An Elevated Potato-Leek Soup

6 Dec

This revamped classic, flecked with fresh herbs, hides a delicious addition

My dentist said, “soft foods only for a couple of days.” Who was I to argue? For me that meant making both the best macaroni and cheese ever, and soup.

But which soup?

In fall and winter my mom often made a terrific and comforting potato-leek soup. Bingo: perfect for cold weather and just what the dentist ordered. But I have no recipe from mom. A wonderful cook, she rarely used recipes and when she did, she deviated every time, giving each dish her personal flair. So I had to come up with my own.

Potato leek soup

elevated potato-leek soup

Looking at various recipes online, I realized most versions of potato-leek soup are solid… and boring and a little bland. Most are also ridiculously simple, which is certainly a plus, but little time is taken at the start to prep the ingredients to insure the soup has depth of flavor. Many versions do no prep, instead throwing raw leeks, potatoes and onion in a pot with broth, boiling, then blending… easy, yes but, again, bland and a bit lifeless. I wanted to see if I could liven it up without taking the comfort out of the dish. After a little experimentation, here’s a fresh yet rich version of the classic.

Freshness is key… so this version is flecked with fresh herbs and the bright addition of acid at the end. While you can indeed ‘throw everything together in the pot,’ if you’ll take some time at the start to gently sauté your vegetables, you’ll get much more flavor.  Homemade broth always elevates and, if you like mushrooms, the addition of both mushroom broth and sautéed mushrooms makes the soup meatier and more fulfilling while remaining meatless (and even vegetarian if you use vegetable broth.)

Note: If you don’t like mushrooms, skip that step. This recipe is great anyway. If your problem with mushrooms is more the consistency rather than the taste, you can still use the mushroom broth for a greater depth of flavor. If you don’t have any mushroom broth in the freezer (you really should) you can easily make a quick version while you prep and sauté your vegetables. Start the mushroom broth first, then chop and sauté the vegetables while it simmers. 

Finally, as good as this soup is the day you make it, a night sitting in the fridge pushes the soup into the stratosphere. So save some for the next day and enjoy even more!

POTATO LEEK SOUP (will serve 8 as a main course)

Ingredients for the SOUP

1 stick butter

6 leeks, white parts only, sliced thin (see note)

1 medium white onion, chopped

2 stalks celery (and leaves!!) chopped

3 cloves garlic, sliced 

1/2 cup dry vermouth or white wine

about 3 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, skins on, cubed

leaves from 10 sprigs thyme

2 bay leaves, crushed in your hand

1 T salt

2 t white pepper

2 t black pepper

4 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth

2 cups mushroom broth (click for a quick, easy recipe)

1 cup cream

chives, chopped

juice of 1/2 a lemon or a few shakes of red wine vinegar

Ingredients for the CROUTONS

1 small ciabatta loaf 

olive oil

salt and black pepper

Ingredients for the SAUTÉED MUSHROOMS

2 T butter

a couple of boxes of your favorite mushrooms (crimini work great here, but I love a mixture as well)

1 shallot, chopped

dry vermouth or white wine

fresh thyme leaves

salt, white pepper, cracked black pepper

Directions for the SOUP

Sauté the leeks, onion and celery in butter on low, about 10 minutes. It should look kind of like a thick butter soup with a bunch of vegetables. Yum. (If you have time, 5 or 10 more minutes adds more flavor.)

Add the sliced garlic, salt and white pepper. Sauté, still on low, for another few minutes.

Add the vermouth, about 2/3 of the thyme and bay leaves. Continue to cook another 5 minutes.

Add the potatoes. Cook 5 more minutes at least, stirring occasionally. The butter and vermouth should be pretty much coating the potatoes, so you don’t want the potatoes to stick or burn. 

Add the broths, bring to a boil, then simmer on low for 45 minutes. The potatoes should be soft and falling apart.

(While the soup simmers it’s a good time to make croutons, if you want them – and you do. And also the mushrooms. See below.)

