Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Thoughts that Run Around in My Head
What’s cooking? Thai Curry Soup with Broccoli, Spinach, and Cilantro

Even after last summer’s season ended in New Jersey, my hubby and I stayed north for a month to attend a couple of weddings. With the swimming pool closed and my granddaughter in pre-school, I had some slow days, and spent much of the time transitioning to a new laptop. The process encouraged me to put at least a modest effort toward cleaning out my email files, slashing and burning the ones that went back and forth to make lunch dates from three years ago, the obligatory deluge from Facebook and LinkedIn, or sale notices from Staples or the lighting company I bought a lamp from last year. I'm not sure what the retailers are thinking about: it seems like if you just bought a lamp or a printer cartridge, you’re probably not in the market for another just yet.

Among the curiosities I noticed was a series of emails from Microsoft between August 26 and December 15 of last year, no fewer than 12 of which were reminders that my Microsoft Office “trial” (which I put into quotes because I had already bought the package through amazon.com, where it was cheaper) was either “almost over” or “ending soon.” And at least four of those were “last chances.” So I wondered if they just think I didn’t notice, or if Microsoft is like the rug dealer in my town in New Jersey who was always going out of business.

So being a writer carries its own form of curse: you notice things that completely escape most people. Or at least I think they do. Having managed to eliminate more than 1000(!) priceless missives from my email files, I decided to get some air. The fall weather in Jersey City had hit one of those beautiful, crisp periods that practically push you outside, so I headed out for a walk around the neighborhood. Along the way, I found a number of cute, new restaurants in our area. One that looked particularly interesting offered outdoor seating, which is always fun in nice weather, so I went a bit closer to check out the menu. And right near the sidewalk tables was a large sign that read, “Please ask host to be seated.” I’m not sure anyone else got the unintended meaning, but I laughed all the way home.

On a slow day, I almost always feel like cooking, and on one of those days recently, I needed to come up with something to feed my book group. As a subscriber to regular emails from epicurious.com, I’d received a recipe for a puréed broccoli soup accented with Thai green curry paste and coconut milk. Mmm... the Kitchen Goddess was intrigued. As it happened, I actually had Thai green curry paste in my fridge – the remains of a jar I’d bought to make a perfectly wonderful hors d’oeuvre, Thai Meatballs and Green Curry Sauce, that I adapted from the CIA. I took it as a sign from the universe.

Kitchen Goddess note: Let me just say here that Thai green curry paste is one of those indestructible ingredients. If you buy the canned version, once you’re done, remove what’s left and store it – refrigerated – in either a zip-lock bag with the air squeezed out, or in a tightly lidded jar. According to the sources I found online, the stuff will last “a few months,” “about 5 years,” or simply “ages,” depending on who you ask. I know I’ve had mine for a couple of years, and as long as you don’t find any mold on it, it should be fine. Mine even retained all the original heat. So glad I never threw it out; and now that I have this delightful soup recipe, I may even have to buy more.

As with any recipe from epicurious.com, the Kitchen Goddess checked the reviews before diving in. The ratings were outstanding – 4 forks (top rating) from 48 reviewers, and ALL of them would make it again. But – again as with many of the offerings on epicurious – the ratings hid a number of recommendations to “fix” the original. So this version incorporates several of the more popular suggestions. The Goddess is not a lover of spicy heat, and while the first batch she made was delicious, the spiciness very nearly set her hair on fire, so she cut way back on the curry paste for the second batch. Feel free to add extra curry paste if you are a heat freak, but do so sparingly – remember, you can always add more. The KG also found the original soup to be a bit thin, so she added some cream.

This soup is not an entrée soup. Like many Asian foods, it might fill you up, but not for long. On the other hand, it makes a great lunch, and can easily work as a side dish for dinner. Also, it is chock-a-block with green veggies, simple to cook, and damn good either hot or cold. You can ask my book group, who devoured it.

One final note: The crispy shallots are a definite enhancement. The original recipe called for store-bought (canned!) crispy shallots or onions, but that is not the Kitchen Goddess way. The real thing is ridiculously easy to produce, but you must make your own decision on that. Instructions on making your own crispy shallots follow the recipe below.

Thai Curry Soup with Broccoli, Spinach, and Cilantro

Adapted from Donna Hay Magazine, October 2015

Serves 4-6.

