Cooking With Auntie Jane

Instructions For Surviving on Your Own in the Modern World

Month: September, 2012

Yummy Vegan Yam and Butternut Squash Soup for an Autumn Day

Okay. I promised my vegetarian sister-in-law (she’s ovo-lacto, for those keeping score) that I’d provide something other than bran muffins that she could actually fix and eat. And now I’ve come up with it!

Note: You need an immersion blender for this recipe! You can use a regular blender, (or even go retro and use a food mill), but you have to do it in batches, and it can get messy, with hot soup flying all over your kitchen. Immersion blenders are cool tools, so this may be the time to treat yourself to a reasonably priced one.

Yam and butternut squash soup is a lovely, creamy soup which I found a couple of years ago in the Health section of the New York Times. While we’re on the subject, I’d like to encourage everyone to get an online subscription to that wonderful paper, if only for their cooking section. The Science and Health sections are also really good, but the cooking section has a wealth of wonderful recipes on a weekly basis.

This soup uses a white mashing/baking potato to produce its excellent texture so it is gluten-free. The soup is relatively quick to make (accent on the word relatively, there’s a lot of peeling and chopping of veggies involved), it serves six, can be made a day ahead of time and it even freezes well.

If you buy the butternut squash pre-diced, rather than as a whole squash, it decreases the prep time and work, since butternut squash is pretty tough to peel and hack up. But if price is an issue or somebody gave you a winter squash from their garden, by all means, sharpen your weapon and have to! Just slice the long neck into circles, peel the skin off, and then cut up the flesh into small pieces. Oh, and don’t forget the round, gourd-like part at the end. Scoop out the seeds, peel the skin off and chop it up as well. Careful of your fingers!

Serve this soup with a salad of mixed greens topped with chopped pecans. If you are ovo-lacto, some gorgeous crumbled blue cheese would go well on the salad. Dress it simply with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Again, if you’re not vegan, nice crusty bread from the bakery will complete your dinner. Or you can bake some bran muffins, from the last post, which I might do tonight if our California weather cools off enough to allow me to turn on the oven.

As always, read the entire recipe before starting.

Yummy Yam and Butternut Squash Soup

Ingredients

1 tablespoon vegetable oil — you don’t have to dirty a measuring spoon unless you’re really unsure. Just a nice dollop of oil to cook a small onion and some ginger in.

1 small onion, chopped — if you are in a hurry, buy pre-chopped onion, and use about half the container and throw the rest away, onions grow bad things in the fridge.

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger — peel the ginger first, of course. You won’t need a huge piece, even it you like a bit more kick in you food and you increase by half the amount of ginger you add to the soup.

1 pound butternut squash, peeled and diced — pre-peeled and cut up

Ginger, Idaho Potato and Yam

Still Life with Partially Peeled Roots and Tuber

squash is a time saver, but more expensive.

1 pound yams (you can use sweet potatoes but they tend to be lighter in color, a bit woody in texture and have less flavor than yams, in my opinion), peeled and diced. (We are not talking about canned sweet potatoes here!)

1 medium-sized russet potato or Yukon-gold type potato, peeled and diced — these are the potatoes we didn’t want for our chicken dinner. These potatoes will melt down to mush and provide the creamy texture for the soup.

6 cups water, vegetable or chicken stock — Most containers of stock hold four cups or 32 ounces. Don’t bother opening a second container and wasting half of it. Just rinse the box or can with water and use that “stock-y” water to make up the difference.

Salt and pepper to taste — Keep tasting as you go along, adding a teaspoon of salt as you go. Just remember, with salt, less really is more. People can add salt at the table if need be. It isn’t an insult to your cooking. The average American diet contains way too much salt, so take it easy in the kitchen.

Instructions

1. Heat the oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the squash, yams, white potato, and water or stock, and bring to a simmer. Add salt to taste, (try a teaspoon first, add more later) reduce the heat, cover and simmer 45 minutes, or until all of the ingredients are tender.

2. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup. You can also puree the soup by putting it through the fine blade of a food mill, which I think would be easier than a regular blender, certainly safer. With a regular blender, work in batches, placing a kitchen towel over the top for extra security. Return the soup to the pot and stir with a whisk to even out the texture. Heat through, add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Ta, da!

Ready for The Table in Cobalt Blue

Feed the Ravening Hordes Vegetable Beef Soup and Bran Muffins

Yummm

What could be more welcoming than soup and muffins?

