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Chicken Tortilla Soup

January 2011 started off well. I attacked the first work week with fresh energy, compiling the schedules of all the nearby drop-in centres and free baby programs. I figured out how to get to a rec centre where a very nice lady will hang out with Penny while I go work out. I made a plan for changing some of my eating habits, and got said plan underway.  And then I got a cold. Happy New Year.

Winter colds, and any kind of sickness, really, are the reason why I try to keep chicken stock in my freezer at all times. Whether chicken soup holds any medicinal benefit I don’t care. All I know is that chicken soup helps me feel better when I’m under the weather, and when I feel the first signs of a bug getting into my system, I stop everything and make soup. (See also: Magical Healing Soup from last winter.)

This soup recipe has evolved from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe passed on to me from a friend years ago. CI is a remarkable source for cooks – like food p0rn for engineers – but I find their recipes overly labour-intensive.  Why should I peel and seed a fresh tomato when I can open a can and live with having tomato seeds in my soup? Why should I fire-roast a jalapeno when I can keep some canned chipotles in my fridge and use one of those instead?

The one shortcut I cannot take with this soup, however, is using stock that is not homemade. In some circumstances using broth from a can or a cube can be okay – like with a pureed soup or a heavily tomato-based soup like  minestrone. But this soup is all about savoury, spicy broth loaded up with fun garnishes.  In general, canned or bouillon cube stock is just too salty. And for this soup it simply won’t do.

This recipe is extremely versatile. If you want a  vegetarian soup, a flavourful veg stock will work just fine.  I use this soup as an excuse to use up stale tortillas, but if you don’t want to make the chips yourself, storebought will work as long as you cut back on salt in the soup. As for garnishes, the sky’s the limit! I have included a pretty long list below, but my mainstays are as follows:

 But of course the best part of the soup is to serve it with all the garnishes on the side, so each person can tailor it to their own taste, like a soup version of tacos. Cause really, we all just want to play with our food.

Chicken Tortilla Soup
serves 4 to 6

1/2 of a 28-oz. can of diced tomatoes
1 small onion
1 clove of garlic
1 fresh jalapeno, diced OR 1 canned chipotle (with or without seeds, depending on your spice tolerance)
1 or 2 sprigs of fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. olive or veg oil
6 to 8 cups homemade chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups cooked, shredded chicken
salt and pepper to taste



For the chips:
approximately 10, 6-inch corn tortillas
1 tbsp. olive oil
pinch salt

Potential garnishes: grated cheddar, sour cream, fresh cilantro, green onion, diced avocado, diced red peppers, corn, black beans, chopped spinach or swiss chard

1. In a food processor, combine the tomatoes, onion, garlic, jalapeno or chipotle and cilantro and blitz it into a thick puree, adding water as needed.

2. On the stove, heat a heavy-bottomed stock pot over high heat. When the pot is hot, add the oil and tomato mixture; it should bubble and steam, so stir it well until it calms down. After a minute or two, turn down the heat to medium and let it simmer for five minutes. Add the chicken stock and shredded chicken. Bring to a boil again, then reduce heat and simmer for about twenty minutes, while you make the chips and assemble your garnishes.

3. To make the chips, preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the tortillas into 1″ wide strips and toss with the olive oil and salt until they are all evenly coated. Distribute over two baking sheets (parchment-lined, if you wish) and bake for 10 minutes. Remove them from the oven to turn the chips over for even browning and bake for another 5 to 7 minutes, until they are all golden brown.

4. To assemble the soup, place the tortilla chips into the serving bowls and ladle the broth and chicken on top, then top with garnishes.  

To store leftovers, it’s best to keep the broth separate from all the garnishes. The soup will keep in the fridge for at least three days.

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Chevre-stuffed mushrooms

Oh, hello!

Do you have more get-togethers coming up?

Do you have to make something?

Might I suggest these?

Chevre-stuffed mushrooms
makes 30

Do-ahead:  These can be stuffed ahead of time and will keep in the fridge for a day or two before being baked and served.

