Saturday, January 29, 2011

January Means Soup’s On!
What’s cooking? Crimini Mushroom Soup

I got this picture from my friend Leslie in Massachusetts yesterday. It’s a color photo, but the snow has transformed the world there into a vision in black and white. I suspect it’s a lot like the way my old home in New Jersey looks about now, and for reasons I will explain, it reminds me of soup.

For at least the last 15 years of our life in New Jersey, we taunted winter with a soup party in January. The tradition started small, with three or four other couples invited for dinner in the post-holiday malaise. But it was such fun that every year, I expanded the list; by the time we left the state, it had reached 50 people.

I’ve always suffered a bit in the cold and gray of January, coming down from the colorful excitement of December. So it was a great time for a party. Although the Christmas tree was down, I insisted that the outdoor lights remain until January 31, and the planning and cooking kept cabin fever at bay. By the end of the month, almost everyone was looking for a respite, so the opportunity to gather over good food and wine enticed even the most curmudgeonly of our friends.

These days, even though I’m not in New Jersey – or anywhere else where there’s snow – I still find myself in January wanting to make soup. Cream soups, stewy soups, bean soups, brothy soups. I realized how deeply entrenched these feelings are as I checked out at the grocery store the other day and noticed that I had gathered the makings of FOUR different kinds of soup.

One item I bought was a lovely box of crimini mushrooms – the ones that look like a toasty brown cousin to your standard white button mushrooms. I’ve always preferred them to the white ones because the taste is a little woodsy without being as intense – or as expensive – as wild mushrooms. I’ve now done a bit of research, and at least according to one website (, it turns out that all mushrooms (crimini and button mushrooms included) are a great source of iron and cancer-fighting (especially breast cancer) selenium. Criminis also deliver significant amounts of B2 (riboflavin), copper, and B3 (niacin).

So I cobbled together the following from what seemed like the best parts of a Culinary Institute recipe and a Silver Palate recipe. It's easy, and even with the chopping, takes only an hour and a half. On a gray, rainy, cold January day (yes, even in Texas), I loved the earthy flavor and the warm, creamy texture – like wrapping my insides in a soft, cashmere blanket.

Crimini Mushroom Soup

1½ pounds crimini mushrooms, quartered, stems cut even with the base of the cap
1 ounce dried assorted wild mushrooms
½ cup Madeira wine
6 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced (about 2/3 cup)
2 leeks (white part only), diced (about 2 cups)
1 celery stalk, diced (about ½ cup)
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups chicken broth
2 cups beef broth
2 sprigs fresh thyme
½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon white pepper (black is fine if you don’t have white)
¾ cup heavy cream

Set aside ½ pound of the quartered mushrooms for garnish.

In a small saucepan, bring to a boil ½ cup of the chicken broth and the Madeira, along with the dried wild mushrooms. Turn off the heat, put a lid on the saucepan, and let the mushrooms sit for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large heavy pot, add the onion, leeks, and celery, and cook on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are wilted, about 10 minutes. Stir in the flour and continue to cook the vegetables, stirring constantly for another 5 minutes. Add the remaining 2½ cups chicken broth, the beef broth, the pound of quartered mushrooms, the thyme and salt/pepper. Add the wild mushrooms and the broth/Madeira mix. Bring the soup to a low boil and simmer uncovered 30 minutes.

Turn off the heat and remove the thyme stems. Using a food processor or a blender, purée the soup in batches and return it to the pot. Heat the cream (do not boil) and add it to the soup. Reheat the soup (no boiling!) and serve with a garnish of sautéed mushroom pieces.

The garnish: Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil on medium-high until very hot. (See note below.) Add the mushroom pieces and stir or shake the pan for about 4 minutes, until the mushrooms take on a golden color. Remove them from the heat and serve immediately.

Kitchen Goddess note: There are three tricks to well-sautéed mushrooms. First, the mushrooms need to be dry. Second, the oil has to be very hot. When the butter foam subsides, that’s the signal that it’s hot enough. And third, don’t crowd the mushrooms. If you crowd them, they’ll just steam instead of frying, and lose their juices. For this recipe, depending on the size of your skillet, you’ll need to sautée the mushroom pieces in one or two batches. I use an 8-inch skillet, and need two batches. If you are cooking them in two batches, use half the butter/oil for each batch. The mushrooms will absorb all of the oil/butter in the process.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Easy, Cheesy...
What’s cooking? Bruschetta with Herbed Ricotta

I never took chemistry – in high school or college. I thought it would be too hard, so I took physics instead. Which just goes to show how ridiculous are the thoughts that wander around in a teenager’s head.

So I’ve always wondered if I’d have done well in chemistry. My friends who took it tell me that, as a math major, I would probably have really enjoyed it. And I’m starting to think they are right.

My new favorite hors d’oeuvre strikes me as something of a chemistry experiment. If you think about it, of course, most cooking resembles chemistry. You combine two or more substances that are known to react in certain ways. You add or subtract heat. And then you sit back and hope that the same thing that happened last time – or that is known to have happened before – will happen again. And you hope you don’t blow up the house in the process.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Think of It as a Motherhood Anniversary
What’s cooking? Bacon-wrapped Tuna Steaks with Sesame Sauce

 As of this day, I’ve been a mother for exactly 30 years. Three decades of alternately worrying, cheering, prodding, encouraging, admonishing, and marveling. Caring more than I would have thought was possible.

The pregnancy was something of a lark, without the morning sickness or other complications I’d heard about. I knew life would change, but without a clear understanding of how. Twenty-two hours of labor and a C-section still didn’t make me feel different as a person. And even when I held him in my hospital bed, his warm little head tucked up under my chin, we were both being cared for, both special, both on the receiving end of visits and attention from loving friends and family.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Start the Year Right
What’s cooking? Polentina with Bananas and Maple Syrup

I can’t resist the desire to have a posting for 1/1/11, so this won’t be long. But I do have a nice breakfast recipe for you, so stick with me. (Ok, I know, I’ve now missed it. But here I am, so I'll finish the thought.)

I also noticed today that for this year only, we’ll actually have three occurrences of those fun dates that have only one digit in them – there’s also 1/11/11, and the most fun of all which is 11/11/11. That confluence of dates isn’t available for the other digits, so this must indeed be a special year.

We’ve had houseguests this week, and while we’ve mostly eaten out, I did make an effort to have fun breakfasts. Yesterday, I made scones, and tomorrow I’ll be cooking a frittata, but this morning I went for something different but very easy. And it was a really fun way to start the day, as it reminded me of many breakfasts I  had growing up.