Monday, November 21, 2011

Ever-So-Simple Cranberry Sauce

I have a mission. It's a quiet little mission... a simple little culinary-sort-of-mission... nothing really daunting or overwhelming. In fact, it is entirely miniscule in the grand scheme of life, but oh-so-transforming to a holiday feast.

It's a personal little mission about cranberry sauce (or lack thereof).

Given the number of people I know that still slide their cranberry sauce out of a can in one solid mass, replete with the imprinted lines of the tin, I am convinced (by experience and not pure emotion), that many perform this ritual from habit alone... few even partaking in the sugar-sweet, gel-like concoction.

I understand and respect tradition if it's something held dear... tried and true. I love that there are scores of different camps you can turn to on how best to serve up a golden, juicy and crisp-skinned turkey; silky smooth mashed potatoes; flakey biscuits; or, a flavorful stuffing that takes bread to a whole new level of experience. I respect the fact that there are legions of folks, for example, that lovingly dot their sweet potato bake with a snow-like scape of tiny little marshmallows; or that there are whole camps that profess a genuine love of the canned green bean/mushroom soup/dried onion casserole. On both these fronts, I respectfully remain silent. However, when it comes to pulling cranberry sauce from a can, I feel compelled to offer an alternative that is just as easy and quick, deliciously tart and subtly sweet, and so much fresher and pleasing to the palate than anything out of a can could possibly be. It's not a grand discovery. It's something that has been around... and around... in some form or another. I believe it must be something that is assumed to be difficult. And yet, it's so very easy... it's hardly a recipe.

So this is my little mission...

Buy a package of fresh cranberries in the produce department of your neighborhood market and invest 10 minutes time. A few days before the big day (or a whole week prior), heat up some water, and toss those cranberries in with a little sugar, some fresh apple and pear, and a bit of fresh orange zest and juice, and be fully prepared to wholeheartedly convert from that canned mass to a fresh relish on this holiday... and every one hereafter.

Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup {with Red Pepper, Apple, Red Onion, Jalapeño, Curry & Toasted Pepitas}

The hardest thing I encountered in making this soup was coming up with a simple title. It's not really just a Roasted Butternut Squash Soup... as all of its components play such an important role in its success. It's more of a Sum-of-Its-Parts sort of soup. (Now that sounds enticing.)

It was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend last week after a late afternoon walk on what was probably the prettiest day of fall.

She was having leftovers for dinner, namely a butternut squash and red pepper soup. I liked the idea of combining those two flavors. Thinking of a soup I posted a while back, I decided to include a bit of apple for sweetness... and, of course, red onion. I tend to include red onion now whenever I roast butternut squash. I love how it sweetens up and chars just a bit, mellowing its bite so that it melds more fluidly with the squash without overpowering it.

Believing that both the red pepper and red onion would work to ground the soup, and the apple would impart a lighter note, I wondered how a jalapeño pepper might contribute. Seeded and cored I knew it wouldn't be too hot. And, once roasted, would likely give the soup a subtle, smoky undertone of flavor.

Everything gets tossed onto a sheet pan, drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper and popped into the oven to roast for 20 to 25 minutes. I'll admit here that I accidentally grabbed a bottle of balsamic vinegar instead of olive oil and drizzled about a tablespoon of it over the veggies before I realized my error. Though I don't think you can pinpoint this flavor in the soup, I think it's a mistake I'll make again... not wanting to mess with a good thing. I also sequestered the chopped jalapeño off to one corner of the sheet pan, not fully committed to using it. However, about half way through roasting I knew it would make the cut. Given the amazing aroma it was adding to the mix, there was no denying the flavor it would provide.

The greatest thing is everything comes together in minutes... especially since I bought a container of pre-diced fresh squash. After a quick chop and roast, it's virtually done.

Once out of the oven, the whole lot gets dropped into a food processor, along with two or three cups of vegetable broth to help get it all broken down. Then, once fully puréed, you just transfer it to a large pot set over medium heat, add the remaining broth, and warm it through.

Wanting just a little extra something, I added a good teaspoon of curry powder into the soup. This last little addition is what put it over the top for me. It gave it just the right sweet-savory balance... with an added little kick of warmth. Not a wallop, just a good little pop that gets your attention in the nicest of ways. Then some toasted pepitas sprinkled over top add a perfect little nutty crunch.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Baked Taquitos filled with Baby Red Potatoes and Caramelized Onions... Topped with Tomato-Avocado-Cilantro Salsa

There's absolutely no hiding the fact that a quick dip in a vat of hot oil does something sinfully good to a host of different foods. Think classic French fries, beignets, fried chicken, tempura. These are all super tasty treats and, if not for concerns of heart or heft, foods I'd gladly partake in... and, often. Truth be told, if there were no consequences whatsoever, I'd probably deep fry my morning oatmeal. However, being one that profiles more along the lines of a well-seasoned actuary than a throw-it-all-to-the-wind daredevil, deep frying rarely occurs in our kitchen.

Having said all that, I do believe in moderation... and happily enjoyed a version of these taquitos on one of our most recent Bay Area excursions. Though our little San Francisco treat was no doubt deep fried, the version I made is baked and... surprisingly... delivers enough crispy character that there is little nostalgia for the taquito from which they were conceived. Unlike more traditional taquitos, filled with pulled pork, beef, or chicken, these little rolls are filled with a sweet caramelized onion and some well-seasoned baby red potatoes, a perfect pairing for the fresh and tangy salsa that gets scooped over top.

While they'd be equally good paired with a side of spiced up black beans, or lime- and cilantro-seasoned brown rice, we opted for a a lighter, fresh jicama-orange-cilantro slaw, drizzled with some freshly squeezed lime juice and a good little dash of salt, ground paprika and chili powder.
(Sorry... pic taken prior to the last of these dashes:)

Topped with a fresh and zesty, lime-drizzled salsa of tomato, avocado and cilantro, and a generous sprinkle of cotija cheese, these taquitos are as tasty and enjoyable to consume as if they were pulled from the guilt-inducing depths of a hot fryer. Yet baked with just three or four tablespoons of olive oil (brushed over 10 taquitos) makes them a treat with little to no consequence... unless, of course, you consume the entire platter yourself.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Roasted Tomato, Parsnip and Basil Soup... with Gruyére Cheese Toasts

It's hard to beat a great tomato soup served along with some crisp rustic bread slathered with melted cheese. It's just a comfy, soothing combination... like a great book and a toasty fire; each can be enjoyed on its own, but put together they become kind of magical.

And, surprisingly, making tomato soup from fresh tomatoes in the thick of Fall is kind of a perfect way to eat the less-than-spectacular bounty of tomatoes in markets this time of year. While sweet, sun-ripened, straight-off-the-vine tomatoes are about as good as it gets, they are truly not required to produce a tasty tomato soup. Ho-hum tomatoes can make a Cinderella-like transformation with little to no effort... and just a little time.

Seemingly tasteless plum tomatoes drizzled with just a touch of olive oil and a good sprinkling of salt and pepper turn into such delicious little bites that it's hard not to eat them straight from the sheet pan. They're great in soups... and also great in pastas, sandwiches, and salads.

This soup is simply a combination of slow roasted tomatoes and roasted parsnips, blended up with a little fresh basil and vegetable broth. It's a great way to "cream up" a fresh tomato soup without adding any dairy. The parsnips offer a sweet, mellow balance to the tartness of the tomatoes and also serve as a bit of a thickening agent. And, like the roasted tomatoes, are hard to resist straight out of the oven. (Truly, you can cut these like fries and serve them up with a little ketchup... or on their own... they are so good.)