Adzuki, I’m so glad I ate you.

I’m sure you’ve all been in this situation.  You go to the market.  You see something new and exciting you’ve never eaten.  You buy it, sure that you’ll go home and promptly find exactly what to do with it.  And then you do go home, throw it onto your bean shelf in the bedroom (you all don’t have those? …Weird) and then promptly forget about it.

But thank goodness for the internet, specifically the group of uber-talented, delicious people who write food blogs. Like constant motivation, the food blog world weekly slaps me about the head and reminds me to get in the kitchen.  And it daily (hourly!) lends me ideas.  Heidi from 101 Cookbooks recently posted an adzuki bean and butternut squash soup and I remembered I had unused adzuki beans on my bean shelf in the bedroom (yes, I’m totally crazy and have no design skills.)  I’d imagined they would go in a soup when I bought them but of course forgot everything by the time I got home.  But now here was the perfect soup, on my screen.

It’s got lots of butternut squash and just enough chipotle to make you sweat.  Onions and tomatoes and 6 cloves of garlic.  And ground cinnamon, of which you’d hardly know it was there, but would miss it if left out.  I added some kale because I had some.  A little cumin because I love some.  [And meatballs because we’d been at the butcher and who doesn’t leave their favorite butcher without some ground meat?  Sadly, though, the soup was made and photographed the day before, sans meatballs, and I was too hungry the next day to stop and do anything other than eat my meal as soon as it was done.  Another time, maybe. And you don’t need the meatballs, anyway, I loved it just the same without.]

It was spicy and a little sweet and wholesome and comforting and whoo-damn it was good.  Jim deemed it the best soup we’ve ever made, and I was hard-pressed to disagree.  Adzuki, I’m so glad I (finally) ate you.

Adzuki Butternut Squash Soup Recipe

serves 6-8, adapted from 101 Cookbooks

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 generous teaspoons finely chopped chipotle pepper (from can, or rehydrated from dried chile)
  • 2 teaspoons fine grain sea salt
  • 2 medium-large onions
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 5 – 6 cups water
  • 5 whole canned tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 bunch lacinato kale
  • 4 cups cooked or canned adzuki beans
  • chopped cilantro for serving

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the cinnamon, coriander, chipotle and salt and saute for a minute or two – until aromatic. Add the onions and saute for about 10 minutes, until they are soft and beginning to brown.  Add the garlic and butternut squash and cook for another 5 minutes. Add 5 cups of water. Increase the heat to bring to a boil, and once boiling, reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the squash begins to soften, 15-20 minutes or so.

Once the squash has softened, break up some pieces with the back of your spoon (it should be soft enough for you to do this relatively easily). Add the tomatoes, and cook a couple more minutes before adding the kale and beans. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and the cilantro.
Heidi’s recipe was adapted from Jae Steele’s Get It Ripe: A Fresh Take on Vegan Cooking and Living (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008)

Birthday belly.

Jim turned 25 last Monday.  His birthday request was short and specific: cook him the pork belly we ate at Resto.  He didn’t care what else was served, or even who was there; he just wanted that belly—in all it’s maple-and-lime, turnips on the side, decadently sauced goodness.

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have a recipe.  It wasn’t on the restaurant’s website.  Nothing came back when I searched “maple and lime pork belly”.  The only thing I was sure of was the kimchi soubise—pretty self-explanatory: soubise is a bechamel with pureed onions in it, so kimchi soubise would substitute kimchi for the onions.  I also knew there were turnips and green onions involved.  But nada on the cooking methods, well, other than the fact that the waiter said the belly was glazed.

[And before you go gasping Bechamel! On pork belly?! let me explain. You don’t need a lot. And it was so good. It clung to the fried fat, yes, the layer of pan-fried fat on the pork belly, and made it even creamier and smoother and delicious-y-er. And it was his birthday. And we were celebrating. (Not that we won’t make it again – we will. Celebration or no. Because it was that good.)]

So, I started off with what I knew.  I put the pork belly, fat side down, in an enameled dutch oven and rendered for 25-30 minutes.  This is where, if you’ve never rendered the fat of a pork belly, you have to be brave.  You’ll be sure that the meat is burning, that you’ve got to flip it over, or that the whole thing will overcook.  It won’t (well, if it really, really, really seems to be burning, it probably is).  If you look up to my pork, you’ll see the blackness of it—and that’s the way I like it.  After it rendered I poured off the fat, sauteed an onion, and put the pork belly back in the pot, fat side up now, with a few glugs of maple, the juice of a lime, and a couple pieces of ginger.  I added water to three-quarters up the side of the belly and prayed for the best during the three hours that it braised.

