Monday, January 22, 2007

Smooth, Smooth Soups

As food groups go, soups rank somewhere between 10 and 11 on a scale of 10 for me. And I must admit, that ranking is based on the joy of making them, even more than consuming them. I'm infatuated with the enormous range available for culinary play. The trek from Chicken Noodle to Vietnamese Chicken Pho just tickles Big Mary's fancy in a way that should probably fall under the censorship of some culinary Big Brother.

So, I was secretly pleased when the stars aligned to create the "perfect storm" of soup demand at my corporate kitchen this week. The fact that it co-aligned with a slow week of business blessing me with the time to play was, well... inspired. Not only were we bestowed with the first snowfall of the season here in NYC, which just makes any soup taste better; but a favored co-worker was caught between the blender and a hard place as well.

The Uptown/Downtown but always Eastside Lady C is a co-worker who's lately been so knocked about by Life that even the cynical hard edged heart of Big Mary has softened. In the past two weeks, our former party girl has had to quit smoking, undergo major dental surgery and consequently has been forced on the wagon and off solid foods for 3 weeks. Always a Sister of Charity under my apron, Big Mary has rushed in to fill the void by both making daily smooth soups and upping my alcohol consumption to keep the cosmos in balance.

Much as I "qvell" at the potential of making vast quantities of soup, my taste runs more to the chunky, chock full concept of soup kettle than the Parisian, restrained, elegant smooth puree. So I was giddy at the challenge thrown down by my dentally challenged compatriot. The week had many treasures, one of which I actually wrote down as I created. The others are included as cooking thoughts.

Puree of Cauliflower Soup
1 medium head of cauliflower (about 1 1/2 # after cleaning)
1 cup sliced leeks (pale green and white parts)
1 parsnip
Clean one medium sized cauliflower, break it down into small pieces and set aside. (Mine was about 1 1/2# after cleaning.) Slice pale green and white parts of leeks, wash very well and set aside. Peel 1 medium parsnip, cut out any woody core, rough chop and set aside. In a medium saucepan, warm some oil and a bit of butter. Add leeks and sauté gently until limp, avoiding any browning. When soft add a generous splash of white wine, 1 bay leaf, the cauliflower and parsnips. Next add enough well flavored chicken stock (homemade preferred, but in a pinch Swanson's Low Sodium isn't too bad) to just cover the vegetables. When the broth comes to a boil, add about a teaspoon of fresh chopped thyme and reduce heat to a slow simmer. A bit of salt and pepper should go in as well. Continue to cook the soup until the cauliflower and parsnip are soft. Cool slightly and strain, reserving liquid. Put vegetables into a blender with some of the liquid and puree until smooth. Add the rest of the liquid slowly until everything is smooth. When ready to serve, rewarm the soup and add half & half (about 1/2 cup) to taste. Add a fresh ground nutmeg to taste and adjust salt and pepper. Serve in warm bowls garnished with chives.

In addition, the Lady C (and the Handsome Venezuelan, by default and overflow) enjoyed the following:

Sweet Potato, Apple and Bacon Soup
Dice up peeled sweet potato, peeled Granny Smith apple, chopped fresh thyme leaves, sliced proscuitto and cooked bacon and simmer with chicken stock until soft. Next, puree until smooth. Personally I add a healthy spoonful of Garum Masala to this mix, while cooking. Serve in warmed soup bowls.

Lentil Soup
Sauté a sofrito of celery, onion, carrots, red pepper and garlic. When translucent add chicken or vegetable stock and simmer until soft. Feel free to add a generous handful of cooked bacon if desired. Add lentils (about 50% of the veg mix), chicken or vegetable stock, a generous spoon of tomato paste and simmer until soft. Puree thoroughly and add more stock to taste.

