Right now my loving husband is working on our next post. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will hint at the fact that the love of my life, and our household’s chief engineer, is going to be presenting to you an essay and some technical hints on the preparation of one of our most favorite libations. But for more on that, you will have to wait, at least a teensy while longer.
And now that I have piqued your interest with a glimpse of things to come I would like to switch gears entirely to discuss the topic that has been “top of mind” for me over the last few months. I have spent a great deal of time lately ruminating on ideas related to the grand theme (and current social buzz word) of “Sustainability.” More specifically, I have been reading, researching and listening to various different sources in hopes of developing some deeper understanding of how my decisions, as a consumer, impact the environment, and, furthermore, how environmental impacts may threaten future generations ability to thrive.
The modern American Diet, with its focus on meat protein and packaged convenience foods, has taken a toll both on the health of our people and on the environment. I recently completed an eye-opening course on the American Food System on Coursera. The course provided an impactful overview of both historical and modern systems of agriculture and food animal production, as well as the policies, such as the American “Farm Bill”, which drive the complex networks of subsidies as well as the protocol governing food assistance programs and the dissemination of information related to nutrition. But among the many segments was most illuminating to me were the lectures on industrial food animal production systems and their environmental and health costs.
Not only do Industrial Food Animal Production systems have a stark impact on the ecology of the immediately surrounding area, but the industry’s hunger for resources, from water, to energy, to pharmaceuticals is stripping the nation of many resources and putting us at risk for environmental disaster. And that is to say nothing of the nasty byproducts of the production such as animal waste, methane gas, and potential for diseases that come hand in hand with large scale facilities. It is clear that something needs to change, in terms of our patterns of meat consumption (which, until recently, had been on the sharp rise over the course of the last century) as current trends are simply not sustainable.
While the facts of food animal production are certainly harrowing and, indeed, a bit off-putting, for me, the solution to lessening the impact of my food choices on the environment is not to simply forgo meat altogether. It is clear to me that meat protein should play a far smaller role in our modern diet. In our home, we have committed to eating less than a single small (3-4oz) serving of meat per day and endeavor to vote with our food dollars to support farmers who use sustainable practices in raising food animals. The recipe for black bean soup featured below was developed around a traditional practice of using a small portion of meat as flavoring for an otherwise plant-based meal. While the amount of meat used may be small, it’s smoky and savory favors make a big impact on the hearty soup, which is a warming treat to share with loved ones on a rainy spring day.
Before I delve into the recipe, lets take a moment to talk about soaking beans. If you look through our blog history you will note that I have shifted away from using canned beans. Canned beans are a great convenience food and can make a quick addition to a dish in a pinch but what you gain in convenience comes at a nutritional cost. Canned beans are traditionally packed with sodium, while rinsing the beans before using them does make an impact on the amount of sodium that makes its way into the final dish, even proper rinsing techniques are only able to mitigate about 40% of the added sodium. Dried beans are not an ingredient that can be used instantaneously in the way that they canned counterparts may be, but I, personally, find them no less convenient. Not only do I find the home cooked beans to be superior from a textural perspective, but I appreciate the opportunity to soak, rinse, resoak, and rerinse the beans before cooking. Putting the beans through multiple (2-3) changes of water over the course of an 8+ hour soaking process helps to rid the end product of some of the indigestible carbohydrates that give beans the monicker of the “magical fruit.”
One final note here on using dried beans, the dried nature of the beans used in this dish allows for them to be cooked for a much longer period of time without compromising the texture of the bean. With the longer cooking window the beans absorb a greater deal of flavor from the bacon and aromatics in the soup creating a richer end product. If substituting canned beans the overall cooking time for the soup will need to be much shorter in order to avoid reducing the beans to mush.
Black Bean Soup with Bacon (Serves 8)
500g (2.5c) Dried Black Beans
3 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Divided)
About 15 Slices of Thinly Cut Canadian Bacon
1 Large Yellow Onion, Chopped
2 Cubanelle Peppers, Diced
3 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
1 TSP Chipotle Powder (or Hot Smoked Paprika)
1 TSP Ground Cumin
1oz Tequilla (Blanco, or Reposado are OK – I would Avoid Anejo)
1/2 a Bunch of Cilantro, Washed Well and Chopped
1 TBSP Lime Juice
Salt and Pepper to Taste
Start by soaking your beans. I start mine in the evening after dinner and drain them and change out the water just before going to bed. If you are concerned about wasting water – the liquid drained off of the beans can easily be saved to water houseplants.
Once the beans have soaked for at least 8 hours, drain them again and set them aside.
Heat 1 TBSP of the olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the canadian bacon and cook until any fat has rendered and the meat is slightly browned. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate and set aside. Add and onions and sauté until soft, add the Cubanelles and continue to cook until they too soften. Stir in the canadian bacon, garlic, chipotle, and cumin and sautee for another minute or so before tipping in about 8 cups of water. Add the beans to the pot and stir.
Bring the soup to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. While the soup does not require constant monitoring at this point be sure to periodically check on the pot to ensure that there is still enough liquid present to cover the beans. About every 20 minutes or so, skim off any foam that rises to the surface, and then give the mixture a few slow stirs to ensure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. Be sure to do this in this order, skimming first and then stirring, as you do not want to stir the foam back into the soup.
The cooking time for dried beans can vary widely depending on the age of the beans and length of soaking time. After the first hour and a half of cooking time test one of the beans to see if it is tender. To do so, remove a bean or two and set it on a plate, as the beans may still be rock hard it might not be the best plan to toss it in your mouth and chomp down – instead test one between your thumb and forefinger to see if there is any give. If the bean is still completely hard keep the pot simmering away and test again after another 30 minutes have elapsed. If the bean has reasonable give you can move on to an actual taste test to better gauge the texture. When Dustin is put in charge of testing the doneness of things he invariably asks me how to know when it is done – here I will offer the same advice I give to him, when you like the way the beans taste, and the texture is to your liking, they are done. Once the beans are cooked to your preference, stir in the tequila, about half of the chopped cilantro, and the lime juice. Taste the soup and determine if more lime, cilantro, or salt is needed and adjust these seasonings until they, too, meet your flavor preferences.
This soup is great on its own but also pairs well with homemade cornbread – I love the cornbread recipe featured on the Anson Mills website. The recipe is as simple as it gets but is remarkably good. If you have not explored Anson Mills’ site before, it is a stunning resource for information on grains such as Oats, Corn, and Rice and their freshly milled ingredients are a world above anything available in even the best grocery stores.
For the last month or so Dustin and I have sought solace from the cold winter weather in hearty meaty sauces, stews, and chilis. This past weekend, with warm weather on the horizon, we looked to change tempo with a meat free weekend of cooking. Thinking of ways to make protein packed vegetarian mains my mind drifted straight to lentils. Lentils are by far my favorite vegetarian protein. I love that they are so amazingly versatile, the many different varieties make them well suited for a variety of different types of dishes. Firmer lentils such as puy and beluga add a nice toothsome bite to salads and can withstand longer cooking times without turning to mush. Yellow and red lentils, on the other hand, are easily transformed into smooth soups and make an excellent base for silky purees and dips.
There are few cooks famous for vegetarian cooking, and even fewer who approach meatless cuisine with the same innovative zeal as Yatam Ottolenghi. I love looking through Ottolenghi’s archived recipes on the BBC’s website. The hundreds of vegetarian recipes provide a breath of fresh air when my usual fail safe flavors prove boring and stale. This can be especially useful during the winter months when the variety of produce is limited and inspiration is hard to come by.
As if that wasn’t enough reason to scour the web for Yatam’s delicious dishes, many of his dishes offer creative ways to take advantage of dried legumes and whole grains, all of which are relatively inexpensive and incredible healthy. We typically have a wealth of stored legumes in the pantry but if you don’t have these on hand it is fun to peruse the dried goods section of Whole Foods (or other health foods markets that offer bulk grain bins) looking for new whole grains to try. I have been reading lately about many of the bargain options available at Whole Foods, it appears that many of their stores offer tours to show shoppers thrifty and healthy options.
