Curried Pumpkin Soup

I was in NYC last week partially for play, partially for work. Even though my birth certificate says New York, New York, I am not one of those people who loves New York. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy it and that there definitely aren’t parts of it that I wish I could transplant to the Chi or that I wouldn’t even consider living there one day, but when people find out that I spent every summer and holiday there and that most of my extended family still lives there, the reaction is always, “don’t you just love New York? How can you not live there???” It’s hard to explain that I’ve gotten used to the pace of Chicago, the simplicity, the ease of it, but it’s even harder to explain that being there is always a little bittersweet, because everything from the airport to the subway to the pretzel stands to just about every corner of Midtown (and a few in the Bronx, Queens, Long Island and Brooklyn) is part of a memory of a family that is close to existing only in my mind. Our times in New York were filled with so much fun and laughter that it seems impossible that any new times in the city would ever truly compare. It sounds absolutely bizarre, but even amid the tourists and the traffic and the noise and the people rushing past me, I can get so caught up in remembering some moment walking down 57th street with my grandfather or waiting on the #4 train platform with my dad that I find myself just standing still in the middle of the sidewalk trying to catch my breath. And if you’ve ever wondered what it sounds like to have what feels like 5,000 people scream at you at once, I highly recommend stopping dead on a sidewalk in Manhattan at rush hour. Good times.

Before I get way too caught up in family history, I’ll tell you what may actually be the real reason I waiver on moving to the East Coast: the weather. Yeah, yeah, I know, I live in Chicago and it’s cold and windy and blah blah blah. But, y’all, the East Coast is extreme. For real. I had never seen as much snow as I did when I went to school in Poughkeepsie, which is just 1.5 hours by train from NYC. I mean, it was up to our hips from January until April (for all of you wondering, it is too cold in Chicago to snow that much. I’m not saying cold is better than snow, it’s just what I’m used to). And summer in New York? Fuggedabouit. The Chi may be hot and humid, but at least we have a bit of lake breeze to cool us off. I spent many an NY summer trying to stay as still as possible. And right now, as we are 6 weeks away from the official start of winter, I’m reading post after facebook post about how my New York friends are digging out from snow! In October! It’s a balmy 54 degrees and sunny in Chicago (although with the windchill it is 48. Just trying to keep it honest).

Anyhoo. One friend posted a picture of her deck covered in snow and said that she wanted soup, and I realized that I had a pumpkin soup recipe that had, like so many others, been waiting for a good story. I recognize that I haven’t necessarily provided that, but at least I’m posting a holiday specific recipe in time for you to make it before Halloween and, if you’re on the East Coast, at least I have something to keep you toasty over this cold weekend. Baby steps, friends, baby steps.

I love the kick that the curry adds, plus it complements the pumpkin in a way that is surprising given every other pumpkin-ish dish is sweet. I think milk would be a fine substitute for the cream and do not feel a shred of guilt over using canned pumpkin. Also, this could be totally vegetarian if you use vegetable stock/broth instead of chicken stock. The croutons are left over no knead bread, also an excellent way to heat up the house on a chilly day.

Stay warm, New Yorkers! My heart may belong to the Second City, but you know I’ll always have a huge crush on you….

Curried Pumpkin Soup, from The Complete Book of Soups and Stews by Bernard Clayton, Jr.

  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 garlic clove, mashed and diced
  • 2 cups pumpkin puree, freshly made (?!) or canned
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock or broth
  • 1 bay leaf
  • pinch sugar
  • 1/3 teaspoon or more curry powder
  • pinch nutmeg (or pumpkin spice)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, if desired
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
  • 2 cups light cream

Melt butter in medium (3 quart) saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, cover and cook until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes.

Add the pumpkin puree and stock. Stir well to mix. Add bay leaf, sugar, curry powder and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, lower to simmer and cook for 30 minutes. While soup is cooking, taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed.

Remove from heat and add cream (I’d temper the cream a bit–add a few tablespoons to 1/3 cup of soup slowly to the cream, just to bring the cream up in temperature. When you add the cream to the soup it won’t curdle). Return to heat only to bring temperature of the soup back to hot. Do not allow to simmer–rising steam only. Serve in hot soup bowls.


Chicken Noodle Soup

I spent a very fun weekend in Texas and if I thought I could replicate the yummy bbq from Salt Lick, I’d do it post-haste.  Unfortunately I was too busy debating whether it would be appropriate to move to Austin just for ribs (people have moved for sillier reasons, right?) and didn’t pay enough attention to how the deliciousness was made, so you’ll have to trust me on this one or make a trip down there.

