Saturday, January 25, 2014

Baked Apples

My mother doesn't like to cook very much.  It's not as if she isn't a good cook.  I have always thought that her pie crust could rival that of just about anyone...I still remember sampling the chef's demonstration Quiche Lorraine at the Cordon Bleu and being a bit disappointed since the one I had been eating all of my life—prepared by my mother—was better.  It is probably more likely that like so many wives and mothers of her generation, after twenty some years of preparing three meals a day for a large and often oblivious family, she just decided there were other things she would rather be doing.   

She still cooks occasionally...and I am always glad when she does.  Once, many years after she had sort of hung up her apron—and several years into my professional cooking career—she surprised me by making baked apples for a special birthday breakfast for me.  I had never had a baked apple.  (I'm not sure why she had never made them before.)  It was simple and delicious....made even better by the fact that it had been prepared with love, just for me. It was "Mom food" at its best...which is, I suspect, what most of us mean when we call something a "comfort food".   So, a few months ago, when I decided to offer a class this year called "Comfort Foods of Winter", baked apples were at the top of the recipe list. 

The recipe I'm sharing today isn't exactly the same as the one my mother makes (I don't think I make anything exactly the way someone else does)...but it's very close.  I have increased the sugar just a bit...and added some dried fruit.  But those are fairly negligible changes. 

The main thing I do differently is I score the skin of the apple in several places before I put it in the oven.  When an apple bakes, the flesh expands and puts pressure on the skin.  This inevitably leads to a "blow out" when the skin splits to relieve the pressure.  Scoring the skin allows the flesh and the skin of the apple to expand together, making for a much more attractive final result. 

The apple on the right was "scored", the apple on the left was not.

The other major change is that I remove the entire core, all the way down through the blossom end of the apple.  Most recipes direct you to leave the apple intact on the bottom so that the filling won't ooze out.   But I don't like to run into the hard blossom end while I'm eating my baked apple, so I remove it.  I plug up the resulting hole with bits of seed-free apple flesh that were removed with the core. 

Even with these two changes—which are mostly cosmetic—the baked apple itself is essentially the same as my mother's.  And same or not, for as long as I continue to cook, I know that every time I make a baked apple, it will remind me of a special breakfast...prepared just for my mother.   

Baked Apples

4 T. (1/4 c.) packed brown sugar
1/4 c. quick (not instant) oats
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. ground cloves (or nutmeg, if you prefer)
a pinch of salt
2 T. cold butter, plus 1 t. for "dotting"
1/4 c. finely chopped toasted nuts and/or dried fruit (optional—see notes)
zest of 1 lemon or 1/2 of an orange (optional)
4 large apples—something juicy and flavorful that will hold its shape and   flavor when a Jonathan, a Jonagold or a Braeburn
1/2 to 1 cup apple cider, apple juice or water

Place the first five ingredients in a small bowl and mix with a fork or your fingers until homogenous.  Cut the 2 T. of butter into four slices and add to the bowl.  Using your fingers, rub the butter in until the mixture is clumpy.  Toss in any nuts, dried fruit or zests that you are using.  Set the mixture aside while you prepare the apples.

Basic filling ingredients: oats, brown sugar, butter and spices.
Basic filling with added chopped pecans, currants and orange zest.

Butter an shallow baking dish that will hold the apples without 8- or 9-inch square baking dish works well.  Set aside.

Wash the apples.  Using an apple corer or a melon baller, core the apples.  If an apple will not sit level, cut a thin slice off the bottom to stabilize it.  If you like, use a vegetable peeler to peel away a strip of skin around the hole at the top of the apple—this isn't strictly necessary, but it is attractive.  Using a sharp paring knife, score the skin of each apple from top to bottom in four places—spacing the cuts an equal distance apart.  Finally, using some of the seed and skin free bits of apple that were removed with the cores, plug up the hole at the bottom of each apple.

Place the apples in the prepared dish.  Fill each apple with a quarter of the reserved filling, packing as necessary so as to use all of the filling.  

Cut the remaining teaspoon of butter into four pieces and place a piece on top of each apple. 

