January 30, 2012

Roasted Red Pepper Soup

There is nothing more delicious and satisfying in all the world than a good bowl of well-balanced soup on a dark winter's night.  I'm talking about the kind that is soft and velvety, topped with cheese, cream or fresh herbs. The kind that contains so many varieties of vegetables that you don't need a side salad to finish off your meal. The kind that invites hunks of rustic bread to dip into its rich, spicy-sweet texture.

This kind of soup deserves a poetry slam. And I have just the one that fits the bill: roasted red pepper soup. Roast your own peppers and use plenty of spices. Serve with those big soup spoons. Enjoy leftovers over noodles or whole wheat rice, or simply in a side bowl with a big salad. Soups are so incredibly versatile; in winter, they can be a kind of survival guide. Knowing how to make a good, silky vegetable-based soup can be a cure-all for that slow weeknight or even weekend lunch. Carrot gives the soup an orangey softness, while potato lends that essential starchy texture that every good velvet soup needs. Try this soup with plenty of garlic, different varieties of root vegetables, or even more roasted red peppers if desired.

January 25, 2012

Apple-Pear Cobbler

There is something about the winter here that makes me want to make things in miniatures. Maybe it is because my fridge is too full of leftovers, tubs of Greek yogurt, milk, and herbs that I just can't fit in another tupperware of cold food that may not get eaten in the near future. My freezer is no help either. Frozen fruit, frozen lunches for emergency days, nuts, and soup fill up every inch of space I have. Besides, who wants to eat leftover dessert? Dessert should be fresh and warm from the oven. Or it should be appropriately chilled and mellowed, like a good custard pie or a cheesecake.

Somebody should really do a study on the anatomy of leftovers: methods of reheating, reusing, and creative restructuring. Ratio of main meals to desserts (at my house it would be like 10:1). Organization and effect on weeknight kitchen creativity. I've gotten into the habit of baking quarter batches of cookies and freezing the rest, making half batches of soup and using the rest for lunches or poured over rice, and freezing chicken mixes to stuff into wheat pita rounds later in the week.

January 22, 2012

Pad Thai for Two

I owe the environment an apology. Five copies of my dissertation - which included discarding black and white pages that needed to be substituted for color and noticing typographic errors that warranted even more extra printed pages - probably produced a carbon footprint equal to driving from here to Durham and back. And then I drove to Durham and back. Twice.

Carbon footprint or no, I have spent a glorious weekend feeling über-victorious and haven't had the anxiety-ridden episodes that I so enjoyed in the troubled days leading up to turning in my work. I've planned meals, gone shopping, registered with my fiancé (one of the best inventions of the modern wedding EVER), been to the gym, and have had a ridiculously delicious home-cooked meal at a friend's house - more on that later.

January 14, 2012

Pimento Chicken Burgers

Well, these burgers certainly are a discovery.

Case in point, healthy eating does not mean meals of dry toast and protein in powder form. It does not even mean infinitesimally small portions. Healthy eating doesn't even mean having dry spinach salads without dressing - even though some days call for such meals.

During these past two weeks, I have been experimenting with hearty, healthy food. I have certain favorites, and most of my favorite food is rich, Southern fare. While I do not condone permanently slimming down these recipes (there is a reason we use so much butter and bacon grease), some months or even stretches of months require just a bit of healthy tweaking. So whereas I would normally love to be deep-frying chicken and hand-pies, sometimes the healthy alternative actually tastes better, both to body and soul.

January 9, 2012

Chicken Pot Pie with Buttermilk Biscuits

It's a dreary, rainy day here in the North Carolina Piedmont. The Christmas decorations are down and things are finally back to normal. It's back to the grind of paper edits, meetings, countless drives between Chapel Hill and Durham, rehearsal schedules, and lesson planning. I usually take a strange sort of comfort in the return to a normal schedule and balanced lifestyle. Still, I try to plan healthier versions of the warm, hearty meals that we enjoyed over the holidays. The winter here has been temperamental, with hints and peeks of warm spring days interspersed with cold ones like this. So I find that the best way to counter the ups and downs of holidays and normalcy, unseasonable warmth and winter cold, is with hearty, healthy food. Obviously.

