Minestrone, with infinite optional variations (including vegan options)

I have been sick the last several days. It has been sad. I have been unable to cook for days, which pretty much breaks my heart. 😦

There are only two up-sides to this experience, as far as I can tell. The first is that the prescription cough syrup my doctor prescribed to me makes it feel as though the world is covered in a very fine fuzz: it also basically ascertains that this post will be shorter and less articulate than it normally would be. Please forgive any typos you  find…

The second is that I could feel the sickness coming on, and so I decided on Friday to make a big pot of soup. Sick or not, autumn is a great time of year for soups.

So, here’s the thing: this is a very forgiving soup. As long as you use the same volume of veggies and herbs that the recipe calls for, feel free to experiment. Some people like it with cabbage instead of squash, or eggplant instead of potatoes, marjoram instead of thyme, etc.etc. You can leave out the mushrooms and double the potatoes. Just be sure to make the chunks of veggies big enough that they don’t just fall apart.

Feel free to make this without either the bacon or pancetta, with an extra can of beans, and with vegetable broth for a sublime vegan dish. Or to double the amount of bacon or pancetta for a meatier soup experience. Or to go all fancy-schmancy and use uncured duck bacon, available at your friendly neighborhood Wegmans. Whatever you want. Have fun.

Also, stir the soup gently and lovingly, especially as it gets closer to being done. My dear friend Dana, who was head cook at the Zen Center when I lived there, used to warn me about my tendency to create a perfect dish, delicious and beautiful… until the last few minutes before serving time: if I felt hurried, or if I was adjusting the seasoning levels and getting frustrated if they weren’t coming together just how I wanted, then I would start stirring less and less gently, breaking the hearty chunks into pieces. This can happen especially easily when you are making a dish with a high water content, such as a soup or a stew. On one memorable occasion, I was supposed to be making a thick, chunky groundnut stew, but I ended up with a monochromatic vat of texture-less puree.

Dana would look at me when this happens and say, “When you learn how to be gentler with your food, you will know how to be gentler on yourself. Be patient. It will come together.”

Minestrone

  • 2-3 T olive oil
  • 4 oz. bacon or pancetta (OPTIONAL)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 large leek, sliced (check out my post on Chicken Divan for info on preparing leeks)
  • 3 carrots, peeled and chopped in thick slices
  • 2 celery ribs,chopped coarsely
  • 6 oz. wild mushrooms, very coarsely chopped
  • 2 potatoes, washed and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 2 squash or 1 eggplant
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2    14-oz. cans diced tomatoes
  • 8-10 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth, heated to a simmer
  • 1-2 t fresh thyme leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 2-3 t fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 c (packed) Italian parsley leaves, chopped
  • 3 T pesto sauce 
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1    15.5 oz. can cannellini beans
  • 4 oz. orzo, gemelli, or other small-sized pasta
  1. Heat the oil in a large stock pot (the capacity should be at least 6.5L) over medium-high heat. Stir in the onion and the leek: reduce heat to medium and cook for 5-10 minutes until the onion is completely translucent.
  2. Add the carrots and celery: cook, stirring occasionally, 3-4 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook 2-3 minutes. Add the potatoes, squash and garlic and cook until the vegetables are tender (but not quite fully cooked), about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and stir gently to combine: heat until bubbly.
  3. Pour in the hot broth and stir well (start off with only 8 c of the broth: you can add more later if it’s needed). Add the herbs and pesto:  season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer (partly covered) 30 minutes.
  4. Add the beans and bring the mixture back to a simmer. Add the pasta: continue simmering 10-20 minutes until the pasta is al dente.
  5. If desired, sprinkle each serving with grated asiago, romano, or parmesan and serve with hot buttered bread.

Sweet Potato Burgers

So, many of Transgustatory’s fans on its Facebook page have requested recipes that use sweet potatoes. This makes perfect sense to me: they are colorful, chock-full of flavor, incredibly healthy, and available year-round (though their peak growing season is during fall and winter). They are unbelievably rich in vitamin A (over 700% of the RDA per serving!), and also good sources of vitamin C, vitamin B6, niacin and fiber. Given the fact that so many fruits and vegetables that are rich in vitamins A and C go out of season this time of year, it makes perfect sense to have them frequently through the colder months.

There really is no need to give hints and suggestions for this recipe, as it is simple to make and impossible to mess up. All of the seasonings can be adjusted to taste: feel free to start off with less than the recipe calls for, and then increase until the flavor makes you smile and sigh a little.

