Thursday, September 25, 2008

Stone soup

There is a popular fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm that tells of a soldier, on his way home from war, who stops in a village and asks the townspeople for a bite to eat. They all refuse to share anything with him though they clearly have plenty. He is a wily man, so in his desperation he finds an old pot, builds a fire in the middle of the town square and heats the pot filled only with water and a stone. One by one the townspeople who had refused him come by to see what he’s doing; he tells them he’s making stone soup, the most delicious soup in the world. None of them want to admit they’ve never heard of it so all agree that yes, stone soup is exquisite. For every visitor who agrees with him he then sighs and says that his stone soup would be better still if only he had some carrots. Or cabbage. Or onions. Or… And one by one each of the villagers says that they have carrots. Or cabbage. Or onions. Or… They run back to home to fetch their ingredients for the pot. By the end the whole village has collaborated and made a pot of delicious soup that feeds not only the hungry soldier, but the entire community.

My family and I start every soup with a stone. We routinely host stone soup parties, where we provide the pot, water and stone while our guests each bring an ingredient. At worst, the soup is interesting; it is usually delicious. And whoever ends up with the stone in their bowl gets to make a wish.

While most of my soups vary considerably based on what I have in the larder, I have a basic recipe that is pretty much no-fail. This is a great recipe to cook with kids so they can experiment with their palate, tryng new ingredients in new combinations. They can also pretend to be different villagers as they add each ingredient to the soup.

Stone Soup
(all amounts are approximate, of course)
  • 1 soup stone (see below for some thoughts about selecting your soup stone)
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 2 stalks chopped celery
  • 2 chopped carrots
  • 2 mashed cloves of garlic
Heat a little olive oil in the bottom of a soup pot. Sauté the veggies in the oil until onion begins to become translucent. Pour enough broth or water over the veggies that they are covered plus an inch or two. If you want to make more soup, add more veggies. Add a bay leaf, salt and pepper. Cook until veggies are tender.

From this point on you get to play and I’d recommend you do so, this soup will be much better with more stuff in it. I always add more stuff. Make sure you have enough liquid that it remains soup and not stew.

You could add:
  • chopped cabbage, kale, or other greens (cabbage adds a tremendous amount of flavor to soup)
  • sliced chicken, beef, pork, tofu, leftover grilled meats, etc.
  • chopped fresh or canned tomatoes
  • peppers, mild or hot
  • turnips, celery root, or other root vegetables
  • rice, barley (which takes a long time to cook), pasta, corn, or other starches. If you plan to add a starch make more broth initially
  • different spices. Be daring, sniff them and imagine what it will taste like
  • on and on. Use your imagination. Pretend you are a village collaborating to make soup.
If you choose to use a stone for your soup pot I would make a few recommendations.
  • make sure it’s a hard stone that won’t dissolve with use
  • it should be large enough that it can’t be swallowed
  • it should be fairly smooth so it’s easy to wash (soup does tend to get in the cracks and crevices).
Save your stone. Use it again and again. Tell the story. And make soup together.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Monday, September 22, 2008

Spontaneous Celebration

Before I go any further in this post, I need to tell you that the name is borrowed from a wonderful creative space in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Spontaneous Celebrations is a multicultural home for art and creativity. Check it out.

My own spontaneous celebration happened this weekend. I believe it's important to live big, but know it's hard to do so; this weekend was a good example of the weekend conspiring to help me. I've blogged about the weekend as a whole in True Stories, Honest Lies.

On Saturday my friend Serene called and asked if we would like to have dinner with her husband and herself. For once we could easily say yes and invited them for dinner. My initial thought was to order something in, but it's hard to eat healthy food when it's delivered. It is, at best, quick food. So I decided to cook.

I wanted to use what I had in the house as much as possible, and I admit, I got a little excited.

The first course:
- dried apricots with a dab of chevre and almonds
- shrimp cocktail
- veggies with hummus
- tzatski dip (recipe below)

The second course:
- yogurt marinated chicken (recipe below)
- steamed chard
- red rice

It was lovely.

Tzatski is a greek yogurt dip. I first had it in Crete, sitting in a small ocean-side restaurant. To me it tastes of relaxation and the timelessness of the Mediterranean.