When the potatoes are soft, use an immersion blender to puree completely. If you don’t have an immersion blender, use your blender. ** Just remember when food is hot you want to cover your blender lid with a towel and push down or it will explode everywhere! I can tell you from experience you don’t want this to happen…

Add the heavy cream, the rest of the thyme (chopped marjoram is also a great addition here) and the black pepper. Taste – you may need more salt and white pepper, also. Mix and let simmer another 15 minutes. Add the lemon juice or red wine vinegar and stir to combine.

To serve:

If you’re using the mushrooms, put a scoop of the mushrooms on the bottom of your soup bowl, then ladle over the soup. Sprinkle fresh chives and a few croutons over the top.

Voila!

Directions for the CROUTONS

Preheat your oven to 400.

Cube the ciabatta loaf. Toss the cubes with a few hearty pinches of salt and black pepper. Don’t be shy. Drizzle over some olive oil. Toss. You want the cubes to have olive oil all over them but not be swimming in the oil. 

Roast in the oven for 10 minutes. Check the croutons. They made need a few minutes more to get nice and crisp.

Directions for the MUSHROOMS

Add a glug of olive oil to a deep pan or dutch oven. Throw in your mushrooms and toss to combine. Turn the heat to high and cover. During this initial process the mushrooms will release a lot of water. Stir once or twice but keep covered. Once there is a lot of water in the pan (usually about 8-10 minutes) uncover, turn down the heat and add the shallot. Simmer about 5 minutes, then add your dry vermouth or white wine, and the thyme leaves. Cook down a little more, adding some salt and white pepper. The mushrooms are ready when soft and flavorful and most of the liquid has been absorbed. (You can always add more wine, or a little water, if you need more liquid before they are done.)

*NOTE ON LEEKS

In general, you only cook with the white part of the leek, at the bottom. Maybe just a little of the light green part but not much. So look for leeks at the store that have a lot of white. If you can’t find those, get a few more leeks. You want at least a cup, if not more, of sliced white leeks. Also make sure you wash after you slice them… there can be dirt inside the layers of leek. 

Roughly chop the green stalks and throw in the freezer to use the next time you make stock… you could even throw one in the mushroom stock!

Your Perfect Thanksgiving

23 Nov

While this is an amalgam of previous Thanksgiving posts, I hone every year. I know you have your favorites! We all do. But trust me… add a few of these (the cocktail and the turkey in particular.. and the dips… and, well, you know… ) and you will have the best dinner ever. Hell, just follow it all! I won’t let you down. 

Not a lot of writing below… you can scan other Thanksgiving posts for more detail. If it’s on the list below, I’ve made it many times, it’s easy, and your friends and family will be thrilled. 

COCKTAIL

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Cranberry Daiquiri

This is my signature cocktail for people from Thanksgiving thru New Years. Not too sweet and incredibly tasty. Once you have the syrup made, you can make it fast anytime:

Cranberry Daiquiri

DIPS

Pim Cheese corn dip

Spicy Pimento Cheese Dip

The pickle dip is killer. The pimento cheese dip is now referred to as “crack” by everyone who has tried it. Both will make you supremely happy:

Dill Pickle Dip

Spicy Pimento Cheese Dip

* For more recipes Continue reading

Breakfast Tacos

17 Nov

A Texas staple that will become a regular part of your repertoire

Breakfast Tacos

Breakfast Tacos

It was called The Lazy Daisy: a 24 hour restaurant on ‘the drag’ in Austin, a locally owned Denny’s like place that was so much better than Denny’s. When I was in college at The University of Texas at Austin, The Lazy Daisy was always filled, even at (or particularly at) 2:30 AM in the morning after all the bars closed and people wanted good sustenance to help mitigate their buzz.

“The Daisy” as we came to call it, was also one solitary stumbling block from my fraternity house. The most inebriated person in the world, and their equally drunk date, could manage to get there in minutes on foot.

Needless to say, many of us were fixtures.

While I enjoyed a lot of different foods at The Daisy — they had surprisingly good salads, for instance, and a better than decent chicken fried steak — by far the greatest menu item, which I came to know intimately, were the breakfast tacos.