I was lucky enough to bring back some very style-y cowboy boots, but also seemed to have brought back a bit of a cold that wasn’t enough to knock me out completely, but just enough to annoy me and curse the coughing lady next to me on the plane.  Normally when I have a cold I crave tuna (don’t ask, because I really can’t explain it), but the stuffy nose and scratchy throat were crying out for chicken noodle soup.  Now, I’m a Campbell’s girl all the way when it comes to these things. 

When you’re sick, fancy soups can’t beat the comfort found in that red and white can.  Whenever I was home from school with a cold (or more likely strep throat which I got ALL THE TIME), my mom would tuck me under the covers on the sofa so I could watch tv, surround me with my favorite stuffed animals and heat up that condensed chicken noodle goodness.  Other soups she’d make from scratch, but for some reason every mom knows that few things can beat Campbell’s in a pinch.

Admittedly, making it for myself is not as comforting, but it did make me feel better.  As I sat on the sofa watching terrible television (where’s a good Lifetime movie when you need it??), I started thinking whether I could make my own version.  Why I feel the need to try to recreate foods that are perfectly fine already is a question I ask myself repeatedly, but what else would I write about if I didn’t? 

Also, I’m sure there are many grandmothers out there who have a tried and true chicken noodle soup recipe that would put my efforts to shame–one that involves boiling chickens and making stock and chopping vegetables–but when you’re sick and in need of food, that’s the kind of energy you just don’t have (if any of you would like to let me borrow your grandmother next time I have the sniffles, holla!). 

I basically roasted some chicken breasts, cooked up some pasta and threw it all into my Le Creuset to simmer with onions, carrots and broth.  As someone who really believes in the stirring and watching and checking, this couldn’t have been easier and–surprisingly–tastier.  No, I really didn’t think it would all come together (I rarely, if ever, cook anything without a recipe), but it did and in about 45 minutes (roasting the chicken took about 40 minutes, in which time you could put everything else together).

So while I can’t say I’ll forsake Campbell’s next time I’m sick, this is a hearty substitute when condensed versions just aren’t cutting it.  Let’s hope I make it through winter without any need for either (knock on wood)…

Chicken Noodle Soup

  • 2 large chicken breasts, roasted (or baked) and chopped into bite size pieces
  • 1 medium sized onion, diced
  • 2 cups frozen crinkle cut carrots
  • 3 14.5 ounce cans of chicken broth
  • 1 box bowtie pasta
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

While chicken is roasting (about 15 minutes before it’s done), heat olive oil in stock pan and add onion, sautéing until tender.  Add chicken broth and carrots, bring to a boil and then reduce heat so it’s simmering. 

In separate pot, cook pasta according to package directions, but undercook by about 2 minutes (I originally thought of cooking the pasta in the chicken broth, but didn’t have enough broth to cover all of the pasta.  I think it might work. Try it and let me know!). 

Add chopped chicken to broth, then drain and add pasta (it will finish cooking in the broth).  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve hot (and preferably with a good movie).

Chicken Andouille Gumbo

If you ever questioned my devotion to Pestle Mortar, the fact that I stood over a stove on a brilliantly sunny 88 degree day making the perfect roux for gumbo should quash all doubts.  Why I felt the need to make gumbo on a brilliantly sunny 88 degree day is another question all together.

Last year, a couple of friends and I went to New Orleans for a weekend.  It was a grand plan that came at a time when I desperately needed distraction from every day life.  L, C and I were newish friends–we had hung out a bit in Chicago, but had never spent a concentrated amount of time together.   We figured there’s nothing quite like open container laws and beignets to bring people together, so we headed down (L’s brother met us there) and prepared for shenanigans.  L and I flew together on the first flight out, where we promptly ordered bloody mary’s and plotted our course.  The last time I’d been to NOLA, I was at a conference and didn’t have a chance to do much gallivanting.  L had been a few times before and declared that we needed to hit Galatoires, Napoleon House, Jacques-Imo’s and the Old Absinthe House.  My only request was to add the Gumbo Shop to the list.  I’d been the last time I was in the city and I needed a quick fix of gumbo to start the trip off right (and I wanted someone else to cook it).

Our hotel was just off Bourbon Street and we decided we’d walk to the restaurant, stopping for frozen Hurricanes on the way.  Two sips into my drink, we ran into one of my exes.  Not that bad. With his girlfriend. Also not bad, since we hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in four or five years. The girlfriend? The WOMAN WHO INTRODUCED US. Really now?  Needless to say that I drank that first Hurricane a little faster than necessary (brain freeze be damned).

