Zhen Kailian Won Ton Soup: A Forty Day Invention Test, Episode Six

Last Wednesday, I woke up with a bit of a throat. Nothing big, just one of those fizzy, back of the throat tickles that could be allergies or could be the beginning of a cold. The kind of sore throat that makes you crave chicken noodle soup, or a vegetarian equivalent. Fortunately, I had some homemade, Saturday morning after the Market vegetable broth in the freezer. IMG_0249That could stand in for chicken stock, but what about the noodles?  That’s when I hit upon won tons. I’d had dumplings on the brain since I made pot stickers for Chinese New Year. Some yummy won tons in a slightly Asian-ised vegetable broth with a few fresh veggies and lots of tummy-settling ginger would satisfy my desire for throat-and-soul-soothing, brothy soup while constituting a sufficiently hearty meal for my hardworking sweetie.

What, you might ask, qualifies me — an ageing white chick from the Deep South of the US living in New Zealand — to improvise Chinese soup? Well, first of all, I had a poster of Mao Zedong tacked to the ceiling over my bed throughout my teenage years. Why, you ask? Probably for the same reason I wore a dog collar all through High School: to annoy my parents, to get attention without actually DOING anything. My rebellion was pretty wimpy. I also own and have actually read The Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, relics of my Ph.D. studies.Mao

Second, I took — and survived — two semesters of Chinese History at the University of Georgia. The professor, Dr. Thomas Ganschow, was recognised as one of the very best teachers at the University of Georgia. He was also renowned for his marathon exams, the undergraduate equivalent of the Mandarin Eight-Legged Essays, for which the questions were sort of : write down all human knowledge. Be specific and include dates. Tom was the main reason I finally realised resistance was futile: I would be an historian. He also launched me on my lifelong quest to understand how other cultures work. My Dad continued to hold out for accounting in the hope that I might, someday, be gainfully employed.

Tom and his lovely Taiwanese bride, Lisa, became good family friends over the years. Lisa was the manager of the Athens Area Community Food Bank, where my mother volunteered as a board member and Thank You Note writer. Really, everyone who donated food or money to the Food Bank got a handwritten Thank You from my Mum. The Thank You Note is a lost art, leaving the world a less gracious place. Lisa is also a fabulous cook. Before my first wedding, some of Mum’s friends threw me a Recipe Shower. Lisa gave me her recipe for Chinese Egg Rolls. I cherished it. I still have it. In fact, I think I will dig it out and work on a vegetarian version. Watch this space!

I have been to China twice, both times for work. Because I was not allowed to take any technology — no smart phone, no laptop — into China, I actually got out and did things instead of staying in my hotel catching up on work, which was too often what I ended up doing on work trips. On my first trip I visited the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and met Helmut Kohl, despite my falling victim to fairly paralysing food poisoning. I was at the Great Wall on the hottest day in human history. It was 114F/45C. Honestly! I was the only person insane enough to be up there in such weather. It was so hot my hair turned bright orange! Between sweat and food poisoning, I lost about 5 kilos on that trip!

On my second trip, I had the unique “pleasure” of being stuck in a parked aircraft on the ground while Beijing had a rare, early November blizzard. The snow plows were still in dry dock. But the snow did, temporarily, sweep away Beijing’s legendary air pollution, so I woke up the next morning to the truly once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of Beijing under clear, sparkling blue skies!

My adopted Elder Sister, Kongdan Oh Hassig, a Korean China expert and linguistic whiz kid, gave me a Chinese name for my 50th birthday. Zhen Kailian means “triumph” and “lotus flower.” CCI22032016I love that. Triumph means so much to me, given my lifelong war of attrition with depression and anxiety. And the lotus flower symbolises, according to buddhist.org, “rising and blooming above the murk to achieve enlightenment.” My next tattoo will be a lotus flower.

Note to Katy: my reputation is in your hands. If Zhen Kailian actually means “Old Lady with Baggy Knickers,” it’s on you!

Katy and I traveled together a lot. She is fearless and up for just about anything. Sadly, we have never been to China together, although we did drink civet poop coffee in Bali.299900_10150433922303410_1665493123_n

Finally, some of the most interesting foods I find at the Riverbank Farmers’ Market are Asian: the beautiful Asian greens, giant daikons, strange and wonderful bitter melons, snake beans, and snow peas. Then there is the Thai herb lady who sells all kinds of Asian flavour makers: Thai basil, lemongrass, galangal, and turmeric root. And the Chinese gentleman with his handmade tofu and fresh Chinese noodles.IMG_1267

And last but not least, the “I Love Dumplings” ladies serve up the most delicious vegan potstickers ever.  My last stop every Saturday morning is at their stall, where I buy a dozen dumplings for $5. Sometimes they are so busy, I have to wait. And I do. Because the dumplings are just that good. Simon and I arm-wrestle for them for the rest of the day. I could get 25 dumplings for $10. Every week I consider this option, only to conclude that there can be too much of a good thing. But I don’t believe that. Some Saturday in the future, I’ll probably give in to temptation. But not this week. Their dumplings provided the inspiration for my won tons.

So, armed with these questionable qualifications, I set out to invent a delicious and healing won ton soup that would be 1) edible, 2) not insulting to Chinese cuisine, and 3) worthy of the name Zhen Kailian. What I came up with was pretty darned tasty, if I may say so myself.

Zhen Kailian Won Ton Soup

Ingredients: For the Won Tons

200g / 7 oz extra firm tofu

1/2 small napa cabbage, finely chopped, (about 1 lb / 450g)

1 TBSP grated fresh ginger

3 shallots, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced or put through a press

1/2 0z / 15 g dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in 1 cup / 700 ml) boiling water

2 TBSP / 3 ml white sesame seeds

2 TBSP / 3ml soy sauce

24 fresh wonton or gyoza wrappers

1 egg white, beaten to soft peak stage (optional)

For the Broth:

6 cups / 1 1/2 liters vegetable broth, preferably homemade, definitely low-salt

2 pieces dried kombu (optional, but nice)

a thumb-sized bulb of fresh ginger

2 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half

leftover mushroom soaking water

2 glugs (about 1/4c / 60ml) low-sodium soy sauce

1 glug (about a TBSP) toasted sesame oil

For the Soup:

Broth

1 large carrot, thinly sliced on the diagonal

1 stalk celery, also thinly sliced on the diagonal

a handful of greens, I used thin ribbons of kale, but baby bok choy would be nice, too

Steamed Jasmine Rice, optional

thinly sliced scallions for garnish

Let’s Make Soup:

Set the broth on to simmer at very low heat with the kombu, ginger, garlic and mushroom water. Give it at least 30 mins, but an hour plus would be OK, too.

To make the wonton filling:

  1. Toss the finely grated cabbage with some salt (a big pinch) in a colander and let sit for  an hour or so to drain. If you are careful with the salt, you shouldn’t need to rinse the cabbage, but taste it just in case, to ensure that it isn’t too salty.IMG_0372.jpg
  2. Squeeze out as much liquid from the cabbage as you can, then roll it up in a tea towel and squeeze out even more. The cabbage should be really dry. IMG_0376
  3. Drain and finely chop the mushrooms.IMG_0375
  4. Chop the scallions and garlic and grate the ginger.
  5. Either dice the tofu (I used sesame marinated tofu) or chop it in a food processor.IMG_0373
  6. Heat about a tablespoon of neutral oil, preferably peanut oil, in a medium skillet and sauté the shallots until they are getting brown and crispy.IMG_0374
  7. Add the garlic, ginger, and chopped mushrooms and sauté for a couple of minutes.
  8. Then, add the diced/chopped tofu and sauté until it starts to get brown and crispy.
  9. Add the cabbage and sauté until it is wilted and dry.
  10. Take the filling off the heat and add the soy sauce and sesame seeds.
  11. When the filling is cool, fold in the beaten egg white. If you want your won tons to be vegan, you can leave this out. The egg white sort of puffs up when the won tons cook, so they are fluffy, but this is a purely aesthetic thing. If you don’t mind dumpy dumplings, leave out the eggs!IMG_0378
  12. Lay out your dumpling wrappers. Put a generous tablespoon of filling on each one, then brush the edges with water to seal them.IMG_0380
  13. You have a choice of dumpling shapes: if you have square wrappers, you can make flat triangles (just fold them over once and seal), “nurses caps” (pull the two tips of the triangle on the folded edge together and seal, or “purses” (dampen all four sides, bring them together and twist to seal). If you have round wrappers and you are a showoff, you can make pleated dumplings. I didn’t have round wrappers, so I couldn’t make those. Which shape you chose is just a matter of personal preference. Simon and I were divided. He preferred the purses. I thought the bunchy part was a bit too stodgy. I preferred the nurses caps. The flat triangles turned out to be a bit tricky to eat.IMG_0379

Now, put it all together!

