From Nuts to Soup

When things get quiet around here, it’s a pretty safe bet that things have been crazy at my day job. I’ve been doing what I do for a long time, and I learned early on how to juggle, but these last few weeks I feel like the minute I turn my attention to one task, three more things pop up that require my immediate attention. Couple that with the usual change-of-seasons sluggishness I tend to experience, and you have one tired dame who has struggled to find suppertime inspiration when I get home in the evening.

I had a gorgeous head of otherworldly-looking romanesco cauliflower that I turned into soup last night, starting with a base of chopped leeks softened in butter, then adding romanesco florets and some homemade stock, but when the florets had softened and I pureed the soup, I was less than thrilled with the texture. It was just too thin, and my fiddling with it to achieve something close to the result I wanted meant the soup cooked too long, going from a lovely pale green to an unappetizing greyish hue. I couldn’t even bring myself to take a photo. The flavors, however, were there, the delicate soup getting a nice burst of freshness from a celery leaf and preserved lemon gremolata stirred in at the end, so I think I’ll give this soup another go-round soon.

Cool and Composed

Crespone

Temps reached record highs in Little Rhody yesterday, and as I sat in my air-conditioned office in Boston, I knew there was no freaking way our planned Wednesday night dinner was going to happen in our not-yet-air conditioned carriage house kitchen.

quick-pickled cauliflower and carrots

I wasn’t inclined to cook at all, in fact, and began a mental inventory of fridge and pantry to try to figure out my game plan. I love a big salad for dinner on a sweltering night, and it wasn’t long before I had a few good candidates in mind.

fennel

We’ve always got the ingredients for what we call an “indoor picnic” on hand – good cheeses and cured meats, tinned fish, olives and other brined and pickled things, but our fresh vegetable options were somewhat scarce, and a special trip to the store was out of the question. I did have a big bulb of fennel in the crisper, and decided to use it as my base and go from there.

Dinner:  May 26, 2010

In the end I went with something that was a little bit like an antipasto salad, with shades of giardiniera and panzanella thrown in for good measure, a crisp-crunchy-tart-tender-tangy melange of shaved fennel and red onion, lightly pickled cauliflower and carrots, roasted red peppers, capers, chunks of Crespone salami and Parmagiano Reggiano, and garlicky homemade croutons, all in a zippy red wine vinaigrette.

This salad was surprisingly hearty, but the crunchy texture and the brightness of the flavors kept it from feeling heavy. Best of all, I got it on the table without breaking a sweat.

Spark

Dinner:  December 2, 2008

I still feel like I’m trying to get back in the swing of things after the long holiday weekend. Those four blissful days off in a row could not have come at a better time, and for once, aside from our T-Day eats, meal planning was the last thing on my mind. Oh, we ate plenty of good things, but I just haven’t had it in me to fuss over photos or write anything up.

Maybe it’s the fact that the holiday season is in full swing, or that I’m holding my breath about the state the economy is in and am anxious for change to begin, or that I leave for work in the dark and return home in the dark and want nothing more when I get home than to spend quality time with Mike and the cats. At any rate, I’m in some sort of holding pattern, and I’m not terribly inclined to move out of it. I’m craving comfort and familiarity, ease and little fuss.

Though most of our worknight meals have been on the lackluster side of late, with pasta sauces from the freezer and simple stews and braises in heavy rotation, I was grateful for the little spark of inspiration last night that resulted in this dish. This was another situation where I had nothing planned, and tried to think of what I could do with the contents of fridge and pantry. There was the better part of a package of naan bread hanging out on the counter that I wanted to use up, so I thought of a curry of some sort.

We had beautiful golden cauliflower from Wishing Stone Farm in the fridge and a partial bag of red lentils in the cupboard, so I roasted the former and cooked down the latter with ghee and onion and garlic and curry powder, a half cup or so of roasted pumpkin left over from Mike’s Thanksgiving pie making, a dab of tomato paste and a few chopped canned tomatoes, then I added water to the mix and let the whole thing simmer away. I added about half of the roasted cauliflower to the soup after the lentils had broken down and reserved the rest to scatter on top of our bowls. The final touch was a handful of peas from the freezer, and a dollop of creme fraiche (we didn’t have yogurt on hand). I toasted up the naan in a bit more melted ghee in the cast iron skillet, and that was our meal, a warming, harmonious blend of textures and flavors, so welcome on a cold night.

Warm memories

Dinner:  November 12, 2008

Growing up, there were certain dishes I always looked forward to eating when our extended family would get together on holidays. Aside from the obvious “anything Grandma made,” there were the bubbling, creamy, cheesy casseroles. One in particular, made by my Aunt Carmen, was a favorite: florets of broccoli and cauliflower, plus whole brussels sprouts, blanketed in a mixture of cream soup and shredded cheese, then baked. If there was ever a way to get a kid to eat her vegetables that was it, and I often had multiple servings.

So when I tried to think about what to do with the two heads of cauliflower I had brought home from the farmers’ market (so pretty I couldn’t resist them), my thoughts turned back to that dish. We had always had it as a side to roast turkey or baked ham, but why couldn’t it stand alone as a main course?

I haven’t kept canned soup around for years now, so my first step was to make a white sauce. We had four strips of Pat’s Pastured bacon in the fridge, so I cut that into chunks and fried the pieces until crisp, figuring I’d use the fat for my roux. While the bacon drained, I whisked some flour into the bacon fat, then added equal amounts of milk and cream, stirring it until it was well-blended. I added a pinch of salt and some Herbes de Provence, then the cheese – about a cup of Morbier, diced into small cubes.

When the sauce was smooth and the cheese melted, I added the crispy bacon pieces and poured the mixture over my cauliflower (lovely purple cauliflower and spiky green Romanesco, broken into florets) in a buttered baking dish. I had spritzed an ounce or so of white vermouth over the cauliflower first, so after I added the cheese sauce I tossed everything through until it was mixed and the cauliflower evenly coated. I covered it with foil and placed it into a 450 degree oven for about 20 minutes, then took it out, removed the foil, and covered the top with very coarse fresh breadcrumbs. It went back into the oven for another 20 minutes or so, until the top was well browned and the sauce bubbly.

I went a little light on the salt, anticipating that the bacon would be saltier than it was, but it could have used a pinch more. I also think this would have benefited from a little mustard in the sauce – dry or Dijon – to balance out the richness of the cream and cheese. Overall, I’d say this was a success, if not for the faint of heart.

Curry in a Hurry

Dinner: September 22, 2008

Not the prettiest thing I’ve ever made, and definitely a work in progress, but this wasn’t bad for a quick Monday dinner. I usually like to make my own blend of curry spices, but last night I cheated, toasting a blend of store-bought curry powder and garam masala in butter along with some fresh curry leaves, then adding chunks of eggplant, sweet potato and cauliflower from Wishing Stone Farm, a bit of fresh tomato puree from the freezer, and some water. I brought the mixture to a boil then let it cook uncovered until the sauce had thickened and reduced a bit, then threw in a couple of handfuls of frozen peas right at the end for a pop of color and sweetness. I served it over rice, with a dollop of Narragansett Creamery yogurt on top and purchased garlic naan on the side.