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Archive for the ‘Spices’ Category

Nearly two weeks after Thanksgiving, and we are still eating leftovers.  Turkey sandwiches and quesadillas, french onion soup, breakfast fried mashed potatoes, stuffing frittatas, lasagna, and even a pan of turkey enchiladas.  When it comes to repurposing leftovers, we rule!  Our fridge is finally emptying out and very little has been wasted.

I splurged on a 20-quart stockpot for Thanksgiving this year.  It was a big purchase…  it’s only a cheap-o Target pot, but with cabinet space at a premium, I am still not sure where to store this monster.  No regrets, however, as a 20-quart pot meant nearly as much post-holiday turkey stock.  The old laying hen we brought home from our farm day joined it’s compatriot’s carcass, and I have enough stock to last a very long while.  It is well worth the small up front effort to have homemade stock on hand.

And where there is stock, there is soup.

Leftover Squash Soup

This technique works for any amount or type of leftover mashed veg (root vegetables or squashes in particular) and is merely an exercise in heating things up.  But there are a few basic things to consider for those new to cooking.

Put the squash in a saucepan, breaking it up with a spatula so it is not just a big Tupperware shaped lump.  Liberally season with your choice of spices.  For this go round, I used the Barbecue of the Americas spice blend from Penzeys.  It was a free sample and is a blend of salt, paprika, allspice, nutmeg, cayenne, pepper, cinnamon, thyme and ginger.  The nutmeg and allspice complement squash particularly well, it adds a rich color and a bit of heat, as well as just enough ginger for flavor without pushing it into curry territory.  *sigh* I heart Penzeys and am powerless against the crack like pleasure of Penzeys free samples.

Add enough stock to nearly cover the squash and start reheating, stirring occasionally to incorporate the liquid and keep the bottom from scorching.  A quality silicon spatula works very well for this.  Zyliss makes one which works really well.  The silicon stretches up much of the handle, which is great when you accidentally leave the spatula sitting in the pot between stirs.  (Not that I ever do that…  no…  not me…)

I sliced and toasted some garlic bread from the Gracie Baking Co.  I found a ramekin of goat cheese remnants at the back of the fridge.  Some stray baby spinach was located as well.  Sides were officially done.

Turning attention back to the soup, it had bubbled away during homework negotiations and was now more like babyfood than soup.  No problem, just add more stock until it is just shy of the preferred consistency.

Then turn off the burner before adding the dairy.  In this case I used Straus Whole Milk Plain Yogurt, but cream, half and half, or sour cream would work well too.  Fresh dairy can take a little heat and vigorous stirring, but fermented dairy products can curdle quickly if they are left to boil at this point.  Their proteins have already started to coagulate from the fermentation process and are simply more delicate.  So I just play it safe and turn off the burner before stirring in the yogurt at the end.  Another option is adding the dollop of yogurt or sour cream individually and letting The Child stir it in herself.

Notice there isn’t a measurement of any ingredient through any of this.  This is leftover squash soup.  You start with what’s leftover, you add liquid until it looks right, and then you serve it.  We polished off the squash, the last of the yogurt, some goat cheese, and spinach before any of it went bad.  I love that feeling of rescuing food just before it’s about to go south.  Plus, the entire loaf of bread is now sliced and in the fridge, making garlic toast with eggs much easier next morning before school.

The Child turned her goat-cheesed garlic toast and salad into a spinach sandwich and proceeded to dunk it into her mug (punning about squashing it into the little cup of squash soup).  Then she asked for seconds on everything, even the spinach, and double-checked I didn’t skimp on refilling the soup.

I love it when a meal comes together.

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We actually had a *gasp* vegetarian meal.  Even when meat is not the star around here, it is typically incorporated as unctuous stock, or at the very least acts as garnish to soups or salads or sandwiches…  but without really thinking about it, I made a vegetarian meal.

First there was the broth.  Vegetable stock is a misnomer.  Without connective tissue, it is broth and not stock.  But as I figured out recently, there is no need for vegetable broth to be without flavor.  Mine turned out downright spicy!  Fennel tops, bendy celery, an old and cracked carrot, a handful of peppercorns, some salvaged cloves of sprouting garlic right in their paper skins, and some thick slices of unpeeled ginger.  And because there is no need for bones to release their collagen or for connective tissue to break down, it only took about an hour.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Fennel is new to me.  More accurately, home-cooked fennel bulb that tastes good is new to me.  I have watched it prepared a zillion times on the tube, often running right out to get some and try it myself.  I have roasted and sauteed and slawwed.  And every time it overwhelms with anise flavor in a truly unpleasant way.  I would be scared off for another year or so, convinced it was not meant to be.