  1. Bring your yummy broth to a simmer and add the sliced carrots, celery, greens. Let them simmer for a couple of minutes, add the soy sauce and sesame oil, then
  2. Add your won tons — yes, you are going to cook them right in the broth. Let them simmer for 2-3 minutes.IMG_0381
  3. If this is dinner, you can bulk things up a bit by putting a scoop of jasmine rice in the bowl. This also adds a little textural interest. IMG_0382
  4. Lay the cooked wontons on the rice, then ladle over the broth and vegetables.IMG_0383
  5. You can garnish the whole thing with some thinly-sliced scallions and/or bean sprouts.IMG_0384

 

Not-Quite-Tanta’s Peach Kuchen: A Forty Day Invention Test, Episode Two


“A Georgia peach, a real Georgia peach, a backyard great-grandmother’s orchard peach, is as thickly furred as a sweater, and so fluent and sweet that once you bite through the flannel, it brings tears to your eyes.”

Melissa Fay Greene, ‘Praying for Sheetrock’

I grew up in the Peach State.  I’ve lived many places, but in my heart, I will always be a “funny talkin’ honky-tonkin’ Georgia Peach.” Georgia is no longer the United States’ top peach producer, but it still has the best peaches. My High School sweetheart was somehow related to the owners of the local orchard, Thomas’ in the thriving metropolis of Bishop, Georgia. He could get us in early, before they opened to the general public and — more importantly in Georgia in July — before the temperature and humidity rose into the mid-80s.  Still, peach picking was hot, humid work. After an hour or two Thomas’, I’d be sweaty, thirsty, sticky and covered with peach fuzz and the occasional bee sting. But nothing can match the joy of standing on a step ladder in the middle of a peach orchard and biting into a warm, perfectly tree-ripened peach.

Peaches are my absolute, all-time favourite fruit. I came by my love of peaches early. Long before we moved to Georgia. You see, my Great Aunt, Tanta Ida, made the absolutely most delicious peach coffee cake ever.

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Tanta Ida (2nd from the left) with Dad, Mum, Grandma, Janice, Grandpa, and the budgie (circa 1955)

My Aunties tell me she would make huge pans of küchen for all the various boyfriends who visited the foxy Saltenberger girls over the years. She made some for my Dad when we visited Eagle River every summer, and I happily embraced the peachy deliciousness windfall. [The family lore says Dad hated Eagle River — he didn’t — because he was bored without any libraries to hand. I think it was more a matter of vanity: people were constantly feeding him and, as you can see in this vintage photo, he got a bit chubby. And then there were Grandpa’s Scotch and Root Beers.]

All my life, I’ve tried to find that special peach deliciousness. A few weeks ago, while I was going through some of Mum’s old recipes, I found a very old, stained recipe for Tanta’s Peach Küchen. Joy! My next invention test was born.

New Zealand produces peaches. They are tasty, but they are delicate wee things. In the effort to minimise the fuzz, the varieties of peaches they grow here have very thin skins. It’s almost impossible to get them home from the market unscathed. Fortunately, the nectarines are fairly robust. Peaches have fuzz to protect the fruit from water and keep it from rotting. It’s like a little peach raincoat. Nectarines are just peaches without their raincoats. As far as this recipe is concerned, they are interchangeable.

I was, however, determined to work with the real thing. Tanta didn’t use nectarines, so I wouldn’t either. As it turns out, getting the peaches home safely was only the first of my challenges. When I started this Lenten journey of recipe invention, I said I would share the successes as well as the less-then-successes. In this case, there were a couple of false starts before I finally settled on formula that works.

The challenge, in this case, was translating a shorthand recipe from another era on another continent into something that I could recreate in my kitchen in New Zealand. The directions were fairly general, but, obviously, 3 cakes of yeast and 7 1/2 cups (1,065g) of flour was going to make one honking big cake.  But how big? “Spread in pan (greased well)” wasn’t much help. And what is the modern, dry yeast equivalent of 3 cakes of yeast?DSC_0787

For some help, I turned to my trusty copy of The Food Substitutions Bible (see “The Third Cookbook of Christmas”). It suggested that one cake of fresh yeast is equivalent to one package, or 2 1/4 tsp (8g) of active dry yeast. Great. That means I would need over 2 Tablespoons (24g) of yeast for 7 1/2 cups of flour! Argh! An oven explosion was sure to ensue.

I decided I would cut the recipe by a third(ish), since there was only me and Simon to eat it, so I trusted my baking experience and estimated how much yeast I would need. So, for 4 cups (568g) of flour, I would use the equivalent of one package of dry yeast, 2 1/4 tsp (8g). And 3 tsp of salt seemed like an awful lot, so I cut that back to 1 tsp.

The next hurdle was the liquid. Tanta, at least before my Grandfather burned the farm down (long story for another post), would have used whole, raw milk and eggs straight from the chicken. My concern was that our supermarket milk, even whole milk, might lack the right balance of fat and natural sugar. We don’t buy whole milk, but I keep a bag of New Zealand’s #1 export commodity, whole milk powder, on hand for baking. That’s what I ended up using.

I reckon the butter we get here in New Zealand is probably closer to what Tanta would have had than the processed butter we used to get in the States. The fresh (unsalted) butter here is incredibly dense, with very little added water. So no worries there.

Her farm eggs were probably as unpredictable as our farm eggs, so I held back one of the yolks, just in case everything ended up too gooey. It didn’t and I ended up using the whole egg.

The biggest question mark turned out to be the fruit-to-cake ratio. The recipe just says “arrange the peach slices on the dough.” How many peach slices? How many peaches?

In the end, I decided, the first time around, to base the number of peaches on the size of the cake. I guessed that Tanta would have made her küchen in a lasagne-sized pan (9×13 inches). I had inherited a marvellous lasagne-sized pan from the farm that Mum told me was Grandma’s coffee cake pan. Coffee Cake? Küchen? Same pan? I decided to use my 8×8 inch glass cake pan. Based on the reduced amount of dough I had, it seemed a reasonable assumption.

Tanta’s recipe called for 3 cups of sugar and 4 1/2 tsp of cinnamon for the topping. Yikes! Another hint that she was making big, sheet cakes. I cut that back to 1/2 cup (100g) sugar and 1 tsp of cinnamon — you can always add more if you like your streusel really cinnamony.

So, my first effort was OK, but not right. Why? It came down to two miscalculations: too much yeast, not enough pan. So my first küchen rose too much and threw most of the fruit and topping out of the pan and on to the pizza stone that lives at the bottom of my oven. Smelly burning sugar mess.

The good news is that two weeks later I tried again, adjusting the yeast, using a larger pan, and, just to put my own spin on things, adding oatmeal and brown sugar to Tanta’s sugar-butter-flour-cinnamon topping. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the final result.

Not-Quite-Tanta’s Peach Küchen

DSC_0778

 

This is not an extravagantly sweet coffee cake. It is an old-fashioned, gather around the kitchen table for elevenses coffee cake. You can eat this for breakfast and not feel guilty. After all, it’s basically peaches and oatmeal. Right? My theory is that my Tanta and Grandmother developed their recipes during the Great Depression, when money was scarce, especially on farms, and the sweetness in food came, as much as possible, from the natural sugars in the milk and fruit.

Ingredients:

1 cup (250ml) whole milk (reconstituted dry works well)

1/3 cup (65g) granulated sugar

6 TBSP (85g) unsalted butter

1 1/2 tsp (7ml) active dry yeast (NOT quick rise or bread machine yeast)

2 large eggs

4 cups (568g) all-purpose / standard grade flour

1 tsp (5ml) kosher or sea salt

Topping:

7 peaches (or more, if you like)

Juice of 1 lemon

3 TBSP brown sugar

1/2 cup (100g)2 granulated sugar

1/3 cup (70g) standard grade flour

1/3 cup rolled oats

2 TBSP butter, melted

1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Butter a 9 x 13 pan. To make removing the cake from the pan easier, you can line the bottom and two sides with parchment to form a sort of sling. Don’t forget to butter the parchment.