2 tablespoons Thai green curry paste
1 can (13.5 ounces) lite coconut milk
3 cups chicken stock
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound broccoli florets, chopped
2 cups baby spinach leaves
1 cup cilantro leaves
Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)
½ cup heavy cream (can use light cream)

– Crispy shallots (see below)
– Cilantro leaves
– Shredded scallions

In a large saucepan over medium heat, stir the curry paste with a wooden spoon for about 1 minute, or until fragrant. Stir in the coconut milk, chicken broth, and salt and pepper until smooth and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the broccoli, cover and adjust the heat to a hard simmer. Simmer until the broccoli is tender, about 10 minutes.

When the broccoli is tender, remove the mixture from the heat and immediately stir in the spinach leaves, the cup of cilantro, and the lime juice. Continue stirring until the spinach wilts completely.

Using either an immersion blender or a standalone blender, blend the soup 2-3 minutes or until smooth. If serving hot, return the soup to the saucepan and add the cream. Heat on medium-low until the soup is hot.

Serve in small bowls or cups garnished with cilantro, scallions, and crispy shallots.

Crispy Shallots

4-5 shallots, peeled and sliced into thin rings
¼ cup vegetable oil (or canola oil or grapeseed oil)
Sea salt, finely ground

In a 10-inch frying pan, heat the oil at medium-high until it begins to shimmer. Add the shallots, reduce the heat to medium, and cook 5-10 minutes (I know that’s a big range, but it all depends on how brown you want the shallots to get), stirring occasionally to let the shallots brown evenly. When they reach a color you like, remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain them on paper towels. Dust lightly with fine sea salt and store at room temperature in an air-tight plastic container. The crispy shallots will keep that way for several days.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Battling the Post-Holiday Blues
What’s cooking? Parmesan Crisps and Roast Chicken Provençal

January is such a dismal month. Cold, gray days, and the bills for all that Christmas frivolity have replaced the jolly cards that only a few weeks ago were appearing in your mailbox. On the other hand, the days are getting longer (yes!), and the Kitchen Goddess is here to perk up your cooking.

If you’re like me, all that holiday entertaining has severely depleted the pantry. And since global warming doesn’t all happen at once, you’ll want to be prepared in the event of... WEATHER. (I don’t want to tempt the fates by mentioning the s-word.) So here are a handful of items you’ll want to be sure are on hand as we move into winter:

1. Fresh ginger – Freeze it whole or grate it and freeze it in teaspoon-sized knobs. The Kitchen Goddess likes it in Roasted Sesame Green Beans, Sweet Potato Ginger Soufflé, and Chestnut Ginger Soup, and she often tosses candied ginger into scones, sugar cookies, and muffins. Ginger is also a time-tested aid to congestion, so if you or a loved one has a cold, try making tea with honey and lemon and ginger.

Cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2. Parmigiano rind – That tough cheese rind you used to throw away? Never again. Just add a piece into any chicken soup or vegetable soup, and you’ll be amazed at the improvement in flavor. And – here’s a flash – it makes a great nibbler for your next dinner party. Would the Kitchen Goddess kid you? Take that tough-as-nails piece of rind, cut it into cubes about ½ inch square and microwave the little bits 30-45 seconds. Crispy, chewy, salty, cheesy. Also amazing. You’re welcome.

After microwaving

Parmesan crisps - ready for snacking

3. Parsley – For something so cheap, parsley adds impressive zip to soups, salads, and fish or chicken. And you can make it last longer than you’d ever have imagined. Cut an inch off the stems, then let the bunch swim around in cold water for 15-20 minutes. Dry it in a salad spinner, wrap it in a paper towel, and store it in a plastic ziplock bag with all possible air pushed out. It’ll last a couple of weeks. When I’m adding it to soup, I put some in early with the other herbs for the flavor, but I always add a bit more at the very end, to contribute color and that little extra zing.

herbes de Provence
4. Your spice cabinet – It’s that time of year to assess your inventory of dried herbs and spices. Specifically, do the smell test. Properly stored (in a cool, dark, and dry environment – not next to your stove), herbs and spices will last a year – two at most. Open each jar, and first take a look, as spices that are fresh will still have their original color. Take a toothpick and stir them up a bit; if the scent isn’t fresh and clear, replace them (and remember to date the new jars). If you’re routinely tossing big jars of herbs and spices, try buying smaller quantities. Penzey’s (my favorite source) sells ¼-cup jars of almost everything, so I buy large jars of dried thyme and dill and cumin because I use them so often, but small jars of odd fellows like turmeric and white pepper. And I’ve learned that it’s even better – for that one recipe you make that uses Chinese Five Spice Powder – to check the bulk aisle of your grocery. For today’s recipe, in fact, I turned to the bulk aisle for herbes de Provence. In all my years of cooking, I’d never come across a recipe that called for it. Of course, this one recipe is so perfectly perfect that I may take to buying large jars of the stuff.

