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Griffin to Go: Meeting One Goal, Keeping Up With Another


Last summer I made a goal. After seeing the movie “Julie & Julia,” I told myself I was going to cook my way through an entire section of a cookbook. The book I chose was the “Avoca Café Cookbook,” a treasured volume I had picked up in Ireland a few years ago, and the section was on soup. (Click here.)

It took several months and not a lot of discipline on my part, but I’m happy to report that the last new soup has been made and consumed – and it was as good as the best of the lot.

I learned as much about making soup as I learned about one kitchen’s approach to this labor of love. Quite a few of the recipes begin with softening an onion in olive oil, which provides a natural sweetness. A good vegetarian stock is added later and magically, the flavors blend together, changing with each ingredient.

But most of all, the recipes were simple and straightforward, not fussy yet full of flavor. If this is what Ireland treasures, then it shares something wonderful in common with that other “I” country in Europe: Italy. The emphasis is on layering a few fresh ingredients in a manner in which they all complement each other, so you can enjoy the best that nature has to offer.

Recipe: Cauliflower Cheddar Soup

It could be something as comforting as cauliflower and cheddar or something as offbeat as parsnip, rosemary and olives.

Along the way, I revisited some old favorites, such as Courgette and Almond, just to make sure they were as good as I remembered. I also was forced to revisit a few vegetables, such as turnips, that I didn’t care for as a child and have largely avoided as an adult. (I still don’t care for them, but soft baby turnips have a more pleasant flavor than their rock-hard adult cousins.)

Some of the journey was frustrating. I had had a stand of lemongrass in the backyard, but the ugliest of winter freezes took care of that. So I had to buy fresh lemongrass from the market for the Sweet Potato and Lemongrass soup. (I also didn’t have time to visit an Asian market, so I probably paid twice the price for the stalks I needed.)

Recipe: Courgette and Almond Soup

Most of the recipes were vegetarian, a few were even vegan. The lone exception was a Tuscan Bean Soup that required bacon in it. And what an impact that bacon had on the final product! After the first taste of the meat boiled into the broth, I could understand why a few – not all, mind you – of my vegan friends will have the occasional piece of pork. I will remember the richness and depth of flavor it brought to the soup and use that in other ways.

I made the most of these soups during the worst of the winter, when I had a seasonal job. To save money, I would bring a jar of soup each day and pop it in the microwave. The aroma of Potato and Fennel Soup or Aztec Corn would fill the break room and often drew questions from co-workers who wanted to know where I’d bought it.

The last recipe in the section was Mixed Mushroom, which I made with button caps, brown mushrooms and portobellos. Rich and creamy, it was a fine end to a most tasty experiment.

Recipe: Aztec Corn Soup

Another goal I wrote about recently was planting a garden so I could enjoy some freshness from my own backyard.

I’m happy to report that the radishes, lettuces and arugula I planted survived the snow/sleet/slush that fell several days after planting. It’s almost time to thin some of the sprouts, which will make a great addition to a salad.

In the meantime, the potted tomatoes are thriving. I know some friends who have planted theirs in the ground already. I’m not quite ready to do that, but I do have them clustered in near the backdoor so they can get some light.

Recipe: Mixed Mushroom Soup

I also planted a pair of olive trees I picked up at Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard. I planted the arbequina, which should survive our freak freezes and bear fruit in a few years. I would appreciate that. The loquat tree I planted eight years ago is only now ready to bear fruit, and I fear I lost some of this year’s potential harvest to the cold.

But that’s the nature of gardening, isn’t it? We never know what nature has in store for us, no matter the goals we set.

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White Beans, Olives in Soup


This winter warmer is great during the game or any time.

Bean and Olive Soup

1 cup dried white beans
5 whole cloves
5 peppercorns
5 allspice berries
1 ham hock
1 large onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup ripe black olives (not canned), seeded and cut into wedges
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Cover the beans with water and soak overnight.

Drain the beans and place them in a kettle. Add 1 1/2 quarts water. Tie the cloves, peppercorns, and allspice berries in a muslin bag and add to the kettle. Add the ham hock, onion, garlic and salt. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for about 1 1/2 hours until the beans are tender.

Discard the muslin bag of spices. Remove the ham and cut the meat from the bone. Dice the meat and return it to the kettle with the olives. Reheat. Mash a few of the beans to give body to the soup. Adjust the consistency by adding more water. Sprinkle with parsley.

