Monday, March 20, 2017

Put Some Spring into your Step... er, Soup
What’s cooking? Spring Vegetable Soup with Orzo

Yup. It’s here. At 5:28 this morning (that would be Central Daylight Time), Spring arrived. Certainly cause for some celebration. I know you want to put away your quilts and your sweaters, throw open your windows, and head out looking for pansies or lettuces or whatever it is you like to plant once the ground thaws.

Trouble is, the ground hasn’t really thawed in most places. And you’ll wish you had those quilts and sweaters available, at least for the next few weeks. Unless, of course, you live in Texas, where it actually is warm enough to plant the garden, but still not necessarily warm enough to put away the sweaters.

KG’s kitchen garden: lettuces and sorrel.
The KG’s kitchen garden: basil, tomatoes, arugula and pansies.

In the meantime, the Kitchen Goddess recommends... Spring Cleaning. Very satisfying and way more fun than doing your taxes. I was making Sticky Toffee Pudding for a St. Pat’s celebration this weekend and was chagrined to find that my self-rising flour carried a use-by date of August 27, 2016. I wasn’t sure how critical that window of opportunity was, so I checked on the web, where I noted that the flex-time was 4-6 months. Let’s see...[counting on fingers] Sept-Oct-.... Well, it appears that I reached almost the 7-month mark. Still, in a desperate effort to avoid that last-minute run to the store, I thought there must be a way to decide if it was really no good.

Then I remembered that the difference between self-rising flour and all-purpose flour is salt and baking powder. Well, I reasoned, if there’s baking powder in the stuff, I can tell by putting some in water if it’s got any life to it. You do remember, don’t you, that baking powder will bubble in water if it’s still working? So I threw a little into a small bowl of water. Nothing. Maybe I didn’t put enough in, I thought. So I put a little more in. Nothing. I poured the whole mess out and tried again. Nothing. Folks, that self-rising flour was as dead as the mice my cat used to bring me. So into the trash it went and off to the store went the KG.

Which is why I spent a bit of time this morning checking other use-by dates in my pantry. I found Melba crackers that should have passed on last March, cake flour in the same condition as my self-rising stuff, and microwaveable popcorn with a best-buy date of September 21, 2015. Yikes – how did I miss that last year?! And others I don’t dare tell you about for fear that you’ll get the wrong idea about me. But it’s a great way to clear some of the shelf space in your pantry. Tomorrow I’ll be giving my spices their annual sniff test.

When you’ve finished that little survey, you’ll be feeling noble and energetic. What to do with that energy? Why, cook! (Notice the difference the comma makes in that little sentence – it’s a totally opposite sentiment without the comma. The Kitchen Goddess loves the nuances of good punctuation.)

For you, I have just the dish. Yes, it’s early for most veggies. But you can pretend. And some – like sugar snap peas – are now in stores, fresh! So even though most of what’s in the soup is fairly standard, it doesn’t cook for so long that the veggies mush up; those sugar snap peas still have a bit of crunch. The real key is the basil and arugula, which give this delightful soup all the freshness of spring, without sacrificing the warmth you need for a while. See how clear the broth looks? Perhaps because the orzo tends to maintain a firmness without dissolving in the way that rice or some other pastas might. And once you get the veggies chopped, it takes very little cooking time. Add some orange slices – it’s still citrus season! – and some French bread with melted cheese, and the meal is complete.

Welcome spring!

Spring Vegetable Soup with Orzo

Adapted from Food & Wine Magazine, March 2017.

 Serves 4.

Somehow, I left out the peas and avocado. But they’re in the soup.
¾ cup orzo
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium carrot, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
1 small turnip, cut into ⅜-inch dice
1 small sweet onion, cut into ⅜-inch dice
1 small fennel bulb, cut into ⅜-inch dice
1 celery rib, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces sugar snap peas, sliced diagonally into ½-inch pieces
6 cups good quality chicken stock
½ cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
½ cup frozen peas
1 small avocado, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
2 ounces arugula (about 2 cups packed), thinly ribboned
½ cup basil leaves, thinly ribboned

In a medium saucepan, boil the orzo in lightly salted water until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside, covered.

In a heavy soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the carrot, turnip, onion, fennel, celery, and garlic, along with ½ teaspoon of salt. Sauté the vegetables for 6-7 minutes, and stir in the sugar snap peas for another minute.

Add the chicken stock, and bring the soup to a simmer. Stir in the tomatoes and frozen peas, and return the soup to a simmer. Cook partially covered over medium-low heat, for 12-15 minutes, or until the vegetables are fork-tender. Stir in the avocado, and continue to cook the soup for another 3-4 minutes. Stir in the orzo, and adjust seasoning with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Place a generous portion of basil and arugula into each bowl, and ladle the soup on top. Stir and serve hot.

