Monday, August 23, 2010

Cream of Poblano Soup... A Perfect Late-Summer Starter

I love all that summer has to offer. Each and every year I eagerly anticipate its arrival, joyfully settle into its long sun-kissed days, and hold it tight as it slowly tumbles into fall. And yet, I still crave a good, warm soup.

It's no secret that I am a soup-kind-of-girl.

In the cooler months, my soup pot works on overtime simmering great, hearty soups filled to the brim with lots of chunky, fresh ingredients... I can already hear them calling my name. And yet, loyal to the fleeting nature of our short-lived summers, I make a concerted effort to silence their pull for there is much to love about a great summer soup!

Summer soups, in my opinion, work beautifully if they headline a garden-fresh flavor -- whether its tomatoes or zucchini, carrots or corn -- it's all about letting that one veggie shine. And, surprisingly, most of these headliners perform equally well served up cold or warm.

This particular soup features the poblano chili, a fairly modest pepper that is at its best in summer; a relatively mild chili, yet one that still delivers a subtle little zing of spicy flavor. This is an elegant, light, creamy soup that incorporates just a hint of other summer-fresh veggies that offer a wonderful layering of flavors that make their presence known yet still allow the poblano to steal the show. It's a great soup to serve up as summer starts to ebb, letting warm days settle into cooler nights -- perfect conditions to begin with a warm soup, followed by a great salad, and then something hot off the grill.

The original inspiration for this soup came from a recipe that appeared in the Los Angeles Times newspaper over 20 years ago! Yikes! It's one of the very first clippings I ever saved so it holds a bit of a nostalgic place in my array of recipes. The fact that it's been in my repertoire this long says much about its delicious flavor. It does have a bit of a bite... though not one that's a can't-feel-my-tongue-or-taste-my-food bite. It's that great zip that makes you clear your throat, but entices you to take another spoonful... after spoonful... after spoonful. My feeling is that if you are going to have a warm starter... make it memorable!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pantry Pasta -- Whole Wheat Fusilli with Artichokes, Garbanzo Beans, Fresh Spinach, and Tomatoes

In addition to the bulging binders of clipped recipes that patiently await their time in the spotlight, the stack of cooking magazines that I've creatively hidden behind a wing chair to limit their continual reminder that they need to be tended to and purged, and the line-up of cookbooks I've collected and are at various points of familiarity to me, I've always liked to just kind of shoot from the hip -- to pull dinners together with whatever I've got available in the pantry (or fridge). I figure the years I've spent looking at, reading, and mulling over recipes have enabled and inspired this in me... even if it has also hindered me getting through my piles!

These quick and easy dinners usually take the form of a salad, a soup, or a pasta. They're usually meatless meals that I can have on the table in under 30 minutes (thought to finish) and can make from whatever is in my pantry... or fridge. To do this requires having a consistent staple of items that you know will be available. The canned goods are easy... no worry of spoilage. The fresh items might seem more difficult to rely on but if you know what you love and what you'll use...and how to work whatever it is into other meals... nothing goes to waste. In this particular dish, I use fresh spinach. I always have this in my fridge... it goes in salads, in soups, in pastas, in sandwiches, or even pesto.

I threw this pasta together a couple of months ago on one of those let's-just-get-something-on-the-table kind of nights and have made it a few times since...including an impromptu dinner at the home of friends when it decided to rain in August (!!!) and nix our plans for a boat ride and dinner out. I raided my girlfriend's pantry and had this on their table in 20 minutes. Lots of laughs, good music, great wine, yummy munchies...a quick pasta and a little dancing...and we soon forgot about the boat and the rain!

The great thing about this pasta is you just feel like you're getting a little bit of all that's good for you. The garbanzo beans truly give the "meaty" substance you might want in a pasta. And the artichokes, onions, garlic, spinach, and tomatoes provide all the background you'd ever need to ensure it's a tasty one.

I offer this up, quite selfishly, for our daughters. It's again that time of year when we say "goodbye." You'd think I'd be rather good at this since we've now experienced six straight years of saying adios...good luck with the semester (or quarter, depending on the institution), be safe, be smart... etc... etc. We are now at the end of this process. The last of our offspring will graduate this year.

