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LEEK AND POTATO SOUP – VITA-MIX VERSION

My Vita-Mix is a new gadget that I have had a good time learning about. It is very efficient in chopping. Instructions call for using small volumes of food to chop. That is important because the chopped pieces are thrown against the sides of the container, and chopping stops before the food is turned into mush. That means that chopping large amounts of food requires several passes. That slows down the process, but still – 10 seconds to chop a cup of carrots is a remarkable efficiency. The big bonus is puréeing large volumes of soup into the smoothest dish one can imagine. You get to do both of those processes with the recipe for leek and potato soup. Actually, I think you could do the same thing with a food processor or an old-fashioned blender. For that matter, you could even use a knife and chop things by hand. But then it wouldn’t be as much fun.

RECIPE

Leek and Potato Soup

Ingredients

  • 3 large leeks, cut into 1 inch slices, white and pale green parts only
  • 1 large onion, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 5 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3 sprigs parsley
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon white pepper

Method

  1. Set Vita-Mix controls to Variable and speed 3. Fasten the lid with the center cap removed. Turn on the machine and by cupfuls, pour the cut-up leeks through the opening. Pulse 10 times. Turn off the motor. Transfer the chopped leeks to a bowl. Repeat the process until the leeks have all been chopped.
  2. Repeat the above steps to chop the onion.
  3. In a large pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leeks and onion, stir and cover. Sweat the vegetables until they are translucent but not browned, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the potatoes, chicken broth, cream, parsley, thyme, and bay leaf. Correct seasoning with salt and pepper. Use more if needed for taste. Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 4o minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through. Remove from the heat.
  5. Cool the soup mixture until it is easy to work with. Remove the parsley, thyme and bay leaf. Then, in three divided portions, add the mixture to the Vita-Mix container. Make sure the top and top are well seated on the container. With the settings on “Variable” and “8” speed, process the mixture for 30 seconds until it is smooth. Combine the three batches. Reheat, garnish with minced scallion greens or chives if desired, and serve immediately. You may also refrigerate and then serve chilled. Makes about 12 cups.
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CAJUN CRAWFISH BOIL – IN SILICON VALLEY??

Our children grew up in Louisiana, and now they all live in California.They still love authentic Creole and Cajun cooking, but it is definitely hard to come by in the Golden State. For the last several years, my son and his wife have tried to change that. Every spring – crawfish season – they have a backyard crawfish boil for their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and their families. As is usual with crawfish boils, it has become a bigger and bigger production each year.

As an aside, there is a strict Louisiana terminology for the crustaceans: crayfish are what you dissect in high school biology classes; crawdads are what you catch for fishing expeditions; crawfish are what you eat. Often the experience of the boil participants becomes evident depending upon what they call the main dish. In Louisiana, mudbug is a perfectly acceptable alternative term, but in other places, the name causes a bit of squeamishness.

In preparation for the party, my son has consulted  one of friends from Louisiana known for his crawfish cooking skills. Peter has read lots of recipes in cookbooks and online. Most importantly, he has identified a reputable and reliable source for authentic Louisiana mudbugs. Then, there is the ordering process to make certain that the crawfish are shipped at the right time and arrive as scheduled so that they are still lively. Crawfish season starts during the winter months. Then, the critters are small but with soft shells. By now, almost the end of the season, the crawfish are much bigger, but their shells are often hard enough that novice eaters have problems getting to the succulent tail meat.

When the date of the party is set, my son places his order with Louisiana Crawfish Company in Natchitoches, LA.  The crawfish cost from $3.50 to $6.00 a pound depending upon size and quality and how many you order.  (Crawfish cost 89 cents a pound for our first crawfish boil 40 years ago.)  At this point, the key question is always how many should you order? For a novice crowd, allow 1 pound per person. For crawfish fans, allow 2 pounds per person. For aficionados (just about everyone in Louisiana) allow 5 pounds per person. Remember, if there are leftovers – unlikely – you can harvest the tail meat and freeze it for crawfish étoufée at some later time.  Of course, there are overnight shipment expenses, so the cost for crawfish for an average-sized party will run to close to $300.

The next step is to plan the rest of the menu. There are some absolutely necessary items: ice-cold beer, corn on the cob, new potatoes, onions, ice-cold beer, and ice-cold beer. Then there are optionals: something to eat while you wait for the crawfish to cook, bread or corn bread, coleslaw, watermelon, and desserts. Guests usually volunteer to bring a dessert. By all means, take them up on their offer.