For instance, this recipe was passed on to me by my friend and fellow activist Anne. Anne does not like cilantro, and doesn’t like the flavor of ginger (and other spices) to be too intense. I however, could probably dine on salads made solely from cilantro and ginger quite happily for some time. So, while she substitutes parsley for the cilantro and uses closer to 1 tablespoon minced ginger, I was more than a little generous with both of these ingredients. I also have a rare reading complication that causes me to read “cloves garlic” as if it were “heads garlic.” Don’t ask me how much I put in. It was a lot.

So, play it by ear (or tongue), and make them so they are as mild or spunky as you prefer.

One thing: if you do decide to substitute parsley for the cilantro, make sure you use the flat-leaf Italian parsley and NOT the curly parsley. Curly parsley has an evil, magical ability to take away the flavor of anything it touches. Avoid it as if it was your most evil ex. Using it will basically turn anything you make into a boring dish only suitable for consumption by fundamentalist Republicans. Don’t do it.

Sweet Potato Burgers

  • 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 1 1/4 c quick-cooking rolled oats
  • 3/4 c minced red onion
  • 3/4 c chopped peanuts, soy nuts or cashews
  • 3/4 c chopped cilantro OR 1 c chopped Italian parsley
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1-3 T minced fresh ginger, to taste
  • 1 1/2 t cumin
  • 1 t salt
  • Peanut oil (for frying)
  • Sesame seed rolls (VEGANS: be sure to make sure to check with the bakery regarding the ingredients!)

Garnishes

  • 1 cucumber, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1 tomato, sliced
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • Thinly sliced red onion 
  • Tamarind chutney (VEGANS: be mindful of the ingredients in the chutney!)
  1.  Put the prepared sweet potato cubes in 1/2 galon boiling vegetable broth. Boil until soft, 10-20 minutes. Drain and mash until smooth.
  2. Mix all the ingredients (except for the oil, rolls and garnishes) together and form into 1/2-inch thick patties the size and shape of the rolls you are using. 
  3. Preheat oven to 200-250 degrees F. Wrap the rolls in aluminum foil and allow to warm while the burgers are cooking.
  4. Preheat a skillet over medium/medium-high heat, or preheat an electric skillet to 325 degrees F. Add 1-2 T peanut oil and heat until the oil is to temperature.
  5. Fry until crisp and deep golden brown, turning once: be gentle with the patties, so they don’t break apart!
  6. Serve on warmed rolls, garnished with cucumber, tomato, avocado, red onion and chutney.

Poppy Seed Cake

When my sister Diana and I were kids, there was one cake that we, almost without exception, always requested for our birthday cake: poppy seed cake. This was THE cake. The flavor, the texture, were just head-and-shoulders above the rest.

Now, given the fact that Diana’s and my birthdays were only 10 days apart, we had an awful lot of this cake for a very delicious two weeks every October. Which may or may not be part of why I have such a deep affinity and preference for autumn. Autumn=yummy cake. If you think that’s not a good reason to settle upon a favorite season, then, well, you probably haven’t had this cake.

As you know if you read the past posts on this blog, I just recently celebrated my 30th birthday. So, for old-time’s sake, I whipped up this favorite cake from my childhood.

This may seem like an odd favorite cake for young kids to have. There is no frosting. It is not technicolor. It has poppy seeds, an ingredient most commonly used by hippies and bagel-makers. This is a well-grounded, unpretentious cake. It is what it is, and doesn’t go on putting on airs. It’s a nutty, sweet, delicious, neutral-toned delicacy. It’s kinda the butch dyke of the cake world.

And, as cakes go, there aren’t many tips and suggestions that I need to give about this cake.

However, it is important to have all the ingredients at room temperature before you start preparing the batter. But, since this is true for all cake recipes, it’s not terribly surprising. The kitchen-standby The Joy of Cooking tells us why this is important:

“In general, before starting to bake, all ingredients should be at room temperature (68 to 70 degrees F). This is especially important with butter cake recipes, where the butter, liquid and eggs are intended to form an emulsion during the mixing steps. Emulsions can break or curdle (like a sauce) if some ingredients are colder than the others. When this happens, the batter loses its ability to trap air, and the cake will be heavy.

“Butter should still be cool– from 60 to 70 degrees F– but malleable when squeezed, not soft and squishy. Butter that is too soft or melted will not trap air and the batter and collapse with prolonged beating. [Which, truth be told, is true for most of us…]

“Cold eggs do not increase in volume when beaten as much as room-temperature or warm eggs, and when they are too cold, they won’t blend smoothly into batters….”