The weather is beginning to change, even in Southern California, though you have to look harder for a hint of fall here. Everywhere the kids are back in school, and the sun is beginning to set earlier in the day. Up the street from us the men are playing soccer on the elementary school field, and the ice cream trucks drive by playing Mexican polkas to attract customers. Fall is a state of mind, not a temperature, perhaps. The slate is wiped clean, our shoes are new, and we are excited to have a fresh start.

And, it’s time to consider rich autumnal foods. I want to bake bread and cook stews and this time of year I especially want to fix my mother’s vegetable soup.

It’s actually a beef vegetable barley soup, but she called it vegetable soup. This is the soup that Mother had on the stove when you were coming home from college or from a long trip, so that it would be ready the minute you walked in the door cold and hungry. She served it with bran muffins, and it was always welcoming and wonderful.

My soup is not actually my mother’s soup. I wish I knew why. It has all the same ingredients, and my soup is awfully good, but it’s not the same. Your soup will not be my soup. It will be delicious, but it probably won’t taste like mine either. Soups are mysterious, mystical creations.

This recipe makes a lot of soup. I mean, enough to serve probably ten people. So, the good thing is you can freeze it in a Tupperware-like container. I am including a gluten-free version, substituting rice for the barley. The soup will be different, but it will be just as delicious.

Before we get started on our soup and muffins I want to remind you of a really basic step that beginning cooks sometimes forget. Always read the entire recipe before you begin. Like, before you start making bran muffins, do you actually have a muffin pan? That would be a good thing to own before you are standing with a bowl full of batter before a hot oven. It always comes down to the basics, my friends.

So, here we go.

Vegetable Soup

Again, this makes a big pot of filling soup which feeds a crowd cheaply. Try it instead of chilli for your next football party. It freezes well in a plastic container, though it lasts easily for a week in the fridge. It’s easy to make, it just takes time. So, make sure you don’t want this soup for dinner in 3o minutes because this will be ready tomorrow, not tonight. If you want it tonight, start around 9 AM, to have it done by 6 PM. Still, it will be better on day two.

Ingredients

•    Soup bones — ox tail and marrow bones are both wonderful, but neck bones, even short ribs will do. Bones add real flavor to soup, and they are absolutely necessary here. If you don’t see any in the meat case, ring for the butcher and ask.

•    Soup/stew meat, you don’t need too much, maybe 1/2 to 3/4 of a pound. Trim all fat off the meat.

•    A bunch of celery, the end cut off, washed well and chopped into small pieces, including the leaves, which add flavor

•    A bunch of parsley, the ends cut off, well washed and chopped up finely.

•    5-6 large carrots, sliced. If you like more, use more.

•    2 of the biggest cans of whole tomatoes, not puréed, or stewed, or sliced, or fancied up in any way.

•    1 cup barley.  If you want a gluten-free version, use one cup of washed white or brown rice. To wash the rice put it in a colander and rinse under running water for a minute or so to get the extra starch off.

•    Salt to taste

•    Bovril (Hard to find in the U.S., I have friends bring it from England) or “Better than Bouillon” 2-3 tablespoons, to enhance the flavor. If I don’t have any of these things I throw in 4-5 beef bouillon cubes, and reduce the salt. You can also use beef broth rather than water. That works as well. Bovril is a dark, black sticky beef extract that really adds flavor to stews and soups. If you have a friend going to the UK, ask them to bring you some. Also, a teaspoon dissolved in a cup of hot water is much richer and more yummy than a cup of bouillon from a cube.

Instructions   

•    Put the meat, bones, parsley, and celery in a large stock pot and cover with water or beef broth, add Bovril or other flavor enhancer and about a tablespoon of salt (if using bouillon cubes add salt later, remember, you can’t take it back out once you put it in).

•    Cover, place on high heat (Don’t walk away!) until it boils. Reduce the heat and simmer for several hours.

•    Check “under the hood” after about 3 hours. If you are using marrow bones, you can now remove them to a plate and spread the marrow on a piece of bread, sprinkle it with salt and eat it, if you like marrow. (Try it once, you might like it.)

•    Otherwise, poke the marrow through into the soup to enrich the broth. Free up any meat clinging to the bones and then remove the bones from the soup. Check the flavor and add salt as needed. At this point I often like to put the soup-in-progress into the fridge to cool overnight to solidify the fat on top, so I can easily remove it.

•    After skimming the fat and returning the pot to the heat, add the barley, carrots and tomatoes, filling each tomato can once with water and adding to the soup. Continue cooking for another few hours, check the flavor and add more salt if needed.

