Thursday, February 15, 2018

Creamy Parsnip Soup with Walnut-Sage Pesto

I don’t think I tasted a parsnip until I was well into adulthood.  This is not to say I would have tasted them (or liked them) had I been served some when I was a child (as I have mentioned many times, I was an extremely picky eater).  For some reason they just never crossed my path.  I think that many Americans would tell a similar story…and that almost as many American adults would say they had still not tasted them.   

Even if I didn’t know of this lack of exposure from my cooking classes, the sad, wax-covered (an attempt to preserve moisture for an overly long stay in the produce aisle) parsnips available in many grocery stores would tell the tale.  But, if the reaction of the people who have attended my classes is any indication, most people will like them when given the chance.   If you have never sampled a parsnip…or if you have only had the old, tired, waxed ones...the parsnip soup I am posting today would be a great starting place to experience just how delicious a parsnip can be.

It is a surprise to me that parsnips aren’t more widely served on American tables.  One of the unfortunate things about our national palate is that Americans gravitate towards sweet flavors…even in savory dishes.  This proclivity should work in the favor of parsnips…they are quite sweet.  So sweet in fact that I find they need a bit of tempering from complimentary flavors.  They go beautifully with pungent turnips and rutabagas (roasted together…baked in a gratin…folded into a purée…).  And they are fantastic with the slightly bitter and musty flavor of the walnut and sage garnish for this soup.

The recipe for this soup is from Alice Waters’ book The Art of Simple Food II.  As is almost always the case, the balance of flavors in her recipe is just about perfect.  I have changed it in only one respect:  Waters serves it as a chunky vegetable soup.  I like to purée it (suggested as a variation in the original recipe).  Parsnips purée into an incredibly velvety soup—and the drizzle of the coarse walnut-sage pesto is beautiful against the off white color of the soup. 

Furthermore, because parsnips aren’t the most popular vegetables on the produce aisle, sometimes the ones I have access to (even though they haven’t been waxed) have hard cores that resist cooking—even after the exterior has been completely broken down by the cooking process.  Puréeing the soup…and then quickly straining it…is a great way to deal with any unyielding, fibrous bits. 

To get good parsnips, go to a grocery store that has a reputation for carrying local produce…or one that sells an abundant variety.  Whole Foods, for example, almost always has them during the cooler months.  If you have a winter farmers' market in your area, one of the growers will probably have them.  As with most fresh vegetables, choose specimens that are heavy for their size (this means they will still be full of moisture) and as unblemished as possible.  And, if it isn’t already clear from my comments, avoid the ones in the grocery story that have been waxed.  You will be disappointed and possibly even disinclined to give them a second chance…which would be a shame. 

On a final technical note, when you make this soup, use the amounts of liquid given in the recipe as a guideline.  As with all puréed soups, err on the side of too little liquid while the soup is cooking (if you have too much, the soup might be too thin after puréeing).  Add just enough liquid so that the vegetables are moving freely and a bit loosely in the stock/water.  You can always add more (and the recipe indicates that you probably will) when you actually purée the soup.  While puréeing, add just enough liquid (water or stock) to allow the soup to move freely in the blender.  After you add the cream, adjust the thickness again (with water or stock).  I mention all of this because it is impossible to give an exactly correct amount of liquid in a recipe.  I have no way of knowing how much liquid will evaporate during the cooking process (you may cook at a higher or lower level of heat…your pot may be wider or narrower than mine…etc.).  Also, we may have different ideas of what constitutes a nice texture. In my opinion, a puréed soup should be on the thin side… Sippable, with a viscosity that is just slightly thicker than heavy cream, is just about perfect.

Cream of Parsnip Soup with Sage & Walnuts

3 to 4 T. unsalted butter
4 large shallots (about 5 to 6 oz.), sliced
1 large leek—white & pale green parts only—trimmed, halved lengthwise, sliced (to obtain 1 to 1 1/4 cups) and rinsed well in several changes of water
1 sage sprig
1 1/2 lbs. parsnips, trimmed, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch half moons
4 cups chicken (or vegetable) stock

3 1/2 T. olive oil, divided—plus more as desired
12 to 15 sage leaves
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped medium fine
Salt & pepper
1 large or 2 small cloves of garlic

Water as needed (about 2 cups)
2/3 cup heavy cream

Mise en place tray for class...

