Chicken noodle soup? In the summer? Really?
Am I pretty close to what you’re thinking? Well, as with most things in life, there’s a story to it.
When the world is an unsettled, unsettling place, I cook. Airplanes fall out of the sky. Four young boys’ day at the beach turns out to be the wrong beach. And it’s getting difficult to remember who’s at war with whom. Or why.
I can’t fix any of it. Hell, I can barely understand it. Cooking, on the other hand, makes sense to me. It organizes my thoughts, focuses them. It lets me feel productive in a small way. It is restorative.
And occasionally, a moment of sheer grace shines through the bleakness. A colleague with whom I work and his wife welcomed a beautiful little daughter a few days ago. A bunch of us were in the middle of a meeting the afternoon – timing being everything in this life – that they brought their sweet family in to share with us. While one of the little girls clambered up onto a dining room chair and proceeded to season her baby doll with salt and pepper, we cooed over the tiny baby and her gorgeous head of dark hair. The girls’ mom is a trouper; she had the baby on a Friday, and on Sunday was in church with all three girls. In heels. The mom, that is.
At some point, the reality of sleep deprivation will intrude on the the new-baby high. Remember hearing the well-intentioned, though utterly ridiculous advice to sleep when the baby sleeps? Good grief, when do people think dishes get washed; laundry, and lots of it, done and folded; dinner started? Sometimes even finished.
We could all use some soup.
Soup doesn’t really need a recipe. It just needs some ideas and ingredients. I was going for optimum comfort, ease, and nutrition. This one comes together fast, in about 40 minutes. It has tiny tender pasta for little mouths (I can so picture the little one who salted and peppered her dolly sliding them onto her fingertips!), vegetables for color and great flavor, beans and chicken, and relatively little in the way of onions and garlic – really, just enough for some flavor without passing on any more wakefulness than necessary to the sweet baby.
CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP
6 chicken thighs, skin on and bone in
Sea or kosher salt and pepper
6 carrots, peeled, cut into 1/4″ dice
6 stalks of celery, trimmed, 1/4″ dice
1 yellow onion, 1/4″ dice
2 cloves of garlic smashed, peeled, and minced
1 pound mushrooms, stems removed (save them for your stock bag), quartered
35-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes
25-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1 quart vegetable or chicken stock
2 zucchini squash, 1/4″ thick slices
2 yellow squash, 1/4″ thick slices
1 pound small pasta such as little elbows or ditalini
Get all your vegetables ready to go, as this comes together fast.
Film the bottom of a heavy-bottomed soup pot with olive oil, and warm it over medium heat. When it’s hot, the oil will shimmer, or “ribbon,” add the chicken pieces to the pot, skin-side down. Allow them to brown gently, then turn them over, about 5 minutes on each side. When the other sides are also gently browned, add the carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and mushrooms. Also add the can of tomatoes and their juices.
Cover the pot with a lid, reduce the heat to medium-low, and allow the vegetables to braise for about 10 minutes, until warmed through. When the vegetables have begun to soften, use tongs to remove the chicken thighs to a cutting board.
While they cool, add the beans and stock to the pot. Raise the heat, replace the lid, and allow the soup to come to a simmer.
When the chicken pieces have cooled a bit, remove the skin and discard it. Use your hands to pull the meat from the bones, then cut it into small pieces. Return them to the pot. Simmer the soup for about 15 minutes, until the carrots (the densest of the vegetables) are tender and the flavors come together.
While the soup simmers, cook the pasta in a separate pan. If you add it to the soup in its dry state, it will tend to absorb too much liquid from the soup and likely overcook as well. Read about how much water and how much salt to use here. Cook the pasta for 2 minutes less than the time indicated on the package. Drain it through a colander.
When the vegetables are done, add the zucchini and yellow squash to the soup. Also stir in the pasta. Cook the soup for 2 minutes more. Last, season to taste with salt and pepper.
A beautiful, bright, summertime soup in under a hour. You needn’t necessarily wait for someone to have a baby to try it.