This dish certainly packs a healthy punch. The lentils themselves are rich in protein. While they are members of the legume family, unlike beans they are free of sulfur an, therefore don’t cause the same “wind” issues as their beany brethren. Lentils have been a dietary mainstay since biblical times. They are, in fact, featured in the book of Genesis, where Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentils. The coconut milk in this dish provides a nice substitute for heavy cream – which is more often used to create a creamy flavor in pureed soups. It also keeps this dish vegan friendly. I recommend using Chaokoh brand coconut milk, which is typically available at Asian markets – it is amazingly rich and smooth. While you can use lite coconut milk, I recommend using the full fat variety as it adds needed body and richness and helps the spices shine. The tofu and chickpeas are both “optional” – if you don’t have the time or don’t want to fry up the tofu it can easily be omitted. Both of these add a nice textural contrast to the smooth creamy soup.
Red Lentil Soup with Fried Tofu and Spicy Chickpeas Adapted from a Recipe from Yatam Ottolenghi
2 TBSP Sunflower Oil
1 Large Onion, Chopped
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
One 3 Inch Piece of Ginger, Chopped
¾ TSP Each Ground Cumin, Turmeric, and Coriander
One Pinch Each Ground Cardamom and Ground Cinnamon
400ml Good Quality Coconut Milk
250g Red Lentils
Thickly Peeled Skin of ½ Lemon, Plus Juice of 1 Lemon
For Chili Oil
1 TSP Cumin Seeds
¾ TSP Aleppo Pepper Flakes
For Fried Tofu
50g Corn Flour
220 Firm Tofu, Cut into 1 Inch Cubes
1 Can Cooked Chickpeas, Drained
1/2 TSP Ground Cumin
1/2 TSP Smoked Paprika
1/4 TSP Salt
3 TBSP Chopped Cilantro
Heat two tablespoons of sunflower oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion and on medium-low heat sweat for eight minutes until soft. Add the garlic, ginger and ground spices, and cook, stirring, for eight minutes. Add 900ml water, the coconut milk, lentils and lemon skin (not the juice). Bring to a boil, then simmer until the lentils are soft, about 20 minutes. Remove the lemon skin, add one and a quarter teaspoons of salt and some pepper. Allow to cool slightly and then blend until smooth. Taste and add more salt to taste.
Pour another two tablespoons of oil into a small saucepan and heat. Add the cumin seeds and chilli flakes, and cook on low heat for a minute. Tip out into a heatproof bowl.
Wipe clean the saucepan and pour in enough oil to come 2cm up the sides. While the oil is heating up, mix the corn flour with a quarter-teaspoon of salt and some white pepper. Toss the tofu in the corn flour, shake off any excess and fry in batches until golden, about five minutes (the oil must be just hot enough gently to fry the tofu). Drain on kitchen towel and set aside somewhere warm.
For the chickpeas – preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss the chickpeas with 1 TBSP sunflower or olive oil and the spices. Spread in a single layer on a sheet pan and roast in the oven until browned and crunchy and 25 minutes.
To serve, heat up the soup, stir in the lemon juice and divide between four bowls. Top each with some fried tofu, crunchy chickpeas, and a drizzle of the cumin and chilli oil, and finish with a sprinkling of cilantro.
Things are really heating up around here, in more ways than one. First and foremost I want to give a big shout out to my fabulous mother who has been working hard to help P4P (penchant for produce) gain some more exposure. And she has done so with great success – the blog hits are certainly coming on more heavily and I am excited to have new readers. To all of the newcomers out there, thank you very much for taking the time to peruse my blog. I hope you come back and visit often and am looking forward to hearing your questions, comments, and suggestions! You are what makes writing this blog exciting!