30 medium-sized cremini or button mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed, with the stems removed and finely chopped
2 tsp. olive oil
1 shallot, diced fine
1 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
salt and pepper
EITHER: 1/4 cup fine bread or cracker crumbs, OR 4 extra mushrooms, finely chopped
[This is to accomodate those who can’t eat wheat. Or those who don’t have bread or cracker crumbs.]
1 small log (140 g) soft chevre

1.  In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and cook 2-3 minutes, until softened. Add the rosemary, salt and pepper, and finely chopped mushroom stem (and chopped mushrooms, if not using bread crumbs). Cook until the mushroom is lightly browned and has let off a good deal of moisture – it will have reduced in bulk considerably. If using breadcrumbs, mix them in now, along with about two-thirds of the chevre. Season to taste.

2. Stuff the mushrooms, using your fingers or a small teaspoon to gently pack the stuffing so that it’s level. Top each mushroom with a tiny dab of the leftover chevre, and arrange the mushrooms on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

3. Bake the mushrooms for approximately 20 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. When the mushrooms are cooked through, turn on the broiler and broil the mushrooms for a few minutes until the tops are attractively browned.

Serve warm.

Lentil and prosciutto soup

[Ed. note: Why yes, that  bowl of soup is sitting on an armchair. It happened to be the brightest spot in my apartment at that given moment. Here in the dark Canadian winter, you take sunlight anyway you can get it. ] 

This week presents particular challenges to our digestive systems. We’re just recovering from a weekend in which holiday parties reached a feverish pitch. You’ve likely indulged in a good deal of tasty treats that were thrust your way, or just happened to be lying around, generously placed there just for you. But you know there’s more significant eating yet to come in the very near future. And you know what that means?

You need to pace yourself.

After all, you probably have just a couple of working days before the world shuts down for a little while. Slow workdays in which you will probably be too close to the plate of cookies or candy that seem to have take up permanent residence much too near to your desk. You need a lunch (or dinner) to help create some balance.  A bowl of soup, perhaps. Something easy to make. Something sustaining. Something with fibre. Something with  – dare I say it? – bacon.

I know, I know. Bacon, by rights, has no place in a healthy dish, but hear me out.  The lentils and greens are what make you feel better about yourself, but lentils usually need a lot of help to taste good. To compensate for an otherwise earthy, bland taste, you need something strong and flavourful. In this case I’ve used a fairly lean prosciutto to minimize the bacon fat, but in a pinch you could use pancetta or regular bacon.

Also, I bet you already have everything you need to make this soup on hand.

Lentil and prosciutto soup
serves 4 to 6

1 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup (3 oz.) prosciutto or pancetta, cut 1/2″ thick and diced
1 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
pinch dried chili flakes 
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1 large carrot, diced
1 or 2 ribs of celery, diced
1 cup brown or green lentils, rinsed
6 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 cups chopped kale, swiss chard or spinach
salt and pepper to taste

In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat and saute the prosciutto (or pancetta or bacon) until slightly browned and some fat is rendered. If you’re using fatty bacon, now would be a good time to pour off some of the grease before you proceed, ;eaving some fat in the pan.

Add the onion and cook until softened. Add the garlic, chili flakes and tomato paste; mix well and cook one or two minutes until some of the tomato paste starts to caramelize in the pan. Add the celery, carrot, lentils and stock; bringt to a boil and let simmer until the lentils and vegetables are cooked through, about 20 to 30 minutes.   Just before serving, add the greens and season to taste.

With a salad, bread and a hunk of cheese, it makes a perfect winter meal.

Postscript: The Loot

 Well, the party was fun. We ate, drank, caught up and cooed at each other’s  babies. And as the afternoon wore on and people decided it was time to go, we all lined up in front of the many piles of cookie packages and took our shares. It felt like grown-up trick-or-treating.

Behold, the loot!

Top: Coconut stars, almond-chocolate shortbread crescents

Second row:  Vanilla-raisin biscotti, snickerdoodles, chocolate-sprinkled shortbread, apricot nuggets

Third row: Chewy ginger cookie, white chocolate-dried fruit cookie, After-Eight cookie

Bottom: chocolate-almond shortbread

There may or may not have been chocolate-dipped potato chips as well, but we have no photographic evidence. Ahem.