The thing is... in addition to getting my recipes together for our girls... I'm also working to ensure that they have what they need to eat well... whether they are three hours away by car (and thankfully employed and blossoming), or five hours away by plane and soon-to-find-her-way. We have loads of recipes we've loved... thus the reason for this blog... but we also have two girls that need to get meals on the table quick, easy... and somewhat economically. So... this little "pantry pasta" is offered to you sweet girls. Be happy... be safe... be smart ... and, above all, know you are loved!!!

Cheers to another summer!

Whole Wheat Fusilli Pasta with Artichokes, Garbanzo Beans, Fresh Spinach and Tomatoes
serves 4

1 16-ounce package whole wheat fusilli pasta
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 14-ounce can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1 12-ounce jar marinated artichoke hearts, roughly chopped (reserve marinade for later)
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, with italian seasoning (28-ounce can if you want more tomatoes)
1 teaspoon italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
oil from marinated artichoke hearts (if you used artichoke hearts canned in water, add about 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil and additional seasoning)
3 ounces fresh spinach, roughly chopped (I used about 1/2 to 3/4 of a 6-ounce bag)
2 ladles of pasta water
kosher salt, to taste (pasta water, oil from marinated artichokes, and tomatoes will add some saltiness)
shredded parmesan cheese (for serving)

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook for approximately 9 to 11 minutes, until al dente. Reserve two to four ladles of pasta water before draining pasta. Set aside.

2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat, add onions and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and continue cooking for another 1 to 2 minutes. Add in garbanzo beans and cook for 1 minute. Add artichoke hearts, continue cooking for another minute. Add in canned tomatoes, oil from marinated artichokes, and seasoning. Mix in fresh spinach and cook until just wilted, about 1 to 2 minutes. Ladle in pasta water to loosen (more or less than 2 ladles, as needed). Season with additional salt and pepper, to taste. Serve sauce over pasta and top with shredded parmesan cheese.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Summer Gazpacho

Gazpacho is a quintessential summertime soup, loaded with a healthy bounty of all that is ripe and delicious this time of year -- kind of like having a bit of your vegetable garden served up on a spoon. If you have a sassy garden, that is. And...of course...a spoon that's chilled!

The base of a great gazpacho begins with tomatoes... in this case, fresh and canned. So... if you love tomatoes, then this is a summer soup for you. We do happen to love tomatoes. A piping hot tomato-basil soup served up in the winter? Perfection. A fresh, flavorful panzanella salad? bread! A simple caprese salad? cheese! (Or, even a spicy, brunch-time Bloody Mary! vodka, hiccup). It's really just about a tasty tomato... dressed up and delivered.

This particular gazpacho incorporates a bit from all of these favorites (yes, bread...and even elements of the Bloody Mary... sans the alcohol) to produce a refreshing and satisfying layer of flavors. Tomatoes, cucumber, celery, basil, parsley, and fresh lemon juice give it a wonderful, authentically fresh veggie base. The bell peppers and carrot provide just the right natural sweetness, making it unnecessary to add any sugar. And, the fresh garlic, white wine vinegar, tabasco, worcestershire, cayenne, and olive oil provide just the right medley of seasoning to enhance this soup's rich, slightly sassy bite, without overpowering the mix.

While many gazpachos begin with tomato juice and/or fresh tomatoes, I blend a can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes with a few fresh tomatoes to get the base of the soup started. I just think they offer more flavor than a simple tomato juice would. Then everything gets roughly chopped and dropped into the processor to blend. Once it's well blended, you just pop it into the fridge to chill for at least two to three hours... or even overnight. It's that easy!

The great thing about a good gazpacho, apart from its refreshing flavor, is it can be served up as an elegant, simple luncheon soup or a light dinner; or even as a fun appetizer/starter, slurped from a glass while you mix and mingle (something like this);

The fact is that it presents so beautifully -- simple, yet elegant -- and then, once tasted, let's you know that it's really just a sassy-little-chilled-veggie-bonanza-on-a-spoon sort of soup. (How fun to be gazpacho!)

