, if you’re using it.  Let your soup simmer for at least 45 minutes before adding the fresh spinach in batches, folding it in so it will wilt on its own in the hot soup.

Pull out the Parmesan rind (it will be gooey!) and toss in the beans, plus pasta if you’re using it.  Once everything has heated through, serve up in bowls or big mugs, garnishing with some fresh Parmesan and/or extra parsley, if you like.

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GAME DAY CHILI

Every once in a while, we human beings are bold enough to take an idea, a possibility, a “what if” or a “hmm, could we?” and allow it to germinate in our mind, to take us over, to use us and pull us into creation mode.  Then, if we’re crazy enough, we begin to speak our idea aloud—we tell other people, they tell other people.  And before we know it, we are wed to the thing, we are given by it, we find ourselves sitting at the kitchen table (right, Julie?) in our pajamas, working and working but the work almost doesn’t feel like work.  Or at the very least it feels like the right kind of work to be doing.

For me, I find it’s all too easy to watch the news, to read the paper, to look at the world and think “I wish I could help,” to feel deeply for the suffering of others and then put that all aside and move on.  But not Julie van Rosendaal.  She created something, a beautiful something, something I am very proud to be a part of:

Inside this cookbook, you’ll find recipes and gorgeous photographs from some of the best chefs and bloggers on the internet, a group in which I’m honored to be included.  While the book was put together in record time (just under three weeks!), it’s lost absolutely nothing in terms of quality.  Preview a handful of the pages online; they’re gorgeous.

You can purchase the soft cover edition for $25, the hardcover for $50.  Every penny raised from sales will go straight to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, via the Canadian Red Cross & Doctors Without Borders.

I think the Blog Aid cookbook would make a great birthday, housewarming, wedding, Mother’s or Father’s Day gift.  Or just buy it as a statement of faith, a vote on the side of hope and good work, a testament to the fact that one woman’s idea can become food in a child’s mouth, medicine for a wounded man, glossy cookbook pages you hold in your hand.

GAME-DAY CHILI (among other Superbowl food ideas)

I hardly ever make chili the same way twice—depending upon what’s in my pantry, spice cabinet, freezer, & fridge, all kinds of meats and seasonings have made their way into the pot.  Don’t be afraid to mix meats—pork, venison, beef—and change up the type of beans you use (if you use beans at all).  If you have a crock pot or slow cooker, now is the time to drag it out!  It serves perfectly for chili-making.  Don’t worry if you don’t have one, though, you can still brew up some perfectly good chili the old-fashioned, stovetop way.

Every chili has some “signature moves”—mine are dark beer, cinnamon, & a little cocoa powder.  All three of these do a little something to the flavor…you can’t pinpoint what you’re tasting, but it tastes good.  Mushrooms may seem like a strange ingredient, but they bump up the “meatiness” quotient of the chili without you actually having to add meat at all.  Control the heat to match your own preference, and bear in mind that big pots of chili usually get hotter after a day or two in the fridge!

ingredients:

2 lb. ground sirloin

1 cup chopped crimini or white mushrooms

1 onion, diced

3 carrots

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

1 serrano or 2 minced jalapeño peppers (if you like/can handle the heat!)

4 T chili powder

1 T cocoa powder

1 tsp. chipotle chili powder

1 tsp. allspice

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. cayenne pepper

½ tsp. cinnamon

4 cups beef stock

1 dark beer (I used Negra Modelo)

1 28-oz. can fire-roasted, crushed tomatoes

2 14-oz cans kidney beans (but only if their presence won’t offend your sensibilities)

2 T Worcestershire sauce

2 T chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

1 dried ancho chile (you could certainly use another type)

a few dashes of liquid smoke

vegetable oil

potential accompaniments: white rice, spaghetti, tortilla chips, Fritos, cornbread, cheddar cheese, sour cream, scallions

Mix all of the spices in a small bowl.  Bring a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, then  brown the meat, in batches if necessary.  As you cook the meat, add in some of the spice mixture to each batch.

Once the meat has browned, transfer to a crock pot or large, heat-proof bowl.  Drain most but not all of the accumulated fat—swirl in a little vegetable oil, then sauté the onions and garlic for a 3-4 minutes before adding the carrots & mushrooms.

If using a crock pot or slow cooker, once the vegetables are soft, add them to the beef.  Pour in all of the remaining ingredients and cover, cooking for full cycle or at least two hours before serving.  Check for spices & salt.

If cooking on the stove, return the meat to the pot and add the remaining ingredients.  Bring to a boil, then simmer for at least an hour before serving.  Check for spices & salt.

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TAKING STOCK & MAKING SOUP

Around here we say, “unfussy food from a fun-loving kitchen.”*  Essentially, what that means to me is you can make great food at home without slaving away for hours or blowing your budget on fancy ingredients.  The kitchen is a place where we should all feel free to make mistakes and make a mess, to play and focus, to relax and to express.  If it isn’t fun, or at the very least rewarding, we won’t do it.

To me, there’s no inherent virtue in fussy.  You know, three different curlique garnishes, half-a-dozen specialty ingredients, recipes that could fill a dishwasher with bowls and dishes just from the prep work?  I don’t do fussy for fussy’s sake.  But if the fuss is going to get me something, like crave-able onion rings,  light, buttery popovers, or delicate almond cookies sandwiched with jam and chocolate, then I’m totally in.

