A Visit to New Orleans

Nine years ago yesterday, Hurricane Katrina flayed New Orleans raw.  The city declined, however, to die.

We spent most of last week in New Orleans, our first visit there.  From the moment we hit the streets, I could think of no other name for her but the City of Life.  Over the next few days as we rambled downtown to Bywater and uptown to Uptown/Carrolton, this did not change.

There is an indomitable undercurrent here:  a feeling that life will survive, no matter what.  It’s in the weather, the hot, steamy tropical fertility that makes hedges grow inches in a day and live oak trees, maybe planted 150 years ago, burst their roots through sidewalk pavement slabs and bricks.  The life force in this climate is unstoppable.

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One feels it too in the trees in Audubon Park — enormous live oaks, 200 – 300 years old some of them, with or without Spanish moss.  Through war, weather, and human intervention on the land, they survived.

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Another characteristic of New Orleans is that she has chosen beauty for its own sake wherever it can slip into view, and it is at least equal to utility.  It is not the gimcrack “beauty” of the speculative builder.  Fretwork, for example, takes time to create, but the enchanting Creole houses in the French Quarter are rich with it and whoever built them considered it time well spent — whether fretwork brackets upholding the porch roof, or the iron latticework providing ventilation to the foundations, or even the delicate beauty of the buildings themselves.

Sometimes beauty didn’t seem to have an obvious reason for its existence, it just did.   How liberating not to have to justify one’s existence, even if one is “only” a set of cement tiles on a verge!

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When we got out into the French Quarter the first night, I walked around open-mouthed and saucer-eyed like a child.  Genuine, unpretentious, a little grungy, people just being themselves — what a place!  What people!  Thank goodness the grime and authenticity have not been botoxed out of New Orleans, as they have been in other, more staid places.  The people we met were people one could connect with even in the space of a three-minute encounter, or whose exuberance we could sense even if we’d never met them at all.

Exuberance flung strands and strands of silvery Carnival beads into the branches of the live oaks lining St. Charles Avenue, and hung more strands from wrought iron fences in the Garden District.  There were beads flying on Bourbon Street, bar doormen tossing free strands to bystanders; a high school brass band playing damn good Dixieland and passing a cardboard box for tips; and an elderly lady riding a three-wheeled bicycle with a canopy and a battery, wound around with blinking Christmas lights and decorated with Bible verses.

There were the waiters and waitresses, without exception chatty, interesting, and answering questions honestly about the city and their lives within it.   What they all expressed was an enthusiasm and directness that marked them as happy people.  A young man in an elegant coffee shop had to explain what Shark Week was when we spotted this sign on the wall — and as he explained it, it sounded good.  Live every week to the fullest.  Live like you’re on the edge and you don’t know what’s next.  Live like it’s Shark Week.

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And don’t make a fuss and palaver about life, just live it, fast or slow as you choose, but live it.

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There were the beautiful, beautiful tiled street signs embedded into building walls, recalling two cultures that have shaped the city, Spanish and French.  Calle de San Luis became Rue St. Louis, and is now St. Louis Street.

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In a lively city full of surprises, some signs were exceptional.

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These photos show both sides of the same sign.  Do they mean that the buyer actually has a choice?!

But her tragedies over time cannot be sugar-coated; New Orleans has been a cauldron of bone-deep horror and sorrow.  Her history holds plagues and weather and war and slavery, and fiends masquerading as ordinary citizens — never again will I use the flippant phrase “chained to the stove,” out of respect for the slave woman whose agonizing fate that actually was:  chained to the kitchen stove, prisoner of the unspeakable Delphine LaLaurie in her French Quarter mansion in the 1830s.

All these stories, mine and others’, wonderful and terrible, create the most fascinating and genuine place I have ever been.

There are commentators who feel it to be a city of decay and decadence, or a place looking death in the eye and celebrating before it strikes.  Fair enough:  these are people who know the city so much better than I, a first-time visitor, and I fully see their points; but until I know the city as well as they do, I can’t fully agree.  What is apparently the unofficial city motto, “let the good times roll”, is too superficial, I think.  I think the real motto of New Orleans is scribbled on a stop sign on the corner of Toulouse and Chartres, an altogether deeper imperative that the city has followed, perhaps without realizing it, for the 296 years of her existence:  “never stop living.”  City of Life, indeed.

♦  ♦  ♦

And city of food!  I believe that a blog devoted solely to recipes can be dangerously close to boring; I want to describe places and people too, and posts about our travels will start appearing from time to time.  But New Orleans is also the city of food, so in the next post look out for gumbo adventures — or maybe étouffée adventures, not yet sure which.  Until then!

 

Blueberry Rose Bakewell Tart

. . . or The Tart with Two Faces

Which is the real Bakewell Tart?  Is it stodgy almond cake in a short crust, relieved only by a stingy layer of indifferent jam?  Or is it a luscious poem of jam and fresh fruit in a tart shell, covered by just enough almond cake to soak up the juices, but still resemble cake?

Which face shall it be?