If you want to make the soup ahead of time, follow directions down to just before the avocado. (The orzo tends to clump a bit if it sits on its own for long, so you may want to break it up before stirring it into the soup. Or you can cook the orzo at the last minute when you’re getting ready to serve.) When you’re ready to serve, reheat the soup, add the avocado, and proceed from that point in the directions above.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Nerd Alert: Happy Pi Day!
What’s cooking? Pecan Delight Pie


In case you don’t recognize this number, it’s Pi, symbolized by the Greek letter, π, and shown here with just its first 75 digits after the decimal point.

Why is it here? Because today is March 14, which when written as 3.14, is known among the math nerds of the world as Pi Day.

It’s certainly one of my favorite days of the year. That’s because, in addition to being a Kitchen Goddess, I am also a math nerd.

You are doubtless asking yourselves why you should care about π, or Pi Day. And the answer is that it’s arguably the most ubiquitous of all mathematical or scientific constants. (I’m sure someone out there will argue this point with me, but what the heck.) Also a great excuse to bake a pie.

So in deference to those of you who didn’t show up here looking for a math lesson, I’ll keep it short. Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. And it’s the same regardless of how large or small the circle is. Which is why pie is such a good reference point. It’s also the ratio of the area of a circle to the radius squared. In other words, for any circle:

C = πd, where C is the circumference, and d is the diameter
A = πr-squared, where A is the area and r is the radius

It’s all coming back to you now, isn’t it?

What makes π an amazing number is that it shows up in so many fields of math and science. Because it helps us to calculate the length of and area under curved lines, it’s the number that inevitably appears when we’re talking about the orbits of moons or planets, or machining parts for aircraft, or understanding sound waves, or building GPS systems (remember, the earth’s surface is an arc). Cornell math professor Steven Strogatz (in a 2015 New Yorker article) noted that we encounter π whenever we calculate rhythms – processes that repeat periodically, with a fixed tempo, like a pulsing heart. Pi even appears in the math that describes the gentle breathing of a baby.

And now, before I get to today’s recipe – it’s coming, I promise – I will torture you with just a few fun facts about π.

■ π is what’s known as an irrational number, which means that it can’t be expressed as a fraction. (The closest I found in my research is 355/113, which is accurate to only six decimal places.) Being irrational also means that π, when written as a decimal number, continues forever without any repeating pattern.

■ According to a Business Insider article, at position 17,387,594,880, you find the sequence 0123456789; at position 60 you find these ten digits together in a scrambled order.

■ Mathematicians have known about the ratio since ancient Babylonia, almost 4000 years ago. But the man who introduced the Greek letter as a stand-in for the ratio was a Welsh mathematics teacher named William Jones, in 1706. He chose it because it’s the first letter in the Greek word perimetros, meaning circumference.

So now you know why to care about π. And the reason to care about Pi Day is that the Kitchen Goddess has a fun recipe for you.

I first came across this pie at Hill’s Restaurant in the tiny town of Vivian, Louisiana, where my mother and aunt spent their early childhood. My cousin, Helen, and I were there settling my grandmother’s estate, and when it got around to lunchtime, one of the locals directed us to Hill’s. In a small country town, when you find out where the locals go, you should always check it out. Sadly, Hill’s doesn’t appear to be in business any more; but we were certainly grateful for it that day.

Hill’s had the most amazing buffet of Southern food I think I’ve ever seen. Fried catfish, fried okra, fried chicken, hush puppies, mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon,... I get hungry just remembering it. And when we thought we’d eaten as much as we could, they brought out the three-tiered tray of pies, which included Pecan Delight. It was early days in the Kitchen Goddess’s culinary adventures, but she knew enough to get the recipe for that pie. And now she shares it with you.

You’ll find this recipe in other places on the internet, so it’s not just a specialty of a now-defunct café in Louisiana. But the Kitchen Goddess finds it irresistibly charming in its use of Ritz crackers: one of those great dishes that illustrate the inventiveness of Southern cooks.

And by the way, the whipped cream topping is a must.

Pecan Delight Pie

Adapted from Hill’s Restaurant in Vivian, Louisiana.

For the pie:
3 large egg whites
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
22 Ritz crackers, finely ground
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup chopped pecans

For the whipped cream topping:
1 cup heavy cream
1 rounded teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350º. Butter a 9-inch pie plate.

In a large mixing bowl, with a mixer set on high, whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks. While the mixer is running, add the vanilla, then slowly add the sugar and continue beating until the whites form stiff, shiny peaks.