Summer Gazpacho
serves 4 to six

1 28-ounce can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
1 cucumber, unpeeled (keep a 1/3 aside to finely dice and lightly peel, if you like some chunk in your soup)
3 large tomatoes (again, keep one aside to dice and add to your soup once blended if you want additional chunkiness)
1/2 large red onion
1 red bell pepper
1/2 green bell pepper
3 garlic cloves, smashed
2 stalks celery
1/2 cup fresh chopped flat leaf parsley
10 to 12 leaves fresh basil
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 to 8 drops tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
2 slices whole grain bread (soaked and then squeezed to remove water)

suggested toppings:
diced avocado
fresh white corn
chopped cilantro
chopped hard-boiled egg

1. Place two slices of bread in a shallow dish, add water to soak. Set aside.

2. Place canned, crushed tomatoes in processor and blend, until liquified. Pour mixture out into a large glass bowl. Set aside.

3. Once bread has soaked (5 minutes or so), remove it from water and squeeze each slice well to remove all retained moisture. Set aside.

3. Roughly chop cucumber through basil and begin adding vegetables to processor in batches to blend. (note: if you like your soup to have a bit more chunkiness, set aside 1/3 of the cucumber and 1 tomato to dice and add to mixture once blended.)

4. Chop garlic cloves and then smash it into a pulp with the side blade of your knife, using a sprinkle of salt to help break it down. This will amplify the potency of the garlic a bit but it also ensures that it will mix in thoroughly with your soup. (If concerned about garlic flavor, omit one clove). Add to processor.

4. Add remaining ingredients, through bread, to processor. Process in pulses to ensure all ingredients are well blended and incorporated. Add mixture to puréed tomatoes in bowl. Mix well, cover and chill for three hours, or overnight.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Mexican Shrimp Ceviche Cocktail

This is an easy shrimp ceviche that has a great, south-of-the-border medley of flavors and just enough spicy pop (and presentation pizzazz) to warrant a solo performance as a pre-dinner appetizer. Unlike what many might consider a traditional ceviche, however, this one calls for using just a little heat to cook the shrimp... rather than relying solely on a citrus bath.

In most traditional ceviches, the seafood of choice is "cooked" in a bath of citrus juices (usually lemon and/or lime) until it firms up and becomes opaque. Depending on the type and cut of fish, this process can take anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours...or even overnight...and will essentially "cook" the fish, though it won't kill bacteria like heat will so it's especially important in this method that your seafood is fresh, fresh, fresh.

For this particular ceviche, though I don't recommend skimping on freshness, I do blanch the shrimp for just a few minutes in boiling water that's been infused with a bit of lime juice. It just speeds up the process, gives me a little peace of mind, and I think also helps to maintain the texture of the fish. It's a quick little dip and then they are off to marinate in some fresh lime juice for no more than an hour. This way they get the benefit of that great lime tang without having to sit in an extended bath... which can overpower their flavor if left too long.

While your shrimp marinates, you can prep the rest of your ingredients so they're ready at hand when you want to serve this up. It's super easy... everything comes together in one bowl for a quick toss. You can serve it up immediately, or keep it chilled in the fridge... adding the freshly diced avocado to the mix just before you plate up.

Apart from the marinade time, this dish is super quick (and easy) to pull together... making the thought of what to do for appetizers kind of a no-brainer. It's one solo performer that will easily outshine a tabletop of everyday munchies.

Mexican Shrimp Ceviche Cocktail
serves 4
Again, many of my clipped recipes are devoid of dates or sources but I believe this is from an old Cooking Light magazine. While that recipe called for a pound of medium shrimp, I calculate at least 4 or 5 large shrimp per person. In addition, I've ramped up the heat factor a bit, and added in a few more ingredients to lend this ceviche its great south-of-the-border flavor.