Susan, thank you so much for organizing this exchange every year. Thanks to you, I have a freezer full of cookies! Now cue the willpower.

I have just packed up 12 dozen cookies for my annual cookie exchange. And since every bag is topped up with a couple extra, it’s actually more. So I just baked approximately 200 cookies.

Ahhh. Let me just pause here a minute, and take a sip of my well-deserved glass of wine.

Except I didn’t bake 200 cookies. This year, I got it in my crazy head that I wanted to make sandwich cookies. So really, I baked 400. But let me back up a second.

Tomorrow is my friend Susan’s annual cookie party, wherein a dozen or so friends get together for snacks, wine, catching up, and supplying one another with a festive season’s worth of baked goods. We each bake up huge batches of one cookie, divvy them up among us, and then go home with a bunch of different kinds of cookie. You can bring them to family gatherings, pack up a fancy selection to give as gifts, and you can have a stockpile of cookies in the freezer for when a sugar craving takes you. It’s genius!

It’s the kind of community-building thing I love to be a part of. It ensures that I see these friends at least once a year, and it reminds me that many people working together can achieve greater things than we can do on our own. I also love the baking.  My mom did cookie exchanges when I was a kid, and a lot of my Christmas memories are tied up in those weekend afternoons spent with her rolling out cookies by the hundreds, watching snow collect in the pine trees outside the kitchen window.

As a tradition, the cookie exchange is a pretty worthy one to establish and nurture, but there are a couple of key elements to making it work.

1. Involve only friends who like to bake, and are excellent cooks. You want people who will enjoy the work, and who will make cookies that you want to eat.

2. Kids can help, but they don’t get creative control. Meaning: nothing with mismatched sprinkles, neon icing or botched/unrecognizable cutout shapes. This may sound fairly hardline, but seriously, I put a lot of thought and care into the cookies I make every year and hope for some nice grownup cookies in return.

3. The cookies should be delicious, but not labour-intensive. Case in point, icebox cookies. You shape the dough into a log, chill it, and just slice and bake. And as long as the cookie is super delicious – such as the tart and shortbready Lime Meltaways – you’re still giving people something really nice.

This year, in deciding what cookie to make, I found myself daydreaming about a chocolate-mint combination. I wanted something that would approximate the After Eight mint in cookie form. This meant a sandwich cookie, but decided that I could justify the extra work as long as I stayed with the icebox cookie format.

It took me a while to find the right recipe. I tried the chocolate variation of Smitten Kitchen’s icebox cookies, but I couldn’t get it chocolatey enough. Plus, it was too shortbready and crumbly to support a filling. I ended up tweaking a recipe from the hilariously retro Betty Crocker Cooky Book, which yielded a nice solid, crispy cookie. I bumped up the flavour with both melted chocolate and cocoa, plus a hefty dose of peppermint extract. For the filling, I took my guidance from the cream cheese mints of my youth, only used less icing sugar.

Combined, the dark chocolate cookie and the rich minty icing are a cookie I’m quite proud of. Not quite an After Eight mint in cookie form, but pretty close.

After Eight Cookies
makes about 8 dozen filled cookies

Cookie dough:
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 cup softened butter
1 cup white sugar
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled slightly
2 eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. peppermint extract

Icing:
4 oz. cream cheese (This is half a rectangular package of Philly; I use full-fat.)
2 cups sifted icing sugar
1 tsp. peppermint extract

1. Sift together the dry ingredients and set aside. In a stand mixer (or mixing by hand), cream the butter and sugar together until the mixture is well-incorporated, fluffy and creamy. Add the vanilla, peppermint and melted chocolate, and mix completely, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Add eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl to ensure the egg is evenly distributed (but don’t beat so much that it’s completely incorporated). Add the dry ingredients in three instalments, scraping down the sides of the bowl each time.  Remove the dough from the mixing bowl, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill it for about 1/2 hour in the fridge.

2. Divide the dough into four equal pieces, and roll each into a log about one and a half inches in diameter. Wrap each log in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least two hours.

Tip!  Want to ensure that your cookies will be nice and round? Keep a few paper towel cardboard rolls on hand, and slip the dough inside these to chill. They help the dough keep its shape as it chills.