Peel, half and seed a nice sized cucumber. Mince the remaining flesh, then put it into a colander to drain. It should produce a fair bit of liquid. Mash it around from time to time to push more of the liquid out - you don't need it to be dry, but it shouldn't be dripping. This will take at least five minutes.

Take two cups of good yogurt - none of this fat-free stuff. Use a nice, thick yogurt. Put it in a lovely bowl - I used one of iridescent black stoneware. Add several mashed cloves of garlic (I used six, but I like garlic). Add the minced, drained cucumber. Add a little salt and some fresh pepper. Stir.

Let this all sit for a little while then eat with veggies and sliced pita bread. Mmmm....

Yogurt marinated chicken is tender and succulent. Any spices you add to the marinade are pulled into the meat and utterly permeate the finished product. This is an Indian method of cooking but one that can be applied to other seasonings.

I used four cups of fat free yogurt (you don't need to use great yogurt here, but it should have a nice tang) and added maybe 6 cloves of mashed garlic, a tablespoon of salt, several tablespoons of purchased garam masala, a little extra cinnamon and pepper. Once this was all mixed together I added in the chicken and made sure it was all well coated. I let it marinade for a couple of hours then grilled it, garnished with some cilantro. That was it! Delicious and reasonably healthy to boot.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Friday, September 19, 2008

Martha Stewart would be jealous

I should have taken a picture, but I didn't, so you'll just have to take my word for it. I made the best pork roast last night. It looked as good as it tasted. And I used herbs from the garden!

I don't know how much the roast weighed, so you'll have to improvise.

Take 1 boneless pork roast, the kind that's tied with string. It should have some fat on at least one side. Rub the inside (between the two halves) with a mixture of salt, pepper and a little sugar.

Peel and roughly slice an entire head of garlic. If your fingers are garlicky afterwards you can always rinse them in lemon juice, that helps. Tuck maybe 12 pieces of garlic, four rosemary sprigs and at least four sage leaves into the roast, between the two halves. It will look nice if a little of the rosemary is sticking out.

Preheat the oven to 450.

Poke at least 15 holes in the less fatty side of the roast. Shove a garlic slice into each hole. Rub this side with the salt, pepper and sugar blend. Pull a rosemary sprig under the strings, shove a couple of sage leaves under the strings too. Flip the roast over and do the same thing to the fatty side.

Put into a roasting pan, fatty side up. Put into the preheated over for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes pour 1/4 cup of white wine over the roast, lower the oven heat to 325. From this point on pour 1/4 cup of wine over the roast every 15 minutes until you've lavished a total of 1-1/2 cups of wine over the roast (six bastings).

Once the roast reaches an internal temp of 150-155 remove from the oven and let sit. Make sure the final basting was at least 15 minutes before you removed it from the oven, so if the temp hits 145 before you finish the basting, cease the libations.

Let the roast sit, the internal temp will continue to rise. While the roast is sitting deglaze the roasting pan with a little more wine or with some broth.

Admire how beautiful it is. Eat. Enjoy. Watch out for rosemary twigs. You may want to remove them before you cut the roast. Or not.

Take that, Martha.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Monday, September 15, 2008

Theories of heaven

I had a luxurious weekend. My friend Amy visited from the wilds of Maine and requested, nay demanded Chinese food. We met in Chinatown and began to eat our way into oblivion.

We had lunch at Peach Farm, a restaurant with great food and the ambiance of a speak easy. It's a basement locale with no windows, some mirrors to lighten the space and formica tables. But the food.... oh, the food. We shared spicy salted shrimp with heads (they had been alive ten minutes before we ate them) and green beans with pork.

The shrimp were oh-my-god-I'm-in-heaven good. They were crisp on the
outside, succulent on the inside. Each one was a pink crunch of crispy sharpness in my mouth, followed by sweet and saltiness. Some people are put off by eating them with heads, but really they are the best part. Crunchy and flavorful. They looked something like this.

The string bean with shredded pork was a wonderful accompaniment and allowed us to pretend we were eating something healthy. It was at least green. This was slightly spicy, the beans were fresh and the pork tender. There were also a few wonderful chunks of black mushroom in there. I love black mushrooms.