There are certain equipment requirements for  a successful boil. You will need a large plastic or galvanized tub to purge the crawfish before you cook them. A high temperature propane burner will get the water boiling as quickly as possible. You also need to have a very sturdy stand that will hold a very heavy pot of water. The largest cooking pot and lid that you can find – 50 gallons is common – will let you cook a good-sized batch at one time. Find a canoe paddle for stirring the pot. You will need a large strainer with handle in order to scoop out the crawfish and vegetables when they are cooked.  A table covered with newspapers  will hold a batch of food for guests to get to. With a genteel group, paper plates should be in abundance. For serious crawfish eaters, cardboard flats of the sort you get with cases of beer work better.

 

STARTING THE BOIL

Remember, it takes a lot of heat and a long time to bring 30-40 gallons of water to the boil, so start this step several hours before you plan on eating. If the water boils too soon, you can always turn the temperature down for a time. Light the fire on the burner and adjust it to a hot flame. Be sure to have enough propane. There is nothing worse than running out of propane in the midst of a boil.  Fill the cooking pot with water from your garden hose. You will probably need two people to lift the pot; one gallon of water weighs 8.35 pounds. Season the water with enough salt to taste briny – a cup or two should be enough. Add two lemons cut in half. Drop in two bags of Zatarain’s Crawfish and Crab Boil. If you can’t find the bags, a bottle of the liquid variety should be enough. If you want, you can add some paprika and chile powder.  With most orders, Louisiana Crawfish Company will include a container of their Creole seasoning. It is really not necessary to add any more seasoning to the water, because you’ll be sprinkling on the cooked crawfish.

PURGING THE CRAWFISH

The crawfish will arrive in large sacks with lots of ice packed around them. Since they are cold-blooded, the crawfish will be alive but not very lively. You need to wake them up in a tub of water to which you have added a goodly amount of salt – half a box should be enough. The salt will cause the crawfish to empty their alimentary tract, so the water will become very dirty looking. You can drain the water and do a second treatment until the water clears, but be sure to drain the water as the crawfish will die if left in the water. Pick out any crawfish that float to the surface of the water, as they have most likely died in transit. Alton Brown declares that there are better ways to accomplish this step, but hey, he’s from Georgia and not a real Cajun.

PREPARING VEGETABLES

While the water is heating and crawfish are purging, prepare the vegetables that will cook with the crawfish. Remove the husks  and silks of fresh ears of corn. Break each ear in half. Allow 1 to 2 ears per guest. If necessary, scrub baseball-sized red potatoes. If you can only find larger potatoes, cut them in half. Allow 1 to 3 potatoes for each guest. Remove the outer husk from golf ball to baseball sized onions.  Allow 1 to 2 onions for each guest.

COOKING

The water must be at a full boil when you are ready to cook. Add the onions and potatoes first, as they will take the longest to cook. After about 15 minutes, add crawfish and corn. Add enough that the guests already in line can get several. From time to time, stir the pot with your paddle. When you think the crawfish are done, around 15 minutes (just to be sure, the cook usually samples from time to time), snag one and test for doneness. When everything is cooked, use your strainer to retrieve everything and dup  it out on the newspaper-covered table. Sprinkle with chile powder or Creole seasoning. Then encourage folks to help themselves while you get ready for your next batch. If you want, you can increase the spiciness of subsequent batches by adding  chile powder or Creole seasoning as you start each batch. This is often a good idea if not everyone likes spicy crawfish, so by this technique, the first batches are not as spicy, and they get spicier as time goes on, to go with the ice-cold beer.

HOW TO EAT A CRAWFISH

Eating your first crawfish is a little intimidating, especially if you have never had instruction. It’s actually very easy: just pull the crawfish apart at the joint between the body and the tail; then pry open the first ring of the tail shell with your thumbnail, squeeze  the tail fan firmly between the thumb and index finger of your other hand; and the tail meat will slide into your waiting mouth. The process is not always that easy and smooth, but with a little practice you will be eating crawfish as fast as you can pull them apart,

More advanced eaters relish the little morsel of fat that stays in the thorax shell and will “suck the head” to extract the tasty treat.

CLEANING UP

In preparing a crawfish boil, you will wind up using a lot of heavily salted water. Never empty the leftover water on the lawn or in your flower beds or you will wind up with a yellow spot in the grass or dead peonies.

As to the shells, it is a good idea to station plastic-lined garbage cans around the yard.  Then, when the party is over, you can just tie up the bags and dispose of them. Be aware that there is nothing that smells as bad as day-old crawfish bodies, so dispose of them as quickly as you can. They do not make good compost.

