The Best Tomato Soup In The World

THE TOMATOES FROM MY garden slowly begin to trickle into my kitchen. Just a few barely ripe ones at first, the kind that are still a little green at the stem end.  I pick them out of excitement, now they need to sit on the counter for a day or two to fully ripen. Soon they are followed by deep red fully ripe tomatoes, enough to slow roast a tray of San Marzanos until they shrink and shrivel and get the tell tale taste of raisin and intense tomato. Continue reading →

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Marcella’s Broccoli and Potato Soup

Each year I look forward to making this recipe with the first broccoli from the fall garden. I’ll make it several times from mid-autumn to early winter. It requires but a few humble ingredients which, when combined in the soup pot, are as satisfying as knowing you have an uncommitted hundred dollar bill in your pocket.

As with many soups of few ingredients, it requires attention to detail, your best technique, as well as quality ingredients. But if you are anything like me, you find as much enjoyment in the process as the reward.

fall vegetables

The process for me starts with chicken stock made from scratch. I use old hens from my flock each year to make my stock, but any bones would work great. From the carcasses I make a very richly flavored stock which I preserve by canning. I use the homemade canned stock for many soups throughout the cold months. I urge you, if you don’t already, to learn how to make good stock even if you don’t preserve it by canning.

The next step for me is in my garden. I walk the rows of heirloom broccoli looking for tight, almost purple in color, florets. I give them a delicate squeeze for firmness and if they make the grade I get out my pocket knife and cut the stalks. It doesn’t stop there: there are the firm, yellow-fleshed potatoes and the pungent basil leaves stripped from thick, late-summer stalks.

All the ingredients are laid out on the counter top. I have an urge to stick close to Marcella’s original recipe, I want her book close at hand and set it next to the cutting board. Even though I have made this recipe from memory I want to make it as Marcella has it written. I like to do this occasionally, to refresh my memory and taste.

I clean the vegetables. With the exception of the potatoes, I cut everything and collect up the ingredients setting them neatly on a sheet tray. Then I move them close to the soup pot so they are at hand.

I came late to Marcella’s books in my cooking, even then it took time for her to grow on me. She was a champion of home cooking and I was more interested in preparing fancy and complicated restaurant food. I never met her; even so I often call her Marcella as if I knew her. I bet lots of people do this.

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We did have a conversation once through social media. She called me out on a picture of a branzino, a Mediterranean sea bass. I had this fancy picture, a great photograph of the fish on a bed of greens with prosciutto and I posted it. I received lots of positive comments and likes. Then later that Saturday night Marcella asked me, “What are you doing to this poor fish?”

She may as well have rolled up a wet kitchen towel and snapped me on the ass. She called me out. What proceeded from the sting was a weekend-long exchange of messages, me going to the grocery to get another branzino and her teaching me how to simply poach the fish in aromatics and serve it with a simple aioli. Her recipe was by far the better.

What was important wasn’t that she taught me how to cook a branzino, or that she shared a recipe with me, but that she reeled me in. In one fell swoop she made me realize the importance of simple home cooking, that making restaurant food at home is silly, often wasteful and that great home cooking isn’t about chasing trends and being a foodie but more importantly how to cook wholesome good food for your family.

It might have taken culinary school to make me a chef but in a single Saturday night Marcella turned me into a home cook.

Marcella’s Broccoli and Potato Soup (adapted from Marcella Cucina)

Makes 6 servings

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups yellow onion, julienned
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
2 cups Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, medium dice
2 1/2 cups broccoli florets, no stems
3 1/2 cups stock, chicken or vegetable
6 smallish fresh basil leaves, torn
1/2 cup Parmesan, grated

  1. In a 3 1/2-quart heavy-bottomed pot, combine the olive oil and half the butter. Place the pot over medium heat. Once the butter begins to melt, add the onions. Season them with a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  2. Saute the onions until they become golden. Don’t rush this step and adjust the heat as necessary to keep them from browning too fast. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant.
  3. Add the potatoes. Stir them to coat with oil and let them sizzle away for a minute or two. Add the broccoli and do the same as you did with the potatoes. Add the stock.
  4. Bring the stock to a boil. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning. Go easy on the salt though because the Parmesan has lots and will act as seasoning as well.
  5. Simmer the soup until the broccoli and potatoes are tender. The broccoli is not going to remain vibrant green, but if it is good broccoli it won’t be olive drab either.
  6. Once the potatoes have cooked through, add the parmesan, the remaining butter, and the basil. Stir to combine and serve with more black pepper.

Gumbo Z’herbes with Yeasted Corn Biscuit Dumplings

Gumbo Z’herbes

If you know me you know I love greens.  I go to them for comfort, for quick meals and just about any reason, now that I think about it,  I am not even sure I need a reason.

There was a day not all that long ago when I would always add some sort of smoked pork or, at the very least, smoked turkey legs to the greens.  At some point we started to eat  less meat and started to enjoy vegetables for being vegetables.  Since those days of long ago I have added the pork back to my greens on occasion and each time I do I always say to myself, “well, that was a mistake.”   For me,  I have found I like greens for greens and the pork just overpowers them.

Even so there are dishes were not adding the requisite pork is damn near criminal and it might be in some states south of the Ohio River.  I thought not adding tasso ham to my Gumbo Z’herbes might be one such crime but then I got to thinking about it and I came to understand, for the most part, it is the herbs used to cure the tasso that I like.

I am sure you see where this is going.

The biscuits dumplings aren’t traditional but the gooey bottoms and crunchy tops sure are a plus in my mind.

Note: the yeast used in the biscuits is really more for the yeasty flavor then it is to make them rise.  While I am sure it helps them rise it is not the reason they rise the baking soda is.  So don’t omit the soda because there is yeast in the recipe.  Also, not only are these really good as dumplings but they are  just as good when baked as biscuits.