So now you know.

Also, be an obsessive-compulsive freak when it comes to separating the eggs. I normally do not endorse up-tightness, but in this case, I make an exception. If you get any– and I mean any– of the yolk into the whites, they will not get all fluffy, happy, and joyous, and you will end up with a poppy seed brick.

On that note: it is also very important that you fold the egg whites in gently, or else… you’ve got it… poppy seed brick. Rather than go into a wordy, confusing description, I suggest that you watch this video if you have any doubts about the best way to fold: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vP4vbktd-PM&feature=related. (I apologize for the cheesy music and annoying voice: but, after watching several online videos regarding how to fold egg whites, this really was the best I found, instructionally speaking. Maybe someday I’ll make my own, complete with background music from The Cliks and a few choice vulgarities, but for now, this will have to do.)

The only other suggestion I have to make is to not over-do the cinnamon sprinkle on the top of the cake, or it will get too dark before the cake is fully baked. It will still be delicious, it just won’t be as aesthetically pleasing.

This recipe is an adaptation of a recipe from Sunset magazine that appeared over 20 years ago. Enjoy!

Poppy Seed Cake

  • 1/2 lb. (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
  • 2 1/2 c unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 can (12.5 oz.) poppy seed pie filling
  • 1 c buttermilk
  • 1 T almond extract
  • 4 extra-large eggs, separated
  • 1 1/2 c sugar, divided
  • 1 t baking powder
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 1 T cinnamon

1. Butter and flour-dust a 10-inch decorative tube pan or 9-inch springform pan.
2. In a small bowl, mix poppy seed filling, buttermilk, and almond extract.
3. In a deep bowl, beat egg whites with a mixer on high until foamy. Continue beating and gradually add 1/4 cup of the sugar. Beat until whites hold stiff, shiny peaks.
4. In another bowl, using unwashed beaters, beat 1 cup butter and 1 cup of the sugar on high speed until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks and beat until well blended. Stir in poppy seed mixture.
5. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
6. Add dry ingredients to batter; beat slowly to blend. Mix at medium speed.
7. Fold in beaten whites until blended.
8. Mix 1/4 cup of the sugar and the cinnamon. Pour half the batter into pan. Sprinkle with 2/3 of the cinnamon mixture. Add remaining batter and sprinkle with remaining cinnamon mixture. If you are using a tube pan, hold a knife vertically and draw the blade through batter around tube: this is not necessary if you are using a springform pan.
9. Bake in 350° oven just until cake springs back when lightly pressed in center, 1 to 1 1/4 hours.
10. Cool in pan 15 minutes. Invert cake onto a plate (or remove the outer piece of the springform pan). Serve warm or cool.

Kalamata Olive and Asiago Crostini

These were the other canapes I made for my birthday get-together.

There’s not really much to say about these delightful treats, except that they are delicious and ridiculously easy to make.

One thing: there is an easy way to skin and seed a tomato. Simply immerse it in boiling water for approximately one minute, then place it in a bowl of ice water. This will cause the skin to pucker so that it peels off easily. The tomato can then be cut in half, and the seeds easily removed with your fingers. It feels gross and squishy and cool.

If you are vegan, just omit the asiago: there’s so much flavor to these little goodies that they will still be wonderful. If you eat dairy, but can’t eat aged cheeses, just substitute crumbled, un-aged feta or goat cheese.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Kalamata Olive and Asiago Crostini

  • 1/2 loaf French bread, sliced 1/4″ thick
  • 50 fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • 1 large tomato, skinned, seeded and chopped finely
  • 1 T finely chopped garlic, or to taste
  • 15 Kalamata olives,pitted and chopped
  • 2-3 oz. grated asiago (or fresh goat cheese, or omit)
  1. If the bread is not pre-sliced, slice it to 1/4″ thick.
  2. Combine the remaining ingredients and mix well.
  3. Spread 1/2 T of the mixture on each slice of bread. Place under the broiler (on a broiler pan that has been lightly coated with olive oil) until hot and the cheese is melted, approximately 2 minutes.
  4. Garnish with fresh basil leaves or a few pieces of asiago, if  desired.

Crab Rangoon with Apricot Sauce

I really, really love crab rangoon. My love for the creamy center and crispy outer shell, brought to a peak on my tongue by the sweetness of the sauce, have led to more than one late-night take-out call from my residences through the years. Mmmmmm, crab rangoon…. (insert Homer-Simpsonesque gurgly drooling sound here)

Given the downright indecent degree to which I enjoy these fried treats, it is not big surprise that I decided that they should be one of the tasty snackity canapes available to my tastebuds over this last weekend… After all, you only turn 30 a maximum of once per lifetime, so why not make it special?

