Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wedding Soup Fed My Christmas Soul

It’s not that I didn’t want to go visit my mother-in-law that day.  I love to visit her.  She’s a delightful woman and has always been generous and loving to me.  But when Mr. Rosemary said he wanted to go visit his mother that day, I was grateful he couldn’t see my face because I’m sure it looked pretty sour (and he can always read exactly what I’m thinking.) 

And what I was thinking was this:  “How can he possibly think I have time to do that?  This is the first day in a string of ten or twelve that we didn’t have something important we had to get done, somewhere we had to go, all priorities higher than Christmas.   I needed this day to get ready!   Doesn’t he realize that the kids were coming this weekend for our Christmas together and the house was a wreck and there was so much to get done, so fast – decorating, shopping, cleaning, cooking, baking, wrapping!  Has he gone bonkers?”

“Go by yourself,” I wanted to say.

But from a deep somewhere, instead of blurting anything like that out loud, I found a little voice of calm and reason that reminded me, “It will all get done. You know it will. You’ll figure out a way.”   And even though I know she would love a quiet little tete a tete with him, I knew he wanted me to come along, too.
In the midst of this private conversation, I got a brilliant idea:  I’d make soup for lunch, wedding soup, one of her favorites and mine.  I could be in the kitchen making the soup while he and she had a nice visit in the next room.  I could picture it already.   I quickly did a mental inventory, decided I had enough of what I needed and told Mr. Rosemary my idea.  He agreed. So, I packed up the stuff and off we went.  A half-hour later, I was in her kitchen rolling little meatballs and they were chatting away.

Then, we all sat down to lunch and had a nice visit all together.  I cleaned up and we went back home.  On the way home, Mr. Rosemary said, “That was a nice day.”

And I had to agree.  Yes, it was.

Now that the biggest part of the holiday hustle and bustle is over (and everything I wanted to get done did indeed get done), I can reflect and honestly say that of all the sweet moments I had sharing Christmas hospitality with friends and family that day I didn't want to happen somehow was the sweetest.  Genuine, spontaneous, and warm.

I hope you had a special Christmas moment, too.

  * * * * *

I often make wedding soup. But with a lot of flexibility. I can make it without a recipe, although sometimes I get pretty elaborate.  Sometimes it’s very simple.  The batch I made that day was somewhere in between.   I often will make up a whole bunch of meatballs, stick them on a cookie sheet to freeze, then bag them for later; this time I made them fresh.  I also usually poach the meatballs in the broth but some people prefer to bake them first.  There’s a minor argument in the family about what pasta shape to use.  I’m a traditionalist and prefer acini di pepe, although I did use orzo in the batch pictured.  And I have used rice.  Some people in the family prefer bigger ditalini or even shells.  The only requirement is some kind of pasta.  Some people like chicken pieces, some don’t.  Escarole, chard,spinach, just some green. Maybe carrots, celery and onions.  Ideally you should cook the pasta separately then pour the soup over the warm pasta.  (Otherwise the pasta absorbs all the broth.)  The version I made that day was an marriage of some of all of these.  And it was smaller than usual, enough for a threesome lunch and leftovers for Gigi.

One day I’ll post about my elaborate way; in the meantime, here’s my simpler version:

A Simple Wedding Soup
Makes about 8 servings

For the Meatballs
½ pound ground beef
½ - ¾  cup seasoned dry bread crumbs, moistened with a little milk
1 egg, slightly beaten
½ small onion, grated
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese grated
For the Soup:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 carrots, cleaned and finely chopped
2 stalks celery, clean and finely chopped
½ onion, finely chopped
1 46 ounce can of chicken broth
½ box frozen chopped spinach
½ cup acini di pepe
Extra Parmesan cheese, for serving

Combine all the ingredients for the meatballs.  (Add more crumbs if the mix is too wet.) Shape into small balls, no more than one inch in diameter.  Set aside.
In a large pot, heat the oil.  Cook the carrots, celery and onion just until softened.  Add the broth.  Bring to a boil then add the spinach, acini di pepe and meatballs.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook  until meatballs are done and pasta is tender, about 20 minutes.  Sprinkle each serving with cheese.