To be completely honest, I never really liked chicken pot pie. I hope nothing is wrong with me. I'm sure that my childlike tastes were averse to something in it - maybe the starchy beans or creamy chicken, maybe the flaky pie top. Each individual ingredient - chicken, vegetables, cream, crust - is stunningly delicious. I never figured out why I didn't wholeheartedly enjoy them all together. Enter flaky buttermilk biscuits. Greek yogurt instead of cream. Cauliflower florets and zucchini chunks instead of starchy beans. Balanced.

January 7, 2012

Lucky Stars for Epiphany

Yesterday was Epiphany, the day when the wise men presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Epiphany is the twelfth day of Christmas; many take down their decorations and trees on this day. (Of course, the official end of Christmas doesn't come until Candlemas on February 2nd, so for those stalwart Christmas fans, there is a bit more time.) Epiphany is a day that is filled with light and hope as we remember the magi who traveled in search of the baby Jesus.

A couple of years ago, while visiting my sister in Boston around New Year's, I stumbled upon a special Belgian beer line of dark, spicy ales named for the three kings: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. I had them for Epiphany. It reminded me of the grand European traditions that honor the kings and their journey to find Jesus. Doorframes and church entrances often sport the chalked initials "C, M, B" (C for the English Caspar) to remember that, in making ourselves like the magi, we too are charged to seek lives of hope.

Belgian beer makes one think about such things.

January 4, 2012

Art, Nature, and Arkansas: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

It takes an exceptional cultural experience to forego a food-related post. Over the past few weeks I've been so food-minded, planning meals and (especially) desserts, trying to cram in all the holiday-related recipes I can and still having about a hundred that I am saving for next December. January is a time to refocus, get back to the "normal" life (whatever that may be), and try to recover from the typical indulge of the past six weeks.

On January 1, my family made an excursion - a pilgrimage, if you will - to Bentonville, Arkansas, in the northwest part of the state. Bentonville, home of the brand-new, all-American art museum Crystal Bridges, has made international news in the past several months. I've read articles (namely in The New Yorker and New York Times) whose authors are left scratching their heads about why, oh WHY has Alice Walton, professional art collector billionaire daughter of Wal-Mart mogul Sam Walton, decided to invest her resources in backwoods Arkansas rather than on Fifth Avenue, New York? Half of me takes delight in sensing these critics squirm at the mere mention of "Arkansas culture" and half of me wants to rise up and defend the state of my upbringing.

January 2, 2012

Boeuf Bourguignon

I think that for many home cooks, boeuf bourguignon, or beef burgundy, is a real tour de force. It ranks up there with coq au vin, Sunday roast, and homemade pasta. It takes as long to think about and prepare as an empty New Year's Eve day. We started this dish around ten on Saturday morning and were eating by seven that night. This all-day affair really is essential for experienced cooks who have ingredients, time, and an assistant chef to help with all the peeling, chopping, cutting, sautéing, browning, roux-making, and fonding. Like I said, beef burgundy is a tour de force; and I was the assistant chef.

The key to a really successful beef burgundy is the way you sauté the beef. The beef must be patted very dry with paper towels, cubed in relatively similar sizes, then browned darkly on all sides in a rich fond of bacon grease. (Here it comes again with the bacon grease.) A semi-crunchy, all-delicious crust should form on all sides of each piece of meat, otherwise it will turn to mush during the hours-long cooking process. And nobody likes beef mush, especially around the holidays. Get ready for this process to last a good chunk of the morning. Switch on your iPod dock, have a conversation with your family, or plan out your football watching times for the rest of the week. Just make sure you are prepared for how long the browning process takes. Be patient and don't rush it. The less you rush, the more brown your beef will become, and the more delicious will be your beef burgundy. Again: nobody likes mushy meat. Gross.