Monday, December 13, 2010

Chasing winter's chill: Split Pea Soup

I thought I hated split pea soup, that sludgy, tasteless olive green goo studded with leftover nuggets of ham, so thick a spoon would stand right up in it. I was absolute in my detestation until one day 20 years ago when a coworker at the Kennedy Center convinced me to buy it from the Watergate deli, saying that it was the best version she'd ever tried. So, the next time it was featured, I bought a cup.
She was so right. It tasted like fresh vegetables, with no soggy lumps of ham and a smooth, velvety texture. I set out to recreate it at home, and have been making it this way ever since:

1 pound split peas. (Don't grab a dusty old bag from 1995. Look for a store with some turnover. The peas should be bright green and relatively unbroken.)

6 -8 cups of water, or half water and half chicken stock if you want a deeper flavor.

1-2 t. salt

2 medium yellow onions, diced

3 carrots, diced

2 T. olive oil

1 bay leaf

freshly ground pepper

About 5 allspice berries (optional, but they add an intriguing flavor)

1/2 t. dried thyme

1 heaping cup of high quality frozen petite peas

Turn the split peas out into a mesh strainer and pick out anything that looks weird. Transfer to a large soup pot and add 6 cups of water or stock.

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan and add the vegetables. Sprinkle with salt. Cook slowly over medium heat until softened, then add to the soup pot.

Add the bay leaf, allspice berries, thyme, and a few grinds of pepper to the soup pot. Turn on the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Once simmering, reduce the heat and cook for about 45 minutes, adding more water if it starts to get thick and sludgey looking. Add the frozen peas during the last 10 minutes of cooking.

Fish out the allspice berries and the bay leaf. Serve very hot, with a couple of croutons floated on top. It will serve at least 6 generously, with leftovers for lunch the next day. Add a little water before reheating.

For a heartier soup, add 2 cloves of chopped fresh garlic to the sauteed vegetables. Once the vegetables are in the pot and everything is simmering, dice 1/2 a pound of kielbasa and cook it slowly until the fat is rendered and the kielbasa cubes are browned. Add to the pot when adding the peas.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Ethical dining

So, a while back, my friend Tim Carman wrote an article defending the reopening of a local chicken joint despite the owners convictions for money laundering. His "if it tastes good, eat it" attitude towards patronizing an establishment whose owners are convicted criminals sparked heated discussion both on his blog and on Washington DC's "foodie" website, One inspired rant even went so far as to compare Carman's supposedly amoral attitude to Leni Riefenstahl apologists.

Apparently the moral outrage dies down once the entrees reach double digits in price. Posters at the aforementioned "foodie" website have rushed to patronize Galileo III, a venture by convicted embezzler and multi-starred chef Roberto Donna. Now Donna has lost another legal battle, in which Chief U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth awarded former employees more than a half million dollars in unpaid wages and tips. So, apparently, Donna stole from the state and from his employees. Donna can't legally own a business, or get a liquor license in the District of Columbia because of monies owed the DC government, and so his new venture gets around that in a way that enriches his family indirectly while structured in such a way as to limit his personal liability:

"Licensing records show that the new restaurant is owned by RCR LLC. At Wednesday's hearing, Donna's longtime business partner and occasional bookkeeper, Corrado Bonino, who lives in Italy, testified that the chef is his "best friend" and godfather to Bonino's daughter. Bonino said one of his companies owns Mabel LLC, which owns RCR LLC. According to papers filed with the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, Mabel's other managing member is Nancy Sabbagh, Donna's wife."

Emphasis mine.

Why is is acceptable to continue to line Donna's pockets? I am heartened to see some dissent after the latest ruling, but the rush to take advantage of the  special offer that Donna made was disheartening from a group that has been regularly gathering to volunteer at DC Central Kitchen for 2+ years, held canned food drives at board events, and has supported many other fundraisers & charities. Not every meal has to be a noble venture; to (badly) paraphrase an apocryphal Sigmund Freud, sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich. But lining up to enrich a criminal, a serial and seemingly unapologetic criminal? I can't do it, not even for a James Beard award-winner.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Not your mother's Tuna Noodle Casserole

I understand nostalgia for the hot dish that mommy used to make when you were growing up, but divorced from the good memories, Tuna Noodle Casserole is actually terrible. A few years ago, it occurred to me to take this 1950's relic and remake it into something I would feed to my child, never mind set in front of company. This lemony, creamy salmon casserole was the result.