5. Mirepoix – Onions, Carrots, Celery. The basics for 1001 soups, so you always want to have them at hand. To keep carrots fresh, I cut off any greenery and put the carrots in air-tight zip-lock plastic bags. For celery, I trim an inch or so off the top and bag them as well. (If I only have smaller bags, I just cut the celery in half before bagging it.) If the veggies seem limp when you go to use them, try cutting an inch off the ends and soaking them in cold water for 20-30 minutes. Most of the time, that will improve the crispness. Keep onions in a cool, dry place (not in the fridge) and away from light. Not in plastic bags and not near your potatoes. Potatoes need the same kind of storage conditions, but don’t keep potatoes and onions near each other – both give off gasses that increase the rate of spoilage in the other.

Crowdsourcing a Recipe

I love The New York Times. I’ve been reading it since 1969. And while I occasionally submit to the online version, I’m much happier with the physical paper spread out in front of me at my kitchen island. There, I can quickly scan the news of the world and the opinions of some of my favorite columnists and op-editors. And there are no brighter moments in my professional history than those days when I could open up the paper and see my own work splashed across a page.

These days, I wait most eagerly for the Wednesday paper and its Food section. Not long ago, in a year-end review, the food editors put together a list of the most popular recipes of 2015, based on the number of Times readers who saved it to an online recipe box. Now, the Kitchen Goddess is generally skeptical of crowdsourced information – except in the realm of recipes. And if NYT readers saved this recipe more than any other from the whole year, well, I had to give it a try.

Oh, my. It was the perfect dish for our family’s Christmas Eve dinner: ridiculously simple to prepare (one small bowl, and a single rimmed baking sheet) and a wondrous marriage of flavors for a winter night. The shallots and garlic were transformed by the roasting into sweet delicacies; even the lemon, after its warm bath in chicken juices and vermouth, was entirely edible. And the chicken went so quickly I didn’t even get a second piece. I can hardly wait to serve it at a dinner party.

The pan juices are not to be ignored, so you’ll want either crusty French bread or rice or noodles as accompaniment. All else you need is a simple green salad.

Roast Chicken Provençal

Adapted from Sam Sifton in The New York Times.

Serves 4.

3 tablespoons olive oil
¾ cup all-purpose flour
4 chicken legs or 8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, quartered lengthwise
8-10 medium-large cloves garlic, peeled
4 to 6 medium-sized shallots, peeled
2 tablespoons herbes de Provence
⅓ cup dry vermouth
Garnish: 4-6 sprigs of fresh thyme

Preheat oven to 400º. Pour the olive oil into a large roasting pan (I used a rimmed half-sheet pan), and use your fingers to spread it evenly around the pan.

Put the flour into a small shallow bowl. Salt and pepper the chicken pieces all over, and dredge them in the flour, shaking each piece lightly so as to remove any excess flour. As you flour each piece, place it in the roasting pan, skin side up.

Cut the shallots in half lengthwise, and scatter them among the chicken parts along with the garlic and the lemon quarters. Sprinkle the herbes de Provence over all and add the vermouth.

Put the pan into the oven for 50-60 minutes, stopping halfway through to baste the chicken with any pan juices. The skin will be very crisp when done.

Serve in the roasting pan or a large platter. If you use a separate platter, be sure to warm the platter with hot water before use. Garnish with sprigs of fresh thyme.

Serve with rice or noodles or warmed French bread, and a simple green salad.

Bon appetit!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Good Intentions: Donut Go There
What’s cooking? Red Lentil Soup

I only know about two people in this world who are not on a diet. (That would be you, Leslie, and I’m sure there’s at least one other person.) One of the remaining 99.9% met me for coffee the other day and asked – in the nicest way possible – if I might want to join her in starting up with Weight Watchers in 2016.

Let me say here that the WW folks have probably dedicated a building to me by now, given the number of times I’ve succumbed to their siren call. And, truth be told, it’s the only program that’s ever worked for me. But you can imagine how difficult it is for the Kitchen Goddess to stick to a regimen, regardless of my efforts or the flexibility of the program. Here’s one reason why.

Fully caffeinated and brimming with resolve, I headed from Starbucks to the grocery store, determined to buy only those things on the list in my hot little hand. And as I passed through the big glass doors, I very distinctly heard my brain say one word: “Donut.”

Not a scream, not a whisper, just a statement of fact. And – what the heck – Weight Watchers was a full three days away, and I hadn’t had lunch.

But it’s now a new year. And the Kitchen Goddess wants to be healthier, and she wants to help you be healthy, too. So while no one expects either of us to eschew sugar or fat entirely from our diets, there are lots of foods that go easy on those two ingredients while remaining both yummy and healthy, and I am going to find some of them for you. At least for January.