First, please don’t confuse Bakewell Tart with Bakewell Pudding—the latter is a puff pastry shell, spread with strawberry jam and filled with egg-and-almond custard.  The story has it that the pudding was created in the 19th century at the old Rutland Arms Hotel in Bakewell, Derbyshire, as the mistake of an inexperienced cook, and became a roaring success.  Bakewell Tart seems to have been developed in later years as a shortcut to the pudding.  The key differences are the tart’s short pastry shell and almond cake-like filling, called frangipane, as opposed to the pudding’s puff paste shell and custard filling.  Despite it’s secondary status to the pudding, Bakewell Tart is a traditional, classic English dessert — when it’s made properly.

If it’s made carelessly, Bakewell Tart can be repellent:  a scraping of cheap, high fructose corn syrup-laden jam under a leaden cake layer sitting in a too-thick pie crust.  Don’t get me started about commercial versions with white icing and a piece of glacé cherry, either.  With these examples in the marketplace, who in their right mind would eat, let alone love, these over-sweetened bricks?

Puzzling over Bakewells one day recently, I remembered the French Tarte Bourdaloue: a tart of sliced pears on top of frangipane, and baked in a pâte sucrée shell—and had a right-brain flash.  Fresh fruit, not atop the filling, but under it, to intensify and validate the fruit flavor of the jam.  Using half the usual amount frangipane; sweet crust instead of short crust; and reducing the sugar of both, letting the tartness of the fruit come forward.  And several months ago, I had been daydreaming about a rose-flavored Bakewell, especially with blueberry or strawberry jam . . . add rose essence and cardamom with the fresh fruit . . . oh my.  It works.

My husband had been out of town while I was baking trial versions, three of them:  two strawberry and one blueberry.  When he returned and I confessed my tinkering with a traditional tart of his homeland, he came as close as he can manage to a scowl.  Traditions are traditional for a reason, he feels, and do not need to be messed with.  I plated a slice of Blueberry Rose Bakewell, and waited for the thunderbolt.

“You’ll have to make another one so we can keep testing it . . . is there any more?”

Please enjoy this charming tart with morning coffee, afternoon tea, or anytime you fancy.

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Blueberry Rose Bakewell Tart

makes one 9-inch round or one 4½ x 14-inch rectangular tart

Sweet crust (pâte sucrée):

100g / 7 tablespoons softened butter

60g / ¼ cup sugar

1 egg

250g / 2 cups less 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 pinch kosher or fine sea salt

  1.  First, rinse and drain the blueberries, and spread out on a linen tea towel to dry.  Leave them aside.
  2. For the tart shell:  with a hand blender or stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar.  Add the egg and beat again until the mixture is thoroughly blended.
  3. Add the flour and salt, and mix by hand to form a soft dough.  Form into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes before rolling it out.
  4. After it has chilled and rested, roll it out to approximately .25cm / 3/32 inch thick on a lightly floured, cool surface: granite, marble, or a pastry mat work well.  A long palette knife will be a tremendous help in getting the crust off the rolling surface so it will wind around the rolling pin to transfer to the pan; slide it under the sheet of pastry and with a gentle sawing motion, releasing the dough from the rolling surface.  DSCN2419Roll it gently around the pin, lift it over the tart pan, and unroll the dough.  DSCN2421This pastry can be tricky, as it’s essentially cookie dough, and will almost certainly crack or tear when you’re lining the tart pan — especially where it meets the sharp edges of the pan before you ease it down the sides to the bottom.  Below you see how badly the dough can misbehave!  However, it can be patched back together easily, and the shell shown above turned out fine.  When the pastry is tucked down to the bottom, roll the pin over the top of the pan to shear off the excess.  Then start repairing the cracks and tears.  When the shell is mended, gather the pastry trimmings into a ball, wrap, and refrigerate.  Please don’t throw away the trimmings until after the shell is baked and inspected, as there may be further cracks to fix; if so, please see the notes below for repair technique.DSCN2435
  5. When the pan is lined and patched, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate again for at least 30 minutes.  Pre-heat the oven to 375°F / 190ºC for blind baking.  I prefer to turn on the convection fan when baking the shell, but if you don’t have one, it’s not a problem.
  6. When the shell has rested and chilled, line it with baking parchment and add weights — please see the note below about what to use — and bake the crust for a total of 15 – 18 minutes, depending on your oven and pan size (check and turn the crust after 9 – 12 minutes, for even color).DSCN2106After 15 minutes, remove the weights and paper.  You can tell if it’s done to the proper degree by checking the bottom crust:  if it has dried and is firm — not brittle, but firm — and is a pretty golden color, it is perfect.  If the bottom is still a bit soft, return it to the oven, minus the weights, for another few minutes.  Let the shell cool on a rack, and prepare the filling.
 Filling (frangipane):

approximately 275g / 9 ounces fresh blueberries

75g/ 5 tablespoons butter, softened

50g / 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar

1 egg

75g / 2/3 cup ground almonds

½ teaspoon rose essence

¼ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom

25g / 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons of blueberry jam  (see note below)

