The Healing Power of Soup

When I was little and felt sick – stomach sick, not head cold sick – my grandma used to make potato soup for me.  It mainly consisted of loads of starchy potatoes, salt and a bit of cream.  She said potato soup was the best medicine. It makes no sense in my grown-up mind to eat dairy when under attack from a stomach virus, but it always seemed to work then - and she had six kids so I know she knew what she was doing.

Recently, though, my husband had a head cold, so I decided to make a big pot of homemade chicken noodle soup. I’ve always heard it too was good medicine and make it often even if no one particularly needs a prescription. Sometimes I start with a mirepoix (sauteed carrot, onion, celery) and use my homemade stock and boneless, skinless breast or thigh pieces from the deep freeze for a quick pot or, when there is adequate time, simmer leg and thigh quarters all day, remove the skins and bones, separate the fat from the broth and go from there. Once in a while I like to add fresh cilantro and a dried Thai chili to switch it up a little. I add the chili in the beginning while all is simmering and the cilantro at the end to keep it a little fresh tasting. However I make it, I use garlic - and lots of it. I am a fresh garlic fiend and put it in almost everything. (Tried it w/ scrambled eggs once and it was…well, it just didn’t work.) 

For the soup, I put three leg/thigh quarters in a 10 quart stockpot, enough water to fill the pot halfway and twelve garlic cloves (yes, a whole dozen), and a couple teaspoons of dried thyme and sage and set it to simmer.  Four or five hours later, I pulled out the chicken and set it aside until it was cool enough to be handled easily, strained out the garlic, mashed and set it aside and separated the stock in my handy-dandy 4 cup Williams-Sonoma gravy separator. (I bought this one despite the price because I like the strainer top and the fact it is made of strong, shatterproof borosilicate glass - same stuff they use to make lab glass.)

Next I put the stock back into the pot along with the mashed garlic, three carrots and three stalks of celery cut thin with my Benriner Japanese Mandolin Slicer, 1/4 cup dehydrated onions, 1t fresh ground black pepper, 1t celery salt and kosher salt to taste, and the chicken (skin and bones removed).  Once the soup came to a boil, I added 1/2lb fusilli pasta and simmered until noodles and veggies are tender.   

Last thing is to serve up big bowls and enjoy.  Whether the health benefit of chicken soup is based on fact or fiction, I know a hot bowl of garlicy, peppery chicken soup makes me feel better. 

Spring into good eating!

Spring arrived this weekend while we were at the Highland County Maple Festival. It actually showed up precisely at 7:04am (EST) on Saturday, the 20th of March. Along with it came a few lambs, some daffodils and rain. Any other time I would lament having this much rain, but I do not begrudge the spring showers the important job they must do – and that is make my food grow!

I am fond of all the seasons and don’t really have a favorite weather-wise, but I absolutely LOVE spring for all the good eats that pop up from the rich, dark earth. After a winter of starchy root vegetables, I love a big plate of Spring Eats. I am a fan of fresh, local foods – especially produce – and eagerly await the last week of April/first week of May to make my first of many, many weekly trips to the local farms. During the spring and summer and even fall months, my dinner table is almost always topped with the bountiful harvest courtesy of area produce stands.

First up are spinach and spring onions which lend themselves nicely to several of my favorite Japanese dishes (Horenso no Goma-ae, for example). Next come the strawberries and peas. Yum! The strawberries rarely make it into any type of dish and are usually consumed immediately upon picking – a few right there in the field – although I did make a Really Good Strawberry Sorbet with a some last summer.

I also pick pounds and pounds of May peas as well as a bunch of crispy sugar snaps. Once home I like to lightly steam the sugar snaps and toss them with a little butter for dinner. Then I shell the May peas for blanching and freezing, once again finding myself nibbling on the little green sweeties.

