Thursday, January 29, 2009

Second Helping: Whatever Noodles

Whatever Noodles has become a favorite problem-solving lunch. Made with quick-cooking Asian noodles, the dressing comes together without a single measuring spoon. I usually add in leftover cooked chicken and shredded raw vegetables such as carrot or cabbage. Scallions and ginger are often incorporated as well. When I paired this with Chestnut Sage Soup for our playdate, I threw in some bacon and cider vinegar -- which probably took "whatever" a bit too far. A few of the kids wolfed it down, but my kids looked askance at it.

Whatever Noodles

This is a very flexible recipe. There are no measurements: Use your senses to make it yours.

1 package Asian noodles -- ramen, udon, etc.
a splash of sesame oil
a splash of soy sauce
cooked, shredded chicken
shredded carrots
diced apple

Cook noodles according to package directions. Rinse in cold water and drain.
Combine sesame oil and soy sauce in bowl. Add noodles, chicken, carrots, and apple and mix thoroughly.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Playdate Special: Chestnut Sage Soup

Just before Christmas, Anna — cleaning out her kitchen before traveling home to Brazil for the holidays — presented me with a pound of chestnuts. I planned to roast them, per tradition, but on a whim I plucked one of my favorite cookbooks off the shelf and peeked in the index. Yes, a chestnut recipe! Wait, chestnut soup? Hmm. Might be too weird. But I had all the ingredients on hand, so I decided to give it a try. The original recipe in Jerry Traunfeld’s The Herbal Kitchen calls for steeping the soup with bay laurel leaves, but then he suggests an alternative with sage. I set off to pluck leaves from the squat, young sage by our front door and prepare the soup for Christmas Eve.

The preparation of fresh chestnuts was far more difficult than I expected. I sliced up my thumbnail trying to hack chestnuts open, and it took a long time to peel them. But the resulting soup was delightful. So the day after Christmas I shelled the remaining chestnuts and froze them for our next lunch date, and made a mental note to buy vacuum-packed, ready-to-go chestnuts next time.

This is a surprisingly delicate soup. I love the complexity of the sweet notes in the soup itself, the chewy richness of the bacon, and the sprightly apple. It was a wonderfully warm accompaniment to our holiday meal, and I thought it would work for a January playdate.

But by the time my turn to host rolled around, it didn’t feel like mid-winter. We had been basking in spring-like weather for a week. Would the soup still work on a sunny, 70-degree day? I forged ahead with my plan, but decided to incorporate some of the meager winter bounty from the garden as a nod to the good things to come this spring.

I didn’t want anything else to compete with the soup, so I chose a straightforward accompaniment: roast chicken. I followed the Cook’s Illustrated Simplest Roast Chicken, brining an organic bird for an hour in the morning before roasting it. A cooked bird from the market would be a decent substitute, but roasting your own is easy enough that I pass on the sodium and additives and prepare my own when I can. I don’t usually shell out the extra buck per pound for an organic chicken, but I was feeling all fancy this week.

In addition to the front-door sage, I brought in a few more things from the garden: broccoli just beginning to flower, with a squeeze of fresh lemon from our tree. I picked some lemon thyme, then dug up a few purple dragon carrots and shredded them into bagged salad greens.

For the kids, I made my Whatever Noodles -- a simple, quick preparation of Asian noodles. The big hits with the kids: an herbed loaf of crusty bread, no butter needed, and hard-boiled eggs.

Chestnut Sage Soup

Adapted from Jerry Traunfeld, The Herbal Kitchen

Love this soup! Complex flavor, not too heavy — worked beautifully with a holiday meal and on a day that felt like early spring.

This is a lot of work if done all at once. Which I did the first time. Ugh. If you don’t buy peeled chestnuts, I heartily recommend peeling them in advance and freezing them until you need them. The diced bacon also can be cooked ahead of time, to save on-the-spot prep.

When I make this, I serve it with a simple, straightforward main dish — for our playdate, it was a simple roast chicken with salad greens and broccoli. This soup works as the star dish.

1 pound chestnuts, fresh in their shells, or 1/2 pound dried chestnuts, or two 7-ounce jars vacuum-packed peeled chestnuts
1 medium onion, chopped
1 ½ cups celery, sliced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 cups vegetable broth
¾ cup apple cider or apple juice
¼ cup sage leaves, fresh, coarsely chopped
1 bunch thyme sprigs, tied with string
2 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup half & half
¼ cup sherry, dry or medium-dry
dash kosher salt
dash ground pepper
2 ounces bacon or pancetta, diced
1 tablespoon sage leaves, chopped
½ apple, unpeeled, cored and diced

If using fresh chestnuts, bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Carefully cut the chestnuts in half with a sharp knife and put them in the freezer for 10 minutes. Add the chestnuts to the boiling water; boil for 8 minutes, then drain. Squeeze each half to pop out the meat, along with the dark brown pellicle surrounding it. This is much easier to do while the chestnuts are hot; you might want to do this in batches. If using dried chestnuts, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the chestnuts and simmer 10 minutes, then remove from heat and let soak for an hour. Vacuum-packed chestnuts can be used straight from the jar.

Cook the onion, celery and 1/4 cup coarsely chopped sage in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until onion and celery are soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in all but 1/2 cup of the chestnuts along with the broth, cider, thyme, and bay leaves. Cover and simmer over very low heat for 45 minutes. Remove and discard the thyme and bay leaves; stir in vanilla.

Puree the soup in batches in a blender (be careful not to overfill) until very smooth. Pour back into saucepan, stir in cream and sherry, and reheat to simmering. Add salt and pepper as needed.

Cook the bacon in a medium skillet — don’t let it get crisp. Drain excess fat, then add in the reserved chestnuts and cook another minute. Stir in apple and cook until warmed through.

Spoon soup into bowls, topping each with the apple-chestnut garnish.


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