1/2 lb. farfalle, cooked al dente according to package directions
3/4 lb. skinned salmon filet, sauteed until just done and then flaked into largish pieces
2 C. Bechamel, or white sauce*
Zest of 1 lemon, minced
1/2 C. creme fraiche, or sour cream
2 C. cooked petite peas
3 T. fresh dill, minced (reserve 1 T for garnish)

Stir the lemon zest into the creme fraiche, and then add it and the dill to the white sauce. Cook the noodles and then transfer to a casserole that has room to mix in the other ingredients. Pour the sauce over the noodles and fold gently. Carefully fold in the salmon and peas so as not to break it up the fish too much. Sprinkle with reserved dill. 

A main dish this rich needs some contrast:

Bitter greens with honey mustard dressing

1 small head radicchio, thinly sliced
1-2 endives, thinly sliced
Handful of frisee, torn

Make a simple vinaigrette with 2 T. vegetable oil, 2 T. lemon juice or white wine vinegar, 1 t. Dijon mustard, salt and pepper. Add at least 1 T honey and whisk. Taste and add more honey or mustard to taste. Pour over the bitter greens and serve immediately.

Both dishes will serve 4.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Elisabeth's Veggie Lasagna

I got this great recipe from my friend Elisabeth Tobia years ago. If you like your lasagna a little wetter, add more tomatoes/tomato sauce to the vegetables when making the sauce.


1 Tb. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c. onion, chopped
2 c. grated carrots
1 lb. fresh mushrooms, chopped
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. thyme
1 15 oz. can tomatoes (I use diced)
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
1 box lasagna noodles
1 tsp. olive oil
2 10 oz. boxes frozen chopped spinach, thawed
2 15 oz. containers ricotta
3/4 c. grated parmesan cheese
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
12 oz. grated mozzarella

In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, carrot, and mushrooms. Cook until mushrooms are lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add oregano, basil, thyme, tomatoes and tomato sauce. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, then cook 20 minutes.

In a strainer over the sink, squeeze out as much water as possible from thawed spinach. In a large bowl, beat ricotta cheese, 1/4 c. parmesan, salt & pepper until blended. Stir in well-drained spinach.

Cook lasagna noodles according to package directions until al dente. Add oil to water to prevent sticking. Drain.

Spray bottom and sides of a 9x13 baking dish with non-stick spray, or brush lightly with olive oil. Arrange 1/4 of noodles in the bottom of dish. Spread with 1/3 of spinach mixture. Pour 1/4 of sauce over spinach. Top with 1/3 of mozzarella cheese. Repeat two more times. Finish with final 1/4 of noodles and remaining sauce. Sprinkle with remaining parmesan cheese.

Bake, uncovered at 375 degrees until bubbly and golden, about 30 minutes. Let stand 10-15 minutes before serving.


Ratatouille Ni├žoise is the dish that helped me get over my fear of eggplant. It's good hot, cold, or at room temperature and shows up year-round as a side dish or filling for omelets and crepes, but is at its best in the summer, when eggplant and zucchini are not yet overgrown and bitter, and fresh ripe tomatoes are available. The first recipe is what is found in many cookbooks, and what most people think of when ratatouille is mentioned: tomatoes, eggplant, onion, zucchini, garlic, olive oil, and some kind of herbs. ( I won't call you out for using best-quality canned tomatoes, but know that if you do, you're cheating yourself out of the full experience.) The recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking has been my standard for 25 years, and produces a garlicky version that is familiar to most Americans who have tried the dish. My current favorite recipe is from Patricia Wells' delightful book Bistro Cooking, and better shows off the bright flavors of summer produce. Many recipes on the web dismiss as "too fussy" the instructions to cook the vegetables seperately and then combine, but it's worth it to do it that way at least once as it really does lead to a better result.

Wikipedia recipe.

Ratatouille from Mastering the Art of French Cooking


6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 5 medium onions (about 1 pound), coarsely minced

Bouquet garni: A handful of fresh thyme and 4 bay leaves, tied with a string

3 large red peppers (about 1 pound), cubed

2 to 3 small eggplants (about 1 pound), cubed

2 to 3 medium zucchini (about 1 pound), cubed

5 medium tomatoes (about 1 pound), cored and cut into eighths

Kosher salt to taste

1 lemon, quartered

A handful of fresh parsley, finely minced.

1. Heat two tablespoons of the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed casserole over medium-low heat. Add the onions and bouquet garni, stir to coat with oil and cook, covered, for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. The onions should be tender and light golden. Do not allow them to burn.

2. Add the peppers, stirring gently to mix, and continue cooking until the mixture is very soft, about 30 more minutes.

3. Meanwhile, heat another two tablespoons of the oil in a second heavy-bottomed casserole over medium-low heat. Add the eggplant, stir to coat with oil and cook, covered, until soft, about 20 minutes. Stir from time to time to keep the eggplant from sticking to the pan.

4. At the same time, heat the remaining two tablespoons of oil in a third heavy-bottomed casserole over medium-low heat. Add the zucchini, stir to coat with oil and cook, covered, until soft, about 20 minutes. Stir from time to time to keep the zucchini from sticking to the pan.

5. While the eggplant and zucchini cook, add the tomatoes to the onion and pepper mixture. Cook, covered, over low heat, for another 15 minutes.

6. Gently spoon all the vegetables into a colander set over a bowl to collect the liquid. Reduce the collected liquid over high heat until thick and syrupy. Add to the vegetables, stir and season to taste. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.

7. Remove from the refrigerator about 15 minutes before serving. Adjust seasoning, sprinkle with lemon juice and freshly minced parsley and serve.

Buttermilk biscuits

I adapted this from a Martha Stewart recipe. Most folks look down on Crisco, but the Crisco/butter combo in this recipe gives great results. I keep it in the cupboard just for biscuits.

3 C. Flour (If you can get White Lily, great. I use bleached All Purpose & it's fine)
1 T. baking powder
3/4 t. baking soda
3/4 t. salt (regular table salt, not kosher)
5 T. butter, diced and chilled
3 T. Crisco, diced and chilled
1 1/2 cups of buttermilk, or more depending on the weather
flour for dusting work surface

Preheat oven to 425F

Sift dry ingredients and put into the bowl of a large food processor with the sharp blade attachment. Add butter and Crisco, and give approximately 5-10 pulses, until the fat is in very small pieces but not completely worked into the flour. Turn out into a very large bowl and add buttermilk. If it looks like it's going to be too dry, add more buttermilk, but don't wait too long. Better that the dough be too sticky than dry and falling apart. Chill in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes.

Dust a work surface heavily with flour and turn out the dough. Sprinkle flour on top of the dough, then fold it in half and give a quarter turn. Sprinkle a little more flour, fold in half, and turn again. Once it's absorbed enough flour to handle without sticking all over your hands, knead and turn a few more times to get layers. Pat out into a thick circle, and cut rounds with a very sharp, floured biscuit cutter. Don't twist the cutter, or the biscuits won't get their full height. Place on a baking sheet - not touching! - lined with parchment. Bake for about 15 minutes.

Baked Beans

Recipe of the week.

Dark, porky, and rich, with a slight bitterness from the molasses, this is as Boston as it gets, and the taste of these beans resonates in my umpteenth-generation native New England soul. Seven ingredients and deliberate inattention give fabulous results.