Makes 5 servings.

From “The New York Times Cookbook” by Craig Claiborne

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Griffin to Go: On the Hunt


I knew the moment that I looked at the recipe I was going to have to alter it.

The recipe was for an Aztec Corn Soup, and it called for 4 rounded teaspoons of cumin.

No.

Cumin is not one of those spices I cotton to. When it’s out of balance (as it would be if I had used 4 teaspoons of it in any one dish), it reminds me of a smelly armpit. Sorry, but that’s not my idea of anything tasty.

I was debating including any at all. Then I remembered how good cumin is in chili and some Middle Eastern stews when incorporated thoroughly into the dish. So, I thought I would add just 1 teaspoon to see what the creator of the recipe had in mind. I could always add more later, if it needed it.

S0, I had to find my cumin. And that’s where things got messy.

A force greater than me, however, decided that cumin might not make it into the stockpot. That entity goes by the name of my spice cabinet. I have a three-shelved cabinet filled to overflowing with all manner of herbs and spices, dried chiles, extracts, toothpicks and who knows what else.

It’s the extraneous items that make it hard to find the jars I use regularly, including cinnamon, vanilla and cayenne pepper.

I once had a method to the madness. I cleaned the cabinet out a couple of years ago and arranged everything in order of what I use. The rose water went to the back. The almond extract was moved to the front. Red dye, for those red velvet cakes people demand all too often, stayed up front. Dried Indian gooseberries went to the back.

Recipe: Aztec Corn Soup

Except somehow all the jars seemed to have gotten mixed up. The jackfruit extract had no business being with ground savory. The za’atar was with black sesame seeds. Then there was a jar of mustard seed from my mom that could easily predate me.

I know some spices don’t age well. Saffron is best used as young as possible. Dried basil and oregano lose their flavor, especially when not stored well. But that isn’t true across the board. So, you won’t find me among those who throw out spices every year or every three years. I have a jar of curry with a tablespoon or two at the bottom that dates back to the 1980s. The last time I used some, a year or two ago, it tasted, well, like curry to me. Not curry that was reaching its 30th birthday, either.

I just smell it or even taste it before using and decide at that point.

That is, if I can put my hands on it. The hunt for cumin was so lengthy that I just started grabbing jars at random in search for what I needed. Pretty soon, the entire counter top beneath the cabinet was covered with jars of various sizes and colors, and I still hadn’t found it. And I knew for a fact that there were at least two jars of ground cumin and one jar of cumin seed in there dating to chili cookoffs in the past.

Given my fondness for the spice, you should have guessed already where I found it. At the very back of the top shelf, lurking behind a jar of mixed pickling spice.

So, into the soup it went. But only one teaspoon. I just couldn’t risk the rest.

A little while later, the soup finished cooking, and I processed it in my food processor until broth and vegetables were one. It wasn’t pretty. You’ll find no photos of the finished product here, even with the sprinkling of chopped cilantro on top. But the flavor was largely good, and I will make again.

Except there was still too much cumin in it.

I made a note of that on the page in the cookbook. And I’ve placed the cumin seed at the back of the cabinet again. Don’t tell any one, but this time it’s behind the pandan aroma paste.

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Griffin to Go: Winter Blues


Recipe: Potato Fennel Soup

I moved to upstate New York in the mid-1980s and stayed there for six long winters. Though I loved the town in summer, when all was lush and green and largely tranquil, the snow was something I just couldn’t hack.

So, when it snowed one June, I moved to Florida a few months later. I stayed there a year longer, loving the white sand of the beaches and the warmth of the gulf waters. Sure, there was hurricane season to contend with, but that seemed like a much better alternative than sliding around on ice. (And a hurricane didn’t actually hit my town until one or two years after I moved to Texas.)

My move to Texas was meant to keep me along a similar latitude. So what happened? As I write this, the mercury in the thermometer has gone into hiding. The wind is howling outside, and my heater is proving woefully inadequate to the conjure the sun-baked setting I’d prefer.

I hope I don’t come across as a whiner. I suffer from some form of seasonal affective disorder. I’m not alone. According to Wikipedia, anywhere from 1.5 percent to 9 percent of the population suffer from it, too. To us, T.S. Eliot had it all wrong; April isn’t the cruelest month, January is. Or maybe it stretches past April until the cold disappears.

