Happy Soup for February

The twenty-eight long days of February inspire me to find beauty in the ordinary things of the day.
Today’s inspiration is Happy Soup. It’s perfect for beginning a Valentine’s meal, and it’s also perfect for lean days of Lent. It’s also a soup that can be made start to finish in about an hour. It’s filling, delicious, and beautiful to serve. That’s why I call it Happy Soup. The real name is Roasted Beet and Carrot Bisque.

Yes, I didn’t tell you that at first because I know many of you will stop reading at the word Beet. But just look at how lovely it looks in that little soup bowl. Add a dollop of Greek yogurt and swirl it around? Mr. H.C. was dubious, but two spoonfuls later, he exclaimed, “This is delicious!” (in a surprised voice…)

The last of the garden beets were looking sad in the fridge, so they inspired this soup day: four beets, three carrots, one large potato, and one large onion, broth, and herbs and spices is all you need. (You could substitute parsnips for the potato if you have some). But the one ingredient that you might not have, and is really critical to the taste, is Zatar.

It is a middle eastern spice blend; you can order it online here if you don’t have a Middle Eastern market or a Penzey’s nearby… This is not some odd spice that has one use — truly, it is delicious, and can be sprinkled on vegetables, chicken, breads, sauces, soups, rice… Zatar (or Za’atar) has a tangy, salty, earthy taste that you really need to try.

So, get your Zatar, and try this Happy Soup with bread and a salad.

HAPPY SOUP

Have on hand: 4 beets, 3 carrots, a large onion, and 1-2 potatoes or parsnips, depending on size. Enough broth to cover vegetables; 2-3 tsp. Zatar; assorted spices (salt, pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, rosemary, 2 T. honey or agave syrup.)

Chop the vegetables into small cubes of a similar size and toss them in 2 T. olive oil, 2 T. balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper. Pour them on to a baking sheet and roast in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes; take the veggies out, stir them around with a spatula, and roast again for 10 minutes longer, or until they are fairly soft. (You are still going to cook them for longer, so they don’t have to be totally done.)

Here are the vegetables prepared for roasting. I have about 4 cups, and that made enough for 4 servings. How big or small you cut the vegetables will determine how long you have to roast them.

Scrape the veggies from the pan into a soup pot. Add a sprig of fresh rosemary if you have one, 2 tsp. Zatar, and cover the vegetables with broth. I used chicken broth because that was what I had, but vegetable broth would be just as good. Simmer the vegetables until really soft –about a half hour — but don’t cook down all the broth, because you need it in the next step.

Pour the vegetables and hot broth into a blender (carefully) and puree. Alternately, you could use an immersion blender, but I can’t say how that would work, because I don’t have one. If you need to add a bit more broth to blend the vegetables up well, go ahead. I added an extra 1/4 cup.

Pour the blended bisque back into the soup pot and add 1 t. cardamom, 1/2 t. freshly grated nutmeg, 2 T. honey or agave syrup, salt & pepper to taste. Simmer and stir gently just till all is mixed in. Keep tasting and adding spices to taste. Ladle into soup bowls and add a dollop of Greek yogurt. Sprinkle with more Zatar, and serve.

This….

…to this — in about 40 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

Sit and enjoy the brilliant red color in your bowl, the warming earthiness in your mouth, and the filled feeling in your stomach.
And be glad.

Plain or fancy?

The kitchen here at Apple Hill is a busy place these days. You know those days? When you are cooking, peeling, stirring, canning while in your yoga pants and t-shirt, and hoping desperately that no one just drops in to visit because 1. every pot in your kitchen is in use; 2. you surely don’t have time to take a break to talk to anyone; and 3. you were so busy getting into the kitchen that you might have forgotten to brush your teeth and you definitely didn’t comb your hair.

In between making tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes, applesauce, apple butter, and canning gingered pears, I made this most-delicious-apple-cake-in-the-world.  I posted the plain recipe before in a post about walnuts, but the fancy version (without walnuts) is, perhaps, the very best recipe ever that you can make with apples. And we do apples right around here…

It goes by the humble name of Apple Pudding Cake. I know, not exactly exciting or gourmet sounding is it?

But this is the most luscious, caramel-ly, apple-ly, golden brown earthy goodness you will ever taste. And if you want to make it even more so, there is a simple warm caramel sauce that you can ladle over the cake that will just send you and your tasters over the moon. Or at least over your favorite apple tree.

You can see how old and spill-covered the recipe is…

And after a quick scan of the ingredients, you can also see how basic the ingredients are. Most likely they are sitting in your food pantry this very moment, just calling out to be made into this simple, simply amazing pudding cake.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and butter an 8 inch square pan. (This recipe can be doubled for a 9×13 inch pan as well. If you double it, bake the cake for 50 minutes.)

