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Painting of ingredients for improvised gumbo -- Davis pepper spray incident in background.

Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo. 12″ x 12″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

Yesterday in the farm box from Riverdog Farm I got four green peppers. Green peppers are not my favorite peppers by a long shot — I love red, yellow, orange and even purple peppers, but green ones? I think someone made a mistake….

The only way I can think of to get excited about green peppers is to cook Cajun food. In Cajun country, they call green peppers, onions and celery the holy trinity (capitalizing it would be blasphemous) and put them in everything except dessert. Mom expressed a wish to have a little more room in the freezer before Thanksgiving so we decided to have a look at what was in there. Don’t you hate it when you read that someone has whipping cream and brandy lying around? Not around here: I found the shrimp shells that I had been saving for stock, along with one small piece of cooked fish for future bouillabaise. The only other meat in there was sausage. O.K. We’d have sausage gumbo.

First up I roasted the last three small tomatoes sitting on the counter. The farm had a frost this week so there will not be anymore fresh tomatoes unless my Sun Golds ripen on the vine before it rains or freezes here. Tomatoes were late this year and have compensated by lasting into mid-November. Goodbye fresh tomatoes. See you next June or July.

As the tomatoes roasted in the oven where I was baking Krista and Jess’ gingerbread baked oatmeal, I diced

2 green peppers

2 small onions

2 stalks of celery and

1 bulb of fennel (just because I had it)

Before I sauteed the vegetables I chopped

fennel stalks and leaves

and put them in a big pot of water with

shrimp shells and leftover fish fillet.

Then I sauteed the vegetables in olive oil. When they began to brown I added most of

1 small can tomato paste (also a refugee from the freezer) and

1 pint frozen chicken stock.

I strained the shrimp and fennel stock into the vegetables, tomatoes and chicken stock and considered Cajun seasoning. While I thought about it I added

1 Tbsp hot paprika

dried thyme (I stripped several branches)

a few grinds of black pepper,

Then I set to making a roux:

I cut 3 sausages into coins and browned them in the former stock pot, before adding them to the gumbo. To the sausage drippings, I added

1/2 cup flour

3-4  Tbsp olive oil

I patiently cooked the roux to the color of peanut butter, adding some water, liquid from the gumbo, or chicken stock when it stuck, scraping the pan as best I could. I probably added another 3 Tbsp of chicken stock all told.I added the roasted tomatoes to the gumbo and squeezed the juice from half a lemon. I let the roux cook in the gumbo for a few minutes while I started rice — white rice because it was almost lunch time. My picky brother Bryan came through the kitchen about then and said, “Do I smell lasagna?” I said, “Gumbo, but it has a lot of the same ingredients as lasagna” (sausage, onion, tomato).

When the rice was done I got Bryan a tiny bowl of gumbo to try.

He said, “It tastes kind of like beef stew.”

Huh. Well, it has onions, celery and a touch of tomato paste, I guess. Anyway, he ate it and we ate it and it is good.

This gumbo is a fine example of how I cook most of the time, inspired by an ingredient I don’t like much to create a dish from a cuisine I do like. Green peppers compel me to cook Cajun food. What was in the freezer (shrimp shells, chicken stock, leftover cooked fish, tomato paste  and sausage), in the refrigerator (fennel and celery) and on the counter (tomatoes and onions, half a lemon) provided the other ingredients. Karen of Carolina Locavore recently referred to this as “vegetable triage.” I didn’t use a recipe except to check the oil and flour ratio for the roux (which I then did not follow: it said 1:1 for flour and oil). I let my memory guide me in terms of what goes into gumbo: many fancy cooks make gumbo, but the people I worked with at Berkeley Rec would make gumbo with turkey backs and neck bones if that is what they had — a lot of gumbo comes about because you are using this and that. You can’t go wrong with a fish or chicken stock, a good dark roux and the holy trinity.

Food notes: If I had had a can of clams in the pantry that would have gone into the gumbo. If I had had shrimp in the freezer, or chicken, it would have made it into the pot, too. I drew the line at cooked bacon — Mom said I would have to taste it and I decided to pass. I didn’t add bay leaf or Tabasco (but I could have if I weren’t too lazy to go pick a bay leaf from the backyard). Gumbo gets hotter as it sits, so I kept the spicing moderate — if you like it hotter, go for it, use andouille sausage, or pass the Tabasco at the table.

Political Note: Like many other people I watched the videos of Officer Pike using pepper spray on demonstrators at U.C. Davis. The spray was a fierce orange-red, fired at point-blank range on nonviolent people. I was shocked to see this. I commend officers who did not engage in or condone such behavior and the protesters who remained nonviolent. Save the peppers for Tabasco, which should only be eaten voluntarily, not sprayed down people’s throats as they participate in peaceful assembly.

Photo note: If any of you artistic types out there know how to square up a photo of a painting, I’d surely appreciate some tips.

painting of red kabocha squash, soup ingredients

Red Kabocha Soup 8″x8″ gouache and watercolor pencil Sharyn Dimmick

In Wednesday’s veggie box we got a giant red kabocha squash. I was thinking of making it into a Thai-style soup with coconut milk and lemongrass, red chili and Thai basil. I asked Mom if she wanted chunky soup — i.e with vegetables floating in it — or a puree.

