Unfussy Fare

Thai Chicken and Coconut Soup (Tom Kha Gai)

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This one goes out to everyone who ever brought food when the chips were down. I may have forgotten to write a note, given everything. I’m sure you were busy. It took forethought. You had to find that recipe, get groceries, and cook. Then you had to transport it all, which can be messy. You probably wondered if you’d ever get your Tupperware back. It was good of you.

Years ago, when my mother was dying, people brought food. There were casseroles and brownies, homegrown tomatoes and pots of soup. I was mystified. Did they really think we could eat, at a time like that? Well, yes. They knew we could. Everyone eventually does, inconceivable as it seems. I felt like a traitor, eating while my irrepressible mother was slipping away. But she would’ve rolled her eyes at that sentiment, and reminded me that life is hard enough without my efforts to make it harder.

Years later, my husband and I welcomed a son. Dinner came to our doorstep every night for weeks, courtesy of friends and neighbors. I wept with thankfulness. I wept a lot in those days, but that’s another story. I can still taste those meals, seasoned as they were with naked gratitude. I missed my Mom. I needed help. And help arrived, wrapped in foil and kindness.

Birth and death are demanding. They just swoop right and in and put their feet up, blithely flicking away the orderly unfolding of our days. We are tender and tired as we attend our loved ones at the beginning and the end. We sing and stroke. We wash and feed. The clock ceases to provide useful information. These are the rhythms of lives, not days. In the midst of these marathons of nurture, gifts of food stand in simple relief. Meals arrive like little missives from the world where the clock still applies, like souvenirs of simpler times. It’s hard to remember simpler times when you’re in the thick of life’s seismic upheavals. Food gives strength, and comfort.

A family friend dropped this soup by for me and my stepfather when my mom was sick. We were dazed by the unfolding loss. My memories of that time are foggy, but I recall thinking this soup was the most delicious thing I ever tasted.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible to even notice a bowl of soup just then, never mind enjoy it. But I savored every bite. It served to remind me that a world outside of sorrow still existed. Life would be there, with all its flavors and delights, when the time came to gather up the fragments of my broken heart and look forward again.

To this day, the complicated interplay of flavors in Tom Kha Gai puts me in mind of nurture, solace, and motherhood. When I know someone with a new baby, or an illness, or a death in the family, this is the dish I most often bring. I pass it on with thanks, for all the grace and sustenance.

I get a lot of requests for this recipe, which is the true measure of any dish’s popularity, if you ask me. This soup somehow manages to be feisty and harmonious at the same time. It’s interesting enough to impress foodie types, but simple and comforting enough to appeal to less adventurous eaters. (You might need to explain to the aforementioned “less adventurous eaters” that the big stalks of lemongrass and discs of ginger floating around in the soup aren’t meant to be eaten. They’re just adding flavor.) Sometimes I throw in cooked basmati rice at the end. That may be some kind of Thai-food no-no, but I find chicken and rice a soothing combination.

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THAI CHICKEN AND COCONUT SOUP (TOM KHA GAI)
makes four generous servings

1 stalk lemongrass (Available at most grocery stores these days.)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, diced small
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste (Also available at most groceries.)
6 quarter-inch wide slices fresh ginger
3 kaffir lime leaves (Not available at most groceries. I usually substitute ½ teaspoon grated lime peel.)
4 cups chicken stock
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced with the grain into quarter-inch wide strips.
2 cups shitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps quartered
1 14-ounce can coconut milk (Don’t use low-fat. Trust me. I tried it.)
Juice of two limes (about five tablespoons)
2 tablespoons nam pla (AKA fish sauce, also available in most groceries these days.)
3 green onions, trimmed and sliced into ¼ inch pieces
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

Trim lemongrass, cut into three pieces about four inches long. Whack the pieces with the flat side of your knife blade to crush slightly.

Heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat.

Saute onion and garlic for about two minutes.

Add lemongrass, curry paste, ginger discs, and lime leaf (or peel). Cook, stirring, for three minutes.

Add stock. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add coconut milk, chopped chicken and quartered mushroom caps. Cook five minutes, or until chicken is just cooked through.

Add lime juice and nam pla. Taste for balance between nam pla and lime. If one flavor is dominating too much, add a little of the other.

Garnish with green onion and cilantro.

