Friday, October 31, 2008

Passionately Regressive

You know how it is: the chill of an October morning, the familiar stripes of your favorite sweater, the desire to come home from work or school and dig into a bowl of something hot and filling. This is such a bowl.

"Stuffed Peppers" was one of the first dishes I tackled after moving into my first apartment, when I was attending the University of Oklahoma. I had one cookbook then--The Betty Crocker Cookbook--and I spent hours poring over the recipes for something I felt I could manage, not having much experience in the kitchen up to that point. Ground beef? Check. Bell peppers? Fine. Rice? A little tricky, but I could try. And it worked out. It was good and, most importantly, I hadn't risked losing any pricey ingredients.

Fast-forward a few years. I don't find myself craving stuffed peppers per se, but I crave the time of the stuffed peppers--the times in your life when you're experimenting with everything, even life itself. I'm into soup now. It's time for Stuffed Pepper Soup.

I was a little skeptical of this recipe; it's so simple, after all. Could it please my decidedly adult palate? The answer's yes. The finished soup has a tomato-based broth, but it's not richly acidic like a tomato soup. You end up with a sort of brothy chili, or a stuffed pepper casserole gone swimming. Allspice was the surprise, to me--and I highly recommend it, or at least a substitution, if you don't have allspice on hand (see notes, below). The allspice pushes the flavor in the direction of the Mediterranean (think Moussaka), and the fresh basil gives the entire pot a dose of green. Rachel Ray gets kudos for this update on a classic American suburban dinner--orzo, Parmigiano, and all. Of course, she calls it a "stoup," but I'll forgive her that.

Stuffed Pepper Soup
from Just in Time by Rachel Ray

  • 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground sirloin
  • salt and black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 large onion, cut into bite-size dice
  • 3 green bell peppers, seeded and cut into bite-size dice
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 quart (4 cups) chicken stock
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 cup orzo (uncooked)
  • 12 to 15 fresh basil leaves, shredded or torn
  • grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to pass at the table

Heat a medium soup pot over medium-high heat with the E.V.O.O. When the oil is hot, add the beef and season with salt, pepper, and the allspice. Cook the meat for 5 minutes or until browned, then add the garlic, onions, peppers, and bay leaf. Cook for 7 to 8 minutes, until tender. Stir in the stock and tomatoes and bring to a boil. When the soup is bubbling, add the orzo and cook al dente, 7 to 8 minutes. Turn off the heat and fold in the basil. Discard the bay leaf. Serve in shallow bowls topped with some grated cheese.

Serves 4, according to her book, but it served us 7 times.

Notes: I had no allspice, so I used 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and about 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. French bread is a great go-with. A little extra heat (crushed red pepper flakes or Tabasco) works well.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Little Green

In honor of our nation's economic crisis and the first below-80-degree days of autumn in New Orleans, I offer you a smashing recipe for Split Pea Soup. I've made this recipe, from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, several times over the past ten years, and every time I make it, I'm astounded at how easily I forget that (a) it makes a LOT of soup for very little money, and (b) it's darn good.

This is also the kind of food that I crave after weekends filled with fried foods (it is football season, after all). You know how it is when your body aches for something un-fancy, natural, and legumed. You need some green--stat.

No ham? This recipe is meatless, and can be made with water instead of stock, which cuts costs considerably. I've made it before with a big ham hock thrown in at the start, with tasty results. But I honestly prefer the vegetarian version for its clear, earthy flavor.

8-qt. pot? You must have a pot that will hold at least 8 quarts of liquid to contain this recipe. Check the bottom of your pot for its capacity.

Unpeeled potatoes? Ina calls for the potatoes to be unpeeled, I think, for extra flavor and texture. I agree, but to a lesser extent. I usually use 6 potatoes and peel 3 of them.

Parker's Split Pea Soup

from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook

  • 2 cups chopped yellow onions
  • 1 Tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/4 cup good olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 cups diced carrots (a medium-sized dice)
  • 2 cups diced red boiling potatoes, unpeeled
  • 2 pounds dried split green peas (sorted and rinsed)
  • 16 cups chicken stock or water
  1. In an 8-quart stockpot on medium heat, saute the onions and garlic with the olive oil, oregano, salt, and pepper until the onions are translucent, 10 to 15 minutes.
  2. Add the carrots, potatoes, 1 1/2 pounds split peas, and stock or water. Bring to a boil, then simmer uncovered for 40 minutes. Skim off the foam while cooking.
  3. Add the remaining split peas and continue to simmer for another 40 minutes, or until all the peas are soft. Stir frequently to keep the solids from burning on the bottom. Taste for salt and pepper and serve hot.

10-12 servings(!)