  1. Scald the milk. This makes the milk taste sweeter and, well, milkier. You can do this on the stove by putting the milk in a small saucepan and heating it until it has a skin on top, but short of a simmer. It will just be beginning to form tiny bubbles around the edges. The easier way is to put the milk, butter, and sugar in a glass container and microwave the whole works for about 3-4 minutes at high. Just to be on the safe side, I zap it for two minutes, check the temperature, and zap it for another minute or two.
  2. Let the milk/butter/sugar cool to lukewarm (skin temperature), then add the yeast and let it proof for five minutes or so. If your liquid is too hot, you’ll kill the yeast. If your yeast is good, it will go to town and end up looking like this
  3. Gently beat the eggs and add them to the wet ingredients.
  4. Sift the flour and salt together in your mixing bowl. If you are using a standing mixer, using the flat paddle, add the wet ingredients to the flour. If you are mixing by hand, make a well in the flour and add the wet ingredients.
  5. Mix everything just until it comes together into a ball. This doesn’t want a lot of kneading.DSC_0756
  6. Cover the dough and let it rise for at least an hour.
  7. While the dough is rising, peel, pit,  and slice your peaches. To peel the peaches, drop them, one or two at a time, into a pot of boiling water for 20-30 seconds then into a bowl of ice water to stop them cooking. Then you can just rub the peel off with a paper towel. Be careful. They are very slippery.
  8. Toss the peaches with the juice of 1 lemon (to stop them turning brown). You can add a little sugar here, but I don’tDSC_0751
  9. Roll out the risen dough into a rough rectangle slightly bigger than your pan, then press the dough into the pan with the dough going up the sides. Like this:DSC_0770
  10. Arrange the peach slices over the dough in one or two layers. I thought seven peaches were enough, but Simon wanted more. Use your judgement here. Or, you can throw in a handful of blueberries. The photo on the right is my first attempt — the one that exploded all over the oven — you can sort of see the signs already. But the combination of yellow and white peaches and blueberries was pretty, and tasty.
  11. To make the topping, sift together the dry ingredients, then stir in the melted butter with a fork. Mix it all up until the butter is well distributed. DSC_0769
  12. Spread the topping evenly over the peaches, then cover with a towel and let rise for another 30 minutes. This is a good time to preheat the oven, if you haven’t already.DSC_0773
  13. Bake the küchen in the 375/190 oven for about 40 minutes. The toothpick test is tricky, with all the gooey fruit. It should be done when the crust around the edges is nice and golden brown. If you did the sling thing, you can try pulling it up. If the whole thing sort of slumps in the middle, you might need a little more baking time.
  14. This is delicious hot, so you only need to cool it on a wire rack for a few minutes before you grab your fork, brew and cuppa, and eat Not-Quite-Tanta’s Peach Küchen.DSC_0774

 

A Forty Day Invention Test

When I was a kid, my fellow Episcopalian and Catholic pals and I spent weeks thinking about what we would give up for Lent. I tended to lean toward such noble sacrifices as Brussels Sprouts — which as far as I remember my Mother never, ever cooked — or liver and onions– which my Dad loved meaning we had it about once a week. I tried very hard to score an invitation to eat at a friend’s house on those days. I remember being in awe of my best friend, Jeannie, the year she gave up watching TV.

I don’t honestly know whether she stuck with it for the whole 40 days, but I do remember her sitting with her back to the set on our regular Saturday Porter Wagner and hot dogs nights. My usual fall back was chocolate, which was sort of a sacrifice — I do like chocolate — but as we seldom had chocolate in the house, not much of one.

As I got older, the whole ritual of giving something up for Lent fell by the wayside. I guess this was because, once we moved to Georgia, most of my friends were Baptists and Methodists for whom Lent didn’t really seem much of an issue, although Easter certainly was.

Once I became an adult, I again embraced the notion of a Lenten discipline, Most years, I 21-days-to-form-a-new-habit-lori-welbournedecided to take up something — meditation, daily prayer, volunteering, swimming — in the hope that what started as a seasonal discipline would become a habit. It worked the year I challenged myself to go to the gym every day. I initially took up yoga as a Lenten discipline. That stuck too, for a while.

For several years, I gave up meat for Lent. This is, of course, a time-honoured Lenten discipline. The whole idea of Fat Tuesday or Pancake Day had to do with using up all your indulgent foods — butter, cream, eggs, bacon — in preparation for the lean, disciplined days of fasting that lay ahead. pancake day

For me, the Lenten meat fast would end with the Easter Vigil — the Saturday night service that begins in the dark (at least until Congress moved Daylight Savings Time, meaning it didn’t get dark at Easter until 8pm or so) with a cantor and Old Testament lessons and ends with with bright lights and festive music, representing Jesus’ resurrection. It is my absolutely favourite service of the entire year — far surpassing Christmas. One year, we were encouraged to make animal sounds during the Noah’s Ark story, rattle our keys during the reading of Ezekiel 37:1-14 — the Valley of the Dry Bones — and ring bells or toot horns during Psalm 98 — Sing to the Lord a New Song.

5guysburgerfries

No, I don’t eat meat anymore, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss it.

After the Easter Vigil, I would head straight to Five Guys Burgers and Fries for a gloriously greasy bacon cheeseburger with the works and a bog of their miraculously delicious fries then head home to eat it accompanied by a bottle of bubbly. Now that’s breaking a fast!

One year, I gave up wine. I’ll never make that mistake again.

Ditto: coffee.

mobyAnother year, I pledged to read Moby Dick, my lifelong literary bête noir. The. Most. Boring. Novel. Ever. Written. I failed. I’d rather spend forty days wearing a hair shirt. Note to l’Académie française: I’ll give up my circonflexe when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. If for no other reason, because without it, my spell checker keeps changing bête to bets or beets.je suis circonflex

My friend Mary earned my everlasting admiration the year she gave up baking bread for Lent. When we were preparing to move to New Zealand and it came time to find a foster mother for my beloved sourdough starter, I reckoned that someone who loved baking so much that she would give it up for Lent would treat my sourdough baby with all the love it deserved.

God and I had a parting of the ways some years ago. I am now what I call a philosophical Christian, with some Judaism, Buddhism, and Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster mixed in. While I no longer believe in an afterlife or a loving God, I still believe that Jesus’ teaching — the stuff he actually said — is as good a guide for living a decent and rewarding life as any other. Feed the hungry. House the homeless. Care for the sick. Embrace outsiders. Keep only what you need and share the rest with those who have less than you. Judge not lest ye be judged. This is all good. Are you listening, Donald Trump?

This Lent, a year after my soul fell to pieces, I am once again embracing the value of a discipline for restoring mindfulness and spiritual resilience. For most of the last year, just getting out of bed was an exercise in discipline. It would be disingenuous for me to give up meat — that is already gone. Chocolate? Not enough of a sacrifice. Wine? lentToo much of a sacrifice. As much as I admire Mary, giving up baking would rob me of one of my most important emotional outlets. Simon and the boys might appreciate my giving up the accordion, but I wouldn’t want to lose my place with my lovely accordion teacher, Katie. The Kale Whisperer can’t give up Kale.

So, what’s a girl to do?

After long deliberation and utterly without consulting my devoted partner, I have decided to give up cookbooks for Lent. Not only will I not buy any new ones, I won’t use them. For the next forty days, I will be a totally improvisational cook. Because this is my discipline and I’m making the rules, I will leave myself three exceptions. I’ll allow myself to use Karen Page’s The Vegetarian Flavor Bible [see “The Seventh Cookbook of Christmas”], to ensure I check before pairing radishes and chocolate. I’ll also allow one all purpose book to look up basic recipes, like choux pastry, that I don’t carry around in my head. For this, I’ll use Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I’ll also use cookbooks for any pickling and preserving I do because I don’t want to kill anyone. Starting at sunrise on Ash Wednesday until sundown Easter Saturday, all other cookbooks will remain closed.

Note that I am giving up cookbooks, not necessarily recipes. In addition to improvising my own recipes using whatever seasonal ingredients are available, I will, on occasion, revisit some of the old recipes I inherited from my mother, Aunties, Grandma, and Tante Ida. I hope, in so doing, I will stretch my kitchen creativity as well as knitting my cooking more tightly to my new home.

I pledge to include ingredients that are new to me: Maori yams, feijoas, Asian greens. Maybe even these things. weird fruit

My hope is that at the end of this exercise, I will have a greater appreciation for living in tune with the seasons, greater culinary creativity, and a better food blog.