The problem starts earlier than the new year. I loathe the time change in the fall as the days get shorter. I find it harder each day to tumble into the darkness of morning and return in the seemingly greater darkness of the evening. We’ve passed the winter solstice, however, which means the days should be getting longer, right?

That doesn’t matter when my body longs for 85-degree days and is instead encased in long johns.

I would love to say that cooking is a panacea. It does help in that the stove adds some heat to the house. It’s also prompted me to expand my soup repertoire, and I’ve taken to trying a new recipe each week. The parade has included the likes of Potato and Fennel, White Winter Vegetable, and Tomato, Celery and Apple. Excellent all, but not quite the cure.

Soup can’t prevent the itching eyes and endless sneezing that has come from the explosion of cedar pollen.

The right music is a great mood enhancer. I woke up with the lyrics of a favorite, obsure Christmas carol in my head, “We thank you, God, for telling us that spring is very near/And thank you for your love.” It helped for quite awhile that day, as opposed to the night before when I played a song called “Another Winter in a Summer Town.” What was I thinking?

A change of scenery also did a world of good. I spent the weekend out of town, and the three-hour drive each way was in blissful sunlight. I hadn’t felt the sun on my face in who knows how long, and it restored me, again for a short while.

So, I will force myself to steal what sunlight comes my way. And wait for spring. It’s coming.

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Potato and Fennel Soup


Fennel adds a suggestion of sweetness and licorice to this easy-to-make soup.

Potato and Fennel Soup

1 onion, peeled and diced
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 large bulb fennel, thinly sliced (including fronds, chopped), divided use
2 pints vegetable stock
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
1 cup heavy cream or half-and-half

[amazon-product]095381520X[/amazon-product]Sweat the onion and potato in the butter over a very low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Add all of the fennel, except for some of the sliced fronds, as well as the stock, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Purée in a blender, then stir in the cream gently. Adjust the seasonings and serve with fresh chopped fronds as a garnish.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Adapted from “Avoca Cafe Cookbook” by Hugo Arnold with Leylie Hayes

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Lemongrass, Lime and Snapper Soup


Leave the skin on the snapper because “it is thin and delicate and keeps the fish intact while it cooks,” Dave Lieberman and Anahad O’Connor write. “Whatever you do don’t cook the fish longer than just a few minutes, as the fish is so tender it can easily get overcooked. That also means you need to serve the soup as soon as it is ready.”

Lemongrass, Lime and Snapper Soup

1 fresh lemongrass stalk, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
2 small fresh red Thai chiles, thinly sliced
2 large shallots, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 cup cored and chopped tomato
1 quart fish or seafood stock, preferably homemade
1 cup light coconut milk (see note)
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
About 1 1/2 pounds skin-on snapper fillet, cut into about 1-inch pieces
Juice and grated zest of 1 small lime
1 small bunch of fresh cilantro, tough stems removed, roughly chopped

Combine the lemongrass, ginger, chiles, shallots, tomato, stock and coconut milk in a large pot and bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for about 20 minutes. Remove the pieces of lemongrass. Season the broth with salt and pepper to taste.

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Reduce the heat to medium-low and slide the fish pieces into the broth along with the lime juice and zest. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the fish has just cooked through.

Divide the soup among 6 bowls and garnish each with chopped fresh cilantro.

Note: Light coconut milk is simply coconut milk with an equal part of water added to it. Make your own instead of buying it.

Makes 6 servings.

From “The 10 Things You Need to Eat” by Dave Lieberman and Anahad O’Connor

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Substitution Is the Name of the Game


caldoverdeI wanted to make some Portuguese caldo verde the other day, but I didn’t have a few of the major ingredients on hand. For one, it’s hard finding Portuguese-style sausage at your neighborhood grocery (yes, Central Market often carries it, but, again, it wasn’t nearby). Also, I didn’t have kale or collard greens in the refrigerator.

What to do? Substitute, of course. I used kielbasa instead of chouriço; both are garlicky and complement the greens and potatoes well. Then I cut up strips of green cabbage instead of collards. I had new potatoes on hand, not Maine or Eastern potatoes.

The end result was slightly different from the traditional recipe, but it was still satisfying on a cold winter evening.