Breakfast tacos are one of my favorite foods. They are so incredibly satisfying I’m always shocked I can’t find them anywhere but Texas. Yes, breakfast burritos are ubiquitous. I like them, too. But there are subtle yet huge differences between a breakfast burrito and a breakfast taco. Give me a breakfast taco any time.

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Halloween Favorites

27 Oct

 Some terrific scary movies you might not have seen…

Halloween week! You gotta watch at least one scary movie, right? Let me give you a few choices you may not know, movies you can easily find right now. 

Note: It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find classic movies online… some favorites I wanted to list here… Ils (Them), Session 9, The Haunting, Rebecca, The Innocents… are not available, which is a problem. Still, this is a wonderfully scary list.

TRAIN TO BUSAN (Netflix)

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If you haven’t seen Train To Busan, this is your watch. It’s a remarkable movie. Not only is this hands down the best zombie movie ever made, Train is an equally gripping emotional rollercoaster, a beautifully crafted movie that goes much deeper than your usual scary movie. Think of the emotional depths of something like Ordinary People… combined with zombies. It’s that good. The first 45 minutes is textbook craftsmanship on how this kind of movie should open. The rest? Whoa.

If you think a zombie movie can’t make you weep, you haven’t seen Train To Busan.

THE ORPHANAGE (Hulu)

the-orphanage

The Orphanage goes just about as deep emotionally as Train To Busan. A woman returns to the orphanage where she was raised, now an abandoned mansion. She buys the house with her husband, intending to turn it into a home for sick children. More a classic ghost story than horror, that’s all you need to know.

Awesome, with an Oscar-worthy performance by Belén Rueda.

For more Halloween favorites, Continue reading

Jokers, Parasites and Fear

17 Oct

Why are people so afraid of Joker?

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In the September 25th issue of The New Yorker, Pauline Kael asked “Are people becoming afraid of American movies?” 

This was, of course, 1978, not 2019. Yet it seems likely the great film critic would have asked the same question forty-one years later, given the critical hysteria over Todd Phillip’s Joker.

Kael continued: 

When acquaintances ask me what they should see and I say The Last Waltz or Convoy or Eyes of Laura Mars, I can see the recoil. It’s the same look of distrust I encountered when I suggested Carrie or The Fury or Jaws or Taxi Driver or the two Godfathers before that… They don’t see why they should subject themselves to experiences that will tie up their guts or give them nightmares….Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art—of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theatre. So we’ve been getting a new cultural puritanism… and the press is full of snide references to Coppola’s huge film in progress, and a new film by Peckinpah is greeted with derision…

The parallels to today should be obvious to anyone following much of the critical reaction to Phillip’s brilliant and deeply unsettling masterpiece.

I’m a fan, obviously. Joker is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. If left me shaken, disturbed and in need of a double shot of Bulleit. Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, the troubled man at the center of the movie, delivers one of the great cinematic performances of all time. Brimming with dozens of cinematic references, the movie is gorgeously crafted: this was a crew that working overtime on every single frame. Joker resonates on a deep emotional level, particularly for those of us who have struggled personally or dealt socially with madness. Joker is upsetting for many reasons, not the least of which is that although it’s set in fictional Gotham of 1981, the movie thrusts many troubling aspects of our present society in our face, forcing us to bear witness.

The movie certainly has many fellow defenders. Joker won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival where it received an eight minute standing ovation. And the public is supporting the movie with wild abandon: the film is a smash hit worldwide, already earning over half a billion dollars.  In the US alone it had the biggest October opening weekend ever and broke even more records this past weekend, its second. Hitting #1 the second weekend is telling: films can have a big opening but then fall off once word of mouth spreads a movie is a stinker. Joker is not falling off. People are continuing to go see it. 

Yet many critics are assaulting the movie. I don’t mean the typical “I didn’t like this and here’s why” type of reviews. Before Joker’s release two weeks ago these critics were clearly trying to hurt the film, cripple its box office and wipe it from memory before it could get going.

