Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cuisine Impro: Garlicky White Bean Soup

I’m exceptionally proud of myself when I can pull a tasty meal together, especially one that isn’t pasta, when there seems to be not a whole lot going on in the fridge. I like to wing it in the kitchen. Yes, I have an obsession with food magazines and cookbooks but for the amount I read them (and give them real estate in our one bedroom apartment) I hardly follow recipes by comparison. I look at them for inspiration. I like to imagine what things will taste like, how they’ll feel in the mouth and am pleased as punch when things go together the way I imagined - even more so when it's better than imagined. It’s like being a matchmaker for food. I’m also not afraid of making a mistake, which I’ll learn from and which sends me back to the drawing board to try to fix the situation so that the meal can be enjoyed. I want my meals to be good but I don’t expect them to be knockouts every single time either. All in all I’d say I’m pretty confident and competent in the kitchen. And I love food. I wish more people would be confident and take pleasure in their cooking – you have to eat so you might as well have a good time doing it. If I hear "I can’t" or "I could never" it just makes me want to take people by the hand and show them how easy and fun it can be.

Last Friday’s supper is a good example of my style of cooking. I’ll warn you now that I’m going to describe what I did and there will be no “recipe” at the end to follow. While my husband was cooking dinner on Thursday I was poking around in the kitchen to see what was in the pantry (what I wouldn’t give for a real pantry!) and I found at the back of the top shelf a cocktail onion jar filled with some small dried white beans, variety unknown. I thought, that’s not a lot of beans but it might be more than it looks and anyway I can do something with it. Perhaps I eat them for lunch or make a dip? So I put the beans in some water to soak overnight.

I work from home so at lunch when I went to see what I could scrounge up I saw the beans on the counter and thought, oh yeah, the beans; I should cook those now. While I was getting the beans together I got my lunch ready. I cut a small onion in half and threw one half in the pot with the beans and sliced the other to sauté for my lunch. I saw that the celery was starting to look a little weary so I used the best looking stalks to sauté and the smaller ones with leafs I threw in the pot with the beans. To the beans I also added a bay leaf. Then I put the lid on the pot and made lunch, which was a celery, onion, and garlic sauté that I added cooked pearl barley to (pulled from the freezer 2 days before) a good squeeze of lemon, then I topped it with a little tahini sauce leftover from last night’s meal.

Since my husband made the lion’s share of our shared meals this week I thought I should make dinner tonight. I was going to make this red lentil soup but then decided that since there seemed to be enough beans to make a soup and they’re sitting there all ready and everything that I’ll do that instead. I asked hubby if he was in the mood for bean soup. He said sure and told me that there’s a Robuchon recipe in The Paris Cookbook. I looked it up and my eyes started to glaze over so I impatiently snapped the book closed while saying: “nah, I’m just gonna wing it.”

So I started, like you do, with onion and garlic in the bottom of the pot in a good glug of olive oil. I decided to throw in a couple sprigs of thyme and a few of parsley. This is where the Robuchon recipe guided me. He cooked the beans with a bouquet garni. Though my beans were cooked and could have made a soup right then and there I decided to let everything simmer for a bit so that the herbs could actually do some good and all the flavours could come together. So I picked out the herbs from the onions and tied them with some kitchen twine so that they could be fished out of the liquid before being puréed. I had drained the beans but kept their cooking water and used that for broth. I’d say I just covered the ingredients with the liquid and added a pinch of salt and let it simmer.

I should mention here that I’m also on a moderate cleansing diet at the moment, which means that flavour cheats like Parmesan or bacon are out. So now I’m thinking, what am I going to do to make this thing interesting? Hubby had mentioned something about truffle oil (the Robuchon version has truffle) and we have some languishing in the fridge so I thought, I’ll finish with that but still - boring. I knew I wanted the garlic to be pronounced and the parsley was already out so I minced a clove with a fistful of parsley to use as garnish. Then I remembered that I saw a lonely aged leak in the crisper that I could put to work. I cleaned him up and finely sliced him and threw him in a smallish cast iron pan to get to work caramelizing and crisping up at bit.