Beat 1 cup of brown sugar and 1/4 c. softened butter until well combined . Add one egg and beat until fluffy. Add the dry ingredients: 1 t. baking soda, 1 t. cinnamon, 1/2 t. freshly grated nutmeg, 1/4 t. salt, 1 c. unbleached white flour. Mix well. The batter will be thick — so thick a spoon will stand up easily in it. (If you are the type of person who likes spoonfuls of batter, try to control yourself — you still have to add the apples.)

Peel and chop apples to make two cups. Depending on the size of your apples, 2 or 3 is likely. I also like to mix and match the  apples — you can see in the first photo I used a red apple (Jonathan) and a yellow/green apple (Grimes Golden). But really, just use what you have. I don’t think this dessert could possibly be ruined by using the wrong apple. Although I will say that if you are using a bland Red Delicious sort, you might want to zing them up slightly by squeezing half a lemon over them.

Do not skimp on the apples. As you are mixing them into the batter, it looks like quite a lot of apples, but they soften while baking, imparting to the cake its pudding-like consistency. Bake 25-35 minutes, depending on how gooey you like it. The brown crustiness on the top is amazing with the pudding-like texture inside. Do not overbake it…

If you are reading the recipe card in the photo above, you will notice that it also suggests using mini-bundt pans. I tried this several times and had no success getting them out of the pans in any kind of decent shape. Maybe you will be better at that than I am, but I gave up and now just serve it as homely squares on a plate. When you make the caramel sauce to go over it, no one will care that it isn’t in some fancy shape.

This recipe was given to me over ten years ago by a friend of the woman whose name is on the recipe card. Last year, at a church potluck supper, a new friend brought an apple cake. I commented to her how delicious it was and she brought me the recipe. It was the exact same recipe, except hers added walnuts and a teaspoon of baking powder as well. I’ve been making this cake without baking powder for ten years, but comparing hers and mine, I will tell you that if you add baking powder you might get more of a cake type outcome. And of course, should you care to add walnuts, feel free…

To make the caramel sauce, melt 1/3 cup butter in a small pan. Add 2/3 cup sugar (I use 1/3 cup lightly packed brown sugar and 1/3 cup raw sugar) and stir until well-mixed and starting to bubble. Add 1/2 t. cinnamon and slowly add 1/3 cup half-and-half, whisking well. Let simmer over low heat until it is no longer sugar-y. Drizzle, ladle, or pour the warm sauce over individual squares of cake. This sauce guilds the lily. Truthfully, I only make the caramel sauce when I’m serving this for company (or taking pictures for a blog post) but the first time you make the cake, you should definitely have the sauce with it. You need to be able to make an accurate decision about when to make the sauce and when to have it just plain.

Plain or fancy — Which are you?

Smell the apple-cinnamon-brown sugar deliciousness?

Pickle juice

Originally posted in July, 2015. 

It’s very satisfying to be gardening again.

I haven’t had a real vegetable garden in many years. Oh, we grew tomatoes and peppers and herbs (and an occasional zucchini) at the city house, but the deer there ruined my gardening efforts too. We were near a wild-ish park and had an apple tree in the side yard. The deer flocked to it.

But a real fenced in garden? Where I have to open the gate? Well I’ve never had one of those!

tomatoes and peppers in garden

The tomatoes are a jungle and we have only had cherry tomatoes so far. It’s been so rainy, they just aren’t ripening. We’ve had a few peppers; the squash are growing inches overnight; the beans are climbing on the corn; and the cucumbers! Oh my.

It’s a wet summer so far, and cucumbers love water, so we have an abundance. I just planted too many plants because… because…. I’m not sure why. But I think it might have to do with the pickle recipe I’m about to give you.

cucumbers in basket

So what do I do with this many cucumbers? Too few to make a giant batch of pickles and too many to eat all at once.

Get ready, cucumber recipes coming at you…

I am not a veteran pickle maker. I’ve made a few jars back in my old hippie homesteading days but, quite honestly, they tasted like salty cooked cucumbers. No crunch. And if you apply science to this, Of Course. I’ve cooked the cucumbers in boiling water, how could they be crisp? So… I did some research.

Lithuanian Half-Sour Dill Pickles, by the jar.

Those delicious Klaussen pickles? They are Lithuanian Half-Sours. But I had no clue how many jars the above photo of cucumbers would make. So I washed and sterilized several jars of different sizes, and started cutting. Before I give you the recipe, here are some tips:

  • Cut off the tip of the blossom end of the cucumber, or scrape it off with your fingernail or a peeler. Every recipe I’ve read says that if you don’t get rid of the blossom enzymes, the pickles will be more apt to get soggy.
  • Wash the cucumbers gently, but don’t scrub or scour them.
  • If you are using dill (are there other kinds of pickles?) use the flower of the dill plant — the bigger the better.