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GOODBYE TEXAS – EAST TEXAS CASSEROLE

We recently had a wonderful family gathering with our children (their spouses didn’t attend) and some of our grandchildren. My wife’s family has had a beautiful farm in East Texas for over fifty years. Our children had spent many times during their growing-up years there, enjoying swimming, fishing, hiking. horse riding, and just generally having a good time. Now, because we all lived so far away and because travel to the fairly remote place was difficult and expensive, we decided to sell the farm. After we had accepted an offer on the farm, we needed to make one last visit to load up personal items and to enjoy the place for one last time.

It turned into a great family gathering when all of the kids found a few days to spare in their busy schedules. For nearly a week, people came and went, fished and hiked, laughed, sat in front of a camp fire, and ate some good food.

Our family has been lucky to have excellent cooks in many generations, so one of the best memories for all of us is the good food we have enjoyed on the farm: festive Thanksgiving dinners, fried catfish, fresh vegetables from the once-one-acre garden, and wild blackberries from the surrounding fields and woods. One meal that we all remember was a huge buffet that ladies of the church had prepared for a family gathering many years ago at a time of family sadness. The spread was lovingly prepared, but the most noteworthy dish was made by one of my late mother-in-law’s closest friends. I call it East Texas Casserole, but if you look for the recipe on the internet, you will find it called Redneck Casserole. I have changed the name because I would never call any of the gracious ladies of the church society rednecks. The dish is easy to prepare – one of those open the can and dump creations – and it gets uniformly good reviews on the web. You can prepare it in 30 minutes or so.

Most internet recipes call for grated Cheddar cheese, but to me that is not really authentic. For the real thing you will need to use Velveeta cheese food. I grew up on the stuff, and so did most other kids of that era, including my wife. The product has an interesting history which you can read about in great detail in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink edited by Andrew F. Smith (Oxford University Press, New York, 2007)

The short story is that two American cheese companies were looking for ways to prevent cheese from spoiling so rapidly and to store it at room temperature. A process was patented by Joseph L. Kraft in 1916. Tinned cheese was distributed to the troops in World War I (Remember Spam in World War II?) Eventually the two cheese companies agreed to share the patent and Velveeta made its brand-name appearance in 1928. Velveeta must contain at least 51% cheese (that’s why it is called cheese food) and will keep almost for eternity on a shelf at room temperature. These amazing properties are due to sodium citrate and, later, sodium phosphate among other preservatives. Subsequently Kraft brought out boxed macaroni and cheese in 1937, using a dehydrated version of Velveeta. Millions of boxes are sold each day, and it is discouraging to many mothers when their offspring prefer Kraft’s macaroni and cheese dinner to their carefully made from-scratch version.

RECIPE

EAST TEXAS CASSEROLE

Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 can (22 ounces) Bush’s barbecued beans
  • 1 package (8) hot dogs, sliced into ½inch rounds
  • 1 pound (about 2 cups) frozen tater tots
  • 8 ounces Velveeta cheese food, grated (chill the Velveeta in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to make it easier to grate)

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Heat a 2 quart cast iron skillet over medium heat.Add the diced onions and oil, stirring until the onions are translucent, but not browned, about 55 minutes. Remove from the heat.
  3. Stir in the canned beans and hot dog slices.
  4. Arrange the frozen tater tots on top of the mixture.
  5. Bake on the middle rack of the preheated oven until the tater tots are golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes.
  6. Remove the skillet from the oven, sprinkle the top with the grated Velveeta, and return to the oven for about 5 minutes. Then turn the heat off in the oven and continue to bake for a few minutes until the Velveeta is well melted. Serve immediately.

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(FAIRLY) QUICK SHRIMP CREOLE – CLEANING OUT THE FREEZER, PART TWO

One of the things I found in the freezer was a big plastic bag of vegetable scraps – carrot peelings, celery bottoms, onion skins and roots, bits of tomatoes – which I had been saving from a couple of months’ worth of cooking projects. For years I have made chicken stock from chicken parts and bones and beef stock from bone. But I never made my own vegetable stock until I picked up a tip from Sara Moulton on her television show, “Sara’s Weeknight Meals”. Save your scraps in the freezer, and when you have enough, put them in a pot, cover with water, and simmer for thirty minutes to an hour, cool, strain, and freeze into cubes to be used whenever you need vegetable stock. Works like the proverbial charm, and forms the beginning of today’s recipe.