“Make the smooth soup,” she said. “We haven’t had it for a long time.”

I realized she was thinking of the butternut squash soup I make. I checked.

“You mean you just want me to make it with milk and ginger the usual way?”

She did. There went my exotic soup plans.

I had roasted the kabocha whole the previous night, acting on a tip from the farm newsletter that recommended roasting the whole squash and then cutting it open and scooping out the seeds and strings. I scooped the seeds and strings into a  pot, along with the roasted skins, setting the squash flesh aside, covered the squash innards and skin with water and set them to simmering while I peeled and diced two onions and took our ginger root out of the freezer.

After I strained the squash stock into a bowl, I got out my microplane to grate the ginger.The microplane is a handy tool you will find at any hardware store — I find mine indispensable for grating Parmesan and ginger and zesting citrus.

Using a stock pot, I heated a little olive oil and butter over low heat. In that I sauteed my onions, grating the ginger directly over the pot, and adding some crumbled thyme leaves.. Next up, squash stock and squash: into the stock pot they go. Cook for awhile and and add a sploosh of tamari (wheat-free soy sauce).

When the squash is soft I puree the hot soup in a blender in two or three batches,, pouring it back into the stockpot as I go. I add milk to taste or until I like the consistency, somewhere between a cup and a quart, depending on how large the squash was. I usually use one-percent milk, but you can use anything up to and including whipping cream, depending on your proclivities. Just don’t use skim milk if you are going to say it is my recipe. Or dried milk.

Roasted Red Kambocha Soup (or Butternut Squash Soup)

Roast 1 large whole red kambocha squash in a 350 oven until it is fully soft. (You can do this a day or two ahead like I did)

OR cut open 1 large butternut squash lengthwise, scoop strings and seeds into a saucepan, cover with water and cook for stock, and roast squash cut side down in a baking pan. If using butternut, deglaze the baking pan with water and add the results to your saucepan.

Separate your roasted squash flesh from your seeds, strings and skins.

Cover seeds, strings and skins with water and simmer in a saucepan for stock.

Meanwhile, peel and dice 2 medium or 1 large onion.

Heat 2 tsp, olive oil and 2 tsp butter in a stockpot over low heat.

Add onions.

Grate 1 Tbsp fresh ginger over sauteeing onions (easiest with your trusty microplane)

Crumble in dried thyme to taste. (We home-dry ours, letting bundles of fresh dry exposed to the air).

Strain stock through mesh strainer into stockpot. Discard solids.

Add squash flesh to stockpot. Cook for fifteen or twenty minutes until everything is soft

Add tamari to taste. Start with 2 tsp. (This is providing your salty taste — no need for salt).

Puree soup in blender in two or three batches, adding pureed soup back to stockpot.

Add milk to taste or to achieve desired thickness or thinness. If the soup gets thick while sitting, you can add more milk when you heat it.

Food notes: I developed this recipe originally for butternut squash and it makes lovely butternut squash soup. The kabocha soup is similar, but lighter in color. You could make it with any winter squash you like.

Because the ingredients are few, the preparation methods make a difference. Once you roast squash for soup, you will never want to mess with soup recipes calling for raw winter squash again. If you make the stock from skins, seeds and strings, your winter squash soup will have a depth of flavor unachievable if you just pour vegetable stock or chicken stock into it. Please try it once. If it sounds difficult, allow yourself to roast the squash one day, make the stock another day and make the soup a third, but it really doesn’t take long all told. If you are in a hurry, save the squash seeds and skins in the freezer to make stock with next time and use water, milk or some kind of stock — just know it won’t be as good.  I often mix up yeast bread dough while the squash is roasting to take advantage of the warm oven for the rise — there is nothing better than hot soup with homemade bread.

I have used evaporated milk, low-fat milk, whole milk and half and half in this soup at different times. If you use richer milk, it is richer. We find one-percent milk fine for everyday soup. If we were inviting celebrities to dinner, we might add a little half and half.

Tamari is less salty than regular soy sauce. I like the flavor better. If I had been making Thai style soup I would have used coconut milk for the milk and fish sauce for the tamari.

Obviously, you can make large or small batches of this soup, according to how much squash you start with: if you use a small squash, it will not yield as much flesh or stock and you can use less milk and one small onion. Use more squash, get more soup. You’ll have to taste it to know how much milk you like.

After I originally posted this I ran across the “No Croutons Required” October soup event, which requires bloggers to submit their delicious squash soups to Jacqueline of Tinned Tomatoes, http://www.tinnedtomatoes.com/2011/10/no-croutons-required-october-2011.html I am excited to submit this variation on one of my favorite soups to this long-running event.

* My little joke: I keep confusing “kabocha” and “kambocha.” The one with the “m” might be deadly in soup.

Painting note: For further information about “Red Kabocha Soup” or any other painting, please contact me here.

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