Then I made the soubise, with unhomogenized grass-fed milk.  If you haven’t used this stuff for white-sauce making, please, drop  your laptop and leave the house.  Go to the nearest Whole Foods, or organic food store, no matter how far it may be, and buy some.  Then get yourself home straightaway and make a bechamel, it will be thicker, creamier, and saucier than anything you’ve made with pasteurized milk.  You don’t need to put it on anything, eat it from the spoon.  (And then please come back here because I haven’t finished yet.)

Finally, when the pork was tender and falling apart, I sliced it thickly and put it into a nonstick pan with diced turnips.  I let it fry away—rendering more fat, browning, just reaching black—until both the pork belly and the turnips were charred and fried and unimaginably good.  It was tough, but I made it all onto a plate, covered it with the soubise and green onions and ever (I don’t know where I found the willpower) took a few photos.

And we celebrated Jim’s quarter century.  It was everything he could want in a birthday dish.  And, if I do say so myself (and Jim says too!!), better than Resto’s.

Pork Belly with Turnips, Kimchi Soubise, and Green Onions

  • 1 ½ pound pork belly
  • 1 onion, diced
  • ¼ cup maple syrup, plus 1 tablespoon
  • juice and zest of 1 lime
  • 1-inch piece ginger, sliced
  • ½ cup kimchi, chopped or pureed a bit
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 ¼ cups unhomogenized whole milk
  • 5-6 medium sized turnips, peeled and diced
  • 1 bunch green onions, sliced
  • salt and pepper

Score the fat side of the pork belly in a crosshatch pattern.  In a hot pan, place the pork belly fat side down over medium-high heat and render the fat for 25-30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350F. Remove pork belly and drain off all but 1 teaspoon of the fat.  Put pan back on the heat.  Add onions and saute for a few minutes.  Add maple, lime juice (reserving zest) and ginger.  Add pork belly.  Add enough water to reach halfway to three-quarters up the side of the belly.  Cover and move to oven.  Cook for 3 and a half hours, uncovering when you have about an hour to go.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a small saucepan.  Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the paste cooks and bubbles a bit, but don’t let it brown — about 2 minutes.  Add the hot milk, continuing to stir as the sauce thickens. Bring it to a boil.  Add kimchi puree to taste and cook a bit longer.  Season with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

Remove pork belly from pot.  Slice thickly.  In a nonstick fry pan over medium-high heat, add a few spoonfuls of the liquid from the pork belly’s pot.  Add the turnips, and saute for a minute or two.  Add the pork belly slices and leave in place in the pan for 5 minutes, moving the turnips around every 30 seconds or so.  Flip the pork belly slices and let the other sides brown for 5 minutes.  Remove slices to a plate, frying up the turnips in the rendered fat a but longer, until they are very brown.  Remove turnips to plate.  Drizzle warmed kimchi soubise over pork belly and sprinkle with green onions.  Serve hot with crisp, cold beers.

New beginnings.

It doesn’t feel like so long ago when I was last having new beginnings.  It seems that graduating from college and facing the big-people world works that way.  You get a job, any job, and then realize you don’t want any old job.  You work for a while, gain some confidence and start looking for the next challenge.  You may then, even, find your perfect place, a nice Mom and Pop of a school, perfect hours, summers off, and wonderful people all around.  Ok, that’s unlikely, though it was what I had.  But, like the rest of the world, things fall apart. Companies get sold, disgruntlements ensue, and you start wanting to begin again.

So that’s where I stand now.  A part-time job and a fledgling personal chef business.  It’s exciting.  And scary.  And lovely… unimaginably lovely.  Kind of like this soup, really.  The whole time I was preparing it, from breaking down the garlic cloves to passing it through the food mill, I was scared for what was to come, but pretty thrilled for it.  Four heads of garlic?  Garlic soup?  It sounds like something out of True Blood, but there’s no vampires to fend off here.

You don’t need to be warding off blood-suckers to love this soup anyway, because it’s hardly pungent, almost indiscernibly garlic—that is until someone tells you it’s garlic soup and you become altogether terrified that someone who hasn’t eaten the soup will kiss you tonight.  Not that they would notice.  Or care.  (Because who doesn’t need a kiss, anyway?)

You won’t notice the thyme much either, though it’s not the same without it.   Fresh thyme is best, and it’s the same for garlic.  Don’t make this soup with brown-bottomed, half-dead garlic bulbs—make sure they are fresh, resilient, and either white or purple.  Check the roots because (not that I want to get into the whole nature/nurture discussion) brown spots at the root is bad news.  Luckily, finding good garlic is the hardest part.