I’ll share the successes. When there are failures — as there are bound to be — I’ll share those, too. I promise, though, that I’ll only consult the ones I have on paper. Consulting the internet; that would be cheating. I am setting off on a forty day Master Chef Invention test. The Pantry is open.

invention test

 

 

Snow Soup for You!

I hate snow. I hate shovelling snow. I hate it when I have to get up at 0-dark-thirty to shovel out a spot of grass so the dogs can answer the call of nature. I hate scraping ice off my car. And I really hate it when the snow on the roof turns into ice dams and water leaks into the rafters to come out. . . oh, anywhere. 009When the hundred-year blizzard hit DC in 1996, I was attending a conference at Wilton Park in the UK. I came home to find all my upstairs window wells an inch deep in water. I hated that. I hate that people put salt on the sidewalk that irritates my dogs’ feet so I have to wash their paws whenever we come in from a walk. I hate people who think that just because there is snow on the ground, they don’t have to pick up after their dogs, as though the poop will disappear with the spring thaw. I hate leaky snow boots. Snow ice cream? Yuck. Snowmen? Depressing when they melt. And they always melt. I, ladies and gentlemen, am a snow Scrooge.

So why, whenever there is a big snowstorm on the east coast of the United States like the one this past weekend, do I get homesick? After all, one of the things I like best about living in Wellington, New Zealand, is that it never snows. So why, when CNN started warning, mid-last week, that a huge, hundred-year blizzard was headed toward Washington, DC, did I feel the urge to run to Countdown and stock up on toilet paper, white bread, and milk?

Why do I feel this longing to get my hands on a snow shovel? Why do I keep checking on washingtonpost.com to see if the Federal Government is closed? Why do I want to Scotty to beam me back to DC?

The truth is, while I hate the snow, I love the magic of a snowstorm. It isn’t just the old cliche of waking up to a wonderland dusted with icing sugar. It isn’t just that the sky is never bluer than on the morning after a massive snow dump. 008I love what a snowstorm brings out in people. Some of my best memories of my old neighbourhood in Annandale, Virginia, involved snowstorms, when everyone came together to dig out the parking lot and make sure our neighbours who were unable to shovel themselves would have clean and safe stoops and sidewalks. We built an iceberg in the cul-de-sac from the snow we cleared from our parking spots. It was a kid magnet. We were all in the same boat, and it was, for the time being, a boat that wasn’t going anywhere. You might just as well sit back and enjoy the ride. So we went to each others’ houses for supper; we shared snow shovels; we traded videos. We were neighbours, at least for a few days.

And the dogs. Every dog I’ve ever lived with got in touch with their inner wolf when it snowed. This wasn’t a surprise in the case of our two Samoyeds — Nikita and Piroshki. They were never far from their inner wolf. But Miss Peanut, Crackerjack, Shakespeare, and Cully all got a far away look in their eyes when it snowed, as if they were ready to hitch up  the sled and go mushing.

Even crabby old Cindy Dog got her inner puppy on when it snowed. Granted, in his last couple of winters, Crackerjack, at 16, had decided that he was over snow. But, for the most part, my canine family always went just the teensiest bit feral when the snow began to fly.

I was born in a mini ice-age, between two historic nor’easters that hit the DC area in February and March 1958. I remember there being one or two big dumps of snow each winter in the 1960s. The biggest was in January 1966. CCI26012016_3I got a sled for Christmas the year before — a blue plastic toboggan that looked like a space ship. It was one of those Christmases — much like Christmas of 2015 — when the temperature hit 70F on Christmas Day. My ever amazing Dad pulled me around the yard on the toboggan, on the grass. So, when the snow hit, the sled had grass stains. Jeannie et. al.2Our house was on a steep hill — excellent for sledding and snow fort building. Not so excellent for shovelling out the driveway. And since we lived on a dead end street with only three houses, Dad had to shovel all the way up to Sharon Chapel Road. Dad — a son of Milwaukee and lake effect snow — didn’t love snow.

Perhaps that’s why he decided, a year later, to move us to Georgia, where he could be assured that there would be no blizzards. Now, it’s true there aren’t blizzards in Georgia, but there are ice-storms, which can be much worse, really. All the the cold and wet without the fun and, often, without electricity and cable. Once in a blue moon it would “snow” — which wasn’t really snow but accumulated sleet. And we did have snow days. My freshman year in High School we got an extra week of Christmas vacation because it “snowed.” CCI26012016_2My friend Andrea broke her leg sledding and spent the next several months in a full-leg cast. Usually, though, snow in Georgia meant some version of ice. Any Yankees who are tempted to make fun of how we Southerners panic at the first sight of snow, I defy you, or anyone, to drive on the sheets of ice that form on untreated roads in a Georgia ice storm. One year, during a particularly bad ice storm, one of the pine trees in our yard came down under the weight and took down our electrical lines. It was so cold in the house that our budgerigar and my Siamese fighting fish died. Dad, not one to take chances, and in revenge for the lost, cut down all the rest of the trees in the yard. Overkill? Maybe.

When the first wave of Snowmageddon hit DC in January 2010, I was in the UK, at a conference at Wilton Park. Sound familiar? Spooky, huh? Anyway, I managed to get on the first flight back from London — when we landed at Dulles, we sat on the plane for about an hour because no one who knew how to drive the gate had managed to get to work. Then we waited for another hour in customs. None of the baggage handlers had made it to work, either. That was nothing compared to Simon’s ordeal. My adorable new husband, bless his cotton socks, made what had to be a harrowing drive to the airport to meet me, and we slipped, spun, and slid home in his trusty RAV4. The experience was so shattering, Simon was never able to drive on the Beltway again.

As a newcomer to DC, Simon wasn’t up on the culture of panic  pre-snow shopping, so for the next week or so, while the Federal Government — and hence my place of employment — remained stubbornly closed and our neighbourhood roads remained stubbornly unplowed, I became a pantry cook.

I always keep a sizeable stash of dried beans, flour, and canned things, so there was plenty to work with. I channelled my homesteading ancestors. OK, I didn’t have any homesteading ancestors, but my grandparents lives in Eagle River, Wisconsin during the Great Depression were challenging enough. I baked bread. I made long, slow cooking soups. I baked dog cookies. We shovelled snow. We watched a lot of videos because the snow had blocked the satellite dish — leading Simon to insist we get cable. They were golden days.

One of my blizzard rituals is to make a big pot of stock. This goes back to my carnivorous past, when chicken stock was a pantry staple. The store bought stuff is never as good as homemade, but making large amounts of stock presents a challenge when it comes time to cool it. It isn’t really safe to leave a pot of meat stock at room temperature for the hours it would take to cool down. But put in in your fridge and you run the risk of warming up the cold food faster than you cool down the hot stock. During a blizzard, you can bury your hot stock in a snow bank. It’s the next best thing to a blast chiller.

I don’t make chicken stock anymore, but snow — even snow ten thousand miles away — still triggers in me the urge to get out the stock pot. Instead of chicken bits, I gather up excess veggie bits — the tops of the enormous leeks, green onions and celery I buy at the market, onions, slightly dry mushrooms, carrots, a couple of waxy potatoes, the odd apple or pear, a parsnip, maybe a bulb or two of fennel, and garlic, always lots and lots of garlic. If I’m feeling industrious, I chop everything. If not, I just leave it in chunks. Add enough water to cover the lot, throw in a couple of bay leaves, a few black peppercorns, a handful of whatever herbs you have around, and some kosher or sea salt and bring it all to a simmer. If you want a dark stock that looks and tastes more like beef stock, you can caramelise some of the vegetables (carrots, onions, celery, potatoes) in a very hot oven until they are good and brown. Don’t let them burn, though. Brown is good, but burnt just tastes like burnt.

Caught in a blizzard without a fridge full of vegetable bits? Peel a couple of heads of garlic (yes, the whole thing), add a bay leaf, a spring of fresh thyme (or a teaspoon or so of dried), some black peppercorns, a bay leaf, a teaspoon of salt, a glug of olive oil, and two quarts of water. Simmer that. It smells heavenly and tastes just like chicken stock. I kid you not.

So, next time it snows, forget the white bread and Doritos. Gather up your veggies, add water, and just let the whole delicious mess simmer, and simmer, and simmer. Long and slow. Go outside and shovel snow. Build a snowman. Make a snow angel. Come inside. There’s soup for you!