To add insult to injury, I know I like it.  Anytime I order fennel soup in a nice restaurant it is tempered and smooth and gorgeous.  I grew up loving fennel seed in Italian Sausages and bread.  Decades ago in Southern California I made a hobby of learning to cook Indian food, and discovered an entirely different direction for fennel seed.  The feathery bits of leaves are great tossed into a green salad, or with eggs or fish in the place of dill.  Every part of the fennel plant is edible, even the pollen, but successfully cooking the damn bulb eludes me!

Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (1887)

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is interesting botanically because it is considered the sole species in it’s genus, although one cultivar stands out as being sweeter with a slightly larger bulb (Florence Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum).  Plants able to adapt to various habitats without evolving into different subspecies have to be tenacious.  This tough perennial has naturalized throughout the world, propagating easily by seed.  In climates similar to it’s Mediterranean origin it is an invasive species contributing to habitat destruction.

Introduced by humans to California, it has made itself at home across much of the state.  On Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands it has overrun native habitat, much like the introduced and devastating feral pigs which thrive on a diet of naturalized fennel.  Ironically it has also provided cover and shelter to native Island Foxes, a species recently hunted into threatened status by the Golden Eagle.  The Golden Eagle moved to the islands after humans completely displaced the Bald Eagle with DDT.  Ah the web we weave, or unweave as the case may be.  Recently Bald Eagles have been successfully reintroduced.

Fennel’s intricate history with humans far pre-dates California settlement and goes beyond just food.  It reads like a missing chapter from The Botany of Desire, what I find to be Michael Pollan’s most enjoyable work.  It is a book of essays about four plants which have benefited and changed due to the desires of mankind and how they in turn changed us.  Fennel was an important plant medicinally and mythologically in Ancient Greece, and the Romans carried it throughout their realm as well.  Used in Europe as one of the three herbs to make absinthe, the others being anise and grande wormwood, the rituals and lore surrounding absinthe production and consumption further the plant’s mystique.

Mystique to me is just science I don’t yet understand.  And the science which makes fennel special is really cool.  That overwhelming flavor comes from anethole, an unsaturated ether which measures 13 times sweeter than sugar.  And because anethole is less soluble in water than ethanol, it makes anise-flavored liquors milky and opaque when mixed with water.  This Ouzo Effect is a case of science spawning culture and ritual.  In this case resulting in artwork, specialized glasses, spoons, and antiques.  The collector in me swoons!  The legacy of it being hallucinogenic is entirely false, however the hypothesis is that cheaply made absinthe in the 19th century had toxic additives and color enhancements which fueled the lore.  (Humans adding toxic additives and chemicals to increase profits and thereby sell a dangerous product to an unwitting and less affluent demographic?  Imagine that!)

But yet I’ve been hesitant all these years to try absinthe.  I have never cared for licorice before, and have always turned down anise-flavored food and drink.  Really…  all this talk about making sure The Child tries new things, and here I am having never tried it before?  Note to self:  I ought set a good example and rectify this deficiency soon!  If for no other reason than the chemistry is so darn nifty.  But I digress…

"Absinthe Drinker" by Viktor Oliva

Fennel has a glorious history.  It has unique flavors and chemistry which have infiltrated centuries of human history.  It’s done pretty well for itself.  So at the very least I should learn to cook it!  In my previous attempts, I was clearly missing something.

…try, try again.

A friend recently offered a tip.  Steam it a bit.  Instead of just sauteing, hit it with a cooking liquid of some kind, slap the cover on, and let it go all translucent.  So I did just that.  I used the spicy vegetable broth I had made the day before.  And after giving it 15 minutes, took the cover off and tasted.

It was a bit soupy yet, and terribly white and bland looking, but it tasted really, really good!  I left the cover off and simmered most of the soupiness away.  At this point it I intended to let it caramelize a bit while figuring out what the heck to serve it with.  In the 15 minutes it took the quinoa to cook, the mush had reduced to more of a mash.  A colorless and ucky looking, but incredibly tasty, mash.  A little sprinkle of frozen chopped spinach (frozen peas would have also worked) and it had some color.  Sort of.  Who cares…  fennel finally tasted awesome and The Child had seconds!  She in fact chose to mix it in with her quinoa and eat them together.

This is exactly the kind of side dish that works well for an infant or toddler.  It is already nearly baby food as it is, but give it an extra whirl in the blender if necessary.  I remember sitting down with The Child to feed her dinner while we ate, and she was always thrilled when we offered her a taste of something off our plates.  Sometimes she wanted more of what we had, and sometimes she would return to the baby food options we had started with.  It instilled the family habit of The Child trying anything offered really early, but it never could have happened without us all sitting down for dinner together.

So how do you like your fennel?  All this chemistry talk makes me curious if using alcohol as a cooking liquid with fennel changes it’s flavor profile.  Maybe there is a chemical trick to various vinaigrettes which make raw salads more palatable?  I have many more experiments ahead.  Tell me your favorites, and share some recipes in the comments so I can try preparing it again and again!