So while the leek was caramelizing I tidied the kitchen table so that we could eat at it and took down the food mill. I will use more labour intensive devices when the result is so much superior and my immersion blender really is inferior when it comes to making a creamy puree. I started to put the soup through the mill after about 30 minutes of simmering with the wrong disc (holes too small!) so I had to start over with the next size up. That was a bit messy but I remained undaunted because I just thought, I’ll know for next time - if I haven’t forgotten again by then. In the end I put the soup through the mill twice to get the texture I wanted. Then, I decided that I’d add a ladle more of bean broth to thin it out a tad. Next, I put the soup on the burner to heat it again as it cools down a bit with the pureeing.

I tasted the soup and adjusted the seasoning with grey sea salt and white pepper and a tiny splash of white vinegar until I thought it was the right flavour to play around with all those garnishes I had planned. I ladled out the soup and sprinkled the minced parsley and garlic liberally over the top. I could have stopped there save a drizzle of olive oil; the parsley not only brightens up the dish (pureed white beans are not exciting to look at) but also it does brighten the flavours. Next, I made a little tangled nest of the sweet caramelized leeks in the centre. Then I drizzled a very small amount of black truffle oil. To me, though, the white beans and truffles make it all very earthy and I wanted something to push it in the herbal direction and on my table was a tiny bottle of fruity Spanish olive oil (the kind on the ice cream in this post) and that was the stuff. For my second helping I skipped the truffle oil and went straight for the olive oil.

While all this was going on I saw that there were chestnuts that had better been used up sooner rather than later so I cut a little x on their bottoms and put them in the oven to roast and they were ready in time to have a handful for desert. They were very sweet – the sweetest chestnuts I’ve ever tasted. Problem is, now I’ve got all these roasted chestnuts to figure out what to do with…but that’s a problem I’m eager to solve!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Paella at Pimentón

On Mardi Gras I wasn’t eating pancakes but I was at Pimentón learning how to make paella. Don’t worry; I ate enough to keep things in the spirit of day. Gathered for the class were writers and bloggers who all share a passion for food. Our teacher was Chef José Arato who actually became a chef by way of accounting. Sizzling Communications, an inspiring duo, put the event together. Being in a room with such talent and spirit made me feel sheepish about not, I mean, inspired to be writing on this blog more often.

We started the class with a demo of how to make our dessert: Ice Cream Turrón. The base of the ice cream is a simple vanilla custard and José, who has worked as a pastry chef, did something so obvious that it made me palm my forehead at the brilliance of it. When he was scraping the vanilla pods he did what you normally do and then, this is the brilliant part, to ensure all the little seeds were used he scoured the pod with the sugar that vanilla was going into. I’m usually trying so desperately to scrape every last seed out that I practically shred the pod in my in my effort to be frugal. Eventually, at the end of the night, the ice cream was served with a drizzle of Tuccioliva olive oil and Sal de Ibiza. Yum! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Next we did some of the prep work for the paella a la valenciana. About eight of us were stationed at cutting boards with knives ready (my knife could have been sharper, just sayin'). Some diced the red peppers while others chopped the onions. I did the latter and let me tell you, that onion was one strong beast; I was teary and sniffly for an hour. I dashed to the hand washing station to make sure my mascara wasn’t running. When it came time to clean the squid I noticed a few were not eager to take on the task. It was my first time cleaning one and when you turn it inside out it is vaguely sexual somehow. I’m on a roll: lately I’ve tried crickets and cleaned squid. What’s something else that others are squeamish about that I can try next?

Good cooking usually is sensual – and I don’t mean over-the-top Nigella style. I mean you feel, taste, and listen to your ingredients. Since most of us don’t grow up at the knee of some aged Spanish relation learning to feel our way through the dish learning from one who knows is a real treat. When we moved into the kitchen and hovered around the range it became clear paella isn’t exact; you eyeball it. We all watched, I should say photographed, while José showed us when to put liquid in the pan, how to agitate – not stir - it, how to finish the dish with a slight burn on the bottom. I have to say I was amazed at his patience with the photo taking. The paella was bubbling away when it was ready for the rice and everyone had to get a great shot of the rice bag!

Throughout the evening we had tapas to nibble on. One really should just nibble because the there’s so much more to come. An escalivada – eggplant and pepper salad – was served along with the paella to round off the meal. I’d never had this style of paella before but I can see why the dish is so famous. The complex layers of flavour from the chicken stock to the mussel cooking water, from the parsley to the saffron, this is the kind of dish that inspires debate about who has the best one because there is so much room, even if you doggedly stick to the classic ingredients, to really express yourself in the kitchen. Looks like I need to get myself one of those space-eating single use kitchen gadgets – a paella pan.


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