The following is the basic recipe I followed. Make it your own with what you have in your pantry and refrigerator.

Caldo Verde (Green Soup)

1 large yellow onion, peeled and minced fine
1 large garlic clove, peeled and minced
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
6 Maine or Eastern potatoes, peeled and sliced thin
2 quarts cold water
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
6 ounces chouriço (Portuguese-style sausage) or garlicky kielbasa, sliced thin
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound collard greens or kale, washed, trimmed of coarse stems and veins, then sliced thin. (The easiest way is to stack 6 to 8 leaves, roll crosswise into a firm, tight roll, then slice with a very sharp knife.)

Sauté the onion and garlic in 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large heavy saucepan 2 to 3 minutes over moderate heat until they begin to color and turn glassy; do not brown or they will turn bitter. Add the potatoes and sauté, stirring constantly, 2 to 3 minutes, until they begin to color also. Add the water and salt, cover and boil gently over moderate heat 20 to 25 minutes until the potatoes are mushy. Meanwhile, fry the sausage in a medium-size heavy skillet over low heat 10 to 12 minutes until most of the fat has cooked out; drain well and reserve.

[amazon-product]0688134157[/amazon-product]When the potatoes are soft, remove the pan from the stove and with a potato masher, mash the potatoes right in the pan in the soup mixture. Add the black pepper, sausage and greens and simmer uncovered 5 minutes until tender and the color of jade. Mix in the remaining tablespoon olive oil and taste the soup for salt and pepper. Ladle into large soup plates and serve as a main course accompanied by chunks of rustic bread.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Adapted from “The Food of Portugal” by Jean Anderson

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Fight Winter With Cauliflower Cheddar Soup


CauliflowerCheddarSoupThis winter warmer is silky on the tongue, yet full of flavor from the combination of onion and sweet potato as well as cauliflower and cheddar cheese.

Cauliflower Cheddar Soup

1 large onion, diced
1 sweet potato, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 quart vegetable stock or chicken stock
1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
Salt, to taste
Lemon pepper, to taste
1 cup heavy cream or fat-free half-and-half, plus more for garnish
4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated

In a large stockpot, sauté onion and sweet potato in butter until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add stock, cauliflower, salt and lemon pepper. Bring to a boil. Cook for 15 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked.

Let cool 10 minutes. Purée in small batches in a food processor or blender until smooth. Return to the stove and reheat, stirring in the cream and cheese until the cheese is melted.  Serve hot with a drizzle of cream on top.

Makes 1 1/2 quarts soup.

From John Griffin, freely adapted from “Avoca Cafe Cookbook”

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Brave the Cold With Ginger-Carrot Soup


GingerCarrotSoupWhen the temperatures begin to drop, one of the foods I generally consume more of is ginger because it soothes a sore throat while warming the body. Sure, we get plenty of ginger from gingerbread, but don’t limit yourselves to that. The following soup comes together quickly and is perfect for keeping the bitter weather at bay.

Ginger-Carrot Soup

2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
6 cups vegetable broth (not mushroom-based) or chicken broth
1 1/2 pounds carrots, shredded
3-4 tablespoons fresh ginger, shredded (or less, to taste)
Salt, to taste
1 cup heavy cream or fat-free half-and-half
Lemon pepper, to taste
Parsley, for garnish (optional)

In a large stockpot, melt butter with onions and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add broth and stir. Add carrots, ginger and salt (adjust salt depending on the sodium-content of the broth). Cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until the carrots are done, about 20 minutes over low heat. Remove from heat and let cool for about 10 minutes. Process in small batches in a food processor until all of the carrots and ginger are a fine pulp.

For an elegant presentation, strain out the carrots. For a more rustic presentation, return processed soup to the stockpot.

Return pot to low burner and stir in the cream and lemon pepper, to taste. Reheat to desired temperature. Garnish with parsley.

Makes about 2 1/2 quarts soup.

From John Griffin

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WalkerSpeak: Welcome Fall With Meatballs and Pasta Soup


MeatballSoupFall fell, yesterday, as my mother likes to say. I’d say that it didn’t fall as much as it galloped into town like a folk hero, delivering the townsfolk from the big bad bully of a summer. It calmed us with steady showers and actual daytime temperatures in the 60s.

