Main dishes, Recipes

Spicy Sausage and Lentil Soup

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I love lentils.  I grew up eating a lot of beans, but I didn’t discover lentils until I was in my forties.  Imagine my delight when I realized I could cook a legume in just 30 minutes without presoaking!  Lentils are something I can cook up fast if I haven’t figured out what to do for dinner that day, and you can throw just about anything in a pot of lentil stew.  But they reward more thought and care.

Recently, Dennis and I went out for dinner and a movie.  The best place to eat in our small town is a microbrew pub, Lassen Ale Works.  I like to order the soups there.  I think soup is where a cook gets to really strut his or her stuff, and often, you’ll get a chef’s most creative cooking in a soup.  I saw linguica and roasted red pepper soup on the LAW specials board the other evening, and it sounded really good on a chilly night.  It turned out to have lentils in it, and while I couldn’t find any roasted red peppers, the linguica was delicious.

I went home resolved to see if I could come up with something similar, and I have.  My spicy sausage and lentil soup doesn’t have any linguica in it (because I didn’t have any), but if you can score some hot smoked paprika for my sausage and lentil soup, you’ll get one of the essential flavors of linguica without the price tag.  Ground pork sausage is much more economical than linguica.  Just look at the price per pound the next time you go to the grocery store and decide which fits your budget.  Ground sausage fits mine.  I used a combination of pork sausage and bear sausage.

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Spicy Sausage and Lentil Soup

1 cup lentils

3 cups water

1 lb. ground pork sausage (medium or hot)

6 cups of chicken or vegetable stock

4 carrots, diced

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 stick celery, diced

1 small (or half of one large) red bell pepper, diced

Ground black pepper to taste

Red pepper flakes to taste

1 teaspoon smoked hot paprika

½ teaspoon Cajun seasoning

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dried tomato skin powder (optional)

In a large pot, bring water and rinsed and sorted lentils to boiling, reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook until lentils are tender and most of the water has been absorbed, about 30-45 minutes.

While the lentils are cooking, crumble and brown sausage.  Remove sausage from skillet, drain on paper towels, and drain fat from skillet.  Add a little olive oil (enough to just coat the bottom of the pan), and sauté the vegetables (start with the hardest vegetables first) until they have taken on a little color.  When vegetables are done, turn off heat and add minced garlic. Cook for one minute.  Set aside until lentils are done.

To the cooked lentils, add the sausage and vegetables, then pour in at least 5 cups of stock.  (I used a combination of mushroom stock, because it needed to be used up, and chicken stock.)

Add ¼ – ½ teaspoon ground black pepper, a good pinch of red pepper flake if you like spicy (I used my hot Nigerian red pepper), the dried tomato skin powder (if you have it), the other spices, and a little salt if needed, all to taste.  (When I made this, it didn’t need any extra salt.  There is a little salt in the Cajun seasoning I like).

Let the soup come up to a simmer and cook it for at least 20 minutes to blend the flavors and tenderize the sausage.  If you can let it cook longer, the soup gets even better.  I like to cook it on a very low heat until the lentils are just barely holding their cute little shape (about 2-3 hours).  This thickens the soup a little bit.  Add more stock if needed to keep the soup at the consistency you like, and if you add stock, taste for seasoning.

This makes a big pot of hearty soup, suitable for at least 4 people (with leftovers possible).

Add a salad and some nice crusty bread, and you won’t need anything else.  Except maybe some ice cream for dessert.

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Main dishes, Recipes

Braised and Barbecued Pork Spareribs

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It used to frustrate me that I could never produce falling-off-the-bone spareribs at home.  I knew I must be doing something wrong, but I didn’t know what it was.  You barbecue them, right?  Then I watched an old Good Eats with Alton Brown, and I learned how to cook ribs.  As with my previous post, this one is more about the method than it is a recipe.  Producing good spareribs at home without a commercial smoker is a three-step process:  rub and rest, braise, then glaze on the grill.

Rub and Rest

You can use any kind of rub you like.  Montreal Seasonings makes a good pork rub.  I also like the barbecue rub I’ve found in the bulk spices section at WinCo.  I’m sure there are others.  But my current favorite is the one I used for my recent post about pulled pork.  I’ll post the rub recipe again here.  It can be made without the dried tomato skins, of course.

Pork Rub (with Dried Tomato Skins)

1 tablespoon dried tomato skin powder

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon kosher or coarsely-ground sea salt

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional, adjust to taste)

2 teaspoons hot smoked paprika (optional, regular paprika can be used)

½ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon garlic powder

Sprinkle all sides of 3-4 lbs. of spareribs with 2-3 teaspoons of the rub, and . . .  you guessed it . . . rub it in.

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Create a packet from heavy duty aluminum foil that will hold your ribs, and leave one edge loosely sealed to create a place where you can easily uncrimp the foil to add your braising liquid later.  Place foil packet of ribs into a baking pan (not cookie sheet, just in case a bone punctures the foil) large enough to hold them, and put in fridge for 4-8 hours.  Then, it’s on to the next step.

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Braise

You can braise meat on the cooktop, in a crock pot, or in the oven.  For meat that needs to marinate first (which is what a dry rub does, even though it’s dry), I prefer the oven.   You can use a crockpot if you put the rub on the ribs and stash them in the fridge overnight, then put them in the crock pot in the morning for 6-8 hours, depending on hot your crock pot cooks and what temperature setting you use.  You can also braise in a Dutch oven on the stove top, keeping the braising liquid at a low simmer.  But the dry heat of the oven that surrounds your foil packet (or Dutch oven) produces, in my opinion, the best flavor in the ribs.  And using foil makes for easy clean-up.

To oven-braise, remove the foil packet of ribs from the fridge about 3 hours before you want to serve dinner, and let them sit out on the counter to warm up for about 15 minutes while you prepare your braising liquid.  Turn your oven on to 350 degrees.

You can use almost any liquid or combination of liquids to braise the ribs if you remember a few simple guidelines.  The braising liquid should be flavorful (so plain water isn’t a good choice), slightly sweet, and slightly acidic, but it should contain little to no added salt because of the salt that’s already in your rub.  This is where you can get creative and have some fun.  Here are some possibilities for braising liquids.  You’ll only need about 2 cups unless you are cooking more than 3-4 lbs. of ribs.

Lemon-lime soda, 2 tablespoons ketchup, 2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce

Cola, ginger ale, or root beer with 2 tablespoons ketchup, 2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce

Weak coffee, slightly sweetened with honey, brown sugar, or molasses

Lemonade or orange juice, 2 tablespoons ketchup, 2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce

Tomato juice, 2 tablespoons of molasses or brown sugar, 2 tablespoons Worchestershire

Beer, 2 tablespoons of molasses, and ¼ cup of tomato sauce or 2 tablespoons of ketchup

Sake, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, a tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce (1/2 teaspoon of Chinese five spice powder is good with this one, or it can be added to the rub)

The variations are pretty much endless, depending on the flavor profile you want to create.  It isn’t often you’ll see me using an item like a can of soda in my cooking, but it really does work well in this application.  I used the first mixture on the list above for the ribs in my pictures this week.  I added to it a pinch of my Nigerian pepper (and I could have used more, but I have to watch the heat level for Dennis), and a ¼ teaspoon of espresso powder, and it smelled really good going into the meat.  It sounds like a strange mix, but it was really tasty, which is my point about getting creative with your braising liquid.

You can also add a drop or two of liquid smoke to mimic the flavor of a smoker, although you will get a bit of smoke flavor from the finish on the grill.  Because the braising liquid is going to become the barbecue sauce or glaze, and because I like a chunky sauce, I add a chopped onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, minced, to whatever braising liquid I use.  The sauce can be smoothed out in a blender or with a stick blender before glazing the meat, if desired.

Heat the braising liquid and any flavor additions, like sweeteners, more spice, onions, garlic, in a small saucepan that you can pour from (or as I did, heat it in a glass measuring cup in the microwave).  When all the ingredients have mixed, set it aside to cool slightly.  It should be warm, not hot, and the meat should be cool, not cold.  Open the foil packet of ribs just enough to pour in the braising liquid, and then close the foil up tightly.