Add enough apple cider to the dish to come up to a depth of 1/4-inch. 

Cover loosely with foil and place in a 350° oven.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Uncover the dish and baste the apple with the liquid in the dish.  Continue to bake until the apples are very tender all the way through—another 15 to 30 minutes depending on the variety and size of the apples.  The apple will have puffed, the flesh may have begun to ooze in spots and the skin will be a bit wrinkled.  Let the apples cool briefly before serving.  They are best when they are warm, but they are good at room temperature too.  Serve with some of the syrupy juices from the pan spooned over.  They may be served with ice cream, whipped cream or custard sauce for dessert, but I like them best with plain yogurt for breakfast.

  • You may make as many or as few apples as you like.  The recipe multiplies and divides easily.  For one apple, use a pyrex custard cup to bake the apple.
  • The filling you use can be varied to suit your taste and your pantry.  A plain baked apple with just butter, brown sugar and oatmeal is delicious.  But you may add spices and zests as you please.  A tablespoon per apple of chopped toasted nuts, or dried fruits (or a combination) is a nice addition.  A variation I particularly like (using the quantities in the above recipe) is 2 T. chopped toasted pecans, 2 T. dried currants and the zest of half an orange.
Printable Recipe

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Chicken Pot Pie

Chicken pot pie.  Warming....filling....the quintessential nostalgic dish for the cold months of the year.  Unfortunately it also has a reputation for being complicated and labor intensive to prepare.  And of course it can be this way.  But it doesn't have to be.  In its original incarnation, chicken pot pie...or any pot pie, for that matter...was probably just a leftover:  A clever way to reheat a rich stew by ladling it into a casserole, topping it with a pastry crust or a biscuit and placing it in a hot oven until the pastry or biscuit was golden and the stew bubbling hot.  So delicious in and of itself that today the by-product has become the goal.  When you consider it in terms of its origins, the process of preparing it becomes a little less daunting. 

The style of stew-like filling that most Americans associate with a chicken pot pie is similar to a classic French white stew—variously called a blanquette or a fricassée, depending on whether the vegetables and meat are tossed in hot butter (so as to sear without browning) or simply poached in hot broth...and on whether you thicken with a roux (a cooked mixture of flour and butter) or a liaison (a mixture of egg yolk and cream).  To avoid wading into the definition wars I'll simply state that the filling I make for my pot pie is a hybrid of all of these methods.  I poach the chicken...but if I had leftover roast chicken, I wouldn't hesitate to use it for a pot pie.  And I would most definitely add any leftover drippings or pan deglazings—a source of amazing flavor—even though their presence would produce a stew that was not so white.  As for the vegetables, I poach them....except for the mushrooms, which I sauté in butter simply because that's the way I like them.  To bind the stew together I thicken the chicken and vegetable poaching liquid with a roux.  This type of thickening is standard for any pot pie.  Since a pot pie is baked until the filling is bubbling you would never use a liaison as the thickener.  (Once a liaison of egg and cream is added to a stew,  the stew may not be boiled.  Doing so will produce a thin liquid filled with scrambled egg....).        

The filling I make nowadays for my chicken pot pie is really not too different from that of the first one I ever made.  My first chicken pot pie was from The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook—at the time, one of only two cookbooks that I owned.  The other was The Fanny Farmer Cookbook.  I was just beginning to learn how to cook and I had acquired a bee in my bonnet to make chicken pot pie.  Both books had a recipe, but for some reason the Good Housekeeping recipe looked more interesting to me.  Maybe because it was more complicated?  Incorporated both a bottom and top crust?  It's hard to say at this distance, but I remember that it did turn out to be quite a process.  It took me all of an afternoon.  More importantly though, I remember that it was one of the first labor intensive things I ever made that seemed totally worth it when I finally sat down and put some in my mouth. It was really delicious.  I couldn't believe I had made it. 

One of the things that had set the recipe apart was the inclusion of baby lima beans.  Before this pot pie, I don't think I had ever had them served in a way that I liked them.  But after that pot pie I was hooked.  If you have never had baby lima beans in cream sauce, you are missing out.  I can't imagine making my pot pie without them.  However,  if you have a childhood aversion to lima beans...and just can't bring yourself to try can of course use peas instead. 

In fact, you can make chicken pot pie with any combination of vegetables that you like.  Carrots, onions of some kind, and celery are standard.  Peas are quite common.  Mushrooms too are typical, being a classic element in the aforementioned blanquettes and fricassées.  You will occasionally find potatoes, which are an obvious addition to a chicken stew.  Personally I would find just about any root vegetable to be a delicious addition.  Parsnips and celery root sound particularly appealing. 

Of course the more vegetables you add, the more complicated and drawn out the preparation of your stew becomes...depending on how you choose to cook each of the vegetables.  But if you do a little planning and advance preparation, even a stew with a complicated mix of vegetables can be prepared without too much stress.  As with any complicated recipe, breaking it down into its components is the key to success.  This is probably what made the process so difficult for me that long ago first time:  I didn't really have a handle on the big picture and how to break it up into manageable parts. 

For a pot pie, the components are the crust, the meat, the vegetables, and the thickened liquid.  The process consists of preparing the components and building the pie.  If you make the crust and poach the chicken the day before, the work that remains to ready the pie for the oven can be accomplished in an hour or less.   If you are using leftover chicken and vegetables (or leftover stew!), your work will be even more streamlined. 

Not only will the process itself be less stressful if you break it down into its parts, you will find that you are empowered to create your own version of a chicken pot pie, filled with a combination of vegetables that you love.  When making your pot pie, simply consider that for the size recipe I am posting, you will need two cups of cooked chicken, a generous four cups of cooked vegetables, two cups of sauce and about a half pound of pie dough...perhaps more if you have a very wide and shallow baking dish.  The choice of vegetables, ratio of cream to stock, inclusion of any herbs or other flavor elements is entirely up to you.    

Whatever vegetables you choose to include, when you are done you will have an unbelievably good,  rich and creamy stew—chock full of tender chicken and tasty vegetables—crowned with a flaky crust.  And no matter how much time and effort it took, I'm fairly certain you will think it was totally worth it.  

Chicken Pot Pie

2 c. rich chicken stock or good quality low-salt broth
1 c. (4 oz.) cipollini onions, peeled and quartered (halved if smaller)
1/3 lb. carrots (2 large), trimmed and peeled and cut on a short diagonal 1/4-inch thick (1 cup)
1 stalk celery, trimmed and cut on a short diagonal 1/4-inch thick (1/2 cup)
4 oz. crimini or white mushrooms, halved or quartered
3 T. butter, divided
2 c. (8 oz.) shredded cooked chicken
1 c. (5 oz.) frozen baby lima beans, thawed
3 T. flour
1/3 c. heavy cream
Freshly Ground Pepper

Chilled Pâte Brisée "Lid" (see below)

1 egg, well-beaten

Place 2 cups of chicken stock in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer, season with salt to taste and add the onions, carrots and celery.  Simmer gently until the vegetables are tender—about 15 minutes.  Strain the broth into a two cup measure.  Add water (or more broth) to make 1 2/3 cup total liquid.  Place the drained vegetables in a bowl and set aside.  Return the broth to the saucepan and keep hot.

While the vegetables poach, melt a tablespoon of butter in a medium sauté pan.  When the butter is melted, increase the heat to medium-high.  Add the mushrooms and sauté until browned and tender.  Season with salt and add to the bowl with the onions, carrots and celery.  Add the lima beans and chicken to the bowl and toss to combine.

Return the pan the mushrooms were cooked in to the burner and melt another two tablespoons of butter over medium heat.  When the butter foams, whisk in the flour.  Cook stirring constantly for a few minutes—the roux will be bubbly and straw yellow.  Remove from the heat and pour in half of the hot broth, whisking constantly until smooth—it will thicken immediately.  Add the remaining broth and the cream.  Return to the heat and stir constantly until the sauce returns to a simmer.  Taste and season as desired with salt and pepper.  Scrape the sauce into the bowl of chicken and vegetables and fold in.  Taste and correct the seasoning.