(Incidentally, my boo and I discovered that the most amusing way to say “canapes” is to pretend you’re saying “can of peas” with a drawl. Don’t scoff. Try it. I defy you to not giggle a little.)

It is probably to the unfortunate long-term detriment to my cholesterol levels that I discovered how fun and easy these are to make, and how much better the sauce is when it’s made at home.

Ooh, and speaking of the sauce… if you have some left over, may I suggest you try a bit on Stonewall Kitchen’s Roasted Garlic Crackers with a schmear of fresh goat cheese? So gooooooood!

Also, if you have some of the filling left over after you’ve filled the wontons, it’s pretty amazing as an omelet filling, along with some cream cheese and sliced scallions.

With all that said, a few hints and suggestions:

I splurged on real creab-meat for my birthday, and it really is infinitely superior in flavor to the ones made with artificial crab. With that said, there are few meats more expensive (and less sustainably harvested) meats, and there is a difference of $20+ per pound between the real and the artificial crab. Get the real if you can, but do what you must: I will be honest, I will probably make it with the artificial crab sometimes.

If you do go with real crab, there is no reason to get the more expensive large-lump crab: you’ll just be breaking the lumps down, so it’s actually kinda silly to do so.

Don’t skip the step where you chill the wontons between the two fryings, even if you are planning on serving them immediately. Cooling them down helps to ascertain that the filling doesn’t overheat and leak out of the wrappers.

Regarding the oil: I suggest using at least 25% peanut oil, instead of just canola. This will really enhance the flavor of the crispy outer-layer.

You will never fry more than three at a time, because the fry time is so short. If you have a deep-fat fryer, great. If not, you can just use a medium-sized saucepan for the oil: you don’t need to use a large pan.

Make sure the fat is hot enough before you start frying, or you will end up with floppy, flaccid, unappetizing canapes. No one loves a flaccid canape. It is, of course, optimal if you have a deep-fat thermometer. If you don’t, scatter in a few drops of water from your fingertips into the oil. If it really comes to life, popping like Rice krispies’ evil big brother, then you may begin.

These can be prepared in advance, and then kept in the refrigerator until you are ready for the second-fry: we didn’t eat them all the first night I made them, and so I was able to enjoy some, fresh and hot and crispy, the next day. And I was happy.

Crab Rangoon with  Apricot Sauce

  • 1 lb. cream cheese, softened
  • 1 lb. crab meat (separated into small pieces if in chunks)
  • 2 t garlic, chopped
  • 2 oz. scallions, sliced
  • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Worcestershire sauce to taste
  • sesame oil to taste
  • 48 wonton skins

For the sauce:

  • 12 oz. apricot preserves (preferably one with no corn syrup in it, and of course locally-made is usually better)
  • 1 T + 2 t fresh ginger, grated (or to taste: I love the taste of ginger, so I really put it in there)
  • 1 1/2 t dry mustard
  • 2 T red wine vinegar
  1. Place the cream cheese in the bowl of a mixer and mix until soft.
  2. Add the crab meat, garlic and green onions. Season with salt and pepper, Worcestershire sauce (about 1 t) and sesame oil (about 2-3 t).
  3. Place several wonton skins on a work surface. Brush the edges with water. Place approximately 1 T of the cream cheese mixture in the center of each skin (after you do a few, you will get a sense of just how much to add for them to be full, but not too full to seal). Fold the wonton skin in half and seal the edges.
  4. Deep-fry the wontonsat 350 degrees F, one at a time, for 10 seconds. Remove with a pair of cooking tongs, drain well, and refrigerate until cooled or until you are ready to serve.
  5. At serving time, deep-fry the wontons at 350 degrees F, three at a time, until crisp, approximately 1 minute. Serve with Apricot sauce.

 To make the sauce:

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat until the preserves melt and the flavors blend. Best hot or at room temperature.

Spinach, Mushroom, Kalamata and Roasted Pepper White Pizza on a Parmesan Crust

 So, today is my birthday. I have been making a lot of yummy foods to enjoy over the weekend, which means I am behind in my posts. This recipe and some of the ones soon to follow may included slightly less commentary, just until I get caught up: however, I promise to continue including helpful hints and suggestions that will ensure delectable results.

Most parts of this recipe are pretty self-explanatory from the instructions, but I do have just a few things to add.