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Place in oven at 350 degrees and cook 2-3 hours or until ribs are fork tender but not quite falling apart.  Remove the ribs from the oven, pour off the braising liquid, and leave ribs in foil packet to rest while you create the glaze and fire up the grill.

Glaze and Grill

If you have a fat separator, you’ll want to use it here to pour off the braising liquid and eliminate some of the fat that has cooked out of the ribs.  If you don’t have a fat separator, use a large spoon to skim as much of the fat off the top of the braising liquid as you can.  Then put the braising liquid back into the small saucepan and start it boiling.  You’ll probably have about 1 ½ cups of liquid.  If you have less than that, you might want to add a little more of whatever liquid you used to start with.  To the braising liquid, add about ½ cup of ketchup or tomato sauce, or ¼ cup of tomato paste.  Let this reduce a bit, and then check for seasoning and sweetness.  I almost always add some more molasses or brown sugar to my sauce because I like a fairly sweet sauce.  I think the flavor profile of a great barbecue sauce is spicy/tangy/sweet.  Think about the flavor profile you like and taste the sauce as it reduces, adding more sweetener, salt or pepper, liquid smoke (this can be very strong, so go easy, a drop at a time), or other flavors to get a sauce that tastes good to you.  Add just a bit at a time and keep tasting.  Reduce the sauce until it’s the consistency you like (some like thick, some not).  Blend the sauce if you want it smooth.

The ribs are done, so there’s no actual cooking left to do.  All you’re going to do is glaze your meat with the sauce.  You’ll want your grill at medium, not hot, so that the glaze doesn’t burn.  (You could do this under the broiler if you’re careful, but you won’t get the same flavor.)  The sauce has sugars in it, so if the grill is too hot, the sugars will burn instead of caramelize.  Paint one side of the ribs liberally with the sauce, place sauce side down on the grill and allow the sauce to bubble and brown on one side before turning.  It shouldn’t take more than five minutes per side to glaze the ribs.  Watch them carefully.  As I tell Dennis, do not walk away from the grill!

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Serve your tender, braised and barbecued pork spareribs hot off the grill with the extra sauce for dipping.  If you accompany your ribs with the traditional sides–cornbread, coleslaw, greens cooked with bacon, onion and vinegar, and beans or black-eyed peas—you’ll think you’ve been transported temporarily to the South.  And if you still have leftover sauce after the meal, save it for barbecued chicken later in the week, or put it in the freezer.  It’s too good to throw away!

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Leftovers, Main dishes, Recipes

Sublime Roasted Chicken Soup

I actually call this soup Everything But the Kitchen Sink Chicken Soup, or sometimes, it’s known in our house as Clean Out the Fridge Chicken Soup.  But that’s a pretty long title for a blog post.  So, to shorten it up, and to give credit to the technique that produces the delicious flavor of this soup, I went with Sublime Roasted Chicken Soup.  I had to throw in “sublime” because there are just way too many “the best chicken soup” posts out there in online foodie land.  I’m not saying I make the best chicken soup in the world.  I don’t have to.  My family says it for me!

My chicken soups are always made with the carcass from a roasted chicken, so let’s start there.  Roast chicken was one of the first things I taught my daughter-in-law to cook when she and my son were married, and it’s just about the easiest thing to put on a dinner table to feed a family.  What follows is more of a technique than a recipe, which allows you to use your own creativity (and eventually, your leftovers).

Roast Chicken

Season a fresh or thawed chicken, inside and out, with any of the following seasonings or get creative and make up your own:

1 tablespoon of Cajun seasoning mix (this is a blend of peppers, salt, and spices you can buy in the grocery store, and I like it a lot for chicken) OR

1 tablespoon Montreal chicken seasoning mix OR

1 tablespoon coarse sea salt mixed with 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and 1 teaspoon dried crumbled sage and 1 teaspoon dried crumbled thyme (or a teaspoon of ground poultry seasoning)

Whatever kind of seasoning you choose, sprinkle it inside the body cavity and rub it outside on the skin, then place the chicken into a roasting pan or Dutch oven with a lid. I always cook my chicken in a roasting pan with a lid (so technically, it’s baked or braised, I suppose, not roasted) because the meat is always moist and juicy, and I don’t have to worry about basting.  This is easy-peasy chicken dinner!