1 – 2 tablespoons sliced almonds

  1. With your mixer, beat the butter until it is soft and pale, with the texture of hand cream — to beurre pomade.  Add the sugar and cream the mixture.  Add the egg and beat until it is thoroughly mixed.  Add the almonds, rose essence, and cardamom and beat again.
  2. Last, add the flour.  You can fold it in by hand, or by mixer — since it is such a small amount, it won’t toughen the frangipane to use the mixer.  If the shell is cool, proceed with the recipe; otherwise, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator until the shell is ready.
  3. When the shell is cold, pre-heat the oven to 350ºF / 175ºC.  Spread the fruit jam evenly on the bottom of the shell.  Pack the drained, dried blueberries into the shell, filling in the nooks and crannies as best you can.DSCN2497
  4. Gently and carefully spread the frangipane over the top of the fruit; the easiest method is to dollop the filling atop the fruit at several points, and connect the dollops.  Even out the top, and sprinkle with sliced almonds.DSCN2500
  5. Slide the tart into the oven, and have a precautionary cookie sheet on the rack below to catch jam drips — even two tablespoons’ worth may find it’s way to the surface!  I do not recommend baking the tart directly on the sheet, as the air circulation under the tart continues to bake the bottom crust.
  6. Bake the tart for 30 – 35 minutes, for either the round or rectangular shape, turning after 16 – 18 minutes.  As always, the timing will depend on your oven and whether you use convection.  Check its progress at 25 minutes, and continue baking accordingly.
  7. When the filling is firm to the touch and is a golden brown color, the tart is done.  Remove and let cool completely on a rack before removing the tart from the pan and sliding it onto a serving plate — impatience can result in a cracked crust.  If a piece of the shell breaks and falls away from the side of the tart, wait until it’s cold, dab it with some blueberry jam, and stick it back onto the tart.  When you cut the tart, give that slice to yourself!

Notes:

  • Please use the highest-quality, cane sugar-sweetened jam you can find; no high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners.
  • The strawberry version is delicious — but because strawberries “melt” and lose their vibrant red color when they are baked, the result is not as photogenic as blueberries, or perhaps fresh cherries, would be.  The photo of the 9″ round strawberry tart in the post above demonstrates this quirk: the holes in the filling are where the berries collapsed with baking.  If that is a non-issue for you, then go with the strawberries.  As an aside, I should think that fresh raspberries or pitted fresh cherries, with the corresponding jam, would also work marvelously in this tart with the rose and cardamom.
  • If you do choose strawberries, wash them first, then hull, halve, and place them on paper towels to drain, cut side down.  Larger berries might be too tall for the tart shell, even when halved, so slice or sliver those berries so they fit below the top of the shell.
  • For pastry baking weights, I recommend rice and/or lentils.  They will settle into the shape of the shell and support it, which neither ceramic baking weights nor metal chain weights will do.  I do not recommend ceramic baking weights at all.  The absolute worst thing that can happen is for a ceramic weight to fall into the shell and be overlooked, baked into the product, and then break the tooth of an unwary eater.  This has happened to me — I do not want it to happen to you.
  • After blind baking the shell, you may discover that it has cracked in places.  This is reparable.  Patch the crack with a bit of the reserved pastry trimming.  If the dough is cold, knead a bit with your fingers to warm it, shape it so it resembles the shape and size of the crack, and gently tuck it into the fissure.  This works for cracks on the sides or on the bottom.  The patch will bake with the tart itself.
  • Bakewell Tarts often have a glazed finish, usually strained and slightly diluted apricot jam.  I don’t feel it adds to the tart, but if you like the glossy look, by all means glaze them.
  • Leftover pastry trimmings can be turned into very pleasant cookies:  re-roll the dough and cut with your favorite shapes.  Brush with egg wash (1 beaten egg yolk, ½ teaspoon water, pinch of salt), sprinkle with sugar, and bake at 350°F / 180ºC until they’re lightly browned.
  • This tart freezes beautifully.  It may not be a picture-perfect as one straight from the oven, but the flavor is unimpaired, and it makes a lovely breakfast pastry.

Seared Tuna with Herb Vinagreta,Tomato-Garlic Sauce, and Polenta

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If one day the last truly do become the first, keep an eye out for the Canary Islands.

Although they are under the Spanish flag, they stretch out into the Atlantic just off the northwest coast of Africa.  They were the last port of call for the great westbound exploration ships of the 16th and 17th centuries; they are the last and furthest remnant of the Spanish Empire.  Canarian food is Spanish cuisine’s afterthought: their recipes usually form the last chapter in Spanish cookery books arranged by region.  But what recipes they are!

Canarian cookery is a meeting point for Spanish, Moorish, and New World ingredients, used in uniquely Canarian ways.  Spicy red mojos — dipping sauces — and garlicky green ones, “wrinkled” potatoes boiled in water so salty the potatoes float, stews and soups with pumpkin and watercress, are the most often-reported Canarian specialties.  There is also freedom to imagine and improvise.

My recipe here is not a classic Canarian dish, but came about by playing with their ingredients, adding a dab of Spanish influence, a touch of Moorish spice, and seeing what happened.  Tuna steaks are rubbed with paprika, ground caraway, and cinnamon, seared and topped with a vinagreta of cilantro, parsley, and oregano.  Underneath is a layer of fresh tomato and garlic sauce, and if you wish, a bed of polenta.  Polenta is a nod to gofio, a traditional Canarian subsistence food, which is a flour of mixed toasted grains (ground corn is a standard component), kneaded in a leather bag with liquid to form a crumbly paste, and eaten straight from the bag — an acquired taste, one suspects.  If you’d rather use rice, potatoes, or toasted bread, do it.