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Moroccan-Style Chickpeas with Preserved Lemons

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Remember the preserved lemons we made a few weeks back? Well, I introduced mine to some chickpeas and Moroccan spices, and sparks flew. The sturdy, reliable chickpea put on a little lipstick, let down its hair, and danced. It wasn”t one of those dorky, awkward dances, either. The chick pea had moves. It was all thanks to the mysterious powers of preserved lemon, if you ask me.

This Moroccan-inspired chickpea stew is as unfussy as they come. It takes minutes to assemble (assuming you’re lazy like me, and you use canned chickpeas). It simmers largely unattended, and it melds into an irresistible bouquet of piquant and flowery, sweet and savory. We had ours with grilled lamb chops (simply marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper). We were reduced to moans and raised eyebrows in lieu of conversation until we’d eaten every last morsel.

If, for some incomprehensible reason, you were not inspired to make preserved lemons a few weeks back, you can buy them at middle-eastern markets, Whole Foods, or gourmet shops.

MOROCCAN-STYLE CHICKPEAS WITH PRESERVED LEMONS
serves six as a side dish, adapted from this recipe in Gourmet (RIP)

3 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium onion, diced small
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5-ounce can small-diced tomatoes, with juice
2 15.5-ounce cans chick peas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed
1 ½ tablespoons minced preserved lemon peel
¼ cup raisins
¼ cup chopped parsley

Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat.

Add onion and spices and sauté for about five minutes.

Add garlic and sauté for about thirty seconds.

Add tomatoes with their juice, chick peas, preserved lemon peel, raisins, and a half cup of water. Stir. Lower heat until the stew is barely simmering. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more water if it starts to look dry.

When you’re ready to eat, sprinkle with parsley and serve.

On another note, I have to tell you I was mighty flattered to be tapped for a “One Lovely Blog” award by The Hungry Dog. Thanks, Hungry! I never win anything! My mission now is to pass on some blog-love by calling out some of the lovely blogs I favor:

You probably know about The Wednesday Chef already. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t send a shout out to my favorite food blogger, Luisa Weiss. Reading The Wednesday Chef feels like sharing some laughs with an old friend over the cutting board and a glass of wine. Her prose seems so effortless. And her love of food is contagious.

Jess at Hogwash has a gift for shining a light on the intersection of food and life. I’m impressed by the many graceful ways she weaves the common threads of humanity into her kitchen creations.

Redmenace at A Chow Life has created a stylish site, replete with enticing recipes, great pictures, and an endearingly quirky outlook.

Joseph at Gastronomer’s Guide takes gorgeous pictures. I admire the classy look of this blog. His recipe picks are elegant and inspiring.

I’m grateful to all you food bloggers out there for sharing your recipes and thoughts. I didn’t realize when I started this blog that I’d be stumbling into such a generous and creative community. Thanks!


Wild Mushroom Soup

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Mushrooms are the enticing bad-boy of the vegetable world. It’s hard to decide if they’re beautiful or ugly, which makes me want to buy them a drink and hear their story. They have all those poisonous cousins, which adds to the intrigue. They walk the line between funk and sophistication. Make them into a luscious soup, and they taste just as complicated and deep as they look.

I had some mushroom kismet. First, a generous friend who hunts mushrooms on misty Oregon mountsides gave us a gorgeous bag of chanterelles. The very next day I was seduced by the sumptuous smell of maitake mushrooms sautéing in butter on a camp stove at the farmer’s market. Free samples. They work. If the universe hasn’t thrown any interesting mushrooms into your path lately, don’t worry. You can buy a few good varieties at most any grocery store. I’m confident this recipe will work with whatever mix of mushrooms you can get your hands on.

Before we get to the recipe, I have a confession. At the risk of ruining my reputation as a lazy, short-cutting, step-skipping cook, I made my own vegetable stock a few weeks ago. Making your own stock is flat fussy. Unless you consider that all you have to do is chop some stuff, sauté, add water, then ignore for an hour. It doesn’t require attention or skill. But it does require forethought, and time.  In my book, that’s a lot to ask, but it turns out it’s worth the effort. It”s seriously bumped up the taste of my soups. I’m making my own vegetable stock from here on out.

What compelled me to get off my unfussy can and make stock? Well, it was a post I read on a vegan blog. I know. What are the odds of me reading a vegan blog? I’m a contender for President of the Society for the Advancement of Butter. When I think vegan, I think sawdusty cookies and sanctimony. (Sorry, vegan readers. I base my totally unfair generalization on very limited personal experience. I’m sure you have a wicked sense of humor and a fabulous flair for cooking.) Regardless, this most excellent post made a mighty convincing case for homemade vegetable stock. So convincing that I made some. I used it in a squash soup, which was delectable. I froze the rest for a rainy day. It rained mushrooms. How could I resist?