Soon, the Hampton Roads chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local will begin to distribute their Spring Food Guide!  I can barely wait to see what other Spring Eats this area has to offer.  Find a chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local near you -

And, be sure and try these delicious recipes:  

Horenso no Goma-ae
• 1lb. fresh spinach, rinsed well
• 4T toasted sesame seeds
• 1T sugar
• 1.5T soy sauce
• 3T dashi

-Parboil spinach in ample, lightly salted water until just tender. Immediately rinse in cold water and let soak for ten minutes.
-Grind sesame seeds in mortar and pestle until half ground. Mix with dressing ingredients.
-Drain spinach and squeeze out excess water. Cut into 1” lengths, mix with dressing and enjoy!

A Good Cooker’s Really Good Strawberry Sorbet
• 1.5lbs strawberries washed, dried, topped and quartered
• 8 oz (by weight) honey
• 1 cup moscato wine
• 3/4 cup water

-Mix honey and wine and pour over strawberries in large jar or other airtight container ensuring berries are submerged.
-Stand at room temperature 6 hours.
-Pour into flat-bottomed 2qt dish and freeze until solid.
-Chop into chunks and puree in food processor. Slowly add 3/4 cup water until mixture is smooth and frothy.
-Return to dish and store in freezer 1-2 hours or freeze in ice cream maker.

MMMMaple syrup!

This weekend we are heading to the Highland County Maple Festival. People often think of Canada or, in the US, Vermont when they think maple syrup, but this delicious, natural sweetener can be produced in any place where maple trees grow – any place that has a periodic cold climate – including Virginia.


Maple water (sap), primarily from the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), is gathered when the sap is flowing. This phenomenon is induced by the cold nights and warm days of spring (February, March and April depending on the latitude and the weather). The science of syrup production is an intricate system of boiling, reducing, straining and grading. (Did you know it takes about ten gallons of sap to make one quart of syrup?!) The end result is always a rich and flavorful, sweet liquid gold ranging in shades (also known as grades) from a light to dark amber. I personally couldn’t care less about the grade – it’s all good to me.

I love maple anything – especially maple sugar candy - and have since I was a child. Please don’t even think about serving me that fake pancake syrup (Sorry, Aunt Jemima). I use real maple syrup on French toast, pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, and even dip my sage pork sausage in it. I add it to baked beans, sweet potato dishes, and other recipes I feel need a sweet but not sugary touch.

Last year when we went, both to eat fresh, warm maple doughnuts and to visit our friends who live there, the lady of the house suggested I try a spoon in my coffee instead of sugar. I was hesitant to mess with my morning java and didn’t take the plunge despite my affinity for mapleliciousness. Later at home, curiosity got the better of me and I gave it a try. It was superb!

Need an excuse for eating some maple syrup? Try my favorite French Toast recipe compliments of Alton Brown. The baking of the finished product is key to this dish. It is the only way I make French Toast now (I added vanilla and cinnamon to the custard):

• 1 cup half-and-half
• 3 large eggs
• 2 tablespoons honey, warmed in microwave for 20 seconds
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1/2 to 1 teaspoon cinnamon (depending on taste)
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 8 (1/2-inch) slices day-old or stale country loaf, brioche or challah bread.  Regardless of the bread it MUST be stale!
• 4 tablespoons butter

~In medium size mixing bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, eggs, honey, vanilla, cinnamon and salt. (I do this the night before.) When ready to cook, pour custard mixture into a pie pan and set aside.
~Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Dip bread into mixture, allow to soak for 30 seconds on each side, and then remove to a cooling rack that is sitting in a sheet pan, and allow to sit for 1 to 2 minutes.
~Over medium-low heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a 10-inch nonstick saute pan. Place 2 slices of bread at a time into the pan and cook until golden brown, approximately 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove from pan and place on rack in oven for 5 minutes. Repeat with all 8 slices. Serve immediately with warm maple syrup.