•    Serve with bran muffins and a green salad. Store extra in the fridge overnight. Before reheating, skim off hardened fat and discard. Add more water if necessary before reheating.

If you freeze some of the soup, when you defrost it (which will take a few days in the fridge) you may want to add some beef broth and a small can of tomatoes to perk it up a bit.

Bran Muffins

This recipe came from the General Mills All-Bran cereal box many years ago. My mother served these with her vegetable soup and with many other things. I’m not sure that General Mills even makes all-bran anymore. These muffins are not the huge muffins you are used to seeing these days. This makes a dozen standard muffins, with no spilling over “muffin tops.” However, they are delicious, light inside and slightly crispy outside. This recipe can be doubled, so if you have two muffin pans, you can make 24 muffins.

Ingredients

•    1 cup All-Bran (add a little molasses to Kellogg’s)
•    1 cup milk
•    1/4 cup sugar
•    1 cup flour
•    1/2 teaspoon salt
•    1 egg
•    3 teaspoons baking powder
•    3 tablespoons oil

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Spray a muffin tin with cooking spray.
In a mixing bowl soak the bran in the milk.
In a separate bowl mix the dry ingredients together.
Add the oil and the egg to the bran mixture.
Mix in the dry ingredients.
Bake at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes, until the muffins are brown.

Serve warm with butter

Impress-Your-Date (Mom, Girlfriend’s Mom, etc.) Chicken Dinner

So, you promised your mom or your sweetie or your fill-in-the-blank person that you would fix them a home cooked dinner and now you are panicking because you have no idea what to do. It all seems WAY too difficult and you are thinking you will have to drag out a copy of Julia Child and start cooking last week, and that’s impossible, so you’re screwed, so why even try?

Stop worrying. Simple, honest, home cooked food is so delicious, and it’s almost a lost art these days. So, if you fix a roast chicken dinner (make sure your guests are not vegetarians, or vegans first, of course — I will have the vegan dinner plan in another post), with boiled parsley potatoes, and a salad, you will wow your dinner guest(s) without having to spend much money, time or anxiety. (Well, the anxiety part is up to you, because you’ll have to clean up your house.)

I know this is a very old-fashioned kind of meal. Very “meat and potatoes” as it were, but it’s just because it’s so basic, and so homey, that your guests will love it. Trust me.

Oh, I almost forgot dessert! For dessert, you can serve vanilla ice cream topped with fresh berries and whipped cream. If it’s winter, even better, you can serve vanilla ice cream topped with a warm raspberry sauce made with frozen raspberries and a little sugar, topped with whipped cream. I’ll talk you through it. It’ll be so elegant their eyes will pop.

SHOPPING LIST:

A chicken: Chickens come in sizes. Roasting chickens (called “roasters“) weigh 8 or 9 pounds and will feed probably six people. Smaller chickens are called “fryers,” and tip the scales at about 5 or 6 pounds. Then there are the itty-bitty personal-sized chickens called Cornish game hens. If you are feeding about three or four people for your home cooked meal, you should buy yourself a fryer. They cost maybe $10 or less, depending upon where you live. Try to get one that’s from a local producer.

Right here let me point out what a great resource a butcher is. The guy behind the meat counter can give you great advice about how many pounds per person of what kind of meat you need, and different ways to cook meat. Make friends with your butcher and your fish guy. Ask them, “What’s good today?” Use their expertise. Ask them about marinades. These are the folks who know all about these things and they like to be asked.

“New potatoes,” about two tennis ball-sized potatoes per person. Use your judgement. Sometimes the potatoes are smaller, so, buy more. There are lots of different kinds of potatoes. These potatoes come by different names in different parts of the country. They are often (but not always) sold in a bin, rather than pre-packed in bags, which makes it easy to buy smaller quantities. These are the kind of potatoes that are not peeled before you cook them. They may be pink or white on the outside with white flesh, or they may even be purple, with purple flesh (those are a little sweeter than the white spuds). Any will do. What you don’t want are the big oblong Idaho potatoes which are the sort that you bake or mash, or the Oregold or Maine potatoes that are best for peeling and mashing. (And for those of you worried about the fact that these potatoes have too many carbs, well, just have chicken and salad.)