If you want to fancy it up, you can stuff the body cavity with any sort of stuffing you like (I have a recipe for cornbread stuffing in another post) or with sliced lemons, onions, garlic, and a sprig or two of rosemary, and you can also place root vegetables like carrots and parsnips and potatoes around the chicken, if there’s room in the pan, when you’ve got about an hour of cooking time left.

Cook the chicken at 325-350 degrees for 2-2 ½ hours  (depending on the size of the chicken) or until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees in the thickest part of the leg.  You can also tell the chicken is done when the meat on the drumstick starts to pull away from the bone and the thigh joint jiggles easily when you move the leg.

Remove the chicken from the roasting pan to a carving board or platter and cover it loosely with foil.  Let it rest until it stops steaming, about 20 minutes.  Don’t carve your breast meat while there is still steam escaping from the bird.  It will dry out.  If you stuffed the bird, remove all the stuffing as soon as you remove the bird from the oven.  Don’t let stuffing cool inside the bird.

Pour off the cooled pan drippings and refrigerate.  You can make gravy with the drippings, but there tends to be a lot of fat in it, so if you have one of those fat separators, it’s helpful for making gravy.  Cooling the drippings allows the fat to be scraped off the top, so you can use just the flavorful and nutritious drippings in your soup and discard the fat.  If you do make gravy, save any leftovers for adding to your soup, just like you would the drippings.  Enjoy your roast chicken dinner!

Dennis and I get at least 4 or 5 meals from one chicken.  We eat several meals from the roasted meat itself, and then, I make soup from the carcass.  Here’s how to get all the goodness from that chicken carcass.

Sublime Roasted Chicken Soup

First, place the carcass on a cookie sheet.  Rub a little olive oil on the exposed shreds of white meat that are left on the carcass and sprinkle it lightly with salt and pepper or the same seasoning mix you used before roasting the chicken.  Turn the chicken carcass upside down! Place in 400-425 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the carcass is a golden, toasty brown color.

The reason for roasting the carcass again is two-fold.  First, roasting creates flavor and color in your broth.  (If you want clear, pale chicken broth like the stuff that comes out of a can, don’t roast.  But you won’t have nearly as much flavor.)  The second reason to roast is that the high heat on the bones helps them release minerals and nutrients into the broth or stock.

While the carcass is roasting, peel and cut four large carrots into bite-sized chunks or cubes.  Chop or slice four ribs of celery.  Chop one onion.  (You can add more of any vegetable if you like.  I often add more carrots because I love carrots in soups and stews.)  When the carcass is golden brown, remove it from the oven and place it in a large soup pot.  Add just enough water to cover the carcass and bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cover with a tight-fitting lid.  You will immediately notice how rich the broth looks, much darker than broth from an unroasted carcass.  Color equals flavor!

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The carcass will need to cook about an hour to loosen all the meat from the bones and to release the flavor.  Drain the fat from the cookie sheet, and place carrots, celery, and onions on it, stirring to coat them in the leftover chicken fat.  Spread the vegetables out on the cookie sheet, sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper or the seasoning mix you used on the chicken/carcass, and return to the oven, roasting the vegetables until they also begin to take on some color.  You’ll be amazed at how much more flavor you get out of your vegetables by roasting them.  (You can also sauté them in a little olive oil or butter on the stovetop, but why dirty up another pan, and the oven is already hot!)

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When the vegetables are a little browned, remove them from the oven and scrape the cookie sheet to loosen any that have stuck to the pan.  Set them aside.  Do not add them to the soup pot until after you have removed the chicken carcass and bones from the pot.

When the carcass is falling apart in the broth, it’s time to remove it.  Use a spider or slotted spoons to remove the carcass from the broth, and set it aside to cool.  While the carcass is cooling, you can add your roasted vegetables to the broth.  (I also rinse the cookie sheet with the broth, holding it over the soup pot and ladling the broth over it, to get off any little stuck bits of brown goodness, which adds flavor.)  This is the time to add the pan drippings you saved when you roasted your chicken, or any leftover gravy.  If you saved pan drippings, before you add them, be sure to remove the fat that rose to the top of the drippings as they cooled.  Your drippings should be mostly gelatinized.  That means flavor!  Taste the broth and adjust for seasoning.  Remember to use the same seasoning mix you used when you roasted the chicken as you season your broth.  This keeps competing flavors at a minimum.  When the carcass is cooled enough to handle, pick the remaining meat from the bones and add it back into the broth.

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At this point, your soup is essentially done, and you can serve it as is.  But there is much more you can do with it.  You can turn it into Everything But the Kitchen Sink or Clean Out the Fridge Roasted Chicken Soup.  Just start prospecting in your fridge and pantry.  To my last batch of soup, I added a couple of cubed potatoes, a cup or so of leftover green beans, about a cup and a half of leftover Seven Bean and Ham Soup (made with the leftover Christmas ham), and some Swiss chard I put in the freezer last year and rediscovered recently.  This produced a rich, hearty, soup-that-eats-like-a-meal.  One bowl of this contains all the meat and veggies you need for a complete meal, and if you are watching your weight, this soup is very figure-friendly.

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Of course, you can add noodles or rice, if you wish, but since I have been trying to eliminate grains from my diet, I usually add a can of rinsed, dark red kidney beans, or a can of black beans to my chicken soups in lieu of pasta.  This keeps the soup low-carb but hearty and full of protein.  I sometimes cook noodles or rice separately so that Dennis can put some in the bottom of his bowl and pour the soup over it.  That way, we both have what we want.  We will have several meals from a big pot of soup, and I’ve been known to freeze a quart for a snowy day.  I’ve found that soup is one of the best ways to stretch my food dollars and use leftovers that would otherwise be wasted.

Is soup-making work?  Yes.  Is it time-consuming?  Yes.  Is it worth it?  Yes, yes, yes.  Flavorful and nourishing:  it’s no wonder chicken soup has been known for years not just as comfort food, but as food for the soul.

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Garden and Greenhouse

January Daze

The holidays have come and gone.  I’ve used up all the leftovers, and I’m sick and tired of cooking.  It’s the time of year when I’m glad I have a well-stocked pantry.  I can open a jar of abalone chowder base (just add half & half and sherry), or a jar of venison chili or venison stew, mix up a batch of cornbread, open a jar of pickles or dilly beans, and there’s dinner.

I tend to get a little blue in January.  After the holiday rush and bustle, the delight of having the whole family together, and the fun of watching the little ones enjoy the season, I always feel a little let down.  I remind myself that this is the time for rest.  Like my garden, I need this time to regenerate.  I need some quiet time to rest and think.  I need time for reflection.

When I was teaching, reflection was an important part of the way I taught writing as a process.  If we don’t take time to reflect on what we’ve done, we’re missing an opportunity for learning.  Rushing from one assignment to the next (whatever kinds of assignments these are, whether self-imposed or part of a standardized course) doesn’t give us time to understand what we’ve done well, where we need to improve, and what we need not do again.  Reflection allows us to make a solid plan for the future, based on what we know worked, or didn’t, in the past.

So this is the time when I pull out my garden log and go over the notes I made about the garden and the harvest during the spring, summer, and fall.  It’s the time when I decide what changes need to be made in what I plant and where I plant it.  It’s the time when I sort through my seed packets to see what I need to buy fresh and how much.  It’s a planning time, and it heartens me.

Seed catalogs have been arriving for a couple of months.  I put them aside until January, when their bright, colorful photographs cheer me and remind me that another growing season will fill me with energy, purpose, and hope.