In a separate bowl, stir together the cracker crumbs, the baking soda, and the pecans. Fold the dry ingredients into the whipped egg whites, and pour into the prepared pie pan. Kitchen Goddess note: No crust! Is this easy or what?!

Before baking.

Bake 25 minutes. Let the pie cool completely on a rack. Chill until ready to serve. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream.

After baking.

For the whipped cream topping, place a mixing bowl and whisk in the freezer for 15-20 minutes. Into the cold bowl, pour the cream, sugar, and vanilla. Whisk on high until stiff peaks form, about 1 minute and 20-30 seconds. Do not over beat, or you’ll end up with butter.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Season of Waiting
What’s cooking? Butter-Steamed Broccoli with Panko and Parmesan Cheese

It’s that middling time of year. When spring is so near you can almost taste it, except that the wind chill keeps freezing your taste buds. But the hardest thing about this time of year is finding something fresh to cook.

There’s lots in the stores, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve pretty much had my fill of broccoli and broccolini and cauliflower, and butternut and acorn squash, which is what’s still most abundant in the fresh produce aisle. Fresh asparagus will make an appearance soon – that would be fresh, local asparagus, from someplace on this continent. But not just yet.

Do I sound whiney? I’m sure that’s right. And not like me. For the truth is that I’ve had the flu – in spite of having gotten a flu shot this year – and even if I’d felt like cooking or eating, my prince has refused to let me near anything he’s planning to put in his mouth.

So we’ve had lots of takeout, and a few meals that involved boiling liquid – to adequately eliminate any germs. But at some point, you know, the Kitchen Goddess must cook. Sharks gotta swim.

I’m not alone in this lament, by the way. Just last week, the very talented Sam Sifton (NY Times food writer) posted a piece in the Sunday NYT Magazine, wherein he said, “These are hard days for cooking.... Early March can leave cooks adrift in home and restaurant kitchens alike, unsure of themselves, desirous of inspiration.” So misery does indeed love company.

And that’s where this very tasty broccoli recipe comes in. I know, I said I was tired of broccoli; mostly, I meant I was tired of the same old preparations.

Often, when trying to figure out what to do with veggies, my thoughts run to steam/boil/grill/roast and then slather with butter. But that seemed sort of inadequate. So when I uncovered this recipe in my slush pile of good ideas, I cheered. For starters, this technique of cooking the broccoli in a bath of water and butter over high heat is truly magical. A new arrow in the Kitchen Goddess’s quiver, as it were. The broccoli absorbs both the water and the butter, which completely changes the flavor of the food. Add the nuttiness of shaved parmesan cheese, plus a nice crunch delivered by toasted, peppered panko, and you have what is both a very good and a very easy dish. Not exactly springlike, but then, it’s not exactly spring. (If you want to hint at the coming of spring, grate some lemon zest into the panko or squeeze a bit of lemon into the skillet with the broccoli.) Thankfully, it is actually possible to get very attractive fresh broccoli in the stores.

I served this excellent preparation with grilled – by the prince – chicken thighs and rice (another dish from boiling water). Not an awe-inspiring meal, but way better than takeout.

Butter-Steamed Broccoli with Panko and Parmesan Cheese

Adapted from David Tanis in The New York Times.

Serves 4.

¾ cup panko bread crumbs
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
¾ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 large head broccoli (about 1 pound)
1 clove garlic, sliced thin
1 cup water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, shaved
Optional: ½ lemon (zest grated into the bread crumbs, or juice squeezed into the water bath for broccoli)

Preheat the oven to 400º.

In a medium bowl, toss the panko crumbs with the olive oil. Place the crumbs on a rimmed baking pan and put the pan in the oven for 10-12 minutes, or until the crumbs take on a golden color. Stir the crumbs once or twice as they cook, to encourage even browning. When the panko crumbs have reached a color you like, remove them from the oven and scrape them into a bowl to cool. Stir in the pepper and salt to taste.

In the meantime, separate the broccoli into spears 3-4 inches long, slicing the thickest ones to make stems no thicker than ½ inch. If the base of the broccoli is a long, thick stem, use a peeler to remove the tough outer skin, and slice the stem into batons (sticks, like French fries) no more than ½ inch thick.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the broccoli, garlic, and water, and season with salt to taste. Stir well and turn the heat to medium-high, then cover the skillet with a tight-fitting lid. Cook the broccoli over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, at which point it should be firm-tender and still green. (Some of the stems will brown lightly from the butter in the bottom of the pan.)

Transfer the broccoli to a warm serving platter and sprinkle it with the toasted panko crumbs. The broccoli should have absorbed all the butter and water; if not, pour any remaining liquid over the broccoli in the serving dish. Shave large, thin slices of Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, and serve.