Just break up 4 heads of garlic, brushing off the white, papery skins but not bothering to peel the cloves.  Throw them in a pot with 12 or so sprigs of fresh, fragrant thyme.  Splash in a quart of roasted vegetable stock, chicken stock, or water, and simmer away until the garlic yields to the gentle pressing of the back of a spoon.  Run everything through a food mill with a fine grater (or take out the thyme twigs and blend) and then add the juice of one lime.  Serve piping hot with a slice of good, crusty bread, or all by itself for a warming first course.  It tastes exciting and different from any other broth soups, and is invigorating enough to sustain you through a long kissing session afterwards.

Garlic and Thyme Soup

adapted from James Peterson’s Splendid Soups

serves 4 in small bowls

  • 4 heads good garlic
  • about 12 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 quart roasted vegetable stock, chicken stock, or water
  • 1 lime
  • salt and pepper to taste

Break down garlic heads into cloves, brushing away the white, papery skins but not bothering to peel.  Wrap the thyme into a bunch.  Add both to a 3 qt pot and cover with 1 quart of the vegetable stock, chicken stock, or water (I use roasted vegetable stock and it is lovely here.)  Bring to a gentle simmer and cook until the garlic cloves are soft and yield to a fork, about 40 minutes, depending on your garlic.

Run the soup through a food mill fitted with a fine grater, or take out the thyme sprigs and blend in a blender (if you blend, you’ll need to pass your soup through a sieve afterwards.  Add the juice of one lime to the soup and taste for seasoning, adding a little salt or pepper if you like.  Serve in warmed bowls.

Jimmy yells DOWN WITH ZAGAT!

Robin and I had suspected for some time that Zagat food ratings are meaningless, and this weekend, on Sunday, after a glorious dinner in Manhattan with the lovely Anita from Married…with Dinner, we got proof. Resto, in Gramercy Park, is rated a twenty. A twenty! A twenty means that when Frank Bruni selected Resto as one of his favorite restaurants of 2007, he was off by literally over a thousand spots. A twenty means there isn’t a Japanese restaurant in the city whose California roll isn’t tastier than maple- and lime-glazed pork belly, and deviled eggs served over deep fried pork jowls.

Photo by Alexandra Solmssen

A twenty means you’d be better off grabbing a hot dog from the greasy racks of either Hot Dog King or Gray’s Papaya than you would being served short ribs by the charming, laid back waiters at Resto — beer-braised short ribs, that is, served over french fries with apple conserves: an entrée so in-your-face tasty and decadent you’d think its presence on the menu would preclude such refined desserts as almond financier with the perfect amount of thyme, but no! A twenty means talented chefs and designers, not to mention top notch beer and wine lists and excellent cocktails, don’t mean anything. A twenty means DOWN WITH ZAGAT!

Comfort and a butternut squash.

I’d planned to be right back to tell you about my cilantro-laced dinner.  You still have some oil, don’t you?  Good; now get yourself a butternut squash.

Some of you may have noticed this soup in last month’s Gourmet.  February was The Comfort Food Issue and, of course, I am going to make everything in it.  Because who doesn’t need comfort in the middle of February, whether it comes from your valentine, or your soup spoon, or (preferably) both?

The soup was a curried butternut squash and red lentil soup and it wasn’t supposed to be pureed, but I left it on the stove just a wee too long and the lentils were too soft.  I was happy for this mistake in the end, though, because after a few post-mistake tweaks the soup really shone.  A pinch of saffron, a dash of smoked paprika, and a little extra salt—what couldn’t be better for it?

The end result was a smooth yet full-bodied soup; you could taste the lentils and their earthy note while the complex sweetness of the squash and all the curried spices lingered.  The cilantro oil added an extra green pop—taste-wise and aesthetically. The look of this soup—bright warm yellow and stark green swirls—is enough to make it tasty.  But thankfully, the flavors don’t disappoint.

Curried-Squash and Red-Lentil Soup

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 pound butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 celery rib, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced peeled ginger
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder (preferably Madras)
  • 1 cup red lentils, picked over and rinsed
  • 2 quarts water
  • pinch of saffron
  • scant 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • black pepper

Heat oil with butter in a large heavy pot over medium heat until foam subsides, then cook squash, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, ginger, and 1 teaspoon salt, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened and beginning to brown, 15 to 20 minutes.

Stir in curry powder and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring frequently, 2 minutes.

Add lentils and water and simmer, covered, until lentils are tender, 25 to 40 minutes. Puree soup with an immersion blender or in batches in a stand blender.  Add saffron, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste.

Serve drizzled with cilantro oil.