Don’t worry–it was all uphill from there.  We arrived at the Gumbo Shop after the lunch rush and had the most adorable server ever to come from the Bayou.  He was likely hired for his accent, which was enough to make me swoon and forget that I was there to eat, not flirt (although a combination of the two is never really a bad thing).  

The gumbo, which is just the right amount of spice and comfort was the perfect way to fuel ourselves for 36 hours of running wild.

Lunch was followed by drinks at Napoleon House, which was followed by dinner at Gallitoires, followed by drinks at …. and then…. and finally ending at Old Absinthe (the ellipses represent my lapse in memory.  All I know is that I was never without a tasty drink for long). 

The next day, after breakfast at Cafe du Monde and very strong cocktails at Pat O’Brien’s, we headed to Jacques-Imo’s for dinner, where I was convinced to taste alligator cheesecake.  Um… yeah. I’d skip that on your next trip, ok? Rather than taking you on a tour of our borderline debauchery, let’s just sum it up by saying that we were in a bar listening to music and noticed that there was a lovely scent of s’mores in the air.  5 minutes later, we realized THE BAR WAS ON FIRE (fear not, we made sure to get to-go cups).  The night ended when I was dared to ride a mechanical bull.  Not enough purell in the world, my friends.

There are many lovely things about NOLA, not least of which are the people and the sights, but the food! The food could bring you to your knees.  If you can’t make it down there for a little Bayou fun anytime soon, cozy up with a bowl of this gumbo.  You’re on your own for the Hurricanes and bull rides, though…

 Chicken Andouille Gumbo courtesy of the Gumbo Shop Cookbook

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Soup Dumplings (Shanghai Dumplings)

Many many months ago, Michelle and I got it into our heads that we wanted to make soup dumplings.  I’d read a recipe for them, but had never actually tasted them (sensing a theme here?) and Michelle had eaten them, but couldn’t find a good recipe.  We had all of these visions of how we would do a mini-cooking demonstration in her huge kitchen and post it here and become famous for our soup dumplings and end up on Good Morning America and Top Chef (ok, maybe that last part was more my vision than hers, but whatever).  Between the time we decided to try this (sometime last October) and the time we actually did it (sometime in April), I actually did get to try some dumplings, and even though they were prepackaged ones, they were tasty enough to get me hooked.  In the time since Michelle and I created our own version and now (let’s forget that two seasons have come and gone and that we’re well into a third), neither of us have tried the recipe again.  But we totally want you to, because it was yummy and fairly easy and totally impressive (and it wasn’t the bottle and a half of wine we drank while cooking that made us think that). 

We ended up using two recipes, one from Saveur and one from some random website I found when I googled “soup dumpling recipe.”  We like to believe that we are fairly good cooks (or in my case, a fairly good recipe follower), but we were stopped cold by the Saveur recipe, mainly because it made little sense to us, especially the first step of making gelatin out of pork skin.  What now?  Luckily, the second recipe said we could use gelatin packets, which we did.  The pork belly turned out to be the easiest of all of this, as Whole Foods had some on hand (call first) and I bet any big grocery store carries it (I was nervous about finding it, because it always seems so exclusive on menus, but there it was hanging out next to the pork loin).  Michelle found all of the other ingredients at a local Asian market and her grocery store and we decided to use pre-packaged wonton wrappers (they worked only ok.  They tore easily and we had to double wrap some of the dumplings, so we’d make our own next time [or how about you make some and tell us how it worked?]).

The other part of the recipe that we really didn’t get was where the soup part of the “soup dumplings” came in.  We knew that something would have to melt or dissolve and become a liquid, but we really couldn’t figure out what it was.  Michelle had the grand idea of freezing some soup first in a tiny star shaped ice cube tray (no particular reason for the stars, other than they were cute).   It wasn’t until we read the directions from the second recipe that we understood that it was the gelatin that would dissolve and give us our delicious soupiness (and maybe you all saw that one coming, but we–with 5 degrees between us–were completely bewildered).  We ended up doing two (ok, about 16) batches of dumplings, some with the frozen soup cubes and some with the gelatin.  The soup cubes were a lot faster, but the gelatin ones held together better.

If you’ve clicked on the Saveur link above (you can go ahead and do it now, I’ll wait), you’ve seen that the recipe has a lot of steps and as much as I’m committed to this whole blogging thing, I really don’t think you need me to retype it here.  But! I will give you our tweaks to each step in the recipe, so that you can run out, get the ingredients and impress your family or latest crush tonight…

1.  We are all for finding shortcuts to recipes to make the time between cooking and eating a little shorter.  We highly recommend using 2 packets of unflavored gelatin dissolved in 1-1/2 tablespoons of water and 1 tablespoon of soy sauce rather than all this crazy talk about boiling  and leaching pork skin. 