The next morning we were joined by Kevin and Jim for dim sum at China Pearl in Woburn. While the Woburn outlet isn't quite as good as the Chinatown location, it's still very good, ladies in carts walking through the room, singing out their offerings. I stuffed myself on dumplings, more kinds than I can list here. I don't want to think about the caloric content of that meal.

When I die and go to heaven (a big assumption there, I know), there will be trees that bear dumplings for fruit, and flowers with salty spicy shrimp petals. I'll be able to eat all of this luxury without shame, weight gain or intestinal consequence. I'm sure of it. After all, heaven is what we make of it and I will make mine tasty.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

I scream

you scream, we all scream for ice cream.

Last night I went to Toscanini's for a storytelling event. While I listened to some good tales I had one of my favorite decadent ice creams - butter chip. No, it doesn't have chips of frozen butter. Well, kind of no. Let me start at the beginning.

Tosci's makes luscious ice cream. The building is cool and hip, it doesn't smell too sweet as do many ice cream places, the music is good and the furniture is comfortable. And did I mention the ice cream is out of this world? They used to make my favorite ice cream topping in the world, burnt caramel sauce, but not anymore, oh well. I still go for the 'scream. Their flavor selection changes regularly, but they often have some kind of spiced ice cream (cinammon, cardamon, etc) some kind of beer ice cream (Guinness) and all the standards. It's very rich and creamy, just the way ice cream should be.

Except for butter chip. Imagine the best chocolate chip ice cream you've ever had. The chips are large, but not too large, bittersweet chocolate. The ice cream is a dense sweet cream, not vanilla. But it's been over churned a little, so the butterfat just started to condence out. It's ever so slightly lumpy. When you put a spoonful in your mouth, the flavor coats your tongue and palate with a micro-smooth layer of fat as it melts and you crunch into the chocolate pieces. You can feel your heart go ka-thud, both from bliss and from the cholesterol.

It's astonishing that something this contradictory - ice cream that isn't smooth - is this good.

I only have this maybe once a year. But oh. Oh. Oooohhhh. That's enough.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Home, sweet, greasy, home

I started this blog thinking I would write about transcendent food. I'm finding myself writing about comfort. About history. About the meaning of what I eat. And so often what is meaningful seems to be what isn't quite healthy. What that says about me may be transparent but I'll choose not to investigate it.

I was in Philadelphia this past weekend, helping out a friend. I grew up in Philly, though I left 20 years ago. It's a city with a distinct cuisine, one I miss even though I have certainly embraced the cuisines I've moved to.

Steak sandwiches. Soft pretzels. Hoagies (no, not subs or grinders or heroes. Hoagies). This is the local food of my hometown.

Sure, you can get a steak or a hoagie anywhere. But it's not the same. Maybe it's the air, the water, the accent of the cook. I don't know. But local foods - should I say regional foods instead? - need local flavor to taste right. A steak anywhere else just isn't as good.

When I moved to Boston so many years ago I went looking for a hoagie. I was given a grinder, which is similar, but not identical to a hoagie. I looked for a Philly cheesesteak and it just wasn't right. The soft pretzels in Boston have (get this) sesame seeds instead of salt.

This weekend I ate the foods of my youth with relish. Okay, no relish. But the hoagie had hots and mayo and oil and oregano. The steak had whiz (as in cheez whiz) and was drowning in ketchup, pretty much the only time I really like ketchup. And the pretzels were warm, then rapidly stale, but full of salt and carbs and the taste of the ancient oven. Heaven.

I ate my hoagie one day and my steak the next, the pretzels throughout. I remembered who I have been.

I was 8 years old and sharing the biggest steak in the world with my dad on a day he kept me out of school so we could play hookie together.
I was 11 and sitting in the backyard listening to a ball game with my mom while we ate an easy summer dinner from the local steak place.
I was 16 and trying to not get grease all over my face while I flirted with my first boyfriend.
I was 18 and home from college for the first time, eating a pretzel slathered with mustard while I wondered just who the hell I was becoming.

And I was me, now, enjoying all of those tastes and textures, visiting a place I have been away from for longer than I called it home. My mouth knew the truth. In those tastes was my whole life. There are other, newer, healthier loves. It's our first loves, our first groan inducing bites that first tell us who we are. If we're lucky, when we revisit them, they still fill us with deep, tasty satisfaction.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer