By the Fireside

Yes, we live in Tucson. Yes, it is in the Sonoran Desert. Yes, we get more sunshine than most places in the world. But, alas, from time to time we also get cold and rainy days... well, relatively cold and rainy for us. Several weeks ago we had a whole weekend of gloomy, gray, wet weather. When we first moved here, a three-day stretch of clouds and rain would have sent us into therapy. But, having been here six years now, we find the clouds and rain delightful, and it helps us to know that these winter rains will bring good spring wildflowers. Also, we are confident that abundant sunshine is just around the bend. As for the cold? No longer hardened Maine-iacs, we now whimper a little when the mercury plummets below 50º Fahrenheit, and then we light a fire in the fireplace.

Incidentally, back East, when the mercury would finally reach 50ºF (10ºC), we'd run around the house and throw open the windows and doors to admit the "warm" spring air. My, oh my, how times have changed! We would have been laughed out of Maine had we lit a fire when it was a mere 50ºF!

To me, one of the most perfect fireside meals is a bowl of hearty soup, with homemade bread and a glass of wine. That is exactly what we have done this weekend.

I will start with the bread, as you need to begin the process early in the morning. One day I was going through my recipe files and found five recipes for "no-knead bread." I think one of the versions originated in the NY Times, but I don't know for sure. The funny thing is that each of the five recipes is different in its details. (By the way, I don't think there is anything wrong with kneading dough to make bread, but when I am working, bread making during the week is impractical.)

The recipe below is a little culinary miracle. First, it requires no kneading, and second, it sits unattended all day while I am at work. Third, and truly most important of all, after years of attempting to replicate my mother's French bread, I stumbled across this recipe which is close to hers, both in crust and crumb.

The basic equipment for this recipe a Dutch oven, or covered kettle that can be pre-heated in a 450ºF oven while empty. Be very careful to choose a glass, ceramic or cast-iron vessel that won’t crack under such heat.

I have modified the recipe using bits and pieces of the five different recipes and added my own two cents where I feel it makes a difference. I cannot recommend this bread highly enough!

On to the star of the post: the soup! For my birthday in August, our friends Susan and Towny (The Modern Trobadors - great post this week about French pharmacies!) sent me a grain which looks similar to farro, or spelt. It is called petit épeautre. And, while related to spelt (they are two different species in the wheat genus Triticum), petit épeautre - or einkorn - is genetically somewhat different. You can find more information on the website for the Syndicat du petit épeautre de Haute Provence.

This little grain makes a wonderfully hearty soup, akin to the Italian zuppa di farro. The website contains some recipes, too, but having made farro soup in the past, I decided I would simply create something with ingredients I had on hand.

Soup making isn't rocket science, so my only real concern was the cooking time of the épeautre. Happily, the package states clearly, "Cuisson: 30m." I gathered my vegetables for the soffrito, some basil from the garden, some chicken stock and started to put together my first soupe d'épeautre.

As I said, making soup is easy, and you can follow the steps below to make any kind of hearty vegetable soup. I used chicken broth because I had it on hand, but water, vegetable broth or any combination would work well, too. A dollop of sherry or wine might be a nice addition. All you need to do is make sure your vegetables are cooked to the right consistency (not too mushy, please) and that your grain of choice is also done to perfection. If you don't have access to épeautre/einkorn or farro/spelt, other good grains to consider are barley, rice and quinoa.

I managed to time the day perfectly. The bread came out of the oven about 15 minutes prior to finishing the soup, which gave it just enough time to rest and slice well.

And now it's time to stoke the fire, slather the bread with butter, pour the wine and ladle the soup.

Stay warm and cozy!

- David

Soupe d’Épeautre

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 Vidalia onion
2 celery stalks
1 leek, white and light green part only
4 medium carrot
1 cup épeautre (may substitute wheat berries or farro)
1 (12-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 cup tomato purée
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
4-6 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth, water or a combination
3 cups slices kale, loosely packed
1 cups frozen green peas
15-20 fresh basil leaves, cut into slivers
extra virgin olive oil for garnish
Parmigiana-Reggiano, for garnish

Chop the onion; slice the celery lengthwise and then cut into a quarter-inch dice; slice the leek lengthwise in quarters and then slice crosswise; slice the carrots lengthwise in quarters and then cut into quarter-inch dice.

In a soup kettle, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, celery, leek and carrot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and light golden brown – about 10-12 minutes. Add the tomato purée and cook 2 minutes, or until it darkens slightly. Add the épeautre, beans, salt and pepper, stirring to mix well. Add 4 cups broth, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and let the soup simmer gently for 20 minutes.

Add the kale and simmer an additional 20 minutes. Add the peas, stirring to combine, and continue to cook for another 20 minutes, adding between 1 and 2 cups of broth or water as necessary to keep the soup from getting too dry.