The other thing I found in the freezer was a package of shrimp (21-30/pound size), and they became the inspiration and base for shrimp creole. In Louisiana, shrimp creole can be a simple country dish or a fancier version for company dinners and buffets. For that reason, some folks think it is just too complicated for a quick dinner. Too bad, because it is easy to make and fairly fast. This version took me about two hours to prepare, but that was because I was running around finding props and making images. You should be able to whip it up in a flat hour or so.  Served with cooked rice, this recipe should serve 2 to 4 persons.

Something you need to know before you start this recipe is that shrimp creole can be as piquant as you like. For family reasons, we don’t put much heat into Cajun and Mexican dishes, but if you enjoy heat, by all means use the hot sauce with abandon. For this dish – since it is from Louisiana – I suggest either Tabasco or Trappey’s.

RECIPE

Shrimp Creole

Ingredients

  • fresh or frozen shrimp (21-30/pound), shells on – allow 5 to 6 for each serving
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • 2 tablespoons bacon drippings
  • ½ large yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 scallions, chopped, including green tops
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/8  teaspoon ground bay leaf
  • ½ teaspoon ground thyme
  • 1½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce (optional or to taste)
  • 1 can (14 ounces) tomato sauce
  • 2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • juice of ½ lemon

Method

  1. Peel and clean the shrimp. Refrigerate the peeled shrimp until ready to add to the cooked sauce. Save the shells.
  2. Prepare shrimp stock by combining  the vegetable stock and shrimp shells in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 15 minutes. Strain. You should have about 1½ cups of shrimp stock.
  3. In a 4 quart stockpot, melt the bacon drippings over medium heat. Add the onions, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and sweat the onions for 5 minutes or until they are translucent.
  4. Add the scallions, celery, and green pepper, raise the heat again to medium and cook the vegetables until tender, about 10 minutes.
  5. Stir in the shrimp stock, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, salt, pepper, paprika, and optional Tabasco sauce. Bring to the boil for 5 minutes.
  6. Then add the tomato sauce and reduce heat to the simmer for 10 minutes or so.
  7. Add the chopped tomatoes and simmer just long enough until the tomatoes are softened
  8. Correct the seasonings, add the sugar and lemon juice. Then add the shrimp and stir them into the sauce until they are cooked and pink – no longer than 5 minutes.
  9. Serve immediately over cooked rice. Allow about ½ to 1 cup of rice for each serving.

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MEATLOAF! – OR – CLEARING OUT THE FREEZER

I have been doing almost all of our grocery shopping for over five years. In fact, my wife says that she no longer remembers her way around the aisles of our local supermarket.  My buying habits are different from those of my wife – not so different that she wants to resume the chore of shopping – but a little idiosyncratic. It may have come from our days of living in Utah, but I try to make sure that we have enough extras of just about everything so that we won’t run out in case of a natural disaster or the unannounced visit of all of our relatives.

On top of that, being a thrifty shopper, I take advantage of bargains, so when there is a toofer- one, or even better a three-for-one sale I can’t resist. One result of this practice is that our freezer has become packed with packages of meat, poultry, and fish.

Periodically my wife stacks all of the frozen goods on the kitchen counter and issues an ultimatum, “Get rid of all of this before you buy any more.” I am currently working under one of those early warning messages. Today’s recipe is the result of my efforts and is based upon my wondering about what to do with a package of ground turkey that has been languishing at the bottom of the freezer compartment for months. Part of the reason for that is that I am not a big fan of ground turkey. Another reason is that I can’t think of anything to make with it.

So, with some frozen ground beef that was also in the freezer, I decided to make meatloaf. Now I know that everyone who reads this blog is likely to have his or her own favorite meatloaf recipe, and I also know that most readers are looking for ways to make something fancy, exotic, complicated, or all of those things.

Sorry, I hope that you will bear with me on this one, because the meatloaf turned out pretty good – that meaning you couldn’t taste the ground turkey. The best part was that there was enough left over for cold meatloaf and ketchup sandwiches the next day. And after all, that’s the reason most folks make meatloaf in the first place.

RECIPE

Turkey/Beef Meatloaf

Ingredients

  • 2 thick slices French bread
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 jumbo eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon sriracha hot chili sauce
  • ½ medium yellow onion, chopped
  • ¼ cup finely minced parsley leaves
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ¼ teaspoon ground thyme
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground bay leaf
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 1 pound ground beef (85% fat)
  • 4 strips thick cut bacon