I first tried making my own stocks and broths in graduate school because I was on a serious budget, and it was the frugal thing to do.  Of course, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that once I started making my own versions, I wouldn’t be able to buy the pre-packaged stuff anymore.  Hours of slow-simmered goodness from your own stove, it’ll spoil you.

It’ll also make you feel worthy of your grandmother or [insert personal kitchen icon here].  Making homemade stock, which you can then use in homemade soups and stews, is the ultimate I CAN DO THIS moment.  Make your own stock and see if you don’t feel like a bona fide, authentic, oh-so-capable blue jean gourmet!

Oh, and have I mentioned how easy it is?  All you really need is an extended period of time at home so you can let the stock simmer and check on it from time to time.  Four to six hours later, you’ll have a house that smells like heaven (warning: this can drive dogs craaaaaazy) and stock that’s richer and more flavorful than anything you can buy in a box or a can.

Of course, if you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want some milk to go along with it, and if you decide to make stock, you’re going to want to cook with at least some of it ASAP (freezing the rest for future use, of course).  So I’m including an easy, hearty dinner soup recipe that will serve your new stock well.

Should you wish to go all the way with the “fussy but it’s worth it” theme, might I suggest you tackle the infamous Boeuf Bourguignon?  Made famous by the fabulous Julia Child and then re-famous by Julie & Julia fever this year, it really is something you ought to make at least ONCE in your culinary lifetime.  I made some this summer for Jill when I discovered she’d never had it.  She’s still raving about it, I tell you.

More interested in chicken, chicken stock, & chicken soup?  Don’t worry, we gotcha covered.

*Coming soon to a kitchen apron near you!  Yes, really.  Stay tuned.

BEEF STOCK

To make your own beef stock, you can simply buy soup bones from a butcher or save the bones from roasts & steaks as you cook.  If you are working with bones that have already been cooked, you can use a stovetop method: simply sauté all of the same vegetables listed below in a stock pot with some olive oil until soft & fragrant.  Then add the water, bones, & seasonings.

4 lb. beef soup bones (uncooked)
2 red onions, quartered
3 carrots, chunked
3 ribs celery, chunked
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled & smashed
2 T tomato paste
1-2 bay leaves
fresh thyme or rosemary
salt & pepper

optional: splash of red wine
oven: 450˚

Place the vegetables on the bottom of a large roasting pan.  Drizzle with olive oil, then place the soup bones on top.  Season everything liberally with salt & pepper.

Roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes, then transfer the contents of the roasting pan (plus any delicious, accumulated juices) to a large stock pot.  Fill the pot with as much water is needed to cover everything, somewhere around 8 cups.

Toss in the herbs, tomato paste, & red wine (if using).  Bring the mixture up to a boil, skimming off any foam that initially rises to the top.  then let the stock simmer gently for at least four hours, allowing it to reduce.

Taste-test the stock before deciding it’s through.  When you’re ready, strain the stock & save the meat from the soup bones for your dog or another purpose.

If you wish to skim the fat from your stock, the easiest way to do so is to refrigerate the finished stock in a large plastic container.  When it’s nice and cool, the fat solids will rise to the top, making them easier to removed.

Me personally?  I like fat.  It tastes delicious.

Once thoroughly cooled, beef stock will keep well in the freezer for several months.

ITALIAN SAUSAGE SOUP

Inspiration for this soup comes from Jill’s mother—my version is a bit different, but like hers, it’s hearty, easy to make, & goes wonderfully with a pan of cornbread or sliced loaf of crusty bread.  Like most soups, this one just gets better after a few days in the refrigerator!

The more flavorful the sausage, the more flavorful the soup.  Splurge, if you can, on well-crafted product, preferably fresh sausage from a grocery counter (as opposed to something frozen or packaged wholesale).  A tip—if you are a fan of parmesan cheese, save the rind!  I always add them to my soups, especially this one, and they impart excellent flavor.

6 cups beef stock
1 lb. Italian Sausage (hot or mild—the choice is yours!)
1 onion, sliced
2-3 cloves garlic
2 bunches fresh or 1 package frozen spinach
2 cans chickpeas, drained
fresh (1 T each) or dried (1 tsp. each) basil & oregano
olive oil
salt & pepper (1 tsp. each)

Slice or crumble the sausage into a tall, heavy-bottomed pot.  Turn heat to medium and brown the sausage, in two batches if necessary.  Transfer the browned sausage to a bowl with a slotted spoon.

Without cleaning the pot, add a bit of olive oil and cook the onions and garlic until translucent.  If you’re using frozen spinach, you’ll need to thaw & drain it while the onions cook.  If you’re using fresh, wash & dry it well before adding it to the onions & garlic, allowing the leaves to cook down quite a bit.

At this point, return the sausage to the pot along with the rest of the ingredients: stock, chickpeas, herbs, salt, pepper, & frozen spinach (if using).  Bring the soup to a boil, then simmer on low heat for at least thirty minutes before checking for flavor and adjusting salt, if necessary.

Serve hot.  Feel free to grate some parmesan on top—but only if you want to.

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