how not sweet! pumpkin soup for the rest of us

I’m particularly proud of this creation, a squash soup made with one of our giant heirloom ‘Oregon Homestead Sweetmeat’ squashes, onions and leeks, and celery leaves.  I was seeking a way to make pumpkin soup without the sweet flavors that always dominate.  I wanted a hint of sweetness and more body than just fiber.  That usually means UMAMI, the battle cry of the meat eater.

Umami is, as we’re probably all well aware by now, the “meaty” fifth taste, alongside its frat brothers, sweet, salty, bitter, and sour.  Think mushrooms, nuts, soy sauce, cheese.  Sauteed onions, too, add some umami to a dish.

The garnishes keep the soup fascinating, another risk one runs with monotone squash soup.  I roasted the squash seeds after only a quick rinse to retain some of the squash fibers clinging to the seeds for more flavor.  Topped with black pepper, truffle salt, and a bit of argan oil, they were gilded like gilded lilies. But even better, I broke apart pickled chive blossoms and floated them on top of the bowl of soup.

I urge you, gardeners, to make chive blossom vinegar this spring.  It’s a wonderful dressing, colored rose pink, and you can use the pickled blossoms in all kinds of ways.  Here, it provides the sour balance to the sweet, salty, bitter (from the celery leaves), umami soup.

Don’t omit the celery.  It provides an important taste component (see above), and the soup really needs the mirepoix of onion-leek-rutabaga-celery to add complexities to the flavor.

I’ve been using Marisa at Food in Jars‘ suggestion to take soups to work in mason jars.  I’m a bit leery of using my canning jars for daily eating, since they tend to break more easily when they’re redeployed in canning after being banged about, but portable soup is such a messy proposition, I recommend the nice, tight seal canning lids can provide.

Here’s my basic recipe.  The delight of soups is that you add as you go, so I don’t have measurements for this one.

Savory Sweetmeat Squash Leek Soup

  • A healthy chunk of sweetmeat, or butternut, pumpkin, or similar squash (estimate 6-8 cups cubed)
  • 1 onion
  • 1 small rutabaga or a few carrots or parsnips
  • 2-3 leeks
  • 2 stalks of celery, with leaves
  • 2-3 tablespoons of butter or bacon fat*
  • 1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
  • 1-2 teaspoons of winter savory or thyme
  • enough chicken stock to cover squash by a few inches
  • a cup or so of half-and-half
  • salt and pepper to taste

Cut the squash in 1-inch cubes and dice the other vegetables.  Add all vegetables to a stock pot with the butter/bacon fat and some salt and pepper, and sweat on medium low heat with the lid on until everything softens up, about 20 minutes.  Add stock and herbs, and mash the vegetables.  Bring to a simmer, then let cook down for 45 minutes or more on medium low heat.  Puree the soup with a hand blender, then add the half-and-half.  Mix well.  Let flavors combine and liquids cook down even more, about 30 more minutes, on low heat. Adjust seasonings and garnish before serving with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chives, or other herbs.

Another option is to roast the squash first, in large chunks, at 325 degrees for about an hour, then scoop the flesh off for the soup. It adds more flavor.  Plus, you can roast the squash seeds at the same time.

* I have the luxury of having a tub of wonderful bacon grease from local pigs, so it adds loads of flavor to my soups and pot roasts.  You might consider browning some pancetta, minced, in oil and using that for the fat.

taste of summer

The tomato sauce I froze tastes so much better than the stuff I canned last summer.  Why?  Lemon juice, which is needed to keep the pH acidic enough to discourage microbes in the canned version, makes the canned sauce much more tart.  Plus, when you freeze sauce, you can add onions and garlic, and other vegetables or meat, with impunity.  Canned tomato sauce is very useful in stews and soups.  It’s a staple in my kitchen.  But I wanted that pure taste of summer.

I defrosted a container of frozen tomato sauce, thick and fragrant with onion and garlic.  After heating it up, I smoothed out the flavor with a little half-and-half, and tossed it with penne, black pepper, and some blanched arugula and tender spring oregano from my garden.  Summer!  It will come.

leaf me alone

We’ve had a few days of glorious sunny weather in Eugene, and even I peeled myself from my computer and spent some time outdoors.  I’m still battling my ever-grossening pile of leaf litter from the city.  I had my first ever passive-aggressive discussion with a neighborhood suburban soccer mom type, who asked me what I was doing with the leaves.  My response of “killing my lawn” was clearly not welcome, but she decided to back down with a “oh. Thank you,” instead of challenging the obviously deranged homeowner holding a pitchfork.  American Gothic, indeed.