The Tenth Cookbook of Christmas: Delia’s Vegetarian Collection

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It is almost Christmas and I am remembering Christmases past. Christmas with my father was a winter wonderland. When I was very small, we had a very large spruce tree in our front yard. Every Christmas he would string those big, old-fashioned coloured lights on the tree so Santa could find our house from way up high in the sky. CCI22122015Every night, before bed, he would pack me into my red snow snuit and we would stand out in the cold and admire the lighties. Those are some of my earliest memories.

For several years after Dad died of Alzheimer’s disease, I couldn’t bear Christmas. My Mom made it through two more Christmases, and she couldn’t bear them either. The two of us would hunker down in her little apartment at the assisted living facility and watch endless versions of Jane Austen on her VCR. How many times did we watch Colin Firth dive into the pond at Pemberley? Oh, hundreds!Darcy I stopped laying down new Christmas memories when Dad died. For me, Christmas was about family, and our little family had dwindled to one.

Don’t get me wrong. I am blessed with a wonderful extended family on both sides, and I love my cousins like siblings. But, I have written before about the importance of chosen families, and I have such a lovely one that I want to celebrate them. There is Dorothy from Norwich, who was my roommate through a nearly three-week adventure in Palestine in 1993. My soul sister, Joani, in Virginia — check out her excellent blog, http://unorthodoxunhinged.com.  And my besties, Susan in Virginia and Elizabeth in Oxford. We three musketeers have shared so many adventures. Now we are joined by my beautiful fairy goddaughter, Alex.

I’ve traveled all over the world with my Elder Sis, Katy, and I’ve drowned many a sorrow with our bro, Tony.

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With Katy and Tony, after drowning a sorrow or two

And I cannot leave out my sourdough starter’s foster parents, Mary and Wade. In Athens, there are Carolyn and Kline, and Nash and France who all supported my parents, and then me, in their final years. Nash and France adopted my Dad’s beloved cockapoo, Maxwell, and gave him the loving retirement he so richly deserved. Nash still keeps me posted on the goings on at my old high school. Pete and Anita, our dogs’ uncle and auntie, are soon moving from Virginia to Minnesota — near my family in Northern Wisconsin.

My Southern Hemisphere chosen family is growing and multiplying, too. Thanks to Julian and Anna in Sydney, I have a new “niece,” Ayla. Peter is the crusty old uncle I never had. I did have an amazing Uncle, Billy, but he was too funny and loveable to qualify as crusty. Carl is the pesky little brother I never had. Chris has long been Simon’s chosen family in New Zealand, and now he’s part of mine.

I discovered the Kale Whisperer’s Tenth Cookbook of Christmas, Delia’s Vegetarian Collection (BBC Books, 2002) while visiting another branch of my chosen family in Sydney, the lovely Lise, her husband Cahn, and my “nephew” Jacob and his brand new baby sister, Eliana.

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Pizza by Jacob, I’m pretty sure those are slices of beetroot, not pepperonis!

Having essentially invited myself to visit en route to the United States earlier this year, I would not have been surprised (or disappointed) to dine on take away food. But Lise, despite juggling an active (and, as it happens, sick) three year old and an adorable six-month old, spoiled me with delicious and beautifully prepared vegetarian fare from Delia’s Vegetarian Collection. Even before I left Sydney, I ordered myself a copy from fishpond.com. It has already become a favourite in my kitchen, too.

There haven’t been any celebrity chefs or cookbooks with lots of gorgeous, full colour illustrations among the The Kale Whisperer’s Twelve Cookbooks of Christmas.  It’s not that I have anything against celebrity chefs or beautiful photographs of food. It’s just that I find those sorts of cookbooks, for the most part, disappointing. It’s as though they are written for people who don’t cook and don’t really intend to start, but who want to have some attractive cookery books as accent pieces in their designer kitchens. And I’ve had some real disasters. Take the celebrity chef cookbook I bought most recently, which shall remain nameless. So far, not a single recipes I’ve tried has worked as advertised. I ended up serving my beloved a zucchini pie with raw rice. Do these people even cook the food they put into their cookbooks? A word of advice: if the directions don’t make sense to you (trust me, the liquid from the zucchini will cook the raw rice), they probably don’t make sense. I’ve had good experiences with the few Jamie Oliver recipes I’ve downloaded, but I haven’t bought his books either because, frankly, I find him a bit preachy and annoying.

But Delia is different. How can you not trust and respect a woman who is willing to make a public spectacle of herself in support of her beloved Norwich Canaries?

Would I make a spectacle of myself in support of my beloved All Blacks? You betcha. In fact, to hear Katy tell it, I did that already while watching the 2012 Rugby World Cup Final with a group of Aussies in Bali.

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Offering up a word of thanks in Ubud, Bali

Which brings me to a digression. I had a long argument with myself (I do that — it’s an introvert thing) about whether or not to include Julia Child’s original Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 1961). I really think every cook should read it, often, but I don’t actually cook from it very much. Julia is pretty meat-centric. That said, I just got out my copy — which was previously my mother’s copy — and it fell right open to the recipe for Soufflé au Fromage. My Mom made heavenly soufflés. I don’t. But seeing as the book is out, and I accidentally bought 32 eggs at the farmer’s market last week, I think I’ll give it another shot, with Julia on my shoulder.IMG_0275

But back to Delia. This is a gorgeous book. If you are looking for a gift for your favourite vegetarian, and want to split the difference between useful and pretty, this is your book. The illustrations are stunning. There are a few I’d like to tear out of the book and hang on the wall. And the recipes work. I have a massive rosemary bush in my herb garden, so I can make the Tuscan Bean and Pasta Soup, all year round. Simon grew up in the UK, and this book has vegetarian versions of his childhood comfort foods, including Shepard’s Pie, Spinach Pasties, and Not-Pork Pies (which will please our Kune Kune pigs). Everything Lise prepared from Delia’s collection was wonderful, and only tasted better for being made with love and eaten in the best of company.

I’m not folding down the corners of this book, but it is full of multicoloured post-it flags. I gave up on the cheese chapter. I’ll just cook, and eat, my way through the whole thing. There are two oven-baked risottos, for those nights when your feet are tired or you have blisters on your thumbs and don’t want to stand at the stove and stir. I rarely cook sweets — neither of us eat them much — but as soon as I send this off, I’m headed out to the garden to see if I have enough rhubarb for the Rhubarb, Almond, and Ginger Crumble.

Wait. I just re-read the recipe for Crumpet Pizzas, with blue cheese, walnuts, olive oil and sage. I’m off to the grocery, now, to buy some crumpets. The rhubarb will have to wait.

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The Seventh Cookbook of Christmas: The Vegetarian Flavor Bible

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I want to be Australia’s next Masterchef. This is highly unlikely for at least two reasons. First, I don’t live in Australia. Second, the Masterchef competition is extremely vegetarian unfriendly. Last week, the contestants were required to essentially butcher a lamb carcass. One of my favourite Masterchef moments occurred in the 2014 competition when nearly-vegetarian Renae Smith reacted the way I have would when she discovered a whole eel in her mystery box — tears, panic attack, and horror.  It was clear she wasn’t going to be able to go through with her cook when my favourite contestant of the seasons, Colin Sheppard rode to the rescue and offered to give up some of his cook time to clean and filet the horrifying primal beast. Filleted, the meat didn’t trigger her phobia, and Renae was able to cook. I was heartbroken when Colin went home.

Which points, perhaps, to a third reason I’ll never be Australia’s (or anyone else’s) next Masterchef: Colin, 51, was referred to as “Pappa”. A similarly gentle male contestant, Richard Harris, 55, chose eel for an invention challenge because he reckoned the other contestants might find it intimidating. Richard was eliminated from 2015’s New Zealand Masterchef to questions about why he waited until it was too late in his life to pursue his dream. <sound of gnashing teeth and forehead pounding on desk> Colin and Richard: You are Masterchefs in my heart!

Masterchef New Zealand has been cancelled; so, it looks like I must settle for being an armchair master chef. When the contestants are set invention tests or mystery boxes, Simon and I play “what would you cook?” This works out nicely for me, of course, because my imagined masterpiece is always tastier and more spectacularly beautiful than anything the contestants put up.

OK. Today’s mystery box ingredient is: KALE. What would you cook?