3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the dough into 1/8″ slices and arrange on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake 5 to 8 minutes, removing from the oven when the bottoms are just slightly browned. Cool completely on a wire rack.

4. To make the icing, mix the cream cheese in a stand mixer (or a bowl, by hand) until fluffy. Add the peppermint extract, then the icing sugar in three installments, scraping down the sides of the bowl. This can be made ahead of time, and keeps well in the fridge for a couple of days.

5. When the cookies are completely cool,  sandwich them in pairs with a generous dab of icing. 

These cookies can be kept frozen but will keep well for a few days at room temperature.

Mushroom and leek lasagna

Since we’ve moved farther away from our favourite butcher and grocery store where we can buy meat that we feel better about eating (hormone free, free run, etc), I’m thinking about eating less meat. It’s better for us, after all. Health-wise, planet-wise, money-wise, what’s not to like? 

While I’m not a vegetarian, I spent much of my twenties living and sharing food with vegetarians, which meant that I ate veg at home, and meat when I was at work. And while we eat a fair bit of meat here at Last Muffin Standing, I tend to have much more fun cooking vegetables or veg-oriented dishes. Meat is meat any day of the year, but changing your cooking with the seasons is much more interesting. It keeps me in tune with the passage of time. It helps me celebrate the colder weather when I would much rather have the days be longer and brighter.

This recipe came from a desire to eat less meat, but also a craving for something that had the earthy fall flavours of leeks and mushrooms. Also, the combination of creamy pasta, mushrooms and cheese is infinitely appealing as the days get colder and darker. Comfort food, as it were.

America’s Test Kitchen had sent a mushroom lasagna recipe in a recent newsletter, but I found it finicky. I wanted something relatively simple but with a few refined touches. So the bechamel sauce became a white-wine-leek sauce. Next time I make this I might switch up the parmesan for asiago or add some tarragon to the sauce, but this dish is already pretty fabulous on its own. You could halve this recipe to make one small lasagna, but really, why make one when you can make two and freeze one for later? Alternatively, if feeding a crowd, you can make it all in one large baking dish.

Mushroom and leek lasagna
makes 2 8×8 lasagnas*; each serves 4 generously and 6 more virtuously
* I use tin foil pans for for these.

2 pounds cremini mushrooms, sliced
olive oil for sauteeing
salt and pepper to taste
approximately 12 oven-ready dried lasagna noodles [these may look too small to adequately fill the pan, but they will expand as they cook.]
1/4 cup butter
2 medium-sized leeks, washed thoroughly and sliced thin
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup white wine
6 cups whole milk
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
salt to taste
1 cup freshly grated parmesan

1. Working in batches, saute the mushrooms in a large skillet until golden brown and season with salt and pepper as you go. Set the cooked mushrooms aside in a bowl as you get the other ingredients ready. [Tip: if the mushrooms let off moisture as they cool, add those juices into the leek sauce for extra mushroomy flavour. ]

2. In a large saucepan or heavy-bottomed stockpot, melt the butter over medium heat. Saute the leeks until softened, then sprinkle the flour over and mix well to incorporate. Cook the floured leeks a minute or two, then add the white wine. Stirring with a whisk to get rid of any lumps, add the milk and turn down the heat to low. Cook the sauce, whisking occasionally, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add the minced garlic, nutmeg, white pepper and salt.

3. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. To assemble the lasagnas, ladle about 1 cup of sauce into the bottom of each baking pan. Set down one layer of noodles and one layer of mushrooms (about 1/4 of the sauteed mushrooms for each pan) and cover with sauce. Repeat with another layer of noodles, the remaining mushrooms, and sauce. Finally, top with one more layer of noodles and sauce to cover, then sprinkle the grated parmesan on top.

5. Bake the lasagnas uncovered for 45 minutes, or until the pasta is cooked through in the centre and the cheese is golden brown on the top. Before serving, let it rest at room temperature for at least 15 minutes. If you want to freeze them, let them cool completely and then wrap in a couple of layers of plastic wrap. To reheat, let it thaw completely and warm it in a low oven (about 325 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least 40 minutes.

In early 2009, after the market tanked and lots of people started to lose jobs, frugality became the new  big thing. Or maybe it didn’t, but at the time that’s what all the newspapers were writing about. Thrifty was the new black.