Weekday breakfasts need to be quick. For me, that usually means a smoothie of some sort. And while I love smoothies and also love greens, friends, I cannot do green smoothies. I just can’t. But that doesn’t stop me from incorporating greens into breakfast. And a fast one at that.
I’m fond of a blend of 5: baby bok choy, chard, spinach, arugula, and endive. Use whatever makes you happiest. Drop a handful in the center of a plate. Drizzle it with some olive oil, then season with sea salt.
Bring about 12 ounces of water to a simmer. Not a boil; that’s too aggressive. A simmer. Add a pinch of salt. It will keep the whites from going all spidery when they hit the water. Gently crack an egg or two into the water. Let them cook for 2 to three minutes until the whites have set, but the yolks are still blissfully tender. Lift them out carefully with a slotted spoon, allowing water to drain away, and slip each onto your bed of greens. Sprinkle a bit of sea salt over them, along with some grinds of pepper.
Start to finish, including eating, about 10 minutes. A welcome change from smoothies. And I didn’t have to wash the damn blender.
To clean up, set your plate in the sink, pour the hot poaching water over it to rinse it, set the pan in the sink, and head out the door. Go, be on your way. You’ve got things to do, places to go, people to see. The dishes will be waiting for you when you get home. Mine always are.
I know, by the calendar it’s Friday. But my workweek being what it is, this is technically my Thursday. So it’s still a school night. Confused? So am I. I’ve been out of town on business for a couple of days, so I could roll dice and get about as close to what day of the week it actually is. While away, I ate happily and wonderfully, but I am so craving a dinner of my very own making. Some crisp/tender textures, bright flavors.
My local market sells frozen 4-ounce pieces of Ahi tuna for about $3.00. They aren’t consistently available, so when I find them, I pick up a handful and stash them in the freezer. They’re interestingly-shaped, clearly pieces of trim, but heck, both the price and the portion are perfect for my budget and my appetite.
When I was cleaning the freezer before I left, I happened upon one that I didn’t realize was there. After the long, cold, snowy siege that winter was, it’s finally safe to serve salad for dinner on a night when I desperately long for one. Oh, happy day.
SEARED AHI TUNA SALAD
I assembled the ingredients for the salad quite literally by strolling around the produce department of our brand new Lucky’s Market. I knew I wanted some sort of cabbage for the base, and thought that a tender savoy would be perfect – a nice crunch, but not too much so, given the extremely tender nature of seared ahi. I also knew I wanted both a marinade and a salad dressing that leaned in an Asian direction and when I saw a basket full of beautiful Mexican papayas (they’re a manageable size, as opposed to football-sized Hawaiian papayas), I realized right away that I had the dressing’s base – not too sweet, and with a marvelous, silken texture. Right nearby was a basket of star fruit, which I utterly love.
The fruit of a tree which has long been cultivated throughout Southeast Asia, it’s crisp and tart, and I thought would make a perfect garnish to offset the slightly sweet papaya and tender ahi. And when I saw that limes were a sane price of three for a dollar, I bagged some and headed for the check stand. Everything else I had in mind was waiting for me at home.
MARINADE FOR THE AHI
1 or 2 ahi tuna steaks, about 4 ounces each
2 ounces sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon unseasoned (meaning unsweetened) rice vinegar
Juice of 1/2 lime
2 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1/2 teaspoon Sambal Olek (chili paste)
Whisk together all the marinade ingredients and pour them into a shallow, flat-bottomed baking dish. Lay the ahi steaks in the marinade and cover it with plastic.
Let them sit at room temperature while you prepare the salad and dressing. Turn them over now and then.
Makes about 2 cups
1/2 of a Mexican papaya
4 ounces sesame oil
2 ounces unseasoned rice vinegar
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon Sambal Olek
Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
Cut the papaya in half and scoop out the seeds.
Use a peeler or a paring knife to remove the skin. Dice the papaya into 1/2″ cubes and place them in the bowl of a food processor or a blender. Add the remaining ingredients, except for salt and pepper. Purée until smooth. Taste, and season with salt and pepper.