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The Kale Whisperer’s Seventh Cookbook of Christmas will help you figure that out, whether you are practicing for Masterchef, or not. Although, if you are, I would advise studying this book front-to-back and side-to-side. Karen Page’s The Vegetarian Flavor Bible (Little Brown, 2015) is subtitled “the essential guide to culinary creativity.” And it is all that. This is my second non-cookbook Cookbook of Christmas, but if I had to pick a desert island cookbook, this would be it. With this cookbook, you don’t need cookbooks at all, really.

Page’s goal in compiling this guide, which is both informative and simple to use, was to provide useful nutritional and health information for those seeking to either to become vegetarians or shift to a whole-foods, plant-based diet, with our without occasional meat. Her first two chapters — For the Love of Plants, and Maximizing Flavor — make the case for a plant-based diet and chronicle the shift of vegetarian cuisine from the counter-culture to the mainstream. Of particular interest to me were the comments from some of America’s top chefs who, increasingly, are shifting toward culinary styles that depend more and more heavily on vegetables as the focus rather than the background.

Page’s discussion of the key elements of flavour in vegetarian cooking is eye opening, even for the most experienced cook, and has vastly increased my confidence as an improvisational cook. The formula? Flavor = Taste + Mouthfeel + Aroma + The X-Factor (senses + heart, mind, spirit).  She even has a handy “craving” table.  Vegetarian? Craving crab dip? Add some kelp and Old Bay Seasoning to your favourite white bean dip. Miss that magic zing of anchovy paste? I know I do. Use dark miso paste. I’m not a fan of play meat, so her suggestions of tofurkey and Soyrizo leave me cold. But most of the suggestions here are at least worth a think.

All this information is fascinating, and important to know, but the part of  The Vegetarian Flavor Bible  that you will use often — in my case, daily — is the “A to Z Listings.” It is truly exhaustive. You won’t find some local specialties here. No feijoas but you will find their cousin, guava. So far, I haven’t stumped this list. And I’ve tried. Each listing starts with some general information: nutrient concentration, season, flavour, volume (flavour loudness), what it is, nutritional profile, cooking techniques, tips, and botanical relatives. Look up Kale, and here is some of what you will learn: kale is a leafy, green vegetable, it has an extremely high nutrient content, it’s bitter but can be sweet in winter, it’s 72% carbs / 16% protein / 12% fat,  and 1 cup of raw, chopped kale has 35 calories and 2 grams of protein. Kale likes to be blanched, boiled, braised, grilled, slow cooked, marinated, pureed, eaten raw (but I’m not a fan, unless its very young and tender), sautéed, stewed, steamed and stir fried. Kale’s cousins include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, radishes, and watercress.

What you will also learn is anything and everything that matches well with kale. Page built her flavour suggestions through an exhaustive compilation of  recommendations and wisdom of hundreds of American cooks and chefs specialising in cuisines from around the world. There is a ranking system for the flavour matches. Flavour matches recommended by at least one expert appear in normal type. BOLD CAPS indicate recommendations made by a larger number of experts. BOLD CAPS with an asterisk (*) are what Page calls “Holy Grail” pairings — most highly recommended by the largest number of experts. Particular types of preparations (soups, casseroles) and cuisines use of an ingredient appear in italics. Those in bold italics or BOLD ITALIC CAPS are those most highly recommended for the particular ingredient.

What will I cook with my Kale? Were it winter, I might make a hearty soup or my favourite lentil and kale spag bol. But it is early summer here in New Zealand, so I’m thinking a frittata or stir-fry. Maybe a salad. I look up kale and find that some of its strongest flavour partners are beans, chilli, garlic, lemon, olive oil, and red onions. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t care for raw kale, no matter how long you massage it. But if it is young and fairly tender, all it needs is a quick blanch. I’m thinking a salad of blanched kale tossed with a dressing  of lemon juice, olive oil, some thinly sliced new season garlic, a pinch of dried chilli to give it some bite, salt and pepper. I’ll marinate some white beans in the same vinaigrette (minus the chilli)  and some chopped fresh oregano from my garden and a thinly sliced red onion. Then I’ll make a composed salad of the dark green kale, the white beans and red onions, with some crispy parmesan croutons made with the end of the loaf of sourdough bread I baked last week.

I’ll let you know if the judges like it!

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The Sixth Cookbook of Christmas: Twelve Months of Monastery Soups

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I am a spiritual seeker. My mother always called me her “otherworldly child.” My favourite movie, for a while, was “The Song of Bernadette.” I read St. Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as a teenager. The interfaith nature of Merton’s spirituality has shaped my own spiritual journey to this day.  In the spring of 1977, Dr. John Granrose took our Honors Ethics class on a field trip to visit the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, a Trappist monastery near Conyers, Georgia. That day has stayed with me all these years. Ever since, I’ve felt drawn to a quiet life of contemplation. That appeal of that lifestyle was, I remember, exemplified in the meal the brothers served us at their guest house — vegetable potage, monastery cheese, and rustic bread. While my faith in organised religion has evaporated over the decades, my yearning for the quiet contemplative life has not. Many years later, now that I’ve stepped away from the noise of my career as a defense analyst, I am beginning to live a quiet life of contemplation. Thinking and writing about food is bringing me the peace and happiness that organised religion or proximity to power never did.

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The Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, Georgia

In cooking, as in life, sometimes the greatest beauty is found in simplicity. For me, the simple meal of soup, cheese, and bread is restorative in a way that no other meal can be. When loved ones are sick, or sad, we make them soup. When I’m sick and sad, I want someone to make me soup. Before she died, my mother was sick and sad — for too long — and our friends Kline and Carolyn brought her matzo ball soup. I will never forget that soup. It might not have cured all that ailed Mom, but it restored me and my Dad and was, quite simply, my most unforgettable soup. It tasted like love. Thank you, Kline and Carolyn.

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Alex and her fairy godmother making matzo balls

A few years later my Goddaughter Alex borrowed a book from the library called How Many Matzos Make a Soup?  She loved it. I haven’t been able to track it down, but I remember the punch line was that what makes a good soup isn’t the number or size of the matzos, but the love that goes into making them. Inspired by the story, and my duties as fairy godmother, Alex and I made our own matzo soup. It was delicious.

As a child, I loved Marcia Brown’s classic children’s book Stone Soup. I was captivated by the notion that with an onion here, a carrot there, it was possible to create food for a village. It’s not that different from my frequent Saturday morning ritual combining trimmings from this week’s purchases (leek and green inion tops, celery leaves, a carrot or two) with the things that didn’t make into last week’s dinners (slightly past their prime mushrooms, the other halves of onions, pea pods, a lonely potato) in the stock pot to simmer away.  In its way, soup is the secular equivalent to the feeding of the five thousand. With a handful of beans, a potato, and onion, a carrot, and some garlic, I can make a warm, tasty, satisfying meal.  IMG_0249

As I’ve traveled over the years, my most memorable meals have involved simple soups: Portugal’s Caldo Verde (just potatoes, kale, and linguica), Thailand’s gorgeous Tom Yom soups, Pho from Vietnam, miso soup  from Japan, and the hearty bean and vegetable soups of Italy. Singapore’s Night Market offers too many options to name, as do the Bistros of Paris and the Pubs of England. I’ve loved nettle soup in Scotland and seafood chowder on Stewart Island. I can’t say I loved the goat neck soup in Ghana, but I certainly loved the generous spirit in which it was offered. And the simple bean and vegetable soups prepared by out Masai cook at Freeman’s Safaris in Kenya were the perfect end to hard day on the Mara.

The Kale Whisperer’s Sixth Cookbook of Christmas, Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourette’s Twelve Months of Monastery Soups (Triumph Books, 1996), encompasses both my fascination with the contemplative life and my love for soup in a unique and tasty way. This is not strictly vegetarian, there are a few recipes that include a bit of meat or seafood, but most of those can be easily adapted to vegetarian versions. Obviously, you probably won’t want to make the Shrimp Soup de Luxe without shrimp. On the other hand, one of my favourite recipes here is the French Cream of Lentil Soup, calls for two strips of bacon, but it is just as delicious without the pig. I’ve cooked it both ways, I can personally vouch for that. The book is peppered with notes and quotes about soup, things that go into soup, people who make soup, and people who eat soup. If you aren’t Catholic, you will still love this book. If you aren’t Christian, you’ll love this book. If you love soup, you’ll love this book. This is another cookbook you’ll want to read, cover to cover.