But as I mentioned earlier, its been getting hot hot hot. The South has been experiencing a major heatwave and temperatures in my new home state of Tennessee have been in the high 90s and low 100s for the last few days. Unlike the Northeast summers of my childhood, where mornings would start cool and temperatures would rise gradually and peak in the afternoon cresting and then falling as the cool moved back in for the evening, the heat here in the American South is hard hitting and unrelenting. When I left the Yoga studio yesterday at 7AM it was already 87 degrees and the evening temperatures are not much better. And in times like these, when the sun will not relent, the folks down here do what they have always done to beat the heat: they wear wide brimmed hats, they eat Popsicles and drink ice cold beer, and, whenever possible, they stay indoors and crank up the AC.
Since arriving, I have felt as though I have been living in two entirely different climates. On one end of the spectrum there is the hot, humid and sunny outdoor climate, which I inhabit only briefly and in short spurts as I dash from indoor location to indoor location. On the opposite end is the cool, dry, and shaded indoor world where I spend most of my time. But the problem is that some places, (mostly restaurants, malls, and grocery stores) are downright cold! And while I am becoming more vigilant about bringing a sweater with me when we go out for dinner, when I walk into a meat locker like establishment from the outrageous heat outside I find myself searching the menu for something to warm up my once burning and now freezing arms and legs.
And this brings me to today’s post, a very comforting and surprisingly summery bread soup, inspired by yet another Ottolenghi recipe. This soup is entirely vegetarian and can even be made vegan by simply substituting olive oil for the butter I use to sautee the onions and fennel. The fennel is what makes this soup truly special, its slightly sweet and anisey flavor bring a great deal of freshness to the soup.
Be patient when sauteing the onions with the fennel, keep the heat fairly low (med or so) and don’t stir them too often. After 10 minutes the veggies should begin to caramelize. This light caramelization is possibly the most integral component in the soup as the sweet onions and fennel mellow the acidity of the otherwise dominant tomatoes. The recipe calls for a dollop of pesto which tops off the soup and gives it a great dose of fresh herby flavor. While I love Trader Joes I am not a huge fan of their pesto, I prefer the brighter flavors of a refrigerator pesto to a canned one for this dish – I have used the one from Costco with great success (it freezes well as well. Whole foods carries great pestos as well.
Summertime Bread Soup with Pesto3 TBSP Butter 1 ½ Onions Sliced 1 Large Bulb of Fennel Sliced 4 Cloves Garlic Minced 3 Large Carrots, Peeled, Cut Lengthwise in Half and Sliced 3 Stalks of Celery Sliced 1 TBSP Tomato Paste 1 ½ Cup White Wine 1 28-Ounce Can Plum Tomatoes with Their Juice 1 TBSP Chopped Oregano 1 TBSP Chopped Fennel Fronds 1 TBSP Chopped Thyme 2 Bay Leaves 2 TSP Sugar 6 Cups Vegetable Stock Reduced 3 Large Slices Stale Italian Bread Well toasted and Cut into Small Cubes 2 Cans Chickpeas, Rinsed Well Pesto
In a large sauce pan melt butter over medium heat. Add Onion, Fennel, and two small pinches of salt and sautee for 10 minutes or until fennel and onion turn golden and begin to caremelize. Add garlic, celery, and carrots and sautee 4 mins more.
Stir in the tomato paste and cook for an additional minute, stirring. Add wine and bring to a boil. After boiling for a minute or so add the tomatoes, herbs, sugar, and broth and bring to a boil again. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
While the soup is simmering place the chickpeas in a small bowl and lightly mash them with a potato masher. Some should remain whole while others will eventually melt into the soup.
When the soup has finished simmering taste and add salt and freshly cracked pepper as needed. Remember when adding salt that the dollop of pesto on top will add saltiness to the dish.
About 20 minutess before serving time add the chickpeas to the soup. Wait till about 5 minutes before to add the bread.
Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Serve topped with Pesto and a small sprinkling of fresh parsley.