Salad material:

What looks best to you? What do you like best in a salad? Do you like baby spinach? Then get a bag of that and wash it up and let it drain in your colander. Are you partial to the greens they call “spring mix,” which has various kind of lettuces all in one bag? How about arugula? That can be a little bitter, and if you’ve never tried it, maybe you should stick with butter lettuce, which is perhaps my favorite. Whatever greenery you get, even if it says it’s been pre-washed, always wash it well. If you buy dear old iceberg lettuce, take off the outer-most layers and throw them out. They are likely to be full of insecticide, or something. Chop or tear up the iceberg, then wash it in your colander. I don’t like the very inner parts, which are yellow and kind of bitter, so I throw them in my compost bin.

If you don’t have a salad spinner. Do what my mother did, which is put your wet lettuce in a pillow case, go outside and give it a whirl to get the water out, then put it in the fridge for an hour or so, and the lettuce will be crisp and lovely.

I like to add cherry tomatoes, carrots, avocados, and sliced mushrooms to my salads. I leave onions out of a salad, just because so many people don’t like them, though I personally like onions.

It can be a bit tricky to tell if avocados (which my dad called “alligator pears”) are ripe, and I get it wrong now and then. You can ask the produce guy in the supermarket to pick one for you. An avocado needs to be dark green, almost black and give gently in your hand. If the avocado is lumpy, it’s over-ripe. I think the best way to eat an avocado is not in a salad, but just cut up, and sprinkled with salt and lemon juice. If you find enough ripe avocados, you could fix an avocado salad, and skip the bowl of greens and veggies. Give everybody half an avocado sliced on a small plate of lettuce and drizzle with a little olive oil and vinegar. Simple and elegant.

Other stuff you’ll need:

A can of whole cranberry sauce. I know you think cranberry sauce is only for Thanksgiving, but it’s not. Cranberry gives a nice sweet/tart compliment to poultry any time. I like Ocean Spray, but the store brand will be cheaper. Buy what your wallet tells you. You can get jellied, if that’s what you’re used to, but whole cranberry sauce is closer to the stuff I make in the fall.

Curly parsley. This is what we’re going to wash, chop up finely, and sprinkle on our buttered potatoes. You don’t have to do the parsley. I just think it dresses the spuds up a bit. And a bunch of parsley is cheap.

Salad dressing. Usually, I would say you should make your own, but you have enough to think about, so go with a nice vinaigrette. No ranch dressing. You want something light, essentially oil and vinegar and a few spices.

Salted butter. Real butter. To hell with our cholesterol levels (and there is some thought now that butter’s not so bad). This is a special occasion, and it calls for the real stuff to provide the potatoes with the proper taste and the chicken with a nice brown skin.

Vanilla Ice Cream and a can of whipped cream. Normally, I like to whip my own heavy cream, but you may not have a mixer, and the point of this dinner is to make it as anxiety free as possible.

Fresh or frozen berries. If buying fresh berries, strawberries will be the least expensive. You’ll need a quart or so. If you find a guy selling them on the street, or a farmer’s market, that’s the best. By three little pint boxes. Raspberries and blackberries are fabulous, but they grow on very thorny bushes and are delicate, so they are difficult to harvest, which translates to a high price. Wash your strawberries, hull them (take off the stem) and cut them up, sprinkling them with a few teaspoons of sugar as you go, so they are sweet enough not to seem horribly sour next to the sweetness of the ice cream. One bag of frozen raspberries will make enough sauce for four people.

A bottle or two of white wine. Man, I am not a wine expert. If you can, ask one of your guests to bring the wine. If you can’t, about $15 will buy a decent bottle of wine, and there are many nice California Chardonnays and lighter Pinot Grigiots which will work for your chicken dinner. But definitely, try to get your guests to bring the wine. Each state, and sometimes, each county in each state sells alcohol differently, so I’m not even going to try to advise you on buying wine. Just buy what you like and don’t let anyone tell you it’s not okay wine. Except Thunderbird. I draw the line at Thunderbird, and Boone’s Farm.

Nice quality paper napkins. They can be white or colored. Folded or a big square which you fold yourself. You don’t have to have cloth napkins for your guests, but you do have to provide them with something a lot nicer than extra napkins you brought home from Subway.

Candles. If you’ve got some candle holders, candles always make an occasion seem special. Don’t get scented candles, however, because the scent will interfere with the experience of the food.

A table. I know I’m sounding picky. But if you have to clear your computer off your desk, or spend $50 for a card table at Staples, do it, because people over 18 don’t want to sit on the floor or eat balancing their dinner on their laps. If you get a card table, it will store easily and you will use it the rest of your life. If you don’t have a tablecloth, you can fold a sheet to fit. Get creative. Make place mats.