Monastery Soups consists of twelve chapters: one for each month of the year. If you live in the northern hemisphere, you could probably cook right through the book chronologically. Down here in the antipodes, you’ll have to work inside out. Brother Antoine took care to match ingredients to availability. And as the gardener at Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery in upstate New York, he understands locavore cooking. Ever wondered what you could do with those gorgeous greens attached to your bright red radishes you couldn’t resist at the market? Brother Antoine has a soup for that: Soupe Pelou. It’s delicious. Is your garden overrun by sorrel? He has five soups for that. The recipes are simple and come from all around the world. Adapted from the monastery kitchen, they don’t require fancy equipment or exotic ingredients. These are weekday soups, not simmer on the back of the stove all day soups. Some vegetables, some herbs, broth, wine, garlic and a pinch of salt. And love; lots of love.

Some of my earliest childhood memories involve soup: chicken noodle with oyster crackers, cream of tomato with cheese toast, potato soup with lots of celery from the German restaurant I only remember as “the potato soup place.” I’m sure the very last meals I’ll enjoy will also be soups. And so many soups — humble and glorious — along the way. To paraphrase T.S. Elliot, I will measure out my life in soup spoons.

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The Fifth Cookbook of Christmas: Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads

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Today would have been my Dad’s 93rd birthday. He wasn’t a vegetarian. His favourite foods were: fried eggs (sunny side up), Campbell’s Pork and Beans (Mom spiffed them up with green peppers, mustard, and various other secret bits of magic), and pretty much anything made with ground beef. According to family legend, Mom and Dad went in with friends once to buy a steer. When the butcher called to find out how they wanted their half cut up, Dad told him to just grind the whole beast into hamburger. Fortunately, Mom was able to intervene. Dad was an avid gardener and produced bushels of tomatoes, green peppers (capsicum), tender little yellow crookneck squash, okra, eggplant, raspberries and figs. But, at heart, he was a meat-and-potatoes sort of guy.

Like most meat-and-potatoes guys, Dad also loved bread. Good, hearty, stick to your ribs, Olde Worlde bread: rye, pumpernickel, crusty Kaiser rolls, and the absolutely delicious, chewy hard rolls from the Black Forest Bakery in Athens, Georgia. When our family moved from Virginia to Georgia in 1967, we entered the black hole of bread. European style bread simply didn’t exist. Not even mass-produced rye bread. Certainly not the kind of peasant breads that work your jaws and have the fortitude to mop up the remains of a hearty soup. Roman Meal Bread was the closest to whole wheat available. Our choices were pretty much Sunbeam (“It’s batter whipped”) and Wonder Bread. It was at this point that Mom went back to baking bread in a serious fashion.

It wasn’t easy. These were the days before supermarkets sold Bread Flour, and most flour sold in the South was made from soft, summer wheat. Flours like White Lilly are indispensable for making biscuits, cornbread, and cakes, but lack the complex gluten structures that are needed for hearty, crusty European loaves. Eventually, Mom found a commercial source of hard wheat flour, which she bought in twenty pound bags and she was off. Every three weeks or so, I’d come home to a kitchen full of dough and the smell of fresh baked bread. It was heaven. Some would go in the freezer, but Dad and I usually devoured at least one loaf on the spot.

Mom was famous for her breads. At the Annual Christmas Auction at St. Gregory the Great Episcopal Church, her “coffee cake of the month” and “bread of the month” offerings raised a pretty penny. When she teamed up with our friends Kline and Carolyn to offer a catered German dinner party, folks pulled out their check books and dug deep.

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One of the legendary St. Gregory’s Auction German dinners, cooked and hosted by Carolyn, Kline, Dad, and Mom, circa late 1980s

At this time of year, she’d be in full Christmas Stollen baking mode. She was famous for her stollen — the traditional german fruited bread that is baked and sugared to look like the Christ child’s swaddling clothes. This is NOT fruitcake, it is Christmas manna. Mom’s recipe came out of her head — handed down from her mother and aunt. In mid-December, our kitchen became an assembly line, with sweet, fruity loaves at various stages of development. While I’m no longer big into Christmas, I still honour this one family tradition and bake a batch or two around Christmas time from Bernard Clayton’s recipe. stollenIt tastes like my childhood and makes me happy, a little bit sad, and very grateful. And when it is a little stale, its makes the best toast ever.

I reckon today is an appropriate day to add Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads to the Kale Whisperer’s Twelve Cookbooks of Christmas. My well-worn copy is the 1987 edition. There have been subsequent revisions, the most recent in 2006, that incorporate newer technology, like bread machines. But the basic spirit that makes this cookbook an all time great remains.

Bernard Clayton gave up a high-powered journalistic career in New York and Chicago after a mystical bread experience during a bike trip around Europe in the mid-1960s. He moved to Bloomington, Indiana, worked for Indiana University, and pursued his fascination with bread. His wonder at the art and science of bread making shines through this book. He prefaces many of the recipes with an introduction, perhaps describing the bread’s history, how it fits in to the wider world of breads, and how he discovered it. Clayton was not professionally trained — he taught himself to bake — and the un-jaded joy of the gifted amateur is contagious. I defy you to pick up this book and not immediate begin tagging recipes. This is one of those cookbooks you’ll want to sit down and read, cover-to-cover.

In addition to the Christmas Stollen (my copy automatically opens to that page), I love the Dilly Casserole Bread (a 1960s staple), the Sour Dill Rye Bread (which uses pickle brine as the liquid), the Portuguese Sweet Bread, and the German White Bread with Caraway. My New Zealand sourdough starter, which has been going for two years, now, began with his Honey Starter.  Our sourdough starter is like a member of the family. It’s less demanding than the dogs. It only needs is to be fed and cuddled once a week. And it doesn’t have accidents in the house. I had to leave my previous starter in the US when we moved to New Zealand.

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My New Zealand Honey Sourdough Starter, freshly fed and happy

The Ministry of Primary Industries here was unlikely to look kindly upon a glob of dough teeming with microbes, no matter how yummy. It found a happy home with my friends Mary and Wade. They let me visit when I go back to Virginia. Mary gave up baking bread for Lent one year, so I know she is a good mother (and her dogs are way better behaved than mine).

 

This is the most comprehensive handbook for the home bread baker I’ve ever found. It was written based on thousands of hours of Clayton’s own trial and error in his own home kitchen. I’m reasonably confident that there is nothing that a home baker needs to know about bread making that isn’t in this book. If you try to bake bread, and something goes wrong, Clayton will tell you why. Most of the recipes include separate instructions for mixing the doughs by hand, in a stand mixer, or in a food processor.

My copy does not include bread machine instructions or recipes, which is fine by me. If you want to make bread, make bread. Don’t be afraid of it. Hold the dough, knead it, throw it, slam it — as Clayton advises, “don’t gentle the dough” — watch it rise, punch it down, knead it some more, and feel it come to life under your warm touch. Bread making, unlike some other kinds of baking, is very forgiving. And much cheaper than therapy.

And nothing beats a slice of hot, fresh bread with butter. It tastes like love.

 

 

The Third Cookbook of Christmas: The Food Substitutions Bible

Food Substitutions

So, you just harvested your rhubarb and you are making The Smitten Kitchen’s delicious rhubarb snacking cake (Smitten Kitchen Rhubarb Snacking Cake), and you discover that you don’t have any ground ginger. What do you do? Cry? Immediately jump in the car and drive to the supermarket for a can of ground ginger that you might never use again? Leave it out and hope for the best? Any or all of these could work, but what I recommend is that you pull down your copy of David Joachim’s The Food Substitutions Bible, turn to page 236, and discover that you can substitute ground ginger with: minced crystallised ginger (rinsed to remove the sugar), minced or grated fresh ginger, or ginger juice. You will also find that, failing those options, you can very the flavour slightly with pumpkin pie spice, ground allspice, or ground cardamom. I’ve tried the cardamom, which works nicely, as well as the fresh and crystallised ginger options. And don’t forget to double the crumb topping.

The Kale Whisperer’s Third Cookbook of Christmas is not a cookbook at all, but it is absolutely indispensable. Really. If you have a kitchen, and you do anything more in it than boiling eggs, buy this book immediately, if not sooner. Speaking of eggs, turn to “Egg, Whole” in this handy guide, and you will find that 1 large egg = 3 tablespoon (45ml) of egg yolk and whites = 1 3/4 ounces (52g). This is important information to have on hand if you 1) live outside the US and have no idea if 1 large egg = 1 standard size 6 or size 7 New Zealand egg, 2) you live in the US but only have jumbo or medium eggs in your fridge, or 3) you use your or someone else’s free range barnyard eggs and your hens are creative souls who lay whatever size egg they feel like laying.