Serve 4 to 6

For the gumbo:

peanut oil

1 1/2 cups yellow onion, peeled trimmed and cut into a small dice

3/4 cup green pepper, membranes and seeds removed, cut int a small dice

3/4 cup celery, cut into a small dice

3 tablespoons, garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon cayanne

1/2 teaspoon marjoram

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon fresh ground white pepper

7 cups vegetable broth

1 teaspoon gumbo file

8 cups mixed greens, collards, turnip, or kale, rinsed at least three times and chopped into thin ribbons

kosher salt

For the biscuits:

1 cup buttermilk, room temperature

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup corn flour, not cornmeal

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold and cubed

extra flour for dusting

1. Place a 3 1/2 quart cast iron Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add enough oil to the pot to just cover the bottom.  Add the onion, peppers and celery.  Season them with salt and pepper and stir them to keep them from browning but let them become soft.

2. Add the garlic, cayenne, marjoram, allspice and white pepper.  Stir until everything becomes fragrant with out letting the garlic brown.  Add the vegetable stock and bring it to a boil.

3. Add the greens by the handful until each addition is wilted and you can add more to the pot.  Do this till all 8 cups have been added.

4. Bring the gumbo back to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer.  Simmer uncovered for 1 hour.  At the end of the hour add the gumbo file and stir it into the broth.  The greens will be tender and gooey.

5. Heat the oven to 425˚ F.  While the oven is heating combine the yeast and buttermilk and let the yeast dissolve.

6. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or by hand using a heavy duty wooden spoon, combine the flour, cornmeal,  sugar, baking soda, and salt with the butter.  Mix the flour with the butter until it has the appearance of coarse cornmeal.  Add the buttermilk and process until the biscuit dough is just combined.

7. You can use a small ice cream scoop, make sure you don’t sink the biscuits into the liquid,  and make a drop biscuit topping by gingerly and gently plopping the dough right out of the scoop and into the gumbo or you can turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface roll it, cut it into rounds,  and then lay these on top of the gumbo.

8. Either way be careful not to sink the dumplings.  Place the pot into the oven and bake the whole thing, uncovered, for 20 minutes or until the biscuits have browned nicely.

6. Serve

French Onion Soup

A French onion soup recipe isn’t exactly uncommon. I am not even going to say this one is the best as in best ever French onion soup because that would be like saying my religion is the best, or the only, which is just not true.

Onions slowly brown and take time to get cararmelized

So why publish or blog this recipe? Well because it is a really solid recipe and I want to talk about technique. In other words even if you already have an onion soup in your repertoire and have no intention of ever making a different one maybe you might pick up a little tidbit of information that you might want to apply to your already fantastic recipe.

There is nothing complicated about this recipe so if you have never made French onion and think you might want to, well, here ya go.

I did use rendered bacon fat in the recipe and here is why. I wanted to replicate some of the richness that I find in the ramen noodles recipe from the Momofuku cookbook. The smokey onion-y goodness of the fat is unbeatable. If you take offense to bacon fat then oil or butter would work just fine.

I use fontina cheese here. It is not the traditional comte or gruyere. Use what you like. I like all three but one is easier on the pocket book but that is your call.

Check your broiler and make sure it works before you start the recipe.

Makes 6 servings

1 1/2 tablespoon bacon grease, butter or vegetable oil

7 cups yellow onions, trimmed and cut into 1/4 inch slices

1/4 cup garlic, peeled, trimmed and sliced thinly

1 cup red wine

4 cups richly flavored stock

1 tablespoon dried thyme

kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

1/2 pound Fontina, grated

4 to 6 toast rounds, or as I did, I griddled an English muffin half in rendered pork fat

1. Place one of your soup crocks on a sheet tray and put it in the oven. Try to adjust the oven rack so the top of the crock is about 5 to 8 inches from the broiler. Remove the tray.

2. Place a heavy bottomed large pot, the wider the pot the better the onions will cook, over medium heat and add the fat.

3. Once the fat has melted add the onions. Season them with about a 1/2 teaspoon of salt and, I like lots, fresh ground black pepper.

4. Walk away from the pan and do something else in the kitchen. Don’t stir them until all the onions have wilted down. The more you stir them the longer they will take to color. Don’t up the heat either you don’t want them seared brown but gently browned. So if your pan is not so heavy bottomed you may need to turn the heat down. Cooking the onions to the right color and consistency will take at least a half hour maybe even an hour. Drink a glass of wine, listen to some music and call it happy hour. Get your zen on and be the turtle, slow and steady. The hare’s onion soup sucks don’t go there.

5. Cook the onions until they soften, have gone from amber to brown and you notice brown bits of onion on the bottom of the pan. Those brown bits are flavor be careful not to burn them, turn the heat down if you need to. Add the garlic and thyme and cook until the garlic becomes fragrant.  About a minute.

6. Add the cup of wine to deglaze the pan and reduce it by half.

7. Add the stock and bring the pot to a boil. You can turn up the heat if you need but then reduce the heat and simmer the soup to bring all the flavors together, twenty minutes or so.

8. Grab a tasting spoon and take a taste. Adjust the seasoning as necessary.

9. Preheat your broiler. Bowl up the number of bowls you need. Place them on a sheet tray. It is much easier to grab one tray then to try to grab 4 or 6 crocks with gooey cheese on top. Get the sheet tray out.

10. Top each crock with a toast round or English muffin, then pile on the cheese and bake under the broiler till everything is gooey and golden brown. Remove them from the oven and wait at least 5 minutes before digging in- these things are thermonuclear.