Boston Baked Beans (Adapted from the Fannie Farmer cookbook)

2 cups navy beans
about 1 tsp. salt
1/4-1/3 lb. salt pork
2 tsp. dry mustard
5 Tbs. dark brown sugar
5 Tbs. molasses (not blackstrap)
1 small onion, sliced

Wash beans, and soak overnight in enough water to come up one inch over the beans.

Drain the beans and reserve the liquid. Preheat oven to 225F. Distribute sliced onion and 1/2 of the salt pork over the bottom of an ovenproof, lidded pot. Add the beans to the pot. Blend the mustard, sugar, salt, and molasses with the reserved bean liquid, and pour over the beans. Slice the remaining salt pork and distribute over the top of the beans. Set the pot on the stove over medium-high heat, and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, cover tightly with foil and the lid. Set in the middle of the preheated oven and cook for at least 8 hours. Mine went in the oven at about 10pm, and stayed in all night. If you happen to get up in the middle of the night for a glass of water, or to let the cat out, go ahead and give the pot a stir or add a little water, but honestly, it can go until morning without being fussed over.

In the morning, take off the foil and lid and put the pot back in the oven for a couple of hours. Stir it from time to time, and add a little water if it looks too dry, but the goal here is to reduce the sauce so don’t go all crazy with the liquid. Take the pot out once they have reached the desired consistency, fish out what’s left of the salt pork. Taste and correct the seasoning, then add a tablespoon or so of cider vinegar to wake up the flavors.

The beans can be served right away and be delicious, but letting them sit for a couple of hours won’t do them any harm.

If you want to really provide an authentic experience, consider making a batch of brown bread.

Boston Brown Bread (adapted from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook)
The traditional accompaniment to baked beans. It’s worth seeking out a real metal coffee can in order to make this from scratch, but it’s possible to find a passable version made by B&M at some grocery stores. This bread is related to a loaf called “Rye & Injun” made by early New England settlers.

1/2 c. rye flour
1/2 c. cornmeal
1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 c. molasses (not blackstrap)
1 c. sour milk (I have used buttermilk with good results)

Mix the flours, cornmeal, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Stir in the molasses and sour milk and blend well. Butter a 1-pound coffee can (or a 1-quart pudding mold, if you have one)and fill no more than 2/3 full. Cover tightly with foil, tie a string around the foil, and put the can in a deep kettle. Cover, add boiling water halfway up the mold, and steam over medium heat for about 2 hours. Add boiling water as necessary to keep the water level consistent. Remove from the mold.

The original recipe says to cut slices with a string while the bread is hot, but I prefer to let it cool and spread it thickly with butter.

Lentil soup

I cook by eye, feel, and taste, so all measurements have been recreated by memory. If it doesn't work, let me know.

Lentil Soup
1 pound brown lentils (or Lentilles de Puy if you can get them)

Good Spanish olive oil

2 small onions, diced

4 carrots, peeled and diced

3 celery stalks, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

bouquet garni (parsley, thyme sprigs, bay leaves, peppercorns, bundled & tied in cheesecloth)

2 t. salt, or more

1/4 t. Spanish smoked paprika

2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock

1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained

Sherry vinegar

1/2 lb. smoked chorizo (can substitute kielbasa for a less spicy soup), sliced in half lengthwise and then into half moons.

chopped fresh parsley to garnish

grated parm-reg or aged manchego

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan. Saute onion, carrot, and celery in the oil until softened but not browned. Pick over lentils and put them in a large soup pot or dutch oven. Add the vegetables, garlic, bouquet garni, and stock to the lentils, and bring to a simmer over high heat. Turn heat down and simmer for half an hour.

While the lentils are cooking, heat the saute pan again and add the sausages. Cook over medium-low heat until most of the fat is rendered and sausages pieces start to brown. drain on paper towels.

Add the canned tomatoes, paprika and salt to the lentils, and simmer another half an hour. Add sausages. Taste, and add salt and freshly ground pepper as needed. Fish out the bouquet garni and discard. Add 1-2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar just before serving.

Some people like to use a stick blender to puree the soup. I don't. A little grated Parm, or aged Manchego on top is good, but not necessary. Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley. Serves a lot.