Slice the cucumbers in your favorite pickle style — slices, chunks, halves, quarters or leave those little ones whole.  

Make them jar by jar. To a quart jar, add a blossom of dill, two or three cloves of garlic, and some pickling spices. I put in some mustard seeds, whole allspice, coriander seeds, and a few shakes of crushed red pepper. I would have added celery seed, if I’d had any. I also had some baby onions, so I threw a few of those in too. Add some cucumbers — I filled about half the jar, and then I put in another dill flower and filled the jar with the rest of the cucumbers and a few more baby onions. (The onions are strictly optional, but I had them and thought they would be good. I was right.)

To each jar add 1/2 cup vinegar, a cup of water, and 4 t. kosher salt. I mixed up this solution first and stirred it around until the salt was dissolved, then poured into the jars. If it doesn’t cover the cucumbers, top off the jar with water until the cucumbers are completely covered. Put a sterilized lid on the jars and refrigerate. You can open the pickles in a week. Cloudy brine is ok. Fizziness is ok. Neither of my jars got fizzy… though I’ve read that is a problem. These are refrigerator pickles. And my basket of cucumbers (about 20 cukes — sized from small to medium) made two quart jars, with three little cucumbers left over. (And if you would like to make up a larger batch of brine, I’ve done the math for you —  1/4 c. salt, 1 and 1/2 c. vinegar, and 3 c. water. This makes enough for 4 pints or 2 quarts of pickles.)

Lithuanian half-sour pickles by the jar

In The Dill Crock (1984), John Thorne describes half-sours as “cucumbers still, not pickles — little cucumbers who [have] died and gone to heaven.”  One can find as many recipes for these as there are cooks, but all the recipes that I tried to conglomerate and follow said the little heavenly cucumbers would be ready in a week. I’ve been opening the jar every day and testing them. On Day 2, they simply tasted like the cucumbers in vinegar we used to have as a kid every summer for dinner. But today is Day 5 and I got them out to put on Mr. H.C.’s lunch sandwich, so I tried one for breakfast. They are delicious. Like Mr. Thorne says, not pickles, not quite cucumbers. Heavenly.

I’m editing this post in July of 2017: Last year these refrigerator half-sours were the only pickles I made — 2 dozen quarts. They kept in the fridge all year. I still have 3 jars left and they are still delicious– crisp and clear.  I’ve given away several jars, and everyone I’ve given them to has asked me for the recipe. So I’m reposting this now because it’s another wet summer — and there are more cucumbers coming every day. The only drawback to these pickles is that you need refrigerator space. I’m thinking of getting a small dorm-room type fridge just for 24 jars of these pickles…

And so with three cucumbers left over, and more ripe in the garden today, I’ve got another simple recipe for you as well. I can’t take any credit for this one either. It is from Foodie with Family — my favorite food blog — although like any recipe, I added and took away.

Asian Cucumber Salad

This salad is so easy and so delicious, you won’t believe you’ve ever lived without it. It’s great with any summer grilled food, or any Oriental themed meal. And though it’s fine in the winter with store-bought cucumbers, it is really a summer recipe made with the freshest cucumbers you can find. We keep a bowl of these in the fridge during cucumber season so we can have it with every meal.

Asian cucumber salad

If you have a mandoline, use it for this recipe. If you don’t have one, use your sharpest knife and slice one large or two or three medium cucumbers into Very Thin Slices. Also slice a quarter to a half of a sweet onion — depending on how much you like sweet onions.  Again, slice them as thinly as you can without getting blood in the salad. (I have sometimes used scallions instead of a sweet onion.) Stir together in a small bowl:

  • 1/3 cup rice vinegar
  • 1 T. toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 T. minced fresh dill
  • 1/2 to 1 t. salt
  • 1/2 to 1 t. sugar
  • 1/2 to 1 t. toasted sesame oil
  • a few grinds of red pepper flakes (This is the only optional ingredient. Just recently I put my never-used red pepper flakes into a grinder, and now I’m discovering that I use them all the time. And Mr. H.C. — a guy who likes his hot pepper rating at 0 — hasn’t complained yet.)

Stir gently. You can eat it now, or you can eat it later, but I guarantee that it won’t sit in your fridge for very long. Ten minutes to make, five minutes to eat. Yum. Try it on pulled pork. Or with a stir-fry. Or with anything.

cucumber blossoms

And we’ve discovered lots of honeybees on the cucumber flowers. Go bees! More cucumbers! Yay for summer.