Method

  1. Tear the French bread into pieces and put in the bowl of a food processor. Process into coarse crumbs and then transfer to a large bowl.
  2. Add the milk to the bread crumbs and let stand for 5 minutes until the milk is completely absorbed.
  3. Stir in the eggs, ketchup, chili sauce,  onion, parsley, salt, pepper, garlic powder, thyme, bay leaf, and lemon juice.
  4. Then add the ground turkey and ground beef. With a large spoon or, better, your freshly washed and dried hands, mix the ingredients until they are well combined.
  5. If you are a perfectionist, brown a small ball of the mixture in a small hot skillet, taste, and correct the seasonings. If you are more casual, like me, pack the meatloaf mixture into a large (9x5x2½ inch) greased bread pan.
  6. Arrange the bacon strips on top of the meatloaf so that it is completely covered. You may have to cut the bacon strips into pieces to do that.
  7. Cover with foil and bake in the middle of an oven preheated to 300°F (150°C) for 1 hour. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove the foil and place the loaf under the broiler until the bacon is brown and crisp.
  8. Remove from the oven, cool for 5 minutes, cut into ½ inch slices, and serve.

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GREEN CHILE CHICKEN STEW

Our family has lived in the Southwest for so long that we have adopted many of its traditions. For years we have made tamales on Christmas Eve, and now that is also a tradition for our children and their families, regardless of where they live. Making tamales from scratch is fun, and the fresh, finished product always tastes better than even the best store-bought versions. Posole warms the body and the soul on a cold winter evening, and it is perfect for a family gathering on New Year’s Eve. Biscochos (in El Paso) or biscochitos (in Santa Fe) have to be homemade and – like the tamales – have to be made with lard to taste like the real thing. The crisp anise-flavored cookies compete with my grandmother’s anise-flavored German springerle when it comes to dipping into a cup of hot chocolate or a glass of milk.

Chicken thighs cooking in stock with vegetables

Green chile chicken stew is in a class by itself. A hot bowl always reminds me of long-ago lunches in the lodges at the top of the runs at Taos Ski Valley or Ski Apache in Ruidoso. Our kids always ask for it when they visit us in Santa Fe, and so we try to have a pot on the stove for them when they arrive from a long cross-country drive. Our usual recipe calls for a whole chicken and makes enough for a large group. This version is quick, but by cooking the chicken in stock along with vegetables the broth becomes especially rich. If you are in a hurry, just skip adding the vegetables. The recipe makes enough for four adults. It is ideal for the late evening arrival of tired travelers.

Ready for your choice of garnishes

RECIPE

 Ingredients

4 Cups chicken stock

4 chicken thighs

1 medium onion, cut in quarters

1 medium carrot, cut in thirds

1 stalk celery cut in thirds

1 handful fresh celery leaves

3 stems fresh parsley

12 whole peppercorns

1 Roma tomato

2 Tablespoons cooking oil

1 medium yellow onion, diced

4 ounces chopped green chiles

2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed

3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾ inch cubes

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

2 Tablespoons dried Mexican oregano, crushed

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

  1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, bring the chicken stock to the boil. Add the chicken thighs, onion, carrot, celery, celery leaves, parsley, and peppercorns. Continue to cook at a very low boil for about 45 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
  2.  About 10 minutes before the chicken is cooked, squeeze the Roma tomato into the stock and add the pulp.
  3.  Remove from the heat. Strain the stock into a container and allow to cool so that you can remove the fat that gathers on the top. Set aside.
  4.  Remove the skin and bones from the thigh meat, chop the meat into bite-sized pieces and set aside.
  5. Clean the pot and return it to the stove over a medium flame. Heat the oil, and then add the diced onions. Cover and sweat the onions for 5 minutes or until they are soft and translucent. Do not allow them to brown.
  6. Add the green chiles and minced garlic and continue to cook, uncovered. Stir frequently until the moisture has evaporated from the mixture. Add the flour and stir continuously for about 3 minutes so that the onions and chiles are completely coated and the flour has lost its raw taste.
  7. Add the strained, cooled chicken stock and cubed potatoes. Return to the boil, stirring frequently. Continue to cook at a low boil until the potatoes are soft and cooked through – about 20 to 30 minutes.
  8. Stir in the cumin, oregano, salt and pepper. Adjust the seasoning with more salt and pepper if needed and continue to simmer for 10 minutes.
  9. Add the chicken pieces, simmer for another 10 minutes, and then serve in large soup bowls along with your choice of garnishes.

Green chle stew with the garnishes our family likes

Garnishes

There are lots of traditional choices for garnish. We always like to pass bowls of chopped fresh cilantro leaves, thin-sliced, baked corn tortilla strips, grated Monterrey jack cheese, and diced avocados along with hot sauce for those who like their soup spicier. We also like to serve hot tortillas (corn or wheat) or cornbread fresh out of the oven.

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