Meatless Minestrone

Friday was another meat-free day for the family, and I wasn’t feeling like another fish dish. While I was at the store, I spied a bin of very nice looking zucchini and started formulating a plan for dinner - I was going to make minestrone! I don’t know why I rarely think of making this traditional Italian dish - it's so easy and nutritious and everyone loves it. Minestrone is also very versatile - it can be meaty or meatless or use stock or be completely vegetarian.

Since the ingredients can be so varied depending on taste or by what is in season or available in the store or fridge, I started wondering about what makes minestrone minestrone. All the recipes I researched used beans and tomatoes along with a wide variety of vegetables. Still not satisfied, I pulled out my ever-useful Cook’s Illustrated yearbooks to see what they said.

On pages 6 and 7 of September 1998, I quickly found what I needed: Minestrone Deconstructed. According to CI, the word minestrone literally translates as “big soup,” and indeed is a hearty Italian soup suitable for a main dish especially when pasta or rice is added. It is composed of a balance of starchy veggies and “aromatic vegetables” which brings to mind the question – what exactly qualifies as an aromatic vegetable. I assume it is any pungent vegetable (onion, garlic, leek, celery, etc), but we all know what happened when we dare to assume…so I looked it up.

All information relating to “aromatic veggies” consistently pointed me towards a mirepoix of which I’ve written before (diced, sautéed combination of onions, carrots, and celery used predominantly in French cuisine.) I further learned the mirepoix’s Italian counterpart is known as a soffritto (means "sub-fried" or "under-fried" when literally translated - in other words, sautéed). And, unlike the mirepoix which is always onions, carrots and celery (usually of a 2:1:1 ratio), a soffritto varies by region. Northern Italy typically uses an onion, celery, carrot combo while the southern regions use onions and garlic. Also unlike a mirepoix, which is typically sautéed in butter (those French really seem to love their butter), a soffrito uses olive oil, of course.

The Cook’s Illustrated recipes uses leeks, carrots, onions, and celery as the aromatics and potato, zucchini, and spinach as the starches along with tomatoes, cannellini beans, basil pesto and Parmesan rind (for flavor and creaminess).

CI also lists these recommended alternatives: kale, Swiss chard, savoy cabbage or escarole in place of the spinach, fava beans or peas in place of the white beans, and green beans, tasty turnips, cauliflower, or winter squash (such as butternut) in place of zucchini or potato.

Here is how I made my minestrone:

~3 medium carrots diced, 1 small onion (diced fine), 5 cloves garlic (smashed) sautéed in 2T extra virgin olive oil
~Add in order: One 28oz can diced tomatoes and one tomato can of water, 29oz can light red kidney beans and 29oz can garbanzo beans (undrained), small bunch kale (chopped) and medium zucchini (diced), small piece of parmesan rind and salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.
~Simmer until veggies are tender.
~Add 4oz dry macaroni and more water as necessary to prevent soup from becoming too thick. Stir every few minutes until pasta is done.
~Serve topped with fresh grated parmesan and enjoy!

Magic Mushrooms

Every year when we make our annual pilgrimage to Philadelphia, we set aside time to go to Krakus Market – a Polish grocery and restaurant. (  We eat a huge lunch, ordering way too much food – perhaps some Golabki (stuffed cabbage rolls), Bigos (a meaty stew), Placki (potato pancakes), and Borscht (beet soup). It is just so good and so rare for us to get up there (or to Hamtramck) that we typically stuff ourselves. Before we leave, we hit the grocery store and stock up, so I can cook some authentic Polish food when we get back home.

Tonight was one of those nights that I felt compelled to dig into my stash and make a Polish feast! I grabbed a pack of Adamba Polish Style Cabbage Soup mix for a starter along with a Silesian Style Potato Dumpling Mix. (I know I don't usually use mixes but I can't resist trying something new like these)

Then, I spied the container of dried Polish wild mushrooms staring out of the pantry shelf at me. I have never cooked with these before – ever – but noticed every single Polish grocery and deli we visited (both in Philly and Michigan) had copious rows of the expensive, funky dried brown mulch looking things, and eventually bought a 3.5 ounce jar of the intimidating Polish Borowiki. These highly prized and most popular of the edible Polish mushrooms are carefully picked in the forests of Poland and dried for later use. They are essential to many Polish dishes including mushroom soup, mushroom pierogi and Hunter’s stew (Bigos).