Cilantro is adored by the Canarians, but can be problematic.  According to the late, great Barbara Tropp, who knew a thing or two about cilantro from her own work in Chinese cookery, perceiving a “soapy” taste from the herb is due to one’s saliva chemistry.  Whether it is down to genetics, blood type, or another reason, she didn’t say.  If your chemistry just says no to cilantro, then go ahead and make the vinagreta with parsley and oregano only; or perhaps try parsley and oregano, and add a tablespoon of mint.  Any of them are right for Canarian cuisine.

Speaking of herbs, I’m also pleased to tell you about a beautiful English food site, Lavender and Lovage, by Karen Burns-Booth — it has become one of my favorites.  Every month Karen hosts a Cooking with Herbs Challenge, and this month her call is for recipes with summer herbs and flowers.  This tuna dish is my entry for the August challenge; you can find more warm-weather recipes featuring fresh herbs by clicking on the logo below.

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I hope you enjoy the tuna with trimmings, and watch this space — this won’t be the last Canarian-inspired dish you’ll see here.  ¡Que aproveche!

Seared Tuna with Herb Vinegreta, Tomato-Garlic Sauce, and Polenta

Serves four as a main course, or makes at least 20 tapa-sized portions

A multi-component recipe like this can get complicated; the outline of this dish is:

  1. Make the spice rub, vinagreta, and tomato-garlic sauce first.  They can hold for an hour or three.
  2. The polenta can be started about one hour before you plan to serve.
  3. Remove the tuna from the refrigerator about 20 minutes before you plan to serve, to take the chill off.  Given high heat and a pan large enough to hold all the tuna steaks, searing the tuna will take about three minutes.
  4. This recipe can be served three ways.  The simplest is family style: pour the hot polenta into a lightly oiled baking dish, spoon on the tomato sauce, lay the seared tuna on the sauce, top with vinegreta, and place sprigs of herbs over the tuna.  Or, as an individually plated main course as in the main photo: this is lovely for a tête-à-tête dinner, but for more than two — unless you have a heat lamp in your kitchen — it can get frantic.  Last, it makes a great tapa, as in the post’s second photo: a spoonful of polenta topped with a dollop of tomato sauce, a slice of seared tuna, and a drizzle of vinegreta with a sprig of coriander or parsley.
Spice rub

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4 teaspoons sweet paprika

1 teaspoon ground caraway seed

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt

  1. Combine all the spices with the salt in a small dish, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside.
Herb vinagreta

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20g / 1 packed cup fresh cilantro leaves, rinsed and blotted dry

10g / ½ packed cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, rinsed and blotted dry

1½ tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, rinsed and blotted dry

120ml / ½ cup extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

¼ teaspoon kosher or sea salt

  1. Finely chop the herbs, either in a food processor or by hand.  In the processor, please use a bowl large enough to give the herbs room to move.  Too small a bowl and they will tear unevenly, and not chop as finely as they ought to.
  2. If you use the processor, add the olive oil, vinegar, and salt to the herbs and whizz together for 30 seconds, until the dressing takes on an opaque, emulsified look.  If you chop the herbs by hand, whizz the oil, vinegar, and salt, in the processor, then scrape the vinagreta into a small bowl and fold in the herbs.  Cover and set aside.
Tomato-garlic sauce

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8 ripe red tomatoes, vine-ripened or heirloom, if possible

8 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

  1. Rinse and dry the tomatoes, and cut out the stem end.  Chop them into quarters and whizz them in a food processor until they are completely ground to a pulp.  You can also, if you wish, grate them by hand.
  2. In a non-stick or stainless steel pan, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the sliced garlic for one minute.  Add the ground tomatoes and their juice, salt, and sugar, and bring to a simmer.  Reduce the heat to medium-low, and let them simmer with the garlic until the juices are nearly gone, about 30 – 40 minutes.  There can still be small pools of juice with the tomato pulp, but the sauce must not be runny.  Cover and set aside to be reheated later.
Polenta

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480ml / 2 cups water

480ml / 2 cups light vegetable broth

1 cup polenta

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

  1. Bring the water, broth, salt, and oil to the boil in a large saucepan.
  2. Gradually add the polenta, stirring constantly, until it is thoroughly mixed into the water and there are no lumps.
  3. Turn the heat down to the lowest setting possible to maintain a simmer, and cover the pan.  Let the polenta simmer gently for 5 – 10 minutes, then give it a good, thorough stir.  Cover and let simmer for another 5 – 10 minutes.  Repeat the stir-cover-simmer-stir procedure until the polenta has been cooking for 40 minutes.  At that point, stir one last time, and remove from the heat.  Let it rest, covered, while you prepare the tuna; or if you’re serving family style, scrape it immediately into a lightly oiled baking dish, and leave to rest in a warm oven.
 Seared tuna

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720g / 24 ounces tuna steaks (one 6-ounce portion per guest)

spice rub (above)

