Fever, chills and lentil soup

I knew I was in trouble Sunday night. I had every blanket in the house heaped on me, I'd jacked the thermostat up to 75 degrees, I was wearing flannel pajamas, and still I was shivering, freezing cold despite my best efforts. I've recovered after two days at home with multiple mugs of TheraFlu, lots of sleep, and a little light reading.

What to do the night before returning to work? Make a big pot-o-lentil soup, of course.

This is the soup I wish I'd had in the freezer, ready to be reheated and enjoyed when I caught this nasty cold + fever + chills thing. Hearty and flavorful, I find this earthy soup very comforting. It smacks of all that is right with rustic peasant fare.  A few basic ingredients combine to create a dish that warms the body and soul on a cold afternoon. The best part — it tastes even better the next day, when the ingredients have a chance to meld.

As always, use only high quality ingredients; old veggies make for a lackluster soup. I used both homemade vegetable stock and water in this batch, but chicken stock works well. A sprinkle of freshly chopped parsley and a good crusty bread are the only garnishes required. Don't forget to drizzle a few teaspoons of red wine vinegar in at the end to brighten the flavor.

Lentil Soup
Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 small onions, finely diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, finely diced
2 celery stalks, finely diced
1 1/2 cups French green lentils, picked over and rinsed
1 28 oz. can whole peeled plum tomatoes, drained and diced
2 quarts vegetable broth, chicken stock, or water
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
a few teaspoons red wine vinegar
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over a medium-low flame. Add the onion and garlic and cook slowly, until softened but not browned, about 5-6 minutes. Add a pinch of Kosher salt, stir, and add carrots and celery. Cook another 3-4 minutes. Add the green lentils, diced tomatoes and broth, stock or water. Cook until the lentils are cooked through, about 25-30 minutes.

Season to taste with salt, pepper, and a few teaspoons of red wine vinegar. Garnish with freshly chopped parsley.


Christmas Eve + Banana Bread

It's 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve and I'm baking.

I'm at my own home this evening, but tomorrow I'll drive to my parents' house, a fresh loaf of whole wheat banana bread in tow. This is the quick bread I often bring as a hostess gift around the holidays, when everyone is inundated with plates of cookies and confections (very few of which are worth the calories). 

Last weekend's banana bread recipients were pleased — one friend consumed it at least twice a day and swore it was never-ending, like the loaves and fishes. A scoop of ice cream turns it into dessert, but I love it lightly toasted alongside a cup of coffee. The highlights of the recipe: sour cream for moisture, dark brown sugar for a more complex flavor, and whole wheat flour for a firmer texture.

I discovered this recipe in Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook, a terrific compendium of stories and recipes for a truly astonishing array of dishes, from falafel to Southern-style greens to chopped liver (yes, chopped liver). This banana bread keeps for about 4 days at room temperature if well-wrapped. Best of all, it freezes beautifully.

My apologies for the far-from-ideal photo. It's getting dark — no natural light to be had. Merry Christmas!

Whole Wheat Banana Bread
Adapted from New York Cookbook
Makes 1 loaf

1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/3 cups dark brown sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon basking soda
1/4 cup sour cream
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup mashed ripe bananas, about 2 medium

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9x5x3 1/2 inch loaf pan with butter or Baker's Joy spray.

Cream the softened butter and brown sugar together. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat together. Combine the baking soda and sour cream, then beat this mixture into the batter.

Sift together the whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour and salt. Alternately add the flour mixture and the mashed bananas to the batter and mix until well combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly into the corners. Bake until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Allow it to cool on wire rack.


Carrot-Apple-Ginger Soup

It's cold outside. Really cold.

Temperatures took a dive into the teens Tuesday night, so my evening walk with the dog was very brief (i.e. down the street and back).  The weather also affected the dinner menu. A cold salad? No way. I rummaged through the fridge and opted to make Carrot-Apple-Ginger soup.

This soup, or a variation thereof, was a standby when I attended culinary school back in the early 1990s. It was a new flavor combination for me, having grown up on cans of Campbell's chicken noodle and tomato soup, with the occasional tin of cream of mushroom thrown in on special occasions. I was amazed that simply simmering a few ingredients together could result in something so rich and flavorful.

Carrot-Apple-Ginger soup lends itself to a myriad of interpretations. Use pear in place of apple, a winter squash instead of carrot — just don't leave out the ginger. It provides the underlying oomph that makes this simple soup something special.

Carrot-Apple-Ginger Soup

2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons butter
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and chopped
2 apples, peeled and chopped
3-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
5-6 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil and butter in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, celery, and a pinch of salt, cooking until the vegetables are soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add the carrots, apples and ginger, cook for a minute or two, then add the stock or water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the carrots are soft (about 25 minutes) then puree with a blender (immersion or standing) adding more liquid as needed. Season to taste and serve.


