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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Channeling Ina - Career Aspiration & Relationship Goals Soup

My fiancé Mark is very into soup. This may seem like an unremarkable characteristic, but he is someone for whom it is so difficult to cook, that any preference or affinity is notable. Honestly, he is so particular about food that it is often hard for me to find meal ideas that will be both satisfying to me and “acceptable” to him. He refuses to eat bacon, abhors sausage, is finicky about quantity and type of cheese, and generally sparing with constructive feedback on the occasion he does like something. As someone with a formidable cook book and recipe collection and kitchen skills to boot, he is extremely reluctant with menu ideas when asked, but all too quick to shoot down many a proposition. For more on this topic, stay tuned for my other blog “Marrying Mr. (Always) Right – An Engagement Story” coming soon…  

All that said, soup seems to be his culinary kryptonite, a good one can bring him to his knees. So I am always eager for the weather to turn cooler so I can start playing with new recipes and old favorites each fall. 

This year, I feel like I am distinctly channeling Ina Garten in her new book, Cooking for Jeffery, in which she describes her passion for cooking for the people she loves through anecdotes and recipes of her husband's favorite dishes. This blog is totally the same thing...;-)

Throughout the autumn months, I scour the weekend markets looking for the best ingredients that can be stewed or pureed to soupy perfection, all in the name of eliciting praise from Mark. Don’t get me wrong, I also cook for myself, but there is sometime so satisfying about satisfying another, especially a very particular romantic partner. I can impress myself with something simple like perfectly poached eggs anytime, but hearing the happy sated sigh of a dinner guest or fiancé after that first taste of something you have labored over for hours, maybe even days, oh it’s priceless. It is safe to say that one of my greatest pleasures in life is cooking for others. Lucky for him, Mark serves as beneficiary (and challenging critic) of my endeavors on a daily basis.

Preparing dinner is a nightly ritual in our household. One that is as deliberate as it is (usually) delicious. As ridiculous as it may sound, I find myself laying in bed Sunday evenings, mulling over my take from the farmers market and planning meals for each night of the week. From the simple to the complex, dinner for two or for many, it’s what lulls me to sleep and gets me through the work week. I spend down time at the office searching out interesting recipes, maybe a twist on an old favorite, or something new I can adapt from some foreign cuisine. I muse on narratives for my meal prep and service, devising interesting and amusing ways to describe my inspiration and execution. When we have dinner guests, I plan conversation around the meal, from the sourcing of the ingredients to recording the recipe as a party favor. I am always thinking about plating, garnish, serving dish, and ultimately how I am going to Instagram my creation. 

I am literally, for better or for worse, an aspirational food and lifestyle personality.

One recent evening, I was feeling particularly “Ina” so I decided to roast a chicken. In typical Barefoot Contessa style, I put it in a cast iron dutch oven with a ton of fresh and dried herbs, I wanted an intensely roasted and perfumed bird. Once done, I pulled the meat and made a decadent herbed chicken salad, perfect for our lunches during the week (Mark informed me promptly upon returning home for work, there was too much mayo, see what I mean?).

 I saved the carcass and tossed it back into the pot after sweating some mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery) with garlic and leeks. I used sherry to deglaze the base and added tarragon, thyme, bay leaf, sage, fennel seed, anise, rosemary and lots of black peppercorn before covering the bones with water and setting to boil. I let it cook for several hours, adding a bit of salt as I tasted along the way. The fragrant herbs filled my house with the most wonderful and comforting smell, and the hours of cooking lent the liquid a hue so dark I could barely see through. I allowed it to steep and cool covered overnight then strained it in the morning. The flavor was as intense as the color, the bay leaf and fennel adding smoky depth and floral highlights that I had not anticipated, but was delighted to achieve. I divided the pot in two and poured half into a silicone large format ice cube tray, the kind you would use for making single blocks for scotch or whisky. I carefully popped them in the freezer and saved the rest of the stock for later in the evening.

When I got home from work I pre-heated the oven and set a head of cauliflower on a baking tray. I brushed the entire thing with garlic powder infused olive oil and roasted it for nearly an hour. As it neared completion I started to char some leeks in the bottom of my soup pot. I added the reserved stock from the refrigerator as they started to brown. Once the cauliflower was roasted I dropped it carefully into the stock and covered with additional water. While that came up to a boil, I cleaned and chopped a celeriac bulb (celery root) and dropped it into a small sauce pan with a cube of stock and some water. The bracing scent, strikingly reminiscent of raw green celery, filled the kitchen as it mingled with the melting stock. I chose to add this ingredient based on a cherished family recipe Mark shared with me soon after we moved in together. I have been waiting for the chance to use it and to try my hand at creating culinary nostalgia, when I spotted one at the market last week, I just couldn’t resist.

I boiled both pots for close to an hour, letting them reduce significantly and cooking the cauliflower and celeriac to a point they could be broken apart by a spoon. Then I took my immersion blender to the once firm vegetables. Once pureed, I combined the pots and added a cup of cream and around ¾ cup of parmigiano reggiano (ok, maybe a little more). I blended until silky smooth. While I was roasting the cauliflower, I had also cleaned and chopped some cremini mushrooms and tossed them in the oven, covered in white truffle oil. I pulled them out after about  40 minutes after they had gained a golden brown glisten, the scent of the truffle taking over the kitchen. Once the soup was satin smooth and reduced to the point of sticking to the back of the spoon, I served the egg-shell colored cream in colorful bowls floating a few dark, rick, roasted mushroom slices on top. I finished with a pinch of sea salt and a generous twist of fresh ground pepper. The result was delicious. The earthy, charred and garlic infused cauliflower played perfectly with the slightly astringent celeriac. The complex and fragrant stock brought it all together with the salty finish of the parmigiano taking the decadence to just the right point. Mark LOVED it. His only critique was that it could use a little heat. As someone who over seasons nearly everything I make to the point that my brow sweats, this was an affirmation of my successful demonstration of restraint, and I was happy to pass him the cayenne.

Soup and relationship success.

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