And here’s what I’m doing with the leaves, for those curious:

The quality isn’t great, but they’re just fine for areas that I want to keep covered from weeds, like around my beds and landscaping.  And I’m also hoping they’ll keep the roots warm of some of the more heat-loving plants.  The tomato bed in the middle of the picture was already mulched with elm leaves earlier in the season, but I’m covering the area around the bed to discourage our infernal root-running grass from encroaching into the bed.  I suppose I should just install a proper raised bed instead of a berm, but I rather like the half-moon shape of this bed.

Northwest summer in January is a particularly cruel event, as February is usually the month we get freezing temperatures and snow.  The daffodils are beginning to bud up, the hellebores are in full flower, and signs of growth are everywhere.  We all, thus, pray for the freeze not to do too much damage to all the tender bits when it comes.

soup glorious soup: new article in chow

I’m pleased to share with you my latest article for Eugene Weekly‘s Chow, a daring exposé of unusual local soups.  OK, that may be stretching it, but the article includes a recipe (of sorts) by Chef Gabriel Gil of Rabbit Bistro.  (See I love this glimpse into the mind of a master soup maker.  The recipe doesn’t provide a basic soup recipe; rather, it exposes his method for anyone who knows the basics of soupmaking and wants to refine and inspire their own technique.  I’m sure some will be unhappy about the lack of specifics, but there are so many basic soup recipes for those who have never forayed into this important part of cooking, I’d advise you to experiment with anything you find that appeals, then come back to Gil’s method.

The ingredients in the soup bowl above (image by Trask Bedortha of the Eugene Weekly) exemplify Gil’s creativity, and I’m sad we didn’t get the details in a caption.  But I can tell you now: turnip, pork, and licorice.  It’s a turnip purée with a porky broth, garnished with pieces of soft black licorice candy (!!), maybe pimentón pepper? and chervil?, and chicharrones.  The soup is infused with a hint of licorice that beautifully perks up the turnip, and as you’re musing on that, the pepper tingles your tongue.  Using real licorice, instead of aniseed or Pernod or licorice root, is the whimsical surprise, and it really worked.  And I’m not just saying this as a licorice lover.  Or a turnip soup lover.  Or a pork…well, you get the picture.

I’m only sad it’s gone.

Be sure to check out the fab article on the Food for Thought radio program with Boris Wiedenfeld and Ryan Dawe-Stotz.  I’m very glad Vanessa Salvia’s article on the Food Justice Conference made it in, as well.  I couldn’t write about it because of conflict of interest (although I’m not sure why a free event would conflict anyone), and am glad she did it food justice.

lemon pot roast lured him in

Craving sauerbrauten but not having planned ahead for a long marinade time (or really wanting the spices), I remembered an old recipe I clipped from the newspaper and served to my then new friend, Retrogrouch, fifteen years ago.  I’m sure I’ve made it in the years since, but I only recall that one time, the first time I made dinner for him.  The original recipe was, if I recall correctly, something the White House chef made for the Clintons.  Take that as you will.  It’s delicious; with a deep lemony flavor to the gravy, and as toothsome and homey as the best roast can be. I’ve made it easier and pumped up the lemon flavor a bit with zest.

We served the Painted Hills beef with a medley of roasted root vegetables from Open Oak Farm: turnip, parsnip, rutabaga, and ‘Oregon Homestead’ sweet meat squash.  I thought the squash worked best of all with its clean, sweet flavor that married well with the lemon.  What didn’t work so well was my old standby, gremolata, the parsley-lemon zest-garlic chopped garnish that usually brightens up a roast.  With all the lemon in the sauce, the gremolata just seemed harsh and over the top.  Do, however, sprinkle a little parsley on top of the meat before serving for color.  Roasts are notoriously hard to photograph — hope this looks appealing!

Don’t forget that roasts taste better the next day, if you can hold off that long.