Here’s a quick look at what some of these critics had to say:  “a viewing experience of a rare, numbing emptiness.” “ punishingly dull”, “pompous, grim, relentlessly one-note”, “Dangerous”, “pernicious garbage” , “grim, shallow, distractingly derivative”, a dangerous manifesto that could inspire incels to commit acts of violence” and “wildly dull and mundanely uninteresting”, which, if you’ve seen the movie, even if you hated it, has to appear ridiculous given what happens in Joker. To call this particular movie dull and uninteresting is in itself “wildly dull and mundanely uninteresting.”

Clearly the movie is getting under these critics’ skin. They are attempting to render Joker immoral, often wildly misrepresenting the movie and its contents in order to do so.

One frequent attack is that the movie is hero worshipping a killer, that it’s a how-to manifesto for incel violence, and that the movie turns the hero “into an angry guy with a gun and violent disregard for everyone.”

But this isn’t true in the slightest. Joker doesn’t go rampaging through the city shooting at any or everyone (see multiple action movies that garner no critical attacks). Key here are two sequences: one in which Arthur lets a co-worker go free after killing another co-worker: “You were the only one who was nice to me.”  The other is Arthur’s TV appearance. He easily could have been depicted as going on a rampage, shooting into the audience, yet he only kills one man, the man who made fun of him. The violence in the movie, while shocking and horrifying, is nothing compared to normal screen violence (see multiple action movies that garner no critical attacks). In fact, compared to such movies the body count in Joker is quite low.

Something interesting is going on. Continue reading

A Hearty Mushroom Ragout

4 Oct

A delicious Autumn meal I eat year round.

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I love fall. Hands down my favorite season. It’s not because I look my best in fall clothes… although, to be honest, that is part of it. I love everything about fall: cool crisp sweater weather, football games at twilight, County Fairs, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Fall Back from Daylight Savings Time (an extra hour of sleep, yes!!), earth tones, melancholy (can’t be beat) and of course all kinds of fall food… from soups to stews to root vegetables to pie to, well, any food that warms the soul and speaks to Autumn.

I love Fall so much I even have a playlist I created that makes me feel like Fall, all year round:

“The Fall” on Spotify

To start fall off right I present to you a divine Mushroom Ragout, one you can serve in a variety of ways. Vegetarian to the max (and even Vegan if you omit the final pad of butter) you’ll never think of this as a vegetarian dish, it’s so hearty and meaty and satisfying.

A twist on a ragout by the incredible chef David Tanis (his books are wonderful) this easy ragout will satisfy your soul.

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Mushroom Ragout over polenta

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A Platter of Tomatoes

19 Sep

A perfect way to slide from summer to fall… with an additional secret recipe.

I realize the subject of tomatoes is late given some of you are probably past tomato season. Summer in Southern California, however, starts and ends late (mid-July thru sometimes mid-October) and we remain in the midst of a glorious tomato bounty.

Tomatoes are like my other favorite food, the egg: the uses and recipes for each are endless. Even so, if you’re lucky enough to be in possession of fresh, best of season tomatoes, nothing satisfies like a simple platter of tomatoes.

Platter of Tomatoes

a platter of tomatoes

I realize there are a few sad souls who don’t like tomatoes raw. One of my best friends is such a person… I’m looking at you, Tanja! (We’ve somehow managed to remain close friends.) In my house growing up, we ate tomatoes off the vine like you would a fresh apple. Just pick and bite right in. If it squirts all over your face and runs down your forearm, you know you have the perfect tomato.

Like any good southerner, l don’t serve a meal during tomato season without a platter of tomatoes. This is as ubiquitous on the dinner table in the South as salt and pepper or bread and butter. I’ve easily made over a hundred of these platters and while the prep is fast and easy, there’s an art to the prep as well, a perfect combination of seasoning and herbs to maximize your tomatoes. I’ve tried many variations and have landed on the best.

So scroll down to find out to prepare your perfect platter of tomatoes. Then keep scrolling for the other perfect use for a perfect tomato… 

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