Save the other half of the papaya and add it to your morning smoothie.
FOR THE SALAD
Makes enough for 1 or 2 dinners, plus leftovers for luscious lunches
4 ounces thin rice noodles (Maifun)
1/2 head of savoy cabbage
1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt and several grinds of pepper
1/2 red onion
Handful of snow peas
Slices of star fruit – I used 3
Rice noodles make me happy. I can’t fully explain why. Maybe it’s their silky texture, or the way they carry other flavors so beautifully. Hot or cold, they make me happy either way. But most especially in a salad. Open an 8-ounce package and pull off about half of the noodles. Place them in a large bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover. Set a plate over the bowl to retain the heat. Let them sit for about 10 minutes. There. That’s all the cooking they need. When tender, drain them through a colander, rinse them under cold water to cool them, and use scissors to snip them into more user-friendly pieces.
Let them continue to drain while you prepare the cabbage.
Peel away the outer leaves of the cabbage and cut it in half through the stem. Trim out the core.
Cut the half in half, from top to bottom, then slice the halves as thinly as you can, not more than 1/4″ thick. Place the cabbage in a large bowl along with the rice noodles. Add the salt and pepper and the dressing. Use tongs to toss the everything so that the dressing is well distributed. Let sit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. This will tenderize the cabbage some, and allow the rice noodles to absorb wonderful flavors.
Cut the red onion in half and peel it. Cut in half the long way again, then also slice it as thin as you can.
Add it to the cabbage, but don’t mix it in yet.
Slice the snow peas about 1/4″ thick and add them to the salad.
Now you can toss everything together.
Cut a few slices of star fruit. Dice them into 1/4″ pieces.
Leave them on your cutting board until you are ready to serve the salad.
TO SEAR THE AHI
Set a skillet or a ridged grill pan over medium heat. Add enough sesame oil to cover the bottom. If you are using a grill pan, brush it with sesame oil.
Remove the ahi steaks from the marinade and set them on paper towels to drain a bit while the pan warms. Turn them over once.
When the pan is warm, the oil with shimmer, or “ribbon.” At than point, gently add the steaks to the pan. Season the top with salt and pepper. Watch them closely. When you can just begin to see a band of white forming around the bottom, use a metal spatula to carefully turn them over. Season the now top side with salt and pepper. Again watch them, and when you begin to see a while line forming around the bottom, remove the steaks to a plate and let them rest while you serve up the salad.
TO SERVE THE SALAD
Divide the salad between plates. Remove the ahi steaks to a cutting board and carefully slice them into strips 1/4″ thick. Arrange them over the salad. Garnish with the diced star fruit and serve with a wedge of lime.
Alternatively, if you are preparing this for yourself alone, just think how magnificent tomorrow’s lunch is going to be.
There are abundant variations on this pasta sauce, but the two ingredients on which all agree is garlic (aglio in Italian, with a silent “g”) and plenty of it, and don’t stint on the red pepper flakes. Beyond that, to mince or thinly slice the garlic, to brown it in the (also abundant) olive oil or not, and to add or not to add tomato sauce, all appear to be a matter of one’s own preferences. Parmesan? That’s up to you, too.
I made a large batch because I want leftovers for lunch during what is going to be another pedal-to-the-metal week. At work, I really try to leave the kitchen and actually sit down to eat lunch. Even if for no more than 15 minutes, to sit and enjoy something of my own from home while reading a few pages of a book is downright restorative. And comfort doesn’t get any better for me than garlic, tomatoes, and pasta.
The dish is traditionally known as Pici all’Aglione. It comes from around Montepulciano, in Siena, which is south and east of Florence a bit, almost in the exact center of Italy. Some of my most favorite red wines are produced in the same area. Che coincidenza.
I digress. Pici is a long, thin, hand-rolled pasta, somewhat like a thicker, rustic version of spaghetti. It’s lots of fun to start with a small knot of dough and roll it back and forth beneath one’s palms on a board as it miraculously lengthens and grows thinner. The long pieces are then coiled up on a baking sheet sprinkled with semolina flour until it’s time to cook them. While making it is a great way to spend a weekend evening, this is a school night, and hand-made pasta is not happening. That said, the bold sauce needs a substantial pasta to stand up to it. I decided to use fettuccine.