Spicy Vegetable Broth

Stalks & leaves from 2 fennel bulbs
Leftover celery and carrots past their prime
Garlic cloves, given a quick smash but left whole and in their papers
2-3” piece of ginger, unpeeled and sliced
6-10 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf

Put everything in a pot with cold water and bring to a boil.  Simmer for about an hour.  After it cools enough to handle, strain and store accordingly.

Fennel & Onion Mash

(This can hardly be called a recipe when I was haphazardly winging it on this one.   But *something* worked… I just don’t know what.  An extra puree at the end would make this the best baby food ever!)

2 fennel bulbs, sliced thin
1 large sweet onion, sliced in half end-to-end, then sliced into half circles
Olive oil
Cooking liquid (broth, stock, water, wine, etc.)
Seasonings of Choice (I used just salt & pepper)
Colored add-in of choice (I used half a handful of chopped, frozen spinach.  Peas, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, or fresh herbs would also work.  Or a drizzle of pan sauce or gravy…  Yum.)

Saute in a saucepan with olive oil and seasonings until just starting to brown on the bottom of the pan.  Add enough cooking liquid to nearly cover veg and then cover pot and turn down temperature so it slowly simmers away.  Let it simmer covered for 10-15 minutes, occasionally giving it a stir.  (For a quick soup, carefully transfer mixture to the food processor with it’s liquid at this stage.)  After the cover is removed let it simmer to your preferred consistency.  For the mash I let it slowly bubble while pulling together the rest of dinner.  It took mine about a half an hour.  Stir occasionally to keep mash from sticking to the sides of the pan.  Turn off the heat and sprinkle in chopped frozen spinach and serve warm.

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I Heart Penzeys

When I discovered Penzeys Spices, I was living in Southern California, learning to cook Indian food, on the hunt for spices beyond the grocery store.  Finding out the company is family-run and near my childhood home was just an added plus – the quality of their product and service has made me a loyal customer for over a decade.

While they do sell their products online, and that is typically how I order them, I would recommend getting a copy of their catalog anyway.  Much like a favorite magazine, it’s the kind of publication you can curl up with and get lost in.

I’ve never been one for gimmicks, and to me the “spice blend” has always been just that, a gimmick.  Why mix salt, garlic, and parsley together on your own, when you can pay Lawry’s extra for the modified food starch, sugar, and partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil too?

But the folks at Penzeys have tweaked that worldview a bit.  They don’t put any of that junk in their blends.  And they employ a clever but ancient marketing strategy… free samples.  That first shipment came, and the little bottle of English Prime Rib Rub was an instant success.  Over the next few years, their Apple Pie Spice, Pizza Seasoning, Turkish Seasoning, Italian Herb Mix, Pork Chop Seasoning, and Barbeque Of The Americas have hit our table like a new street drug hits the corner.

Okay.  Maybe that’s laying it on a bit thick.  But seriously, there has not been a visiting picky kid who doesn’t like the Pizza Seasoning.  The 4-year old who didn’t want more than a box of the orange stuff and a hot dog, ate all his peas when they were covered in butter and Pizza Seasoning.  Some warier older kids eyed a pasta salad with suspicion once, but they cleaned their plates and asked for more. I don’t know if it works because it has pizza in the title, or because the kids are at someone else’s house, or because I’m not their parent.  It works.  I don’t question the magic.  It does a wonderful job on pizza too, whether working from scratch or just customizing a frozen store-bought thing with your own goodness.

I use Penzeys stacking jars for storage and purchasing spice refills as needed.  They fit perfectly double stacked in the Kraftmaid full-extension drawer we chose 7 years ago.  I’m enough of a details freak to have printed some removable adhesive labels with the name, date of purchase, country of origin, Scoville units, etc.  Occasionally I even make sure they are alphabetized in my drawer.  I can let the laundry go for a week, but I’ll spend hours obsessing over the spice drawer.  It’s sad but true.  I’m not proud.

…except that I am!!  Look!  See how pretty??

I like tossing Penzeys a few extra bucks and buy my jars from them.  But if your current storage method would prefer a different sized jar, I recommend soil-sampling jars sold by your friendly, local environmental testing lab.  You know, the place you should go take a sample of your drinking water on occasion if you have your own well??  The brilliance of soil-sampling jars for spices is that they all have a Teflon disk inset in the lid.  Think about it.  They are designed not to let any vapor transfer in or out in between the sample collection location and the lab.  Use these jars in a cool and dark place and your spice investment will last a very long time.

So get yourself a copy of the latest Penzeys Spices catalog and see where it takes you.  Maybe you needed a few things anyway?  Especially the Pizza Seasoning.

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