* * *

We’re going to start today with red lentils. Oh, don’t give me that look. I fed some to my prince last night and they were perfectly wonderful. I can hardly wait to have the leftovers for lunch. This recipe is a mash-up of one from Melissa Clark in The New York Times and a recent offering from Cook’s Illustrated. I’ve jazzed up the spices and included the carrots from Clark’s version, and I do believe you’ll love it. The onions and garlic and butter provide a hearty base for the delicate legumes, the tomato paste delivers the umami, and the spice mixture – sautéed to bring out all the lovely warm flavors – makes you feel as if you were being served in a tiny café near the marketplace in Marrakesh.

Red lentils are the Manolo Blahniks of the lentil world – the classy, glamorous cousins of green and brown lentils. Smaller than the green and brown varieties, they are a split and hulled version of yellow lentils, so they cook faster than the others. And without the hulls, the taste is sweeter and more like a vegetable than a bean. Other interesting factoids:

1. For those of you who notice these things, lentils are a rich source of several essential nutrients (folate, thiamin, phosphorus, iron, and zinc), as well as dietary fiber (11g/100g raw) and protein (25g). Low in readily digested starch and high in slowly digested starch, lentils are especially recommended for anyone with diabetes. Lentils have the second-highest ratio of protein per calorie of any legume, after soybeans.

2. Although lentils originated in Asia and North Africa, today, Canada and India make up more than half the world’s production. Much of India’s product is consumed domestically, so Canada is by far the largest export producer. The U.S. is the fifth largest, with production coming from Washington, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota.

3. In Italy and Hungary, there’s a tradition of eating lentils on New Year’s Eve, to symbolize hope for a prosperous new year, most likely because of their round, coin-like form.

Nerdy health note: The Kitchen Goddess was shocked – SHOCKED! – to learn that most beans (except soybeans), are an incomplete protein, which means they don’t supply the full quota of amino acids the body needs to make use of protein. One way to complete the package is to include a grain with your legumes. Think peanut butter with toast. Or rice with beans. Who knew? So you could throw some rice into your lentil soup, but the KG thinks a way better idea is to serve your yummy red lentil soup with cornbread in order to produce a serving of complete proteins. You’ll find my favorite cornbread recipe here (click on link). The KG always has your best interests at heart.

Red Lentil Soup

Adapted from Melissa Clark in The New York Times and Andrea Geary at Cook's Illustrated.
Serves 4-5.


4 tablespoons butter, separated
1 large onion, diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¾ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon Aleppo pepper, or a pinch of cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
2 cups water
10½ ounces (1½ cups) red lentils, picked over and rinsed
2 large carrots, peeled and cut in ¼-inch dice
Juice of 1 medium lemon (about 2-2½ tablespoons), plus more to taste
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper


In a large soup pot (I used a 5½-quart Le Creuset Dutch oven), heat 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the onion and salt and sauté until softened, about 4-5 minutes.

Stir in the garlic, cumin, coriander, ginger, cinnamon, and the peppers, and sauté, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and continue to stir for another minute.

Add the broth, water, lentils, and diced carrot. Bring to a simmer, then partially cover the pot and reduce the heat to simmer the lentils until they’re soft and about half have broken down, about 20 minutes.

Remove 3 cups of the soup to a blender or food processor and purée the mixture, then add it back to the pot. Stir in the lemon juice and season to taste with additional salt or lemon juice. Reheat the soup if necessary.

In a small skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and stir in the paprika and Aleppo pepper (or a dash of cayenne). Serve bowls of the soup drizzled with the spiced butter and a sprinkling of cilantro.

And in case you’ve forgotten (or didn’t want to follow the link), I recommend serving this soup with some of your favorite cornbread. Here’s mine:

Texas Cornbread

1¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cups yellow corn meal
3 tablespoons sugar
4½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
⅔ c milk (room temperature works best)
⅓ c melted butter
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels

Heat oven to 425º.

In a medium-sized bowl, sift together the dry ingredients – flour, corn meal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a separate, small bowl, beat the egg well with a fork, then stir in the milk and melted butter. Pour the liquid mixture all at once into the dry, stirring with a fork only until the flour is thoroughly moistened. (It’s okay if the mixture is lumpy – just don’t overstir.) Stir in the corn kernels just until evenly distributed.

Pour the mixture into an 8-inch cast-iron skillet or a greased 8x8-inch baking pan and bake 25-30 minutes until the top is browned and a toothpick stuck into the center comes out clean.