Serves 4, or fewer with leftovers
12 ounces fettuccine (3/4 of a package)
10 cloves of garlic, minced, but not too finely
6 ounces good extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
15-ounce can of good-quality tomato sauce
Sea or kosher salt to taste
1. Begin heating water to cook the pasta. For how much water and how much salt to add, see here.
2. Open the can of tomato sauce. Pour the olive oil into a saucepan ( a decent, heavy-bottomed one is good) and warm it over medium heat. When it is hot, it will “shimmer,” or “ribbon.” Add the garlic and a generous half-teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Stir it about as it cooks, and do not let it brown. I find garlic takes on a bitter taste if it does. Once it is very fragrant, stir in the tomato sauce. Reduce the heat to a simmer and set a lid on the pan, but leave it cracked about an inch. Let the sauce reduce and thicken for about 20 minutes.
3. When the sauce is 10 minutes away from being done, drop the pasta into boiling water. Fettuccine has a cook time of about 12 minutes. Set a timer for 10 minutes, as the pasta will finish cooking in the sauce. Stir the pasta as it cooks so that it doesn’t stick together or to the bottom of the pot. Set a colander in the sink. When the timer goes off, dip out about 8 ounces of cooking water and pour it into the sauce. The starchy water, in combination with the olive oil in the sauce, is going to give the sauce a heavenly silkiness once stirred into the pasta.
4. Strain the pasta through the colander, then return it to the pot.
5. Stir the pasta water into the sauce, taste it, then season it to taste with salt and pepper. Pour it into the pot of pasta and return the pot to medium-low heat. Use tongs to combine pasta and sauce. Bring to a simmer and cook for a couple of more minutes.
5. Serve the pasta into bowls and pass a wedge of good Parmesan around with a grater. You’ll be glad you did.
Okay, it was all silky and spicy and more dente than al, just the way I like it. Deliziosa. Still and all, I’m quietly ecstatic over the leftovers. And Georgeanne Brennan’s memoir, A Pig in Provence that I’ve downloaded. I see some sweet lunches on the horizon. Starting with tomorrow.
I love Monday holidays. It’s like we’ve been given a second Sunday. I’ll spend the rest of the week wondering what day it actually is, but that’s a small price to pay.
We seem to feel honor bound to grill something on Memorial Day. Neighbors on the next block celebrated last evening with a huge backyard gathering. I passed by a couple of times on my way to and from the market. If one more person had crowded into the yard, I suspect the fences would have exploded. There were games set up for kids. The littlest ones rode around on fathers’ shoulders. Music played, but not obtrusively. A passel of good dogs gleaned morsels dropped from tables groaning with food. When the cooking started, heavenly smells drifted all the way into my own kitchen.
Meanwhile back at the market, I had grilling on my mind. I don’t eat a lot of meat, especially beef, so when I get a craving, I’m willing to splurge on the really good stuff. To me, that means grass-fed. I know a couple of ranchers not far from here who raise grass-fed stock. I love, love, love that in purchasing their products, I’m supporting families who raise it. Not only is it leaner than grain-fed beef, it also has a a significantly better balance of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 3s are the good ones.
And then there’s the fact that it tastes out of this world. I didn’t set out to prepare an entire dinner on the grill, but once I’d picked out my steak, one thing let to another. I found some pretty little organic potatoes, and the asparagus display looked like a gorgeous floral arrangement. Irresistible.
First, build a fire or light your grill. I grill over charcoal, so while the coals are burning down, take the steak from the refrigerator, unwrap it, and salt it on both sides. I leave it at room temp with the wrapping paper draped back over it. By bringing it to room temp before grilling it, the steak is not going to be as shocked by heat as if it were cold. Therefore, the cells aren’t going to tighten up and squeeze juices out of the meat and into the fire where they don’t do anyone any good. Too, by salting in advance, the salt has time to dissolve and be absorbed into the cells of the meat. Salt has a great affinity for water. by allowing the meat to absorb salt, water is retained within the cells. A juicier, more tender steak (or burger) results.