1 – 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

  1. After the tuna steaks have been resting outside the fridge for 20 minutes, rinse them and blot dry with paper towels.
  2. Dredge each steak in the spice rub, patting into the fish.  Set aside for a few minutes during the next step.
  3. Begin re-heating the tomato-garlic sauce over low heat.  For family style, spoon the hot sauce over the polenta, and return the baking dish to keep warm in the oven.  For individual servings, spoon polenta onto plates and top with tomato sauce.  Have the plates, vinagreta, and herb sprigs nearby as you start the tuna.
  4. Pour 1 tablespoon of oil into a cast iron or stainless steel pan, and, heat over a high flame until the oil shimmers.
  5. Gently lay the tuna steaks in the oil, and start the timer while they sizzle.  For 3cm / 1¼ inch steaks, sear each side for 1’30” for medium; 1’15” for medium-rare; 1 minute for rare.  Add more oil when you turn the steaks if the pan seems dry.
  6. Have the baking dish or individual plates ready.  When the second side of the tuna is done, remove the steaks immediately to the dish or plates.  Spoon vinagreta over the tuna, and place herb sprigs, or pluches, on each piece of tuna.  Serve at once, with extra vinagreta to pass around the table.
  7. If you’re serving the tuna as a tapa, you have more leeway.  Place a spoonful of polenta onto each tapa plate, or several portions onto a large platter.  Top the polenta with tomato sauce.  When the tuna is done, slice the steaks across the grain and lay each slice over the tomato and polenta base.  Top each slice with vinagreta and an herb pluche, and serve.
Notes
  • The stem parts of the cilantro and parsley – as in the photo above of a cilantro pluche – are fine to include in the herbs to be chopped.
  • The method given here for cooking polenta is the restaurant method, not the traditional method.  As much as I love to be purist, and as much as one will learn about polenta by standing over the pan for 40 minutes, stirring constantly, it is not the best use of your time in preparing this particular dish.  Dedicated Italian cooks, please forgive me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spanish Garlic and White Bean Soup

. . . or “Point and Cook 1″

I have an insanely large number of cookbooks, and a motley stash of old cooking magazines dating back to 2001.  Now and again I pull a book or a few issues from this collection for reference, inspiration, entertainment, and then leave them lying around — especially the magazines.  It takes time to absorb it all, you know, especially if you haven’t looked at them for several years . . . so my husband comes along, picks up a magazine, and flips through it.  Sooner or later he comes over to me.

“Can we have this?” he says, pointing at a particularly luscious photo.

Absolutely.

“And maybe this one, too?”

Of course.

“How about tomorrow?”

The pressure is on.

Garlic soup, sopa de ajo, gave me pause in this fun game.  The concept itself stirred some vague concerns about the social impropriety of eating too much garlic, but nuts to all that.  More elusive was garlic soup itself — every source I looked at had a different version, so I created my own.  The ability of garlic soup to adapt to any taste or available ingredients is what makes it a classic.  It truly is a dish that can be all things to all people.

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Sopa de ajo comes from the plains of Castile-La Mancha in central Spain, Don Quixote-land, the center of Spanish garlic cultivation.  A subsistence broth from medieval years, the fundamental recipe was apparently hot water and garlic, with fried bread bits called migas, if you had them.  Even now the amount of bread is restrained; recipes are consistent in that the soup is always brothy, with garlic as the focal point.  Originally meant, perhaps, as a soup to help you think you weren’t hungry any more.

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How do you want to create it from here?  I can tell you how I made mine, but at the same time, please think about each ingredient, and how you would like to make this recipe your classic.  As a starting point, all the recipes I studied included pimentón de la vera, smoked paprika from Extremadura, just west of La Mancha.  Agreed: the piquant smokiness is an essential component.  Fried bread bits stayed, but with the addition of white beans to add heft without the stodginess that too much bread can bring.  A bit of Spanish chorizo: nice, and optional.  Tomatoes, yes.  Grated tomatoes for flavor and diced tomatoes for texture.  Broth for extra flavor, not water.  Egg is contentious:  several recipes advocate cracking raw eggs into the boiling soup and immediately putting the entire pan into the oven to bake the eggs.  Some recipes advise boiling the soup, adding raw egg, and stirring gently — rather like a Spanish egg drop soup.  Some suggest a poached egg.  To me, undercooked egg white is gruesome, and baking the eggs seemed too risky; as for the second method, I don’t want Spanish egg drop soup; and unless you have access to really fresh eggs, only 3 to 4 days out of the hen, poached eggs can be pretty messy as well as water-logged.   Soft-boiled eggs were my solution — but remember, they do not have to be yours!

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Garlic is the real reason we’re here.  Don’t tiptoe around it.  One and one-half heads of garlic, about 20 cloves, will do.  In my research, Anya von Bremzen’s Castilian Garlic Soup in her superb book The New Spanish Table stood out: her two-tier method of cooking the garlic successfully makes the garlic flavors complex, not monotonous, and I’ve kept it in my version.

Other recipes included cumin, onions, or cream.  If any of these speak to you, put them in.  If you’ve thought of something else, green pepper, potatoes, something that speaks to you, put it in.  The soup is big enough to hold it.

Make it vegetarian by using vegetable broth and removing the chorizo; vegan, by using vegetable broth and omitting the chorizo and egg.  Gluten-free?  Substitute your favorite gluten-free bread, or replace the bread with more beans.  Paleo, 5:2, whatever dietary system you work with, garlic soup will adapt.  The first layer is still garlic and hot liquid; the second layer, bread and seasoning.  From there, it’s your choice.