Do be mindful of the temperature of the water you use to proof the yeast. If it is not warm enough, it will not fully activate the yeast, but if it is too hot, it can kill the yeast. Either will prevent you from having a successful crust. Make sure the water feels very warm, but not hot, when dripped on your inner wrist. 

If, for whatever reason, the yeast does not get frothy during the first step when it is proofed with the water and honey, simply discard and start over. If it won’t rise, it’s not worth taking the time to prepare…

Two essential preparations that need to be done for this pizza to be possible are the roasting of the garlic and the roasting of the bell peppers.

For the roasting of the bell peppers, well, I hope you have a gas stove. I try to avoid living anywhere with an electric stove, and roasting bell peppers is part of the reason why. Just turn a burner on, and rest a washed bell pepper over the flame, turning with cooking tongs ever minute or so, until it is completely charred. Place the charred pepper in a plastic bag to sweat for a few minutes, then remove the burnt skin and seeds and rinse under running water.

To roast the garlic, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Remove the uppermost quarter of the heads of garlic, rub the heads with olive oil, and wrap in aluminum foil. Place on a baking sheet or in a muffin tin and bake until the cloves are soft and golden, approximately 35-45 minutes. Remove the garlic from the oven and allow to cool just enough to handle the heads. Carefully remove each clove of garlic head by gently squeezing from the base of the head (this isn’t as kinky as it sounds, really).


Free feel to change the pizza toppings based on your preferences and what is seasonal. Just be sure to consider the overall balance of flavor and texture.

Spinach, Mushroom, Kalamata and Roasted Pepper White Pizza

  • 1 c whole milk
  • 4 T salted butter
  • 2 T all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 t salt
  • 1/4 t cayenne pepper
  • 3 to 4 heads roasted garlic
  • 2-3 T yellow cornmeal
  • 1 recipe Parmesan Pizza Dough (recipe follows)
  • 6 oz baby spinach, washed, rinsed and sauteed
  • 8 oz. mushrooms, washed, rinsed and sliced
  • 10-15 kalamata olives, pitted and cut in half
  • 2 roasted red peppers, sliced into thin strips
  • 8 oz. fresh mozzarella, sliced
  • 4 oz. feta, crumbled
  • 2 T chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 2 T chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
  1. Gently heat milk in a small saucepan, just until barely simmering. Remove and keep covered.
  2. In a separate saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add flour and stir until smooth. Cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring: do not allow the flour to brown. Gradually add the warm milk, whisking to combine. Add the salt and cayenne; increase heat to medium. Cook the mixture, whisking continuously, until the sauce comes to a boil and is thickened. Remove from heat. 
  3. Add 15 of the garlic cloves to the sauce. Pour the mixture into a blender or food processor, cover, and process until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl and cool slightly. 
  4. Place a pizza stone in the oven (if you have one) and preheat to 500 degrees F. 
  5. Sprinkle about 2 T of the yellow cornmeal on a baking sheet or 15-inch-pizza pan. Place the rolled out pizza dough on the prepared baking sheet.
  6. Spread the cooled sauce over the dough, leaving a 3/4-inch border. Distribute the spinach, mushrooms, kalamatas, and roasted red pepper strips over the sauce. Place sliced mozzarella over the toppings, then sprinkle the remaining roasted garlic cloves over the cheese and top with the feta.
  7. Bake the pizza for 8-15 minutes, until the crust is golden and the cheese is melted, bubbly and golden brown in spots.
  8. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the chopped herbs over the top. Serve immediately. 

Parmesan Pizza Dough

  •  1 c warm water (105-115 degrees F)
  • 1 envelope active dry yeast
  • 1 t honey
  • 2 T extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 1/4- 2 3/4 c unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 c finely grated parmesan
  • pinch salt
  1. In a large bowl, combine the water, yeast, honey and 1 T oil, stirring to combine. Let sit until the mixture is foamy, about 5 minutes. 
  2. Add 1 1/2 c of the flour, the parmesan and the salt, mixing by hand until it is all incorporated and the mixture is smooth. 
  3. Continue adding the flour, 1/4 cup at a time, working the dough after each addition until the dough is smooth but still slightly sticky. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth but slightly tacky to the touch, 3 to 5 minutes.
  4. Oil a large mixing bowl with the remaining oil. Place the dough in the bowl, turning to coat. Cover with a warm, moist towel and set in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
  5. Punch dough dough, turn out onto a lightly floured surface and roll into a 9 by 13 inch rectangle or a 15-inch circle, depending on the shape of pan you are using.