Roasted Tomato and Eggplant Soup
Drop two medium eggplants on a grill and char them over low heat. Transfer them to a baking sheet and continue to roast them until collapsing soft. Strain about 8 canned tomatoes, (or peeled Roma tomatoes in season) and roast in a 450* oven until charred. Combine roasted tomato flesh with eggplant flesh avoiding the seeds and skin of both. Sauté 1/2 cup leeks in olive oil and 1 small chopped fennel bulb (or half a large one) until softened, add 1 tablespoon minced garlic and sauté 1 minute more. Deglaze with about a cup of dry white vermouth. Add 1 cup tomato puree, 1 red pepper (roasted & peeled, seeds removed) and 1/4 teaspoon saffron. Cover with strong chicken stock and simmer for 10 minutes or so, until fennel is cooked soft. Puree in a blender and return to saucepan to rewarm. Right before serving, toss in a handful of fresh chopped basil. Serve in warm bowls with shredded Parmesan Reggiano as garnish.

Contented Eating,
Big Mary

Monday, January 15, 2007

Blame it on Swanson's

How could it have taken me so long to fall for the charms of Pot Pies? I can only figure it is the sour memory of those early Swanson pot pies from the early 1960's. Back in those days, my Dad did a fair share of traveling, so Mama Gladys saw this as a welcome break from cooking. I was an eager enthusiast of the TV Dinner, but balked at the less exotic Pot Pies that were another option Mama Gladys opened. The weirdly thick gravy, the ubiquitous peas and carrots, and most especially the tough and partially uncooked bottom dough.... I just never really found a connection.

Lately though, I've had a few moments of pot pie enlightenment. Maybe it's my personal attempt to seduce the winter to show up here in the Northeast. Enough of these 60 degree days, already! Mind you Diva Nature I'm not looking for eight foot drifts and electrical outages, but a little frost on the windowpane could be a prefect garnish for some soups and stews.

And that's really what's at the base of a good pot pie. Make any savory stew or chunky soup, thicken the broth with a little roux or cornstarch slurry (go easy on the thickening agent kids, better loose than gluey), turn it out into a gratin dish, pie plate or individual ovenproof casseroles, top it with some pastry and bake it off. Pour a glass of wine, if you haven't already, toss a salad and in about half an hour you get to serve a dinner that's at least an 8 on show appeal and a 4 on stress.

So, how to put it together? Fly loose and let your inspiration flow unchecked. This post is really about hints, suggestions and support, so no recipe my pretties; as if what I normally post could be confused as a recipe by anyone in the know. But let me throw some inspiration at you in any case....

Personally, I could eat some form of soup or stew at least 4 nights a week, so Big Mary has no lack of inspiration or motivation for what lies beneath the crust. If you are stew challenged, go to any cookbook, especially ethnic inspired ones and look for any braised meat or vegetable recipes. Keep in mind the scale of the food, all ingredients should be about 1/2" - 3/4" in size. Classic American flavors work great, but so do Mexican, Thai, French, Spanish, I could go on and on... For me, I get excited about the crust options; because I never thought about anything beyond the pie crust or puff pastry options. How little did I imagine.... I always suggest a crust on the top only. There's just no way of successfully enclosing the pot pie with a top and bottom crust. More importantly, there's no need.

I offer for your consideration ....

Beef Pot Pie with Carrots, Parsnips, Mushroom and Peas with Classic Pate Brise Pastry Crust (Pie crust for the french challenged)

Chicken Pot Pie with Shallots, Carrots, Wild Mushrooms, Fines Herbes and Vermouth with Puff Pastry Crust

Chicken Pie Gran Mere with Mushrooms, Leeks, Pancetta and Chestnuts with Tarragon Chive Drop Dumpling Crust

Turkey Pot Pie with Roasted Vegetables, Dried Cranberries, Sage and Bread Cube Stuffing Crust

Pork Pot Pie with Chilies, Posole and Poblano Peppers in Cornbread Cheddar Crust

Thai Green Chile and Coconut Chicken Pot Pie with Straw Mushrooms, Peppers, Thai Basil and Phyllo Crust

Greek Lamb Pot Pie with Swiss Chard, Tomato and Feta with Kataifi Crust (a shredded phyllo product available in Mid East Stores

Indian Vegetable Pot Pie with Cauliflower, Peas, Spinach and Mushrooms with Curried Potato Cashew Crust

Contented Eating My Pretties,

Big Mary

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Happy New Year's ????