Did this final version look anything like the photo in the magazine that caught my husband’s eye?  Naah.  But it tasted fabulous, which is the point, and why I want to tell you about it.  Will yours look anything like mine?  Probably not.  But it will by yours, and it will be perfect.

 

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Garlic and White Bean Soup / Sopa de Ajo y Alubias Blancas

Makes four generous servings, or six medium servings

Adapted from Anya von Bremzen’s The New Spanish Table

45ml / 3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, separated

200–300g / about 2–3 cups of day-old, rustic artisan bread torn into 1cm / ½” pieces (see note below)

90g / 3 ounces Spanish chorizo

1½ heads of garlic, peeled and separated – about 20 cloves

1 tablespoon pimentón de la vera dulce or plain smoked paprika (or use picante and omit the chile powder below)

1 teaspoon ancho chile powder, or other medium-heat red chile powder (optional)

3 large tomatoes, organic or at least vine-ripened if possible

1440ml / 6 cups rich chicken or vegetable broth

1 can white beans, ideally cannellini

4 – 6 eggs at room temperature

960ml / 4 cups water for boiling eggs

4 – 6 parsley pluches, the leafy ends of the stalks, for garnish

kosher or fine sea salt, if needed

1)   Prepare the ingredients: Take eggs out of the fridge to bring them to room temperature.  Slice the chorizo into .5cm / ¼ inch coins, then dice the coins.  Thinly slice 10 of the garlic cloves, and crush the remaining 10 cloves by hand (photos below in notes), or in a mini-processor.  Grate 2 tomatoes, and seed and dice the remaining tomato (photos below in notes).  Rinse and drain the white beans.  Pick the parsley pluches, rinse them, and let them dry on a linen tea towel or a paper towel.  Heat the broth to the simmering point. Set all these aside for now.

2)   Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a frying pan, and saute the bread bits over medium heat until they’re browned and crunchy in spots.  Set them aside.

3)   Start boiling the water for the eggs—if the pan isn’t large enough to hold all the eggs, you’ll need to boil in batches.

4)   Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large saucepan, soup pan, or Dutch oven over medium heat.

5)   Scoop the chorizo into the oil, and sauté to crisp it, about 1 – 2 minutes.  Lower the heat and add the sliced garlic, and sauté gently for another minute or so.  The garlic can get very, very lightly golden, but no more.

6)   Add the pimentón, and chile powder if you’re using it, and turn the mixture over in the oil to give the spices a few moments to sauté along with the garlic.  Then add the grated tomatoes and let cook for another minute.

7)   Pour in the hot broth, add the beans, and bring the soup to a gentle simmer for 10 minutes — but please don’t let it go to a boil.  While the soup simmers, cook the eggs.

8)   Lower each egg into the boiling water, using a spoon.  Leave the eggs in the boiling water for 5½ minutes each, but not a second less.  This may cook the egg yolk a bit more than that of the perfect soft-boiled egg, but it will cook the whites thoroughly.

10) At the 5½ minute mark, retrieve the eggs with a spoon or mesh skimmer and plunge into a bowl of cold water for 2 minutes.  When they’re cool enough to handle, gently crack and peel the shells.  Rinse the eggs, and roll onto paper towels to drain while you complete the soup.

11) After 10 minutes of gentle simmer, stir in the diced tomato and crushed garlic, then simmer for 2 more minutes.  This will temper the garlic’s raucous edge, but will keep its aroma and flavor intact.  Have the serving bowls, bread bits, eggs, and parsley ready.

12) Taste the soup for salt — between the chorizo and the salt on the crushed garlic (if you crush it by hand), it may not need any at all.  Start with a very small amount, and taste-add-stir-taste again until you’re satisfied.

13) Divide the bread bits between the serving bowls, and ladle in the soup.  Be gentle, as it may splatter.  Position an egg atop the bread and beans, and place the parsley pluche on the egg.  Serve proudly.

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Notes:

  • How to crush garlic by hand: chop the cloves roughly with a heavy, broad-bladed knife — a 8″-10″ chef’s knife is the best tool for this job, or a Chinese cleaver if that’s your preferred knife — and sprinkle with kosher or coarse sea salt.  DSCN0568Now turn the knife on its side (sharp edge away from you), and start scraping the blade over the garlic and salt, exerting a good amount of pressure on the blade. DSCN0569 Keep this up, and the garlic will begin to crush and exude its sticky juices, aided by abrasion from the salt and the edge of the knife.  When it has reduced to a paste, you’re done.  Alternatively, you can crush the garlic and salt with a mortar and pestle for the same result.
  • For the diced tomatoes, first quarter the tomato and remove the innards;DSCN0675then slice the quarters lengthwise into slices, also called petals.  Cut the petals into .5cm/ ¼ inch dice.DSCN0678This is almost what the French call concasse, which is a peeled, seeded, and diced tomato.  Since the soup is rustic, it’s really not necessary to peel the tomato; but in other dishes, that might be called for.
  • For the grated tomatoes, cut the tomatoes in half.  Grate the fleshy side against the large holes of a box grater into a bowl or other container, all the way down to the skin.  The tomato skin will help protect your fingers; but still use caution as you grate. 
  • Before you sauté the bread bits, shake/strain out any pulverized crumbs.  They will be the first to brown, will probably burn, and will neither look nor taste good in the soup.
  • Instead of bread bits, you can fry an entire slice of artisan bread for each serving; or if you’d like to avoid oil, you can substitute a slice of toasted or grilled bread for the fried *migas*.  Put the fried or toasted bread in the bottom of the bowl instead of the bread bits, and ladle the soup over the bread.
  • By the time the soup is done, the eggs will be tepid; since they’re going into piping hot soup, I don’t bother to re-heat them.  If you would like to do so, boil some fresh water, then remove it from the heat.  Plunge your eggs back into the hot water for 20–30 seconds, retrieve, drain, and place onto the beans and bread.
  • If you are still feeling shy about the garlic, or would be more comfortable working up to it, you can go down to 12 cloves of garlic and still serve a reasonable soup.  I can’t recommend a lesser amount, but give it a try if you wish.
  • Restaurant technique: have a paper towel dampened with water and white vinegar close by when you ladle the soup into bowls.  If it splatters, wipe off the red spots — or any other marks on the bowl — with the towel.  The vinegar will remove any oily spots or smudges cleanly.