THE NEXT STEPS:

One of the most difficult things for inexperienced cooks to pull off is having everything come out at the same time. You don’t want your vegetables to be done half an hour before the main course, because they’ll get cold.

One way to eliminate some timing problems, is to substitute cold dishes for hot ones until you’re a bit more sure of yourself in the kitchen. In our menu, we’re just going to have a salad, which you can make ahead of time and stow in the fridge. Another thing to do ahead of time is to set the table. Do that before you take your shower.

To figure out when to start cooking, make a reverse timeline, starting with the dish that takes the longest to cook, which in our case is the chicken. So, if we’ve invited our guests to arrive at 6:30 PM, and we expect to sit down at 7 PM, our five-pound chicken is going to need to go into the oven at 5:30. That means you need to turn on the oven to preheat at 5 PM.

Most chickens will cook in about an hour in a low-sided pan at 375 degrees. A huge “roaster” chicken will take about 90 minutes. Cornish game hens, which make a nice meal for a single person, take about 40 minutes because they are so little.  You have to preheat the oven because slowly increasing the heat on a chicken will encourage bacterial growth which is dangerous and nasty.

Wash the chicken inside and out (this is a good way to make sure you’ve taken out and tossed the giblets, which are the neck, heart and liver). Pull or cut off the fat (it’s lighter-looking, yellowish, and clings to the inside of the skin) that’s on either side of the entry into the bird. Then pat the chicken dry using paper towels. Make sure you wash your hands and the counter well with soap and water, and discard the paper towels after handling raw chicken. Chickens carry Salmonella which doesn’t make the chicken sick but can make you very sick. Make sure you take out your trash, too, because chicken parts left in the trash smell to high heaven by morning.

Bend the wings back under the bird (no reason, it just looks nicer.) Dot the top of the bird liberally with real butter. The butter will give the bird a nice brown, crispy skin. Bake (again, at 375 degrees) in a low-sided pan sprayed with cooking spray to help with cleanup. The chicken will be done when the juices run clear when you poke it with a fork. If the juices look pink or bloody, keep cooking. This is a good time to use a meat thermometer. The thermometer should read 185 degrees when stuck in the thigh, the part below the drumstick. Be sure not to touch the bone because that will give a false high reading. Mostly, you can tell a chicken is done because it smells done and is nice and brown and the legs are loose when you move them.

Quickly, to carve a chicken, it’s best to go on You Tube and look for a little movie. It’s not hard. The most important thing is to be sure you have a sharp knife. Most people have knives in their kitchens that are no better than butter spreaders, and then they wonder why carving a chicken is so hard. Sharpen your knife first, and don’t bear down on the knife, and the chicken will carve easily.

Potatoes take about 20-30 minutes to cook, and they can keep warm on the stove once done just by turning them off. So, if your guests are arriving at 6:30, and dinner is at 7 PM, start the potatoes at 6:15 PM. Cut the potatoes into golf-ball sized pieces, cover them 3/4 with water, add about a half teaspoon of salt to the water (don’t need to measure), cover and turn the heat on high. DON’T WALK AWAY! When the potatoes are boiling, turn the heat down and set the timer for 20 minutes. Check the potatoes with a fork when the timer rings. If the fork goes in, they are done, if not, wait another five minutes and check again. When they are done, drain the potatoes in a colander, put in a bowl, dab on some butter and sprinkle with finely chopped parsley.

While the potatoes are cooking, put your salad in a big bowl, and put it on your table with the dressing near it.

Just as everyone is sitting down, put the bag of frozen raspberries in the sink to defrost. After the plates have been cleared, get out the vanilla ice cream to soften a bit, while you make the raspberry sauce. Put the frozen raspberries in a 1 qt. sauce pan with a scant 1/4 cup of sugar and heat slowly, until it’s all combined and warm and juicy. I am not a good food stylist, but if I were, I’d make this into a parfait, with layers of ice cream and raspberry sauce in a wine glass, with whipped cream on top. What I generally do, is put ice cream in a cereal bowl, pour on the sauce and pile on the whipped cream. It tastes just as marvelous, it’s just not quite as pretty.

So, there you go. A yummy, chicken dinner that you can do time and again with success. In coming posts, I’ll talk about fixing rice, and about cooking vegetables. But a good, basic chicken dinner will always serve you, and your guests, well.

You can do it! Auntie Jane says so!