This soup has a sublime interplay of flavors and scents. There’s the smell of freshly turned soil, and fall leaves, and hay. That’s all in there. And then there’s the way the cream folds itself elegantly around the rest. It’s smooth silk beside the nubby linen of mushrooms. The leeks and garlic? Delicate stitching. And the wine? Help! How do I escape from this tortured sewing analogy? I’ll just move on. The wine tastes exactly like it was born to simmer with mushrooms and leeks.  Which it was. ‘Nuf said.

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WILD MUSHROOM SOUP
makes four servings

4 tablespoons butter
2 medium leeks, white and light green parts only, sliced into quarter-inch rounds and rinsed well
2 pounds mushrooms, any kind you like, chopped coarsely
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ cup white wine
2 ½ cups vegetable stock
1 cup water
½ cup cream
2 tablespoons sherry
salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add leeks, and sauté for about five minutes.

Add mushrooms, sprinkle with fresh ground pepper, and sauté until the liquid cooks off and the mushrooms start to brown, about 12 minutes. Hold off salting the vegetables. The stock may be salty enough.

Add thyme and garlic, and sauté for another minute or two. Add wine and simmer for five minutes.

Add vegetable stock and water. (You can use store-bought stock if you’re not inspired to make your own. I”ll never tell.) Reduce heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Puree soup in a blender or food processor until it is very smooth. Return soup to pot over low heat.

Add cream and sherry and stir to blend. Warm soup over low heat until it is warmed through. Do not boil the cream.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with a sprinkling of fresh thyme.

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Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars

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Close your eyes and imagine a deep velvety peanut butter cookie with a sprinkling of crunchy peanuts on top. Now picture a generous stripe of raspberry jam shot through the middle. It’s moist, rich, salty, and sweet. A cold swig of milk leaves your palate refreshed and ready for more. You don’t have to be a kid to appreciate this.

There was a time in my life when peanut butter and jelly conjured images of sticky fingers and gluey mouthfuls. I considered it kid food, in a league with goldfish crackers, mac and cheese from a box, and chicken fingers. Kid food wasn”t anything I’d really want to eat, unless there was a natural disaster or something. Regardless, I eventually rediscovered peanut butter and jelly and fell in love.

I don’t remember the exact circumstances. I was probably raiding my son’s snacks while passing the time at the playground (which is an excellent candidate for one of Dante’s circles of hell, if you ask me). Anyway, I found that the PB&J sandwich actually holds some interest. The salty and sweet do a respectable cat-and-mouse with each other. Jam is a comforting condiment. And salted peanuts have a lot going on. Put one on your tongue and savor it for a second. It tastes like earth, sky, and a balmy sea.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars bring out the best in these humble pantry staples. These bars are not for dieters, or heart patients. They should probably come with a health warning. Numbers aren’t really my thing, but one bar contains approximately 90,000 calories and 4,000 grams of fat. Or something like that. This recipe makes about 1,000 of them. You do the math.

The first time I made these, 18 ounces of jam struck me as excessive. So I used about half that amount, which was a mistake. It turns out the bars really need all that jam to contrast with the buttery richness of the rest. So the second time I used the full 18 ounces. In truth, it was a bit much. But it worked. Go ahead and embrace the fact that these bars are altogether excessive. Now is not the time to succumb to any inclinations you might have towards restraint. And one other thing I learned from experience: Don’t attempt to cut these when they are even a little bit warm, or they’ll fall apart. They take forever to cool (about 217 hours), so plan accordingly.

PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY BARS – Adapted from Ina Garten’s recipe
makes one 9 x 13 pan – about 32 bars

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 18-ounce jar creamy peanut butter (I used Skippy, because Ina told me to.)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2  cups raspberry jam (18 ounces)
2/3 cups salted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease and flour a 9 x 13 by glass pan.

Cream the butter and sugar with a mixer on medium speed until fluffy, about two minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the vanilla, eggs, and peanut butter and mix until all ingredients are combined.

With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the flour, baking powder, and salt to the peanut butter mixture. Mix just until combined.

Spread 2/3 of the dough into the bottom of the prepared pan. Spread the jam evenly over the dough. Drop small globs of the remaining dough over the jam. Don”t worry if all the jam isn”t covered. The dough will spread as it bakes. Sprinkle with chopped peanuts and bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown.

Cool and cut into squares. Alert your cardiologist.

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