6 cups water
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice, divided
16 to 20 large, uncooked, cleaned and de-veined shrimp

1/3 chopped white onion, rinsed and drained
1 cup chopped English cucumber
1 seeded and chopped jalapeño pepper (more or less depending on your heat preference)
1/3 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons Mexican hot sauce (more or less depending on your heat preference)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt (more to taste, if necessary)
1 avocado, diced
fresh lime wedges.

1. Set a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Once boiling, add 1/4 cup of the lime juice and all the shrimp. Boil for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat, rinse with cold water, and drain.

2. Transfer shrimp to a large bowl and toss lightly with remaining 1/2 cup of lime juice. Cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge to marinate for 1 hour.

3. Rinse and drain chopped onions. Combine onions with cucumber, jalapeño, red pepper, and cilantro. Add ketchup, hot sauce, and olive oil. Toss lightly to combine. Season with salt. If ready to serve, add fresh diced avocado, and toss lightly to combine. Portion out ceviche to individual serving dishes, careful to have 4 to 5 shrimp in each dish, and garnish with fresh lime wedges.

Note: I've packed up this appetizer to-go on many occasions. Simply nestle your serving dishes in a bed of crushed ice set in a large pan or tupperware-like dish. Place the pan/dish in the freezer to keep until you are ready to transport your appetizer. Then, when ready, fill your dishes, cover with wrap... and go!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Lemon-Blueberry Cake

This is one of those deceptively simple cakes that delivers on all the levels that a good cake should. It's kind of like a little-black-dress-of-cakes cake. It's simple, yet elegant. There's not a lot to it, but it makes a statement. And it can easily go from day to night... dressing up a breakfast brunch just as nicely as it would the end of a late-night meal.

It's easy... a couple of bowls, some measuring gadgets, and one pan (more on that later). Then into the oven, out to cool, and drizzled with a simple, lemony glaze. It's generously dotted with summer-sweet, plump blueberries that taste like they've been plucked fresh from the garden. And it's super moist and lemony, with ample amounts of yogurt, lemon zest, and lemon juice in the batter so you really get that hit of truly fresh lemon flavor... not just a nudge.'s a bundt cake. I didn't put that little tidbit in the title for fear I might lose you at "bundt" (though I am aware that the pic does disclose this little fact). I suppose you could make it in most any pan you like, but putting aside whatever 60's image you might have of bundt cakes, it truly works here. Think of it as vintage... that's very "now," right?

The fact is, the bundt pan is made for this particular cake as it really showcases the glaze you drizzle atop...letting it cascade down both the outside and inside of the cake, collecting in the little recesses that only this shape allows, dripping on to your platter here and there in little white pools. It's the only part of this little-black-dress-of-cakes cake where more IS better. So feel free to double your batch and slather it on... let it drip down your fingers if you must. Like that of which this cake reminds me, it wears well.

Lemon-Blueberry (Bundt) Cake
adapted from a Cooking Light recipe (date unknown)
yields approximately 16 slices

No-stick cooking spray
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

3 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick), softened
2 tablespoons fresh lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
16 oz. plain- or vanilla-flavored Greek yogurt (both are equally good)
2 cups fresh blueberries

glaze: (I start with this amount, but usually make more... maybe 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup extra powdered sugar and sufficient juice to blend)

1-1/2 cups powdered sugar
4-5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Prep bundt pan by spraying with no-stick cooking spray and dusting with 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar. Set aside.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir with a whisk to mix well. Set aside.

3. In another large bowl, mix 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar, butter, and zest at medium speed, until well blended (about 1 to 2 minutes).

Add eggs, one at time, mixing well after each addition. Beat in vanilla and yogurt. Once well combined, begin adding in flour mixture, at medium speed until all is incorporated. Gently fold in blueberries and spoon batter into bundt pan.

4. Bake at 350 degrees F. for approximately 1 hour, until a wooden tester inserted in center comes out clean. Cool cake, in pan, on wire rack for 15 minutes, then transfer cake to rack to cool completely.
5. While cake is cooling, prepare glaze by combining powder sugar with fresh lemon juice, stirring well with a whisk. Once cake is completely cooled, drizzle glaze over cake.