Lemon Pot Roast

  • 3-4 lb. beef chuck roast
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon of lemon zest, chopped finely
  • 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped onion or leeks
  • one garlic clove, chopped
  • 1 t. fresh thyme
  • salt and pepper
  • handful of parsley, chopped, for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Heat vegetable oil and butter in a dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Brown the roast until it is a rich mahogany color, including the sides, if you can.  This should take about 10-15 minutes.

Add the lemon zest, juice, onion, garlic, and thyme with a few grindings of pepper and salt.  Place the lid on the dutch oven and let roast braise in the oven for 2 hours.  The liquid should increase as the roast cooks, but add a little water or room temperature white wine if you must to prevent scorching the pan.  The roast is ready when it is fork tender — that is, you’ll be able to pull it apart with a fork easily.

Remove the roast from the pot and let cool for 20 minutes or so, until it firms up enough to slice.  Adjust seasonings for gravy.  Remove fat from gravy using a flat spoon, gravy defatter, or other method.  To slice the roast: I usually slice thinly against the grain and slide the slices back in the gravy, then reheat when necessary.  You may also choose to let cool, then refrigerate the whole roast and gravy, scoop off the fat layer, and slice the roast when it’s cold.  Slicing is much easier when it’s cold.

Enjoy with roasted potatoes or winter squash.

ma po tofu for people who don’t eat tofu but enjoy stuffed peppers…with no rice

Don’t tell my Eastern European forebears, but I don’t really like stuffed cabbage or stuffed peppers or anything that includes that mixture of rice, ground meat, and tomato sauce.  I even have a hard time with dolmas, unless they significantly flavored with tart lemon juice and the rice-otherstuff ratio is leaning way on the side of the otherstuff.

This weakness has come in handy while rethinking stuffed peppers for my darling Retrogrouch, who has recently decided to cut out all grains, legumes, potatoes, and sugar in his diet.  He’s done quite well for himself, but it makes dinnertime a challenge if we’re not eating salad and a piece of meat.  I often make stuffed peppers out of Chinese stirfry or fried rice, mixing in the rice and some raw egg, and then baking it.  But it occurred to me that I could omit the rice altogether.

To use up a block of tofu we had in the refrigerator from his regular diet days, I thought I’d make that old Sichuan standby, ma po tofu.  I’m almost satisfied with Fuchsia Dunlop’s version, but I only had ground pork, not ground beef, and a head of savoy cabbage that wasn’t getting any younger, plus some crimson chard.

So I did my version of Ivy Manning’s Adaptable Feast, a cookbook with facing pages for adaptable recipes for mixed households (vegetarian/carnivore).  I made ma po for myself, and made no rice, ma po-flavored pork and brassica stuffed peppers for Retrogrouch.  I should write a cookbook series for all kinds of couples containing one normal and one crazy-ass person. Think of the possibilities! What would be excellent — not identifying which person in the couple is supposed to be the crazy-ass one.  In theory, it would be a cookbook wholly devoted to de-normativizing diets.  But we could still feel smug about our own niche.  Then everyone would be happy and dinnertime would cease to be a cesspool of argument.


The stuffed peppers turned out really well, actually, and I even managed one appetizing photo in a group that all looked like two Buddha-bellied gents in jaunty hats vomiting up vividly colorful insides.

And p.s. I also figured out the secret of ma po tofu: a big handful of cubed, raw savoy cabbage tossed in just prior to serving.  The crunch breaks up the monotonous softness of the tofu and mince.

There’s no reason you couldn’t substitute the ground pork for ground beef, or even chicken.  The green peppers can be swapped out with red peppers if you prefer that flavor, too.  This is a casual recipe, meant for adaptation based on what you have on hand.

Sichuan Stuffed Peppers, Ma Po Style

  • 2 small green bell peppers that can sit upright
  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil, divided
  • 6 oz. ground pork
  • 1/2 cup red onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ginger
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3-4 cups chopped leaves of any leafy brassica: chard, cabbage, bok choi, etc.
  • 1/4 cup green onions, chopped in one-inch lengths
  • 1 tablespoon Sichuan bean paste (douban jian) or substitute another chili bean paste
  • 1 tablespoon fermented black beans
  • a few Sichuan peppercorns (optional)
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup stock or water
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • light soy sauce, white pepper, chili oil to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Wash the peppers.  Slice off the tops of the peppers carefully, leaving a little hat for baking.  Clean the insides of the peppers, removing seeds and the inner ribs.  Rub the insides of the pepper with the sesame oil and a little salt.