I briefly considered cream of mushroom soup but already had the cabbage soup thing going, so I hit the internet. Amazingly enough, I found a website called  There, I discovered a recipe featuring the "mulch" and some chicken breasts. It sounded good and relatively simple, so I got out my cast iron skillet and got to cookin’. First, though, I had to soak the mushrooms in warm water for 30 minutes.  And, just like magic, the mulch plumped up into recognizable mushroom-looking pieces.  Amazing. 

The end result was a plate loaded with tender chicken coated with a rich, thick and delicious mushroom laden sauce, the Silesian dumplings, a bowl of cabbage soup and a side of sauerkraut left over from the German style ribs I cooked Sunday (pork ribs rubbed with onion salt, fresh ground black pepper, garlic powder and paprika laid on a bed of sauerkraut, sealed in a foil package with a bottle of amber ale and baked at 275 for about 4 hours until the meat fell off the bones).

No longer will I be scared of dried Polish wild mushrooms though the price I paid is terrifying enough.

Try the recipe – it was delicious!

Polish Chicken and Wild Mushrooms
• 4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves (cut into halves for a total of 8 pieces)
• 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
• salt and ground black pepper to taste
• 1T butter
• 1T olive oil
• 1oz dried Polish wild mushrooms (soaked for 30 minutes in warm water and drained but not squeezed)
• 1.5 cups vegetable stock
• 1 teaspoon cornstarch
• 1t dried parsley
• 1/2t garlic powder
• ground black pepper

1. Season flour with salt and pepper. Dredge chicken in seasoned flour. Lay onto a sheet of wax paper. In a nonstick pan (I used my cast iron), combine the oil and butter or margarine and heat over medium high heat. Add chicken and cook until lightly browned on both sides and cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove chicken and set aside.

2. To the same pan, add the mushrooms and sauté for about 5 minutes. Combine the water, stock, cornstarch, parsley, garlic powder, salt and pepper and add to the pan. Cook, stirring frequently, until liquid is thickened.

3. Return chicken to the pan and cook until chicken is heated through. Serve.

Beyond Pineapples and Poi

Very soon I will return to Hawaii for a couple weeks of vacation. Some people go for the sun and the beaches and the soft tropical breezes. While I deeply enjoy these, especially the sweet scented air that wafts to your nose the second you step off the plane, I also go for the food.

Hawaiian food, or should I say the food you can get in Hawaii is like none other. Two scoops of Polynesian blended with a side of Korean and a dash of Japanese best describes much of the food there. An excellent example of this is the traditional “plate lunch” usually served with a scoop of potato-mac (just like it sounds - potato and macaroni salad with tons of mayo), steamed white rice, and a main meat like kalbi (Korean marinated and grilled beef short ribs) or chicken katsu (pounded thin, breaded and fried chicken cutlet akin to the Japanese tonkatsu). 

Plate lunch can be found about anywhere in Hawaii – in a strip mall, at a roadside stand or from a lunch wagon at a local surf contest. A popular place to get plate lunch has found its way to the mainland in the form of L&L Hawaiian BBQ (called L&L Drive-in or just L&L in Hawaii). Check out this eye candy:  

I mentioned my love of Spam in a previous post. Well, Hawaii is a good place to get my fix. (mmmmm…Spam musubi) Several stories try to explain Hawaii’s love of Spam. Regardless of which one you believe, Spam is everywhere – even on the McDonald’s menu. Mainland has its Big Breakfast, but Hawaii has its Spam, Eggs and Rice. Oh…and Portuguese sausage Eggs and Rice! I love Portuguese sausage! Last time when we flew back, I packed about 6 long links in my luggage (two spicy and four regular).