Turn the chicken/vegetable mixture into a buttered 1 1/2 quart casserole. 

Place the prepared sheet of dough over the casserole.  Either fold the edges of the dough under and crimp the edge, or simply allow the dough to hang over the edge of the dish.  Brush the dough with a thin film of egg wash.  

If you have not already cut round vent holes in the dough, use the tip of a sharp knife to make several decorative slashes in the dough to serve as vents.  Place the pot pie on a baking sheet and place in a pre-heated 400° oven.  Bake until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling—about 30 to 40 minutes.  Let the pie cool for a few moments before serving.  Serves 4.

Variations & Substitutions:
  • Substitute 1 cup 1/2-inch diced onion for the cipollinis.  Instead of poaching them in the broth with the carrot and celery, soften them in the 2 T. of butter before adding the flour. 
  • Use one large leek instead of the cipollinis.  Trim away the root and dark green.  Halve the leek lengthwise and cut each half cross-wise in 1/2-inch wide pieces.  Rinse in several changes of water to remove all soil and grit.  Poach with the carrots and celery.
  • Replace the lima beans with peas.
  • For the cooked chicken you may use any type of cooked chicken you like...leftovers, or freshly poached or roasted (even purchased "rotisserie")....white or dark meat (I prefer dark).  If you choose to poach your chicken, add a wedge of onion, a chunk of carrot, a short piece of celery, and a sprig or two of thyme to the poaching liquid—you may use water or broth for the poaching medium.  Use some of this strained chicken poaching liquid (essentially rich homemade stock) as the base liquid for the pie (for poaching the vegetables and making the sauce).  If you are using a roast chicken, deglaze the roasting pan with stock and add the deglazings to the vegetable poaching liquid.  If you are starting from raw chicken (as opposed to using leftovers or purchased) you will need about a pound of parts to produce the half pound of meat needed for the pie.
  • If you like, add some fresh herbs—minced thyme or flat-leaf parsley—to the filling mixture.
  • You may use any combination of cooked vegetables you like for this pot pie as long as you have four cups total of cooked vegetables.
  • This recipe makes enough of the filling to fill a 1 1/2 quart baking dish and serves four.  Divide or multiply the recipe as you like to feed 2, 4, 6 or 8—adjusting the size of the baking dish accordingly.  The quantity of dough in the recipe is sufficient to cover a 13- by 9-inch baking dish (which will hold a double recipe of filling). 
  • Working ahead:  You can of course make the filling, immediately turn it into the casserole, top it with the chilled crust and bake.  But you may also make the filling ahead.  To do so, pour the warm filling into the prepared casserole, cool and chill.  An hour or so before you are ready to bake the pie, pull it out of the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature.  Top with the crust and bake as directed, extending the cooking time as necessary.  As before, bake until the crust is golden and the filling is hot and bubbling.  
  • You may prepare individual pot pies.  Choose four oven proof casseroles with a capacity of 1 1/2 cups each.  Cut the dough in rounds with a diameter that is at least 1 inch larger than the opening of your chosen casseroles.  When making individual pies, cool the filling completely before topping with the crust (a warm filling would cause the butter in the crust to soften too much  in the amount of time it would take to  top all four pies).

Pâte Brisée:
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour (6 oz.)
1/2 t. salt
9 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices (4 1/2 oz.)
3 to 4 1/2 T. ice water

Combine the flour and the salt in a medium-sized bowl.  Rub the butter into the flour until the butter is in small pea-sized pieces. Drizzle 3 T. ice water over the flour/butter mixture.  Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water if necessary.  Turn the dough out onto a counter and form into a mound.  Using the heel of your hand, gradually push all of the dough away from you in short forward strokes, flattening out the lumps.  Continue until all of the dough is flat.  Using a bench scraper, scrape the dough off the counter, forming it into a single clump as you do.  Form the finished dough into a thick disk.  Chill for at least 30 minutes.