So while I had the good fortune of having a stable job and good income, I started to think about tightening my own belt in ways that wouldn’t be too painful. What conveniences could I cut out of my spending and replace with making it myself? Not like doing my own dry cleaning, but something that would bring pleasure into my life. My grocery bill seemed an ideal place to start. 

Being someone who likes to eat good crusty whole-grain bread, I spend at least $5 a loaf, which usually adds up to $25 a month at my house. Not a huge cash savings, but nothing to sneeze at. I also had a new stand mixer,  recently received as a wedding gift (thanks, Mom!) and needed something to do with it that wouldn’t result in my house always being full of cake or cookies. So I decided, baking bread every week would be a good thing to try. I found a recipe for whole wheat bread from the Ace Bakery cookbook, and away I went.

Like most new habits, it went well for a while. I learned some new things about bread baking, chiefly that tasty, chewy, crusty bread comes from a dough that uses little (if any) sugar, not much yeast, and a long, slow rise. The catch with this particular recipe, although it yielded three loaves of tasty, chewy, crusty bread, is that it also came with a schedule. First, I had to mix a sponge and let it rise for half a day. Then I had to mix the bran part of the dough, mix the two together, and let it rise for another few hours. Then shape the loaves and let them rise, then bake, blah blah blah. A procedure that required that I map out the times for when mixing, kneading, shaping and baking would happen. Now, I’m a homebody, but I do like to get out the house on weekends. So the bread-making frugal ethos gradually died out.

And then a few months ago, I found this recipe for a no-knead bread in a Martha Stewart  magazine. A basic dough that requires a minimum of kneading and a long slow rise on the countertop for between 12 and 18 hours. This means very little working time. You can mix it up at dinnertime on a Friday or Saturday night, sleep in, and bake the bread the next afternoon. Or, mix the dough when you first get up in the morning and bake it before you go to bed that night.

In short, it’s a bread recipe that gives you a bit more freedom. It’s an easy way to save a bit of cash on storebought bread. Also, with very little work you can impress your friends when they come over for lunch.

One thing you must have for this recipe is an ovenproof pot with a lid – this helps keep the steam in and makes a good crispy crust. I sometimes use my heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven, but have found that a heavy-bottomed stainless steel saucepan works just as well.

Low-maintenance whole wheat bread
adapted from Martha Stewart Living, April 2010 issue

yields one round loaf

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. active dry yeast (not quick-rise)
1 1/3 cups water, room temperature

Mix the dough: In a large mixing bowl, stir the dry ingredients together. Add the water, mixing well until all the dry ingredients are incorporated and you have a wet sticky dough. This may require a bit of kneading, but that’s about all the kneading you’ll do for this bread.

First rise: Cover the dough with plastic wrap (not touching) and let stand at room temperature until it doubles in volume and has bubbles breaking the surface, about 12 to 18 hours.

Shaping and second rise:  Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a floured surface. With lightly floured hands, fold the dough by lifting the edges into the centre and shaping it into a loose round. Generously dust a clean kitchen towel with flour and put the dough on it, seam side down. Dust the top with more flour and cover it with another clean dry kitchen towel. Let it rise in a warm place for 1 to 2 hours, until doubled in volume.

To test if your dough has risen enough, gently press your finger into the centre. If it’s risen enough, it won’t spring back when you take your finger away. 

Bake: When your dough is about 15-20 minutes away from being ready, preheat the oven to 475 degrees and have your rack in the lower third of the oven. Heat the pot until the dough is ready.

When the dough is ready, carefully remove the hot pot from the oven. Working quickly, unfold the towel and flip the dough into the pot, seam side down. Close the lid and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the lid and bake uncovered for about 20 minutes, until the top is a dark golden-brown.

Cool: Remove the bread from the pot right away. I usually do this by placing a wire rack over the pot, flipping it over, and right-siding the bread with my oven mitt.

I know this part is hard, but you really should wait until the bread is completely cool before you cut into it. If it’s still warm when you slice it, it will a) be harder to slice, and b) won’t be quite as crusty. But if you can live with that, hey, I can’t blame you.