Orange-Dressed Cauliflower & Potato Salad with Olives & Almonds

. . . also known as “a grand Sallet of divers Compounds”.

“To care” :  to feel concern or interest; attach importance to something.

I care about English food.

Possibly the most maligned cuisine on the planet, it did have a rough 20th century; rationing from two world wars, the decline of domestic service, the rise of processed food, and business practices focused on speed and profit before food quality, all created shocking lapses of skills and knowledge.  Having said that, major figures in English cookery, starting with the brilliant Elizabeth David in the 1950s, have been fighting to reverse this state of affairs and in the last 15 years or so, the dedicated work of many chefs, cooks, writers, and producers has turned the cuisine around.  Some are looking ahead and breaking new ground in the restaurant industry; and others are looking back to English food’s magnificent, 1000-year history for inspiration and revival.  In my humble and accidental way, I am one of the latter.

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This “Sallet of divers Compounds” had a bass-ackward beginning as a historical dish.  I’d been playing with these ingredients from a Spanish angle—surely anything with oranges, olives, and capers had to be Spanish, it couldn’t possibly be English—and had gotten nowhere.  But a recipe for cauliflower in orange sauce from Francine Segan’s book Shakespeare’s Kitchen brought me up short: I’d been unaware that oranges were a 17th century English ingredient.  Could this envisioned salad have ever come from an English kitchen?  I felt a twinge of hope, and researched capers, almonds, and raisins.  Yes, to my amazement, all were used in 16th century English cooking.  But olives?  The fantasy ended there, I thought . . . until I discovered that olives were imported into England during the second century B.C.

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You can imagine my elation!  More study of historic books—an incredibly thrilling study, I might add—confirmed that the ingredients in this salad, barring the New World potatoes, were recorded in recipes from as early as 1390.  But what about the potatoes?  Enter The Accomplisht Cook (transcribed by Project Gutenberg) by Robert May, published in 1660 and revised in 1685, and its recipe for “a grand Sallet of divers Compounds”:

To make a grand Sallet of divers Compounds

Take a cold roast capon and cut it into thin slices square and small, (or any other roast meat as chicken, mutton, veal, or neats tongue) mingle with it a little minced taragon and an onion, then mince lettice as small as the capon, mingle all together, and lay it in the middle of a clean scoured dish. Then lay capers by themselves, olives by themselves, samphire by it self, broom buds, pickled mushrooms, pickled oysters, lemon, orange, raisins, almonds, blue-figs, Virginia Potato, caperons, crucifix pease, and the like, more or less, as occasion serves, lay them by themselves in the dish round the meat in partitions. Then garnish the dish sides with quarters of oranges, or lemons, or in slices, oyl and vinegar beaten together, and poured on it over all.”

Potatoes with oranges, and capers and olives, in a 17th century English salad.  I could scarcely believe it.

The recipe for cauliflower with orange sauce from Shakespeare’s Kitchen, which started this train of thought, was itself adapted from another recipe in The Accomplisht Cook; the phrase “and the like, more or less” from the original Sallet formula gives the cook license to use whatever s/he had on hand.  I feel it’s a fair guess that it allows cauliflower, delightfully spelled “colliflower” in May’s book.  As for dressing, I preferred a clingy sauce to a liquid one.  The three most-used methods of thickening a sauce in these historic books are with breadcrumbs, with mashed hard-boiled egg yolks, and with “pounded” almonds.  “Pounded” almonds—in the form of modern almond butter—worked a treat in reduced orange juice with a spot of vinegar.

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And through it all, for developing this dish, I had the support of friends!  Pushing and pulling recipes into shape can be a lonely business, full of self-doubt; but this time my pals Dee and Lynn, who tasted and talked over versions of this recipe, critiqued, took some home, made discoveries and shared them, were central to the success of this salad.  This was a team project!

Here it is, then—a fanciful example of what a 17th century English salad might have been, tried, tested, and found good.  I sincerely hope you enjoy it too.