Place the peppers in the oven (upright without the lids) while preparing the stirfry. Don’t forget about them!  You only want to soften them up a bit, no more than 10 minutes.

Brown pork until deeply brown on med-high heat.  After pork has lost its pinkness, add onion, garlic and ginger.  (For the rest of the browning period, watch so aromatics don’t burn.)  If at any time it seems the stirfry is burning, add a small amount of water or stock to cool down the pan briefly.  It will heat up again once the water has evaporated.

Turn heat down to medium, add the Sichuan bean paste and fermented black beans, and Sichuan peppercorns, and saute until they release a nice, fragrant smell.  Add cabbage or other greens with a quarter cup or so of water or stock to deglaze the pan.   Saute until cabbage is softened but not completely limp. This might take longer with cabbage than a softer green like chard.

Remove from heat and add the green onions.  Toss to combine.  Remove the peppers from the oven and let cool just enough to handle.

Taste the stirfry.  If it lacks salt, add some light soy sauce to taste.  Add white pepper if you’d like a little more spice.  Chili oil is another option.

Lightly beat 2 eggs with the sugar.  Add the egg mixture to the stirfry and combine well.

With a soup spoon or small serving spoon, spoon the stirfry into the peppers, packing tightly.  Add a little hat to each pepper.  Leftovers can be eaten as is with leaves of lettuce as little wraps, or you could quickly blanch extra cabbage leaves in water and make little cabbage wraps that bake alongside the peppers.

Bake for another 10 minutes or so, just until the eggs are fully set (peek under lid to see if egg has solidified and turned opaque).

To serve, suggest that the diner cut the pepper in half while still upright, then cut off pieces of pepper and filling from the two halves that result.

dark days #14: crabby

Supplies are gettin’ low down at the ol’ homestead.  Which is a shame, ‘cuz I managed to squeeze in a few nights of cooking this week.  Next week, I’m hoping I can cook AND blog.  There’s a light at the end of my tunnel of lo…work.

So, cursorily: this week’s Dark Days winter local eating challenge used up some (of the many) dried foods I put up last summer.  Speaking of love, we had freshly steamed dungeness crabs for Valentine’s Day, then used up the leftover crab meat to make a gorgeous, silky, spicy crab soup.  The soup lacked my customary Old Bay (I had used up the very last bit) and home-canned tomatoes (I’m plum out).  Instead, I fortified the dried vegetable-and-crab-leg-shell stock base with a couple of cups of half and half.  A jar of homemade pepper salsa and just two tiny slices of dried habanero gave the soup plenty of kick.

As for the other dried vegetables, I used about two cups of mixed dried corn, peas, carrots, green beans, butternut squash, onions, red peppers, celery and garlic to six cups of boiling water.  The vegetables were a combination of my own garden produce and frozen vegetables from Stahlbush Island Farms, our local organic processing plant.  At the end of summer, when vegetables are overflowing the trucks, even the organic frozen vegetable outfits will put their products on sale, so I snapped them up and had a drying fiesta.  And thank goodness, because they come in handy.

I let the vegetables rehydrate for a couple of hours, then added the salsa and habanero.    While the vegetables were plumping up, I sauteed a small yellow onion and a few stalks of celery.  I had my doubts about the dried celery, since I hadn’t dried it properly.  I suspected it would be tough, and I was right.  Next year, celery chips?

Just before serving, I removed the crab shells flavoring the broth, added the crab and Noris cream, and was good to go.  The celery-crab combination is one of those magic flavor connections.  I highly recommend it.

By they way, if you’re craving fresh local vegetables, there is already a nice selection at the Winter Farmers Market in the Mazzi’s parking lot on Saturday mornings.  You can pick up greens, leeks, onions, potatoes, squash, salad materials, and other good stuff, including dried fruit, eggs, and olive oil.  I also scored a wonderful gallon of winter apple cider from Riverbend Farm and some excellent pork chops from the Biancalana family.  Yum.