Best ever cranberry relish

I spent Thanksgiving in Los Angeles this year. It was lovely: the people, the food, the weather. The weather! A bit cooler than usual, Southern California's sunny skies were still a nice change from the truly cold temperatures back home. I helped with the food, but I simply followed someone else's recipes. Everything was good, but one thing was missing — Jasper White's Cranberry Relish.

Cranberry sauce made an appearance on the Thanksgiving table and it was very,very good, but it lacked the caramelized sugar, fresh ginger and white pepper that make Jasper White's zesty version my hands down favorite. It's graced my own Thanksgiving table annually since I first discovered the recipe in White's outstanding book, Cooking From New England (out of print, but worth searching for).

When I landed at RDU, my mind turned immediately to the bags of cranberries I'd purchased before the holiday and stashed in the freezer. Happily I had all of the necessary ingredients in the fridge and pantry, so pulling it together took just a few minutes. This relish is good enough to eat straight out of the pan, but I saved most of it for turkey-cranberry sandwiches.

I eyeball my ingredients, and probably add more lemon juice, white pepper and ginger than called for in the recipe that follows. Taste and adjust quantities as you see fit, but trust me, this is close to perfect.

Cranberry Relish
Adapted from Cooking From New England
Makes about 3 cups

2 oranges
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, julienned
1 12-oz. bag cranberries, fresh or frozen
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

Finely grate the zest of one orange and set aside. Squeeze the juice from both oranges into a small bowl.

Combine the sugar and freshly squeezed lemon juice into a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook until the sugar begins to turn a light brown, washing down the sides of the pan with a little water if needed to prevent burning.

When the sugar is caramelized, add the julienned ginger and orange zest. Continue to cook for about 1 minute. Add the cranberries, orange juice, and white pepper. Increase the heat to medium-heat and continue to cook, stirring frequently, for 5-7 minutes, until the berries pop and are broken but not mushy. Remove from the heat and cool.


Snow! And Havremel Flatbrod

It snowed last night. In other parts of the country, this isn't unusual. But in central North Carolina, it doesn't necessarily snow every year, and wintry white flakes are uncommon in early December. I took a cue from Mother Nature and holed up at home. Chicken stock simmered slowly on the stove and I rummaged through the pantry for a crunchy snack. There were none to be found, so I took note of available ingredients, then browsed through Bernard Clayton's Complete Book of Small Breads for a recipe, settling on Havremel Flatbrod, or Norwegian Oatmeal Flatbread.

These crackers are slightly sweet, crispy, and addictive (the dog loves them). The dough is sticky and wet, and was a little difficult to work with. Clayton recommends using a pastry cloth and pastry sleeve-covered rolling pin, but I settled on smearing it across parchment paper with a flexible plastic dough scraper (and used my fingers). The result was a thicker cracker that took longer to cook than the recipe indicates — but I was still pleased.

Clayton writes that this flatbread is traditionally served with cheese, spreads, and soups, but I've been munching on them straight out of my handy Tupperware container. They should last for weeks stored this way, but I don't expect them to be around that long.

Havremel Flatbrod
Adapted from The Complete Book of Small Breads
Makes 1 pound

2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup melted unslated butter
1/2 heaping teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3 cups all-purpose flour or 2 cups all-purpose flour and 1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups quick-cooking oats

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine the sugar, melted butter and salt in a large bowl. In a separate container, combine the buttermilk and baking soda. Alternately add the flour and the buttermilk to the sugar-butter mixture, then stir in the oatmeal. If you're using a heavy duty mixer, use the paddle attachment and mix for 2 minutes, adding a bit of flour if needed. Knead for 4 minutes.

Working with 1/3 cup of dough at a time, roll it into a ball and then flatten it onto the pastry cloth. Roll it paper-thin with a rolling pin covered in a pastry sleeve. Roll it onto the rolling pin, then unroll it onto a baking sheet. If you don't have a pastry cloth and rolling pin sleeve, spread the dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet with a dough scraper, using your fingers as necessary.

Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 8-10 minutes, until lightly browned (my thick flatbread took close to 17 minutes). Slide the flatbread onto a metal rack to cool, and break into pieces.


Popcorn meals

I've been away from the blogosphere for too long, but the truth is, I haven't cooked much worth writing about in the past few weeks. There were a few batches of what I'll call Disappointing Muffins (not worth posting)  and I've spent a lot of time eating this:

Popcorn, straight out of the microwave bag. Who needs a recipe for that?

I am trying to get out my funk, and have a few blog-worthy items in the hopper, so I hope to return soon with a few tales and recipes to share. I hope you'll stay tuned.