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Orange-Dressed Cauliflower & Potato Salad with Olives & Almonds

serves four as a first course or side dish
inspired by a recipe from Francine Segan’s Shakespeare’s Kitchen

250g / 8½ oz. fingerling or other baby potatoes (see following note)

300g / 10 oz. cauliflower florets, from one medium head

80g / ½ cup golden raisins / sultanas (see following note)

60g / ½ cup toasted sliced almonds, divided

50g / 1/3 cup sliced green olives

1 tablespoon drained capers

1 tablespoon snipped chives, with a few whole chives for garnish

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley, with a few top leaves (pluches) for garnish

1 teaspoon chopped mint leaves, with a few tops (pluches) for garnish

240ml / 1 cup fresh orange juice (juice from 2 large oranges)

Zest and segments of 1 orange for salad

Segments of 1 orange for garnish (optional)

1½ tablespoons red wine vinegar

3/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

¼ teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons almond butter

  1. Cook the potatoes in boiling water until they are tender; depending on their size, it could take 15 – 18 minutes.  Just keep testing them.  Drain them when they’re done, and set aside to cool.
  2. In the meantime, trim the cauliflower florets into bite-sized pieces, and dice the stem into 1cm / ½ inch pieces as well.  Bring a large pan of water to the boil; add the cauliflower, and set a timer for 4 minutes exactly.  At the 4 minute mark, scoop out the cauliflower and shock it in a bowl of very cold water to stop the cooking; otherwise, rinse it with the coldest water possible.  It will still be pretty toothsome at this point, but that’s a good thing; it will become more tender after it is dressed.  Drain the cauliflower, and let it dry on a linen tea towel or on paper towels while you prepare the rest of the ingredients—the more it can dry now, the less it will dilute the dressing later.
  3. Prepare the rest of the ingredients: toast the almonds gently in a 120°C / 250°F oven; slice the olives into halves or thirds, but please take out any pimiento or garlic stuffing they might have.  Snip and chop the herbs; juice the 2 large oranges for the dressing, and put the juice into a small saucepan.
  4. Rinse and dry the third orange, and zest it into the saucepan with the dressing juice.  Next, cut the orange into segments—here’s how: fDSCN0531DSCN0532irst, cut the top and bottom off the orange, and set it down on one end.  With a sharp knife, start slicing the peel off the orange, being sure to remove all of the pith (upper photo); if you miss any, just trim it off.  Keep doing this until the orange has been completely skinned.  Be careful with this next step: gently slice between the segment walls, which you can see as white vertical lines, to remove the orange segments.  You can do this holding the orange in one hand or, if it feels safer, hold the orange steady on the cutting board and work from there.  Don’t worry if the segments are uneven or ragged; this takes practice, and the segments will be cut and mixed into the salad anyway.  The remaining “carcass”, if you will, of the orange will somewhat resemble the lower photo; squeeze the juice from this bit into the saucepan, and discard the membranes that are left.  As mentioned, cut the segments into 2 or 3 pieces, and set aside for the salad.
  5. If you wish to have more segments for garnish, repeat the previous step with another orange, and keep the segments whole.
  6. Add the vinegar to the reserved orange juice and zest, and simmer over gentle heat until the juice has reduced by half.  Please don’t let the orange juice boil!  Boiling orange juice will overflow in a flash; simmering will take a little longer, but will save you an onerous cleanup job.
  7. When the juice has reduced, remove from the heat.  Whisk in the salt and sugar, and set aside to cool down briefly.
  8. In a large mixing bowl, add the raisins, olives, capers, and orange pieces, and toss together.  Slice the cooled potatoes into roughly 1cm / ½ inch slices and add to the mix.  Add the cauliflower florets and toss the salad again.  Keep the almonds and herbs aside until you’re nearly ready to serve.
  9. Whisk the almond butter into the cooled juice, and pour about ¾ of the dressing onto the salad ingredients.  Toss a third time, and taste for salt and for dressing.  My own preference is to use all the dressing and no additional salt; but test it for yourself before adding more of either.
  10. The salad is best if it is left alone for at least two hours, unrefrigerated, before serving for the flavors to settle and mingle (since it contains only vegetables and fruit, it is safe to let it rest).  Just before serving, toss in 3/4 of the almonds (save the rest for garnish), and the herbs.
  11. Present the salad either in a serving bowl, garnished with whole orange segments (if you’re using them), almonds, whole chives, and herb tops (also called pluches), or on individual small plates as a first course with the same garnishes.

Notes

  • If fingerling or baby potatoes are not available, you can use waxy red boiling potatoes instead.  Boil smaller ones whole, or halve larger ones, and dice into 1 cm / ½ inch pieces.  To peel or not to peel is your choice.
  • If underdone cauliflower worries you, it can be boiled for an additional minute; but please, no longer than 5 minutes in the pan.  Longer, and it turns to a sodden, flavorless mush.  It really does soften in the dressing, I promise you, and still tastes like cauliflower.
  • It’s best to use raisins that are fresh and moist.  If you only have raisins which are somewhat over-dried, you can plump them in hot water for 20 minutes (or longer if they really need it), then drain them, pressing gently, to remove excess water.  They will, however, dilute the dressing a bit.
  • Leftovers are still delicious, although refrigeration will take away some of the salad’s subtlety.