Just before serving, add the basil and stir. Divide evenly between 6 warmed soup bowls, drizzle with olive oil and top with slivers of Parmigiana-Reggiano.

Serves 4-6.


No-Knead Bread

3 cups bread flour

1/4 ounce yeast (not rapid rise), or 2 1/4 teaspoons
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 1/2 cups warm water
Olive oil spray

First thing in the morning, mix the flour, yeast, salt and water in a large bowl. It will be a raggedy, sticky dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put in a warm, draft-free place for the day (I turn on the oven for a minute and then turn it off, and I put the bread in the slightly warm oven for the day, especially useful for those who live in drafty antique houses).

When you get home from work - or at least 8 hours later – put the empty Dutch oven with lid in the oven and pre-heat the oven to 450ºF (if you’ve used the oven to rise the dough, make sure you take it out before pre-heating it!). Spray a cutting board with olive oil spray and turn the dough out onto the board. Fold it once or twice and then let it rest, in a covered bowl, for 30 minutes while the oven pre-heats.

After 30 minutes, the Dutch oven will be very hot. Carefully remove it from the oven and take off the lid. Scoop up the dough, keeping the seam side down and drop it into the hot Dutch oven. The dough will hiss as it hits the hot surface. Using pot holders, shake the kettle from side to side to even out the distribution of the dough. Return the cover to the pot and place in the oven to bake.

After 30 minutes, remove the lid and bake an additional 15 minutes uncovered until perfectly browned on top. Turn bread out onto a rack and let cool at least 15 minutes before slicing.

Makes 1 boule.


Friendship and Thanks

I just booked my flight to visit David and Mark next March.  By then I'll be so ready to escape the last dregs of winter, and step into sunshine and warmth and spring desert flowers.  It's been ages since I've seen these dear friends, and I'll want to squeeze every moment out of my short stay.  David has promised me food shopping at his favorite haunts, mad cooking, and lots of eating.  I'm very good with the "eating" part :).

Last Saturday evening, Deb and Tom quietly tied the knot before an intimate group of family and friends.  Deb and I met 30 years ago, when we were hygienists working in the same dental practice.  We both returned to school to pursue second careers, and together often commiserated over the exhausting schedule of jobs, commute to classes, and a mountain of homework.  Even though our paths have taken us in different directions, we have remained close friends and I was honored to stand as her maid of honor this weekend.

On Sunday evening, Christina called me, "come over for a glass of wine!".  We hadn't had time to catch up in awhile and had much to discuss over olives, cheese, crackers and taramosalata.  Christina and I have known each other for some time - acquaintances, if you will - but only in the last few years have we become philenathes.  Friends were coming for supper one evening and I wondered, "would she like to join us".  We pepper our conversations with Greek - she has a better command of the language than I and has promised to teach me some fancy dance moves before the next Greek festival.


Chiles en Nogada

This week, we take a jaunt to Puebla, Mexico - the place where chiles en nogada were created. Tradition holds that this dish was first made in observance of the date when Father Miguel Hidalgo began the fight for Mexico's independence from Spain in 1810 (September 16th). Either the Monjas Clarisas or the Madres Contemplativas Agustinas of the convent of Santa Monica - both orders of nuns in Puebla - created the dish in his honor.  It uses the three colors of the Mexican flag: green, white and red.

The first time I ever saw chiles en nogada - and I say saw because it was a visual encounter only - was in the movie, Like Water for Chocolate. The movie, based on Laura Esquivel's book of the same title, is a favorite among foodies, and for good reason.  Quail in rose petal sauce, turkey mole with almonds and sesame seeds, and the egg-rich Chabela wedding cake are a few of the recipes cited in the book/movie. All are prepared with a passion so fierce that you can almost smell them cooking as you watch.  At the end of the movie, as in the final chapter of Esquivel's book, the heroine comes out of the house with a platter full of chiles en nogada. I knew immediately I had to learn how make them.


Under the Covers

Not this week, I'm afraid.  Sore throat, earache, chills - I'm a mess.
In the meanwhile, here's what's new and interesting  . . .
  • I've switched, at least temporarily, from my signature fragrance of Quelques Fleurs to Tom Ford's Violet Blonde.  Luscious.
  • Food & Wine editors tried macarons from seven bakeries, and liked Macaron Cafe, in NYC, best.  I was in Manhattan over the weekend, and the line at Laduree was snaking out the door.  Glad I didn't wait, when I can order online from the Cafe.  For medicinal purposes, of course.  
  • Our holiday party at work is in two weeks and we are excited to have The White Apron catering.  There's a reason they have been voted "Best Caterer" for 2010.
  • Teavana's JavaVana Mate Tea - chocolate and vanilla blended with black Assam and roasted mate tea.  A nice morning or evening tea.
  • I am a big fan of Masterpiece Mystery, and the recent Case Histories is worth watching if for no other reason than Jason Isaacs and Millie Innes, who is absolutely delightful.
Time for bed - see you in two.