Another favorite, and the one my husband is most looking forward to, is the huli-huli chicken. Any given weekend, someone somewhere is cooking huli-huli – probably for a fundraiser. Look for the smoke and head towards it. You will probably end up in a grocery store parking lot waiting in a line of cars for your share. Just drive up when it’s your turn, hand the man your money and get a whole crispy, juicy, salty, messy, delicious rotisserie-style chicken (or two) in a bag. You better have some napkins though, because most people start eating in the car.

Now, everyone has their secret marinade recipe containing some mixture of shoyu (soy sauce), pineapple juice, brown sugar, ginger, garlic and more, but I have been using the Aloha Barbeque Sauce for close to twenty years and love it. The problem is getting it back home. One time I put a gallon bottle in my carry-on. You should have seen the local Hawaiian dude at customs when he saw it. He laughed out loud and said, “Don’t leave home witout it, eh?!” and passed me on through inspection.  Last time security restrictions prevented me from that method, so I bought several quart bottles, double zip-locked them, put them in the checked bag (along with two five-pound bags of Hawaiian sea salt and some NOH Hawaiian Poke mix) and said a prayer. The huli-huli gods must have been smiling on me, because all the bottles made it home without leaking.

So, if you get a chance to go to Hawaii, skip the tourist luau and hit some of the local eateries. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. Oh, and would you stop by 7-11 and bring me back some ginger cookies from the Hawaiian Candy Company? Please? 

Spawn of Good Cooker

The girl's got it!  My kids apparently inherited the cooking gene.  Today my oldest asked me if she could make cookies, and I said yes.  In fact, I decided to stand back and let her do it all by herself (short of zesting the lemon which I explained to her as I zipped off the fragrant, citrus oil filled yellow rind stopping just short of the bitter white pith - with my new Microplane grater - of course). 

While I have not actively taught her to cook, she is always hanging out in the kitchen watching me, so I thought I'd let her show me what she's got.    

She picked out her recipe from my Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook (a great book of basics and probably my first cookbook ever, purchased shortly after I married, with so many pages stuck together by a variety of samples - which is how I find my favorites), then laid out her ingredients and got to work.  After a brief struggle with the bulky green KitchenAid mixer, she was off.   

The result was probably one of the best lemon cookies I have ever tasted, and I consider myself a lemon connoisseur.  As a lemon lover, I often buy this tart fruit just because I like the smell.  There is nothing like a big bowl of plump, juicy lemons to both brighten up and freshen up a room.  Given a choice between a chocolate and lemon sweet, I will most certainly choose the lemon.  

What I liked best about her cooking endeavour and what leads me to believe she is a Good Cooker in the making is the fact that, after eating a few lemon cookies, she pondered making the same recipe but using limes or oranges or even a lemon-lime combination.  

I guess I should let her loose in the kitchen more often.  Who knows what she will come up with.  Oh, and I think I'll go get some limes!

Try the recipe.  It is quite yummy.  

Lemon Tea Cookies
1t lemon zest
2t fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/3 c milk  
1/2 c butter
1 3/4 c ap flour
3/4 c sugar
1 egg
1t baking powder
1/4t baking soda

1/4 c sugar
2T fresh squeezed lemon juice

Stir 2t lemon juice into milk. Let stand 5 minutes. Beat butter on medium high for 30 sec. Add 1/2 flour, 3/4 c sugar, egg, baking powder, soda, zest and milk mixture. Beat until thoroughly combined.  Beat in remaining flour.

Drop by rounded teaspoons 2" apart on parchment.  Bake 350 for 10-12 minutes or until edges are slightly browned.  Cool cookies on wire rack.  Stir together 1/4 c sugar and 2T lemon juice, brush on cookies.  Eat and enjoy!