After coffee, and the routine morning check of e-mails and daily calendar, I did what I’d always longed to do on rainy days when I was employed full time. I took a light blanket and pillow, opened all the windows on the back porch and stretched out on the couch with a cat. The cool, moist air blew over us and even the caffeine couldn’t keep me from slipping into an hour-long doze, the sounds of pattering rainfall staying just at the edge of consciousness.

We hear that it’s supposed to be a cold winter. I’ll believe it when it happens. When I first moved to San Antonio 20 years ago, I remember days in December or January that were in the low teens. That seems to be happening far less often now. We think it’s global warming, but I wonder how much of it is simply cyclical.

I won’t pretend to be a weather expert, but as fall comes in I do know what is happening in my garden, and what will soon be happening in my kitchen.

The garden is recovering now from the heat, and herbs like the Mexican mint marigold, lemon grass, basil, thyme and oregano have perked back up. It’s time to replant nasturtiums, though I have a few little survivors from early summer that might catch hold.

A friend gave me parsley seeds to plant and I have a packet of mesclun seeds, or field greens, that I’ve been saving a patch of ground for.

Sitting outside at night recently, we noticed that a fig tree had decided to put on some more fruit. Though the figs are small, they’re ripening. One okra plant is still staunchly producing; an eggplant and zucchini plant that started blooming in the worst heat of summer are now looking like they might try again. I wish them luck.

For some reason my Meyer lemon did not fruit at all this year. Nor will the pecan trees produce an amazing crop such as they did last year.

But, I have five tomato plants that look promising, several of them heirlooms. I planted them a few weeks ago, putting their stems down deep in the soil, as a friend had shown me. Even the patio tomato that provided so many little red grape-shaped fruits earlier this summer is blooming, and a small cluster of tomatoes are ripening.

As for the kitchen, I’m looking forward to soup weather. I know, it will warm up again and the real cool weather won’t hit until late October, maybe November. Still, I might start early with the soup, bread and glass of wine for a perfect, casual fall dinner.

The following soup-as-a-meal recipe is adapted from a book published 27 years ago by the editors of Consumer’s Guide, called the “Italian Cooking Class Cookbook.” What the name lacks in cleverness, the book makes up for with lots of excellent recipes. Try the soup below with slices of buttery, toasted garlic bread.

Italian Meatball (Polpetti) and Pasta Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large carrot, peeled and cut in small dice
2 (6-inch) ribs celery, trimmed and cut in small dice
1 medium onion, peeled, cut in small dice
1 large egg
4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, divided use
1 teaspoon salt, divided use
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
½ teaspoon dried marjoram, crumbled
¼ teaspoon dried thyme, or ½ teaspoons fresh, chopped thyme
¼ teaspoon black pepper, divided use
½ cup soft breadcrumbs
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, with more for garnish
1-pound ground beef (90 percent lean)
6 cups beef stock, or combination beef and mushroom stock (available in stores)
1 bay leaf
½ cup small pasta, uncooked, such as short macaroni or small shells
1 (14-ounce) can whole, peeled plum tomatoes

Put oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet and put the olive oil into it. Let warm over medium heat, then add the carrot, celery and onion. Sauté the vegetables slowly so that they become crisp-tender, and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a baking sheet by oiling it lightly. Make meatballs by combining the egg, two tablespoons of the minced parsley, ½ teaspoon salt, minced garlic, marjoram, thyme, ½ teaspoon of the pepper, breadcrumbs, 1/4 cup of cheese and ground beef. Mix thoroughly with your hands. Shape into small balls, about a heaping teaspoonful each. Place each meatball on the pan. Put the pan in the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and springy to the touch.  (You also may fry the meatballs in an oiled skillet, if you wish.)

Put the cooked carrot, celery and onion into a soup pot. Add the broth and bay leaf. Put the soup pot on a burner over medium-high heat and bring to a rolling boil. Drain the tomato juice from the can into the stock. Cut up the rest of the tomatoes into a small-to-medium dice and add to the pot. Pour off any fat on the pan and add the cooked meatballs to the pot. When the stock has simmered another 5 minutes, add the pasta and cook for about 10 minutes. When pasta is tender, add the rest of the parsley, adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaf before serving.

Pass more Parmesan cheese for sprinkling on top of the soup.

Serves 4-6

Adapted from the “Italian Cooking Class Cookbook”

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