Freerange_eggs

Does your typical carton of barnyard eggs look like this? Here’s the solution!

While any kitchen, vegetarian or not, could benefit from the wealth of information easily available in The Food Substitutions Bible, it is a godsend for any vegetarian or vegan cook. Vegans, for example, will find that they can substitute 1 cup (250ml) of whole 3.5% milk with a similar amount of soy, rice, almond, or oat milk. It will also remind them that they may need to compensate for added sugar. It also suggests vegan substitutes for eggs, butter, and honey. With this book on hand, it is a relatively simple matter to convert non-vegan recipes to vegan.

I live in New Zealand, but most of my cookbooks were Born in the USA. Not infrequently, I discover that key ingredients for some of my favourite recipes are simply not available here. Take cake flour. Cake flour is not a thing in New Zealand. But I have learned the hard way that substituting cake flour 1:1 with all purpose flour in a recipe that calls for cake flour can be a recipe for disaster. What to do? Look up cake flour and you’ll find that you can substitute 1 cup of cake flour with 1 cup (250ml or 142g) minus 3 tablespoons (45ml) all-purpose flour plus 3 tablespoons (45g) corn or potato starch (corn or potato flour, as they are known here in NZ). You’ll need to sift the flour and starch several times before you do your final measurement, and your cake might not have as fine a crumb, but it’s a pretty darn good substitute.

making-cheeseAnd what if you are making a potato and tomato gratin, and your recipe calls for a topping made with 1 cup (4 oz; 120g) of grated Gruyere cheese, but you don’t want to lay out the cash for an expensive chunk of Gruyere for a weeknight dinner? Look up Gruyere, and you’ll find that you can substitute Comte, Beaufort, or Emmental. OK, still pricey. But you know that Emmental is a Swiss-type cheese, so turn there and you find that, yes, indeed, you can substitute Jarlsburg (usually cheaper than Emmental) or Swiss cheese. I find the cheese substitutions particularly useful here in New Zealand. It can be difficult, and expensive, to buy the more obscure regional cheeses. And even if you can find Riccotta Salata, you might not want to shell out for it for an everyday meal.

If all this doesn’t convince you to run immediately to Amazon.com or Fishpond.co.nz to order (NZD$39.49 on fishpond; sadly, it is not yet available on Kindle — go to Amazon and complain!) a copy of The Food Substitutions Bible, let me close the deal. You want to make an apple pie. You go to the market and are faced with umpteen different varieties. Which one makes the best pie apple? What variety makes the best applesauce to go with your Hanukkah latkes? Grab your copy of FSB, turn to the back, and you’ll find a comprehensive guide to “Picking Apples.”

Do you have Celiac Disease? Can’t eat gluten? You will find here an exhaustive table of alternative flours that tells you 1) their best uses (yeast breads? quick breads?), 2) their gluten content (medium, low, gluten-free) and 3) their flavour.

Do you live in New Zealand and want to make pickles? Turn to “Trading Salts” and you’ll find that you can substitute Kosher Salt (not widely available here) with coarse or flaked sea salt. Thank goodness, your pickles won’t get cloudy and soggy from using iodised table salt!

For expats and those who don’t keep every possible size and shape of pan in their kitchen, or those who find a recipe that calls for a 28oz can of tomato puree and live where tomato puree comes only in metric cans, there are numerous useful tables: Can and Package Size Equivalents, Pan Size Equivalents (will a Bundt cake recipe fit in my Tube pan? yes), Temperature Equivalents (what is an “extremely hot oven” for pizza in metric? 260C), and Volume Equivalents (what the heck is a metric “pinch”, or a non-metric “pinch” for that matter? less than 1/8 teaspoon, or .5ml).

Downsize your spice rack. Go ahead and buy those organic free-range medium eggs when they are on sale. Don’t buy a quart of whole milk when you only need 1 cup. Don’t pay the outrageous supermarket price for creme fraiche. Buy this book instead.

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The Second Cookbook of Christmas: The Tao of Cooking

IMG_0267In August 1981, my then soon-to-be first husband and I loaded up a U-Haul trailer and moved from Athens, Georgia to Bloomington, Indiana. Our first apartment was a grim little efficiency all done up in 1970’s olive green and gold. The galley kitchen was in the living room, which had a giant grease stain in the middle of the carpet. It had only two positives: it was a short walk to the Indiana University campus, where I was working on a Master’s Degree in History, and it was just a couple of blocks away from the Tao Restaurant and Rudi’s Bakery.

The Tao, which was run by the members of a yoga ashram, got its start in the early 1970s as a worthy, hippie-vegetarian cafe — all brown rice, soy burgers, and sprouted things. By the time I arrived, it had grown up into a quite classy and refined (and not cheap) vegetarian restaurant. We were starving graduate students, but were also both budding foodies (although I hate the term, which technically hadn’t been invented yet). We scrimped and saved so we could splurge, once a month or so, on a nice meal at the Tao.

Rudi’s Bakery was more accessible, and there was no better comfort for a rotten day — I had a lot of those in Bloomington — than a slice of Rudi’s poppy seed cake with cream cheese frosting. I don’t have very many happy memories of those years, but the Tao and Rudi’s are among the happiest.

My first husband grew up in a restaurant family and was the one who really introduced me to the joy of cooking and eating well. We spent many happy hours in the kitchen together. Every weekend we undertook a new culinary adventure. I was not loving graduate school, and decided not to pursue a Ph.D. and left after my MA. I spent our final year in Bloomington, while my partner finished his degree, working at a soul-destroying job at the University Archives and taking cooking classes. The instructor for my first cooking class was Sally Pasley, the author of The Tao of Cooking (Indiana University Press, 1998), the Kale Whisperer’s Second Cookbook of Christmas.

Sally Pasley was one of a group of ashram members who had been mentored by a classically-trained French chef at the ashram’s original restaurant, Rudi’s Big Indian Restaurant, in upstate New York. She moved to the Bloomington restaurant in 1977, bringing a more classical vibe to the hippie eatery. Much to my delight, she also taught cookery classes. Under her steady guidance, I learned to make pastry and started my first foray into vegetarianism.

My copy of The Tao of Cooking is the original paperback, published in 1982 by Ten Speed Press, for which I paid $7.95 at Rudi’s (the current publishers price is $24.00 — cheaper at Amazon).  It has followed me from Indiana to Ohio, California, Georgia, Virginia and, finally, to the Southern Hemisphere.  IMG_0265It is splattered, dog-eared, and its spine is shot — as a well-loved cookbook should be. It was my first vegetarian cookbook and it is still on the top shelf of my cookbookcase. When I need a quick vegetable side, or a snappy salad, here’s where I go.

The Tao of Cooking represents its time. In the early 1980s, vegetarian cooking was making its transition from counter-culture to mainstream. You can find Hippie here: the Big Veg soy bean burger and Hobbit Pie (a personal favourite). But most of the recipes are refined, meat-free versions of European and Asian classics. Refined, but accessible, even to a beginning cook — as I was when I first bought my copy. The most exotic ingredient you’re likely to find is agar-agar (a vegetarian substitute for gelatine). Even for the Asian recipes, you are likely to find everything you need at a well-stocked supermarket. It doesn’t require any high-tech gadgets — the food processor was cutting edge, in those days.

My favourite recipes? My copy opens automatically to the Spaghetti with Eggplant, long a favourite, until I married my beloved but eggplant averse husband. The Pasta e Fagiole is classic and easy. I already mentioned the Hobbit Pie, whose mushroom and cheese filling I use in my Kiwi Pies (not made with actual kiwis). And because. . . you know. . .Wellington? Middle Earth? Hobbits?

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My not-yet-world-famous Kiwi Pies not made with actual kiwis

The fussiest recipe I’ve found is the Lasagne Verdi, which requires two sauces and homemade pasta. But it is well worth the effort. So is the Country Pate with Cold Tomato Sauce.The side dishes and salads are simple and tasty. The Tao Dressing is a must-try. You’ll never look at Ranch Dressing again.

The best thing about The Tao of Cooking? It includes, amongst many delicious cake and pastry recipes I learned to make in Sally’s pastry class, the recipe for Rudi’s Poppy Seed Cake. So whenever I need to, I can bake my own little slice of midwestern comfort, even here in far away New Zealand. And on a really bad day, there’s the Poppy Seed Cake Hot Fudge Sundae. That will brighten up the stormiest of Wellington days.

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