Cook's note:  I use a serrated knife and a bit of muscle to cut the box of frozen spinach in half and quickly put one half in a baggie and back in the freezer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

13-Minute Pepper Steak

I didn’t start out to set a record.  It was just that it was late, we had been out all day and we were hungry.  This is the time of year when the luxury of a leisurely cooked meal just isn’t always possible.  You need something and you need it now.  And we were both tired of frittatas.

I know some people can call for take out.  But we live too deep in the boonies for that to happen.  (The closest we’ve heard that a pizza shop will deliver is to rendezvous at a general store six miles away!)  And some people may plan better.  But at least we were well stocked and on our way home, I got my game plan together, slipped my shoes off when we got in the door, threw my coat on a chair and had dinner ready in 13 minutes! 

And it was fresh food!  The ramen noodles were the only real shortcut.  But boy, are they fast to get ready! 

This wasn’t exactly an authentic stir fry wokked by a master but it was good and fast and pretty and cheap and fresh.  The key was cutting everything thin and cooking over pretty high heat fast.  Good enough for a repeat.

The thyme in the picture?  Just for show.  (And I hung up my coat after dinner.)

13 Minute Pepper Steak
1 pound thinly cut round steak
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 green pepper, thinly sliced
1 red pepper, thinly sliced
1 yellow pepper, thinly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
Two packages ramen noodle, sans seasoning packet

Start a pot of water to get boiling for the noodles while you make the beef.  Lightly salt and pepper the beef.  Cut the beef into thin strips, about ¼ inch wide and 2 inches long.  Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet.  With heat on medium high, add beef and cook quickly stirring the beef constantly until beef is lightly browned.  Remove from pan.  Add the second tablespoon of oil.  Add the sliced peppers and onions and cook until softened.  Turn down heat and return beef to the pan.  In a cup, put the hoisin sauce and add enough water (about 1 tablespoon) to thin to the consistency you want and add to the beef, peppers and onions.  Put a lid on the pan and keep warm while you make the noodles. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Breakfast for Non-Morning People: Granola Bars

There are morning people.  And there are not.  I am firmly convinced of this.  And I am not a morning person.

When people say they are morning people, do they mean that they wake up with a spring in their step, a song in their heart, and a smile on their face?  Nope, not me.
I can function, mind you. I might even start a load of laundry before 6 a.m., sort through mail, make the bed, do the dishes that didn’t get done the night before. In fact, I really love to do all these non-thinking type of tasks early in the morning. Gives me a great sense of accomplishment.  Anyhow, I can bark, “Whaddya mean, I’m not a morning person!?!  I did all this, didn’t I?”

But I am not sharp.  Or friendly.  Don’t ask me anything but the most basic of questions. You won’t like the response.
It took all I had to control my morning-ness when people had to get to school and work, dressed and on time.

But now that I don’t have children at home, or a regular job, it’s a lot easier to manage the morning.  It’s now become my best computer time.  With a cup of coffee (definitely coffee – tea won’t do) and maybe a little breakfast.

That’s the trouble with us non-morning people. We really don’t do breakfast.  And we should.  Might make us more pleasant.  So I’ve been giving granola bars a try.  Homemade ones.  And, you know?  They’re very good.    They’re not exactly cheap to make, but they’re very good.  And they put a smile on my face, if not a spring in my step.

I didn’t have wheat germ the first time I made these.  Instead I ground some Grape Nuts in the food processor. Good substitution.   And I didn’t have dried apricots.  That’s okay.  These have plenty of good stuff in them.

(By the way, I didn’t make these in the morning.) 

Homemade Granola Bars
from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics

2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup shredded coconut, loosely packed
½ cup wheat germ
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup honey
¼ cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup chopped pitted dates
½ cup dried apricots
½ cup dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Butter an 8 by 12-inch baking dish and line in with parchment paper.
Toss the oatmeal, almonds, and coconut together on a sheet pan and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned.  Transfer this mixture to a large mixing bowl and stir in the wheat germ.
Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees F.
Place the butter, honey, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Cook and stir for a minute, then pour over the toasted oatmeal mixture.  Add the dates, apricots and cranberries and stir well.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan.  Wet your fingers and lightly press the mixture evenly into the pan.  Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until light golden brown.  Cool for at least 2 to 3 hours before cutting into squares.  Serve at room temperature.
Makes about 12 to 16 bars.