I don’t buy a lot of seeds.  I sow very frugally because I hate to thin.  A packet of carrot seeds will usually last me two years because I don’t use them all the first year I open them.  The same with most small seeds:  beets, lettuce, spinach, etc.  I seal up the opened seed packets with masking tape, and I put all my unused seeds into an old plastic mayonnaise jar with a tight-fitting lid.  Into the jar along with the seeds, I place several silica packets, the kind that are shipped inside large bottles of medications, to absorb moisture.  I put this container in my laundry room, which stays cool summer and winter, and my seeds stay fresh for years.  I have some large packets of lettuce seeds that I’ve been planting from for ten years.

Seeds grown and processed for storage organically may be viable for a very long time.  There are reports of seeds left in Egyptian tombs for thousands of years that grew when planted.  Unfortunately, many large commercial seed companies began some years ago to treat seeds with substances that are supposed to increase germination rates and/or provide protection against pests and pathogens during and right after germination.  I believe these treatments affect seeds’ viability if they are not used within the first growing season after harvest.  For this reason, and the fact that I don’t like the idea of chemically-treated seed, I’ve begun to look for organic seeds and to grow more and more heirloom varieties and save the seeds myself.  Tomato seeds are very easy to harvest and save, and I’ve had very good luck with them.  I always germinate seeds like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant between moist paper towels stuffed inside plastic zipper bags.  It only takes a couple of days, and that way, I know exactly how many plants I will get from those seeds.  When the sprouts have just broken the seed coat, I can use tweezers to gently move them from the paper towels into warm, damp seed-starting medium and put them under a grow light in the greenhouse.

For other plants like lettuce and spinach, I allow self-sowing.  I let these plants flower (which has an added benefit of giving the bees more blossoms to milk). This means the garden gets pretty raggedy-looking in July and August, when the plants bolt and send up tall spikes of unremarkable flowers, then turn brown and, well, seedy-looking, but it saves me time and work and energy, and I get lettuce and spinach earlier the following spring.  There’s no guesswork on my part about when to plant:  the self-sown seeds sprout when conditions are favorable.  The plants and seeds do all the work.  Sometimes the seeds sprout where I didn’t expect them to, but I just work around them.  I like the spontaneity of allowing self-sowing.  I don’t mind a head of romaine in the middle of the row of carrots.

Larger seeds like pumpkins and squash are also viable for years when left untreated.  I have a pumpkin seed story that makes me smile every time I think of it.  When my children were small, I always grew jack-o’- pumpkins for them.  I usually grew a medium-sized variety, and we’d cook the pumpkins down the day after Halloween for pumpkin pies.  But one year when they were a little older, they wanted big pumpkins, so I planted a variety called Big Max.  They were big, all right.  We don’t have a very long growing season here, but we got a few Big Maxes, and I grew them for the kids for several years before I stopped growing a garden under the pressures of completing my M.A.

When my grandchildren were old enough to enjoy the idea of growing their own jack-o’-lanterns, I dug out the few leftover Big Max seeds and planted them.  Those seeds were twenty years old, at least, maybe older, and I got about a 50% germination rate from them.  Kaedynce and Bryce grew four big carving pumpkins from two plants.  I had stored the seeds using the method above, with silica packets in my leftover seed jar.  That was several years ago, but the kids still talk about Big Max and Maxine.  Yes, they named their jack- o’-lantern pumpkins!

Despite (or perhaps because of) this experience with the pumpkin seeds, I know that as my seeds get older, their viability will begin to decrease.  This is natural.  So I always plant a few extra seeds, more than I would if the seed was fresh.  This spring, because of my garden log, I know that while I still have a few Minnesota Midget cantaloupe seeds left (the only melons that do well in my garden), they will be five years old this spring, and I only got about 50% germination out of them last year.  I need fresh seed.  They are a hybrid, so I can’t save the seed myself.  But I’ll still soak the old ones and sprout them between paper towels, so I can use up every last seed that’s viable.  I don’t like to waste a thing if I can help it.

Just thinking about spring planting cheers me up.  On this gray day, when we’re in the middle of another drought cycle, and yet another moisture-bearing storm is pushing north of us, leaving only dry clouds to veil the winter sun, it’s good to rest, reflect, and plan.  That’s what January is for, in my book.

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