2.  We never really figured out why you needed to blanch the cabbage leaves, but we also didn’t figure out an alternative, so go ahead and do it.  We also didn’t have a bamboo steamer, so we used a colander (or the steam basket from a double pot) set over boiling water.

3.  This step is easy.  Go for it!

4.  This is the step where you break out the wine.  Really?  If you’re one of the people who just happens to have a meat grinder sitting in your kitchen, have me over; otherwise a food processor will do.


5.  We totally skipped this step and used premade wonton wrappers.  I think it would be worth trying to make your own wrappers, but make sure there is more wine somewhere.

6.  I highly recommend watching the little video that Saveur provides, because you think you know how to fold a dumpling (I mean, don’t we all think that?) until you read these directions and you realize that either you are illiterate or they make no sense.  We watched the video 3 days before we tried this, and ended up folding them any which way, but you aim high and do it right, ok?


7.  Don’t fall for the temptation of splitting one open to see if they are cooked, because all the soup will come out.  Not that we did that or anything.  Trust the timing directions here.  Totally worth the wait…


Food Challenge #2: Heidi’s Creamless Cream of Mushroom Soup

So the last couple of weeks in Chicago have been cold (which we know makes me very sad).  And I had a cold.  So the last thing I wanted to do was cook or think about cooking, but I also wanted some comfort food, because I felt incredibly sorry for myself.  I’d bought crimini mushrooms before I got sick, but mushrooms and cream and, frankly, the million and seven steps in Julia Child’s version of cream of mushroom soup did not fill me with any type of excitement or joy.  Like the previous challenge, I’ve never actually eaten cream of mushroom soup, aside from a little experiment that I did with chicken pot pie years ago.  The only canned soup we had when I was growing up was chicken noodle, and I’ve never had any desire to order cream of mushroom soup in a restaurant (and now that I think about it, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it listed… Is it not a favorite?).

Given how I felt, plus the fact that I am not a fan of cream based soups, I decided that I was going to make a creamless version of a soup I’ve never actually had a good version of.  Why do I do these kinds of things to myself? Why do I feel as though I actually know what I’m doing in a kitchen?? What is wrong with me??? 

The idea for the creamless soup actually came from a roommate I had senior year of college.  There were four of us living in a townhouse and we would take turns cooking, which really meant we would take turns warming up meals one woman’s mom would freeze for us or making ridiculously large bowls of spaghetti with gobs of butter and salt.  My three roommates were vegetarians, which was fine, but really limited what we could eat since none of us had the time or ability to cook anything tasty (let me be honest: they truly drove me insane, because they would say things like “I’m a vegetarian, is there meat in that?” as you handed them a glass of water.  I knew that it was a passing fancy (especially since somehow going to McDonald’s for happy meals did not register on the vegetarian radar), which made it 20 times more annoying when I had to use separate pans to make chicken.  I know for a fact that two of them now eat meat happily). 

I digress… We ate a lot of beans and pasta and rice and one roommate taught us to make creamless cream of broccoli soup.  We would boil frozen broccoli in some water until it was cooked through and then strain the liquid and add the broccoli to a blender with salt, pepper, nutmeg and a little of the liquid.  Instant creamy soup (with a touch of milk if we were feeling extravagant) and incredibly healthy and easy.  The same thing can be done with pumpkin or butternut squash soup, so I figured why not mushroom?  So I chopped up my mushrooms and sautéed them in some butter with shallots and thyme, added them to some chicken broth and eventually decided to thicken it a bit with a super easy version of béchamel sauce (a white sauce which is the base for a lot of other sauces).

And kids, it was fabulous!  No seriously, I don’t think I’ve been this happy about an experiment in a really long time (if ever).  It was smooth and creamy with nice bits of mushrooms for texture.  The flavor tasted like fall to me, maybe because of the thyme and shallots. The white wine I used to deglaze the pan with the mushrooms and shallots added a bit of richness to it and brought it all together.

The recipe is a bit of Joy of Cooking with a bit of what-do-I-feel-like-doing, so once you get the base, I’m sure it would be easy to change it up with different mushrooms (I’d actually bought shitake mushrooms to sauté and put on top, but I let them sit a bit too long before cooking them and they seemed a bit rubbery.  I’m not a fan of the earthy taste of porcini mushrooms, but I bet they’d work well, too). 