In a heavy soup pot set over medium heat, melt 3 T. of the butter.  Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent—about 10 minutes.  Add the leeks, the sprig of sage and a good pinch of salt.  If the pan seems dry, add the remaining tablespoon of butter.  Continue to cook until the leeks begin to collapse—about 4 to 5 minutes.  Add the parsnips and cook, stirring occasionally, until the parsnips have begun to soften on the surfaces—about 5 to 7 minutes.  

Pour in the stock.  Raise the heat, bring to a boil, then immediately reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the parsnips are tender—about 12 to 15 minutes. 

While the soup cooks, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil in a small sauté pan.  Add the sage leaves and cook until they have crisped and turned translucent.  

Remove the pan from the heat and add the walnuts and stir to coat.  

Season with salt and pepper.  Place the garlic in a mortar and pestle and pound until smooth.  Pound in a pinch of salt.  Pour in the sage and walnut mixture, along with another 2 tablespoons of oil.  Pound lightly.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt.  Add more olive oil to achieve a consistency that pleases you.  Set aside while you purée the soup. 

When the parsnips are tender, remove the sage sprig.  Purée the soup.  If the soup is too thick to move freely in the blender, add a bit of water.  Strain the soup into a clean pot; add the cream and heat through, adding more water if the soup is too thick.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt.  Serve with a spoonful of the sage and walnuts drizzled and dolloped over the surface of the soup. 

Makes a scant 2 quarts soup.

(Recipe adapted from The Art of Simple Food II by Alice Waters) 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Leek & Prosciutto Risotto with Sautéed Oyster Mushrooms

In my previous risotto posts I have made a point of discussing how to achieve differences in flavor and texture by how and when you choose to add the vegetable garnish (cooked vs. raw…at the beginning, middle or end…).  But stirring a vegetable into a risotto isn’t the only way to alter the way in which the dish is perceived.  Just as you can serve risotto topped with a portion of cooked meat or fish, you can also serve a risotto with an attractive portion of a cooked vegetable—making it so that one vegetable becomes the star of the show, rather than just one of many supporting players.

I bring all of this up for a couple of reasons.  The first is that sometimes I like to eat risotto all by itself.  It makes a wonderful starchy side dish…but it is special enough on its own that sometimes that’s how I want to enjoy it: either as a first course for a formal dinner…or as the entrée for a simple and informal supper.  In each of these cases, I always do everything I can to make my bowl of risotto look like something other than a mound of hot breakfast cereal.  I adorn it with a sprig of herbs…some nicely shaved Parmesan…or some other small garnish.  And this approach is just fine, but sometimes you want something more.  Topping the finished risotto with a separately cooked—and attractively arranged—complimentary vegetable is a great way to get that ‘something more.’

I have to admit though that sometimes creating a beautiful plate isn’t at the top of my list for a weeknight meal (neatly and cleanly plated is usually more than sufficient) and I am much more likely to go to this extra step for a client’s dinner.  However, sometimes at my own table find that I have a special and beautiful vegetable that I want to highlight a bit…so it doesn’t get lost in the crowd.  Examples include a few spears of fresh asparagus, just picked from a friend’s field…local fava beans (a rarity indeed in my region)…morel mushrooms that are so expensive I can only justify purchasing a few…etc.  This is a great time to make a risotto with complimentary flavors to act as a bed/background for your perfectly cooked, special item…which then gets perched right on top for all to see.

I used this approach recently to highlight the beautiful oyster mushrooms that a new purveyor has been bringing to the winter farmer’s market.  I used to consider oyster mushrooms a run-of-the-mill grocery store item.  Sadly they have disappeared from my local stores.  Since they are a favorite of mine I was excited when I found out that they would be coming to my farmers’ market…and even more excited when I saw the wide variety on display: Blue oyster, Pearl oyster, Elm oyster, etc.  This winter I have enjoyed these mushrooms in pastas…and on pizzas…and recently on top of this leek and prosciutto risotto.

I made this risotto just because I wanted to show off these wonderful mushrooms.  I could of course have just stirred them into the risotto—and it would have been delicious.  But it wouldn’t have been nearly as beautiful—or as much of a celebration of this wonderful ingredient.

If you are new to risottos…or sautéing mushrooms…before you begin check out some of my previous posts on how to make risotto (where I go into the details of the process and the goal) and on how to sauté mushrooms.  And if you don’t have access to oyster mushrooms, this dish will still be delicious with whatever mushrooms you are able to find—the sweet leeks and salty prosciutto are a wonderful backdrop for the savory mushrooms.