Preheat your oven to 225 degrees. Pepper the steak on both sides just before grilling it. You’re going to use the grill to sear both sides of the steak, not to cook it to the actual doneness you want. Allowing the steak to finish cooking gently in the oven is another step on the path to a tender, perfectly done piece of meat.
I had bundles of fresh herbs leftover from a hat-decorating project a few days ago – don’t ask – and just yesterday I came across a photo from Bon Appétit that veritably spoke right up and told me this lily deserves some gilding.
I’ll toss a couple of spears of rosemary and some of the fresh bay leaves right onto the fire because, well, why not? They’re going to kiss the steak and asparagus with a heavenly smokiness. More will go into a skillet, along with a few peppercorns, slices of shallot, and some olive oil, creating a fragrant bed on which the steak will rest in the oven after it comes off the fire.
While the steak was salting itself and the fire burning down, I got the potatoes ready for the grill. I diced the little beauties, then put them into a bowl along with a handful of Kalamata olives, slices of shallot, and some crumbles of good, Greek Feta cheese. I tossed it all together with some olive oil, then added salt and pepper, some of those fragrant rosemary leaves, a fresh bay leaf, a strip of lemon zest, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. I spooned it out onto a double thickness of foil, folded a good seal over the top and ends, and set the packet aside so the flavors could marry for a while.
The asparagus received a simple treatment: olive oil, salt, and pepper. I grilled it all, every single spear. Because grilled asparagus is one great reasons for the existence of summer.
GRILLED STEAK ON A BED OF AROMATICS
1 New York steak is enough for me, with a portion left over to add to a salad for lunch the next day
Fresh herbs – I used rosemary and bay leaves because they were what I had on hand. Thyme would be lovely, as would marjoram, even some sage.
1 large or 2 small shallots
A dozen peppercorns
1 ounce olive oil
Sea or kosher salt and pepper
Bring the steak to room temperature and salt it as discussed above. Preheat your oven to 225 degrees.
Pour the olive oil into a skillet with an oven-proof handle. Add your blend of aromatics and toss them all about with your hands.
When the fire is ready, spread the coals out into an even layer. Set the steak on the grate. Leave the grill open after about 2 minutes, lift it and turn it 45 degrees. This is called “marking,” and will give you that lovely cross-hatched pattern. After 2 more minutes, turn the steak over and grill it for 3 minutes longer. Remove the steak and place it on the bed of aromatics and put it in the oven. Allow it to finish to your desired degree of doneness, about 10 minutes for medium rare.
GREEK-STYLE POTATO PACKETS
Makes 2 packets
4 red or yellow potatoes
1 large or 2 small shallots
1 dozen Kalamata olives, pitted
2 ounces Feta cheese, crumbled
2 strips of lemon zest
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
2 small fresh bay leaves
4 ounces olive oil
Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Toss all the ingredients together in a bowl. Lay out 2 sheets of aluminum foil, about 12″ x 18″. Fold them in half so you have a double thickness which will be sturdy on the grill. Divide the ingredients between them. Curl the edges of the foil if you need to, so the olive oil doesn’t run off. Bring the short edges together and fold them down to the level of the potatoes. Roll the ends up.
Place the packets on the grill when you set the steak on it. Once the steak is transferred to the oven, close the grill and damp down the top and bottom vents about halfway. Continue grilling the potatoes for 10 to 15 more minutes, until the potatoes feel tender when poked through the foil with a knife.
If the potatoes are done before the steak is, set the packets in the oven to keep them warm.
Go ahead and grill it all. Grilled asparagus in the refrigerator is almost as good as money in the bank. Maybe better.
I trim asparagus with a knife by cutting the spears about 2″ from the ends. Put the ends in your stock bag.