The soup was the perfect comfort food on a cold day when all I wanted was a good book and something warm to make me feel better.  Of course, I hope that when you make it you are healthy and happy, but keep a bit in the freezer just in case…

Update:  Heidi made the soup and contributed this lovely photo…


Creamless Cream of Mushroom Soup

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Pink Lentil Soup Fit for a Father-in-law

pink lentils (on the orange side of pink)

pink lentils (on the orange side of pink)

I started cooking Middle Eastern food about eight or nine years ago, around the same time I realized that I would be spending the rest of my life with an Israeli guy. Along with the Israeli husband, came a hard-to-please Israeli father-in-law with a voracious appetite for the Sephardic food he grew up eating. Nothing, it seemed, had enough spice for him. At restaurants, he was constantly requesting hot sauce, and when that failed, hotter sauce. When he visited us, he would bring hot peppers from his garden and spices from the Middle Eastern stores in New York—not-so-subtle hints that my cooking wasn’t quite up to Sephardic standards.

Almost a decade later, with the help of Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, I’ve become such a Middle Eastern food snob that I, too, have a hard time eating it at restaurants. Roden is a brilliant cook and an amazing teacher. Her cookbooks read like anthropologies and histories. She gives variations on each recipe, explaining how in Egypt they might add sumac instead of lemon or in Turkey they use cinnamon instead of cumin, empowering her devotees with enough confidence to experiment in the kitchen.

Her recipe for spiced creamy lentil soup (shorbet adds in Arabic) has become a standby in my house. It’s simple, spicy (but not hot!), and soothing. And, since it uses ingredients I almost always have on hand, I can whip up a batch when I have an empty fridge and don’t feel like going to the store.

Such was the case last week, when I served a hot bowl of this soup to my father-in-law, who arrived exhausted and hungry from a delayed New York flight. His eyes lit up with the first bite. “You know, you’re really starting to learn how to cook,” he said, which is as much a compliment anyone has ever gotten from him. Three days later, when we dropped him back off at the airport for his flight home, he gave me a hug and we said our goodbyes.  The soup, he said, was the highlight of his trip.

Recipe (from Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, with slight variations)

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 TB olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • pinch of ground chili pepper
  • 1¾ cups pink lentils (rinsed until the water runs clear)
  • Bunch of celery leaves or parsley leaves, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 or 3 bullion cubes, crushed (I prefer Telma brand, but any will do)
  • salt and pepper
  • juice of 1 lemon

To garnish:

  • 1 onion, sliced and cooked in olive oil until caramelized
  • Toasted wedges of pita bread
  • Lemon wedges

Heat up the olive oil in a pot. Add the onion, soften, then add garlic, cumin, coriander, and chili pepper, and stir. As the aroma arises, add the carrots and celery or parsley leaves.  Let those soften. (As tempting as it is, do not add salt at this point, as salt will prevent the lentils from softening.) Add the lentils and 2 quarts water and simmer for at least 45 minutes, until the lentils have disintegrated and the soup is creamy in texture. Crumble the chicken bullion in, add salt and pepper to taste, and garnish with caramelized onions, toasted pita bread, and lemon juice.


Sephardic New Year Soup

During Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people traditionally eat round foods to symbolize their hopes for a full, complete, well-rounded year to come. This soup marries two perfect round foods– chickpeas and pearl couscous. You may have seen pearl couscous (also sometimes known as Israeli couscous) in the store before and wandered what to do with it. Pearl couscous is much bigger than your standard granular couscous and has the shape and size of Trix cereal. It holds up wonderfully in soup and never gets that bloated, overcooked texture that other pastas can get in soup. The soup is warm, spicy, and fresh—perfect for not just the new year, but for any chilly fall night.

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 small leeks, cleaned well and chopped
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 handful of cilantro, chopped
  • 4 sprigs mint, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
  • 4 ripe tomatoes, diced or 1 16oz. can tomatoes, with liquid
  • 1 large cube Telma (an Israeli brand of bullion) or 1 tablespoon any other kind of chicken or vegetable bullion
  • 1 ½ cups chickpeas (drained from a can okay)
  • 1 cup pearl couscous (also called Israeli couscous)
  • ½ lemon

Heat one teaspoon of olive oil on medium-high heat in a heavy stockpot. Add the onions, leeks, and carrot and sauté until starting to caramelize. Add garlic, chopped cilantro, mint, cumin, coriander, and red pepper flakes (if using) and sauté until aroma begins to arise. Add tomatoes, bullion, 3 cups water, and chickpeas. Turn heat to high until it starts to boil. Add couscous, lower heat, and simmer until couscous is tender, about 12 minutes. Salt to taste. Serve piping hot, drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil.

Serves 6-8 as a first course or 4-6 as a light entrée.

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