In celebration of my friend Lita adopting a baby boy from Ukraine this week, I have been promising her to post some recipes. I am always status-bragging on FB about what I am cooking and she is always gracious and complimentary, so in honor of her new son Matan and her older daughter Karen, I will fulfill my promise and post a few.
Anyone that knows me knows I love to cook. Cooking is one of my favorite things to do in the whole world. There's nothing I love more than shutting myself up at home over a cold, miserable weekend, armed with ingredients and making some fun and comforting meal. It is not very 'today' of me to love cooking, perhaps it means that subconsciously I wish it was 1954.
I think one of the reasons I love is nostalgia. It has to do with my grandmother, who any of you that know me or have read my earlier blog posts, know I called Meme (Mey-Mey). Every Sunday in my youth my family, parents, brothers and me joined my Aunt, Uncle and 4 cousins for dinner at my grandparents' house. While my parents came in the late afternoon, my brothers, cousins and I would usually walk over after Sunday School since their house was close to the synagogue. While the boys would monopolize the tv watching football, baseball or whatever, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with Meme watching her get dinner ready. Oh, how I loved those times. She had one of those stools that was the level of a bar stool but had two folding 'stairs' at the bottom and that is where I would sit and watch her make dinner for her family, 13 people, every Sunday without fail (at least until one by one the grandchildren went off to college). Being the youngest, I definitely was there the longest and probably had the most dinners at Meme's house. The amazing thing was that Meme wasn't even a good cook! That was probably not what you were expecting me to write. But it is true, she was not a good cook. She had a few dishes that she did make very well and a few signature dishes which were excellent. She was not experimental in her cooking but what she made she made very well, and I learned probably the most valuable cooking lesson I ever learned from her. Good quality ingredients are important and can often draw the line between a great dish and a mediocre one. One day I will post some of her dishes which to my brothers and me, are like nectar of the gods. A post for another time.......
So, how did I come to love cooking with this so-so cook as my mentor? Well, now after having matured a few years I realize that what I loved was the togetherness of just being with my family when I was young and life was uncomplicated and carefree, where the most important decision I had to make was if I wanted M&Ms, Nestle Crunch or a Kit Kat bar, all three of which adorned Meme's utility closet in droves. I think I grew to love cooking, particularly for company because everytime I cook a meal, I feel a connection to those days and that makes me feel all warm and gooey. Even in Amsterdam, something about putting a meal together transports me to Washington, Pennsylvania. Ahhhhhhhh.
I have a few (highly recommended) tips about cooking that I follow pretty religiously, which are different to my food rules, which maybe I will post about in the future) but I find, especially if you are a cooking novice or try recipes that sound great, but don't come out like you hope for, these tips might come in very handy to help you cook more of what you will love. Here they are:
1. If you are making a recipe, make sure you that you like the flavor of the ingredients before making the dish particularly herbs and spices which can make or break the flavor of the dish. For instance, don't make something with tarragon unless you know you like tarragon. If you're not sure what cumin is taste it before you make a recipe in it.
2. Try to find cooking methods and recipes which you have made before successfully and use those to build your repertoire. For instance, what I call the olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper can be the basis of many a yummy dish (pasta, rice, vegetables, chicken, fish). Sometimes nothing will taste nicer than sauteeing some onion, garlic and olive oil, throwing in some rice and grilling a piece of meat chicken or fish. With something like that, throw in some spinach and you have a lovely, delicious meal very easily. A lot of what I make is built on about 4 or 5 different cooking combos or methods.
3. Learn some basics before you try something really fancy. For instance, don't try a souffle first thing out, souffles are very complex and everything has to be exactly right (including the moon being in the 3rd house of Jupiter) for it to come out right. Do something easier and build to more complex cooking. For instance, I learned how to make and perfect gravy before learning how to make other more complex sauces.
4. Invest in some good restaurant quality stocks or bases. You can often buy great stocks or bases at restaurant supply stores, many of which sell to the public. Those little cubes of bouillon suck and you will never be able to pull off a good soup, stew or sauce with that. Homemade stock is a fabulous thing, and easy to make but it takes a long time and it doesn't really go very far. In particular good chicken stock is essential. I use chicken base in a surprising amount of dishes (very few of which taste like chicken). The brand I use is Knorr, but the key is the restaurant quality. You usually cannot find this in a grocery store but if you go to Costco or Makro (in the Netherlands) or anyplace that restaurants buy stuff you can usually find it. In Israel, I pinched-hit and just asked a favorite restaurant where to buy it and lo and behold they directed me to a place that sold it. Essential!
My Basic Soup Recipe
Like I said I have perfected a few cooking methods and use them, one of them is my Roux-Soup formula. I use this to make tons of different soups. The great thing about the roux is that you will get thick soup that will seem creamy, even if you don't add any cream (adding a little cream can really turn it into a luxurious dish though!).
1.5 Tablespoon of butter (margarine is okay too)
Fresh ground Pepper (invest in a pepper mill)
An onion (or something from the onion family, a leek, 2 shallots, etc. No red onions)
Approximately 1 pound of 1 type of vegetable (can be broccoli, pumpkin, potato, mushrooms, etc.)
5 cups of chicken bouillon (take your chicken base, measure 5 cups and put two tablespoons of base in)
Here's what you do:
-Put your chicken base in a microwavable measuring cup or bowl and add the 5 cups of water. Microwave on high for 5 minutes. Take it out and stir it. Take a little taste, it should taste like broth but not too salty (you want something that is less salty then canned soup but doesn't taste watery). If it's too weak add a little more base, if it's too salty add a little more water.
-Get out a soup pot (or the pot you boil pasta in, soup needs room to move)
-Melt butter over medium heat, add about 10 good grinds of pepper
-Add your onion and saute until it is 'wet' from the butter and soft (about 3-4 minutes), don't burn it.
-Add the flour and stir it, it should turn into a thick paste with onions.
-Then add your broth and stir for a minute
-Add your veggies
-bring the soup to a simmer (not a boil), once it simmers, turn the heat low enough to keep it simmering slowly. You don't want it to boil or too much of the water will evaporate and the soup will burn.
-Cook soup for a good hour, stirring every 10-15 minutes. Vegetables should be soft. Give your broth a little taste, it should taste like soup. If it is watery go ahead and add a little more base until it tastes good to you.
-Turn off the heat, let the soup cool for about an hour or so on the stove.
-Get out a blender (here's how you knock the socks off people with soup, puree it)
-Blend about 3 ladles at a time (be careful, cover the blender with a dishtowel and hold the lid. I've gotten more than one awful burn from a blender lid flying off or too much hot soup in the blender. Be careful!!
-Reheat the soup when you want to serve. If you want to add cream, add about 1/3 cup of cream or whole milk when you reheat.
That's it! When you serve you can do something fancy like drizzle with some truffle oil (great for mushroom), add some creme fraiche and/or chopped fresh chives or scallions (pumpkin or leek and potato), add some garlicky croutons (yummy with broccoli, cauliflower, etc).
My Soup Vegetable/Onion combinations:
Mushroom Soup - Mushrooms/White or yellow onions
Pumpkin -Pumpkin, potato (2:1 ratio), yellow onion
Broccoli - broccoli, yellow onion
Sweet Potato - Sweet Potato, potato, yellow onion
Celery - Celery, shallot
Asparagus - Asparagus, shallot
Zucchini - zucchini, leeks
Leek and Potato - figure it out