Lay the spears in a shallow baking dish. Drizzle them with enough olive oil to coat each spear and toss them about with your hands. Finish them off with some salt and pepper.
Once the steak and the potato packets have been removed from the grill, arrange the spears on the grill perpendicular to the bars on the grate. Use tongs to roll them around as they cook. They should cook in about 5 to 7 minutes, but if your fire has burned down, simply close the lid again. Remove the spears before they are done all the way to the middle.
To serve, open one of the potato packets and scoop its contents onto a plate. Slice your steak into 1/4″ thick pieces and arrange them over the potatoes. Lift some asparagus into place.
A feast fit for someone you love. Even if the someone is you. Perhaps especially so.
When we were a young family, I raised a great garden every summer in Northern California. One of the crops was peas. If you’ve never grown peas, you have not experienced abundance. Think rabbits. Literally.
The peas grew faster and produced more than we could possibly consume, so the bulk of them were fed daily to the son and the daughter’s rabbits. When each of them – the children – was five years old, I got them a baby bunny from a friend who raised them. They came to us about five inches long, and ended up as huge creatures much larger than our cats. Who they loved to chase when they escaped from their cage, a gorgeous two-story structure that my husband built for them, complete with storage space for a bale of hay in the “basement.”
I digress. The other day I was over at our brand new Lucky’s Market. Never has a grocery store been better named. We feel extraordinarily fortunate that it has come to our city. Its produce department about brings me to my knees every time I walk into it.
At any rate, as I cased the joint, I came across a bin of English peas. In their pods! I instantly thought of the two dwarf bunnies of my own (sisters, Pearl is all black with a white spot between her eyes, and Panda, black and white like as, well, you know) and how they would love the hulls once I’d split and emptied them so as to prepare something for dinner.
Something fast because this week, as Bevi says, is like a march to the salt mines. Wearing a blindfold.
Here’s the something.
ORECHIETTE WITH FRESH PEAS, LEMON, AND GREEK YOGURT
Serves 2, or 1 with lucky-you leftovers
A common version of this is made with cream. I’m looking for something a little lighter, and lemon brings the yogurt and peas together in a divine trinity.
1/2 pound orechiette
2 ounces olive oil
12 ounces of English peas in the pod
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
8 ounces Greek-style yogurt
Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
Fresh chives for garnish
This comes together fast, so get all your tools and ingredients together from the start.
1. Set a pot of water on to boil to cook the pasta. For a quick primer on how much water and how much salt to add to it, take a look here.
2. Hull the peas. If you have rabbits or chickens, feed the hulls to some happy creatures. Alternatively, add them to the trimmings and stems in your stock bag and let them flavor a fragrant batch of vegetable stock at the end of the week. Last ditch: compost them!
My 12-ounce bag of pea pods yielded about a cup of little green beauties.
3. Why orechiette? Italian for “little ears,” they’re not much larger than the peas, with a lovely little indentation that will cradle them so gently. Because this week is, have I mentioned, a march to the salt mines. I need gentleness wherever I can find it.
4. Once the pasta water has come to a boil, add the orechiette. I am partial to those made by DeCecco*, which cook true to package directions, yielding the perfect combination of tenderness and al dente “toothiness.” They have a cook time of about 10 minutes. Set a timer for two minutes less than the cook time on the package. After 3 minutes have elapsed, over medium heat, warm the olive oil in a skillet or other pot large enough to contain the pasta as well. Add the peas. They’re spattery, so cover the pot to control the mess and also steam them in their own juices. Just before the timer goes off, add the garlic to the peas and sauté it until fragrant. When the timer sounds, scoop a ladle of pasta water into the pot containing the peas. Drain the pasta through a colander. Once drained, add it to the peas. Stir in the Greek yogurt and lemon juice. Allow it all to cook for 2 more minutes. Taste it, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
* CeCecco does not furnish me with products, nor do they compensate me in any way.
6. Spoon the pasta into bowls. Shave some Parmesan over the top. I hope you have a pot of chives growing on the windowsill. Cut some, and use scissors to snip them over the bowls. Taste the symphony.