First let me pray that the Goddess might bless the brow of every single one of you who reads my humble blog, and provide more success, happiness and wealth than you can possibly deal with in 2007. My fervent wish is that each and every one of you might be able to someday say, "I was reading Big Mary when he was just a humble blog, before the radio show, before the Madonna connection, before the movie..."

But moving on ... let's vent a little steam. What's going on in the world of food writing? Here I was, hoping to position myself to morph from the heinous world of corporate catering to the sophisticated world of food writing; only to discover that my new fantasy career has been hijacked by the lightweight thinkers at the Food Network.

While I confess, I don't spend many hours watching cooking shows on any network, the few times I do find myself surfing by the Food Network I'm typically left with jaw dropped and ire rising over both the subtle and blatent misinformation that is sent over these airwaves. The more cooking professionals I speak to about this, the deeper the dilemma appeaars to be. In addition, I've learned the problem is a lot more widespread than I thought.

My best buddy, owner of DM Cuisine Catering in NYC, reports that one of his cater waiters (a breed of server reknowned for lack of knowledge about what they are serving), was recruited by the Food Network to develop a cooking show after her TV commercial for vegetable shortening was so well received by test audiences. When she freely admitted she new NOTHING about cooking, they replied "Not to worry, we can take care of that part."

Several prominent food writers I spoke to at the home of my Jersey food pro pals report the same realities. Unless you're a celebrity chef, or young and pretty enough to fill out jeans more attractively than Big Mary, or better yet a blend of both, there's little chance of your cookbook getting published these days.

Another dilemma facing the modern foodwriter is the Internet, and busybody bloggers like yours truly. As we all know, it is crazy easy to google any recipe you need at the click of a mouse. Unless there's a specific point of view or opinionated palate that you're after, why buy the book?

So, what's to be done? As in most frustrating situations, taking a deep breath is a good place to start. While the books getting the most attention seem to have more in common with People magazine than Escoffier, there still are more cookbooks being published in 2007 than 10 years ago, and 2006 gave us some damn fine ones. Currently I'm devouring "The Improvisational Cook", another excellent cookbook by Sally Schneider. She takes on the daunting challenge of convincing her readers to cook with their noses out of the cookbook. It's an interesting attempt to reawaken home cooks food instincts, and ironically lessen their dependence on cookbooks. Now that has to make you laugh in the context of this rant of mine!

But it also shines the light on where cookbooks need to look toward. I know part of my idea in "taking Big Mary public" was to encourage people to just cook; however simply or complicated their instincts inspire them. In my work kitchen, the cook that I connect to quickest is the cook who can taste food in his or her head. By this I mean someone who can taste something and tell me what are the main ingredients, can tell me what's missing (salt, sugar, acid, herb, fat, etc) and can imagine what it will taste like before adding the needing ingredient. In the most talented of chefs, I think it equates with "perfect pitch" in a musician.

What I find exciting is how random this talent is distributed. I've found it in an illegal Mexican dishwasher who became my sous chef, in a sandwich guy who is now able to handle any station in the kitchen, in a college chum who could practically talk to bread dough, and in the ultimate Goy Guy who can develop a recipe for chocolate mousse with 15 calories per serving.

So, moving forward into 2007, I'll probably continue to frustrate those readers looking for exact measurements and proceedures. But to those of you I say, relax, breath deep andjump. What's the worse than could happen? OK, now what's the best that could happen??? Yeah ......
Contented Eating
Big Mary