Finally, speaking of “topping” risotto with something special, if you have never formed some leftover risotto into a little cake, fried it in butter, 

and topped it with a softly cooked egg (poached or fried), you are missing out.  Make sure that you make some extra risotto, just so you can have this glorious concoction for lunch the next day.   After tasting it, you will probably find yourself making extra risotto on purpose..

Leek & Prosciutto Risotto with Sautéed Oyster Mushrooms

2 to 3 large leeks, white and pale green parts only
3 T. unsalted butter
1 large or 2 small shallots (about 2 to 3 oz.), finely diced
2 t. minced thyme (optional)
1 1/2 c. Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1/2 to 2/3 c. dry white wine
About 6 c. hot chicken stock
3 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto (about 6 slices), cut crosswise in 1/4-inch strips
2 T. butter
1/2  to 2/3 c. finely grated Parmesan
Salt & Pepper, to taste

8 to 10 oz. (trimmed of tough portions of the stems and weighed after trimming) oyster mushrooms, larger ones torn in half (see note)
Olive oil
2 T. butter
1 1/2 to 2 T. minced Italian flat leaf parsley

Prepare the leeks: Trim away the root and the dark green portion of the leeks.  Cut the white and pale green portion in half lengthwise.  Slice each half thinly crosswise (about 1/4-inch thick).  You should have 3 1/2 to 4 cups of leeks.  Rinse the leeks well in several changes of water to make sure that they are entirely free of soil and sand.

Heat the butter in a heavy medium saucepan (preferably one that is wider than it is deep) over medium heat.  Add the leeks along with the shallots and thyme and sweat until the leeks have wilted and the shallots are soft—about 10 to 15 minutes.  Add another tablespoon of butter if the leeks seem dry as they cook. 

Add the rice and continue to cook for a minute or two until the rice is well coated with the butter and is sizzling a bit.  Add the wine and cook until the pan is nearly dry.  Begin to add the stock.  Add enough so that the stock is at the same level as the rice in the pan—the rice should move freely, but not be ‘swimming’ in the liquid.  Adjust the heat so that the rice cooks at a slow simmer.  Stir occasionally and regularly (this will enhance the creaminess of the final risotto.) When the pan is nearly dry, add more stock and season lightly with salt & pepper.  Continue to stir and cook the rice, adding more stock and seasoning lightly as each addition is absorbed. 

While the risotto cooks, sauté the mushrooms:  As always, when sautéing mushrooms, do not over-crowd the pan.  If necessary, sauté in batches.  Heat a non-stick sauté pan over high heat.  Add a thin film of oil to the pan.  You should see a wisp of smoke if the pan is hot enough.  Add the butter and the mushrooms. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned, tender and any liquid that they have given off has evaporated.  Season with salt and pepper.  If sautéing in batches, transfer the mushrooms to a plate and repeat with the next batch.  When all of the mushrooms have been sautéed, return all of the mushroom to the pan and heat through.  Add a splash of the stock to the pan (or use water or white wine if you have used all of the stock for the risotto) and allow it to reduce around the mushrooms.  Toss in the parsley.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.  Set aside until the risotto is done.  Reheat briefly if necessary before serving.

When the rice is al dente—about 18 to 20 minutes from the first addition of stock, stir in the prosciutto.  Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, cheese and parsley….and adding more stock as necessary to achieve a fluid consistency. 

Taste and correct the seasoning and serve immediately topped with the wild mushrooms.  Serves 4 as an entrée


  • If you are unable to find oyster mushrooms, any favorite mushroom (crimini, white button, shiitake, chanterelles, etc.) will work.   For mushrooms other than oysters, trim and slice 1/4-inch thick before sautéing.
  • Pack the left over risotto into an oiled dish, spreading about 3/4-inch thick.  Let cool and then cover with plastic wrap and store in the fridge.  Fry the cold risotto in a cast iron (or other nonstick skillet):  melt some butter over moderate heat.  Cut a portion of the cold risotto and carefully lift it out of dish with a wide spatula.  Place it in the sizzling butter with the top side down.  The top will be dryer than the bottom (which will be a bit gooey) and will be less likely to stick or fall apart.  When the first side is golden brown and crispy, carefully flip the cake and brown the second side.  Serve topped with a poached or fried egg.