To roll out, let dough warm up for a moment or two.  Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle, round, oval or square (depending on the shape of your casserole) that is about 1/8- to 1/6–inch thick.  Take the casserole you will be baking the pot pie in and invert it onto the dough.  Following the shape of the casserole, cut the dough so there will be a 1/2- to 1-inch overhang of dough all the way around.   Brush off the excess flour and transfer the dough to a baking sheet.  Chill until ready to build the pot pie (it should chill for at least 30 minutes).  If you like, you use a small smooth or fluted round cutter to cut out two or three vents in the sheet of dough.

Printable Recipe

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Citrus & Avocado Salad with Green Olives & Arugula...and a short lesson on How to prepare Citrus Filets

It has always been my intention to use this blog not only to share good recipes, but also to teach basic cooking methods.  If you have a working knowledge of good technique, any recipe you choose to prepare will be better.  Unfortunately I now find myself at the point where I have been keeping this blog for long enough that I sometimes forget which techniques I have described in detail.  As I was thinking about the salad recipe that I am posting today—a wonderful winter platter of avocados, arugula, olives and citrus—I began to wonder if I had ever taken the time to talk about preparing citrus filets (or, as they are sometimes called, citrus suprèmes).  I was surprised to discover that I had not.  So, before I share the recipe, I'll begin with a description—along with a few pictures—of how to  prepare citrus segments that are perfectly free of membranes, seeds, bitter white pith and peel.  In this state they are ready to add to today's salad....or any other citrus salad you have in mind to prepare. 

To begin, trim the stem and blossom ends of the fruit to expose the flesh.  This is commonly called "topping and tailing" the fruit:

Set the fruit so that it is resting on one of the flat, cut surfaces.  Using a thin, sharp knife, cut away the rind in strips.  As you cut, follow the contour of the fruit with your knife and use the previous cut to guide where you make the next cut so that you remove all of the peel, pith and membrane...but as little of the flesh as possible. Slice from top to bottom and rotate the fruit as you make each cut.  You should end up with a smooth, sphere of citrus that is free of membrane, pith and peel.

Note how at the second pass I use the line where the pith meets the flesh as a guide

My hands and motions stay in the same place as I work.
I rotate the orange...not my hands or my body position.

At this point you may either release the segments of the fruit (the filets or suprèmes referred to above)...or simply slice the fruit cross-wise into round pinwheels (as in my Clementine, Avocado and Pomegranate Salad).  Either style of cut is beautiful in a salad...and salads with both kinds of cuts (as in today's recipe) are especially attractive.

To release the citrus filets, hold the fruit over a bowl (to catch the juices as you work and to receive the filets). Begin by carefully slicing along the right side of the first segment (between the flesh and the membrane), slicing as close to the membrane as possible.  Cut only as deeply as is necessary to release one side of the segment.  

Make a second incision on the left side of the segment. 

This second cut should end where the first cut ended and the filet should easily fall out. 

Rotate the fruit in your hand and repeat this action on each successive segment until all the segments have been released. 

You may find that after releasing the first filet it is unnecessary to make a cut on both sides of the segment. If, as you are completing the cut on the right side of the segment, you rotate your wrist slightly to the right you will find that this will cause the blade to nudge the segment up and away from the core of the fruit.  As you continue to gently rotate and push upward the segment will pull cleanly away from the membrane on the left side and fall neatly into the bowl.  

Either method (two cuts per segment, or one) will work, but you will find that if you can release the filets with only one cut each, you will conserve more of the flesh of the fruit for your salad.

When all of the segments have been released, give the membrane that is left in your hand a good squeeze (as if you were wringing out a cloth or a sponge) so that as much juice as possible will be extracted.  

If you happen to be working with a seedless specimen, your work is done.  If however there are seeds, you will need to fish them out of the bowl and discard them.  

If you aren't going to use the filets right away, store them in a container, submerged in their juice.  They will keep in the refrigerator for several days.

I realize that in my instructions I have assumed you are right handed.  If you are left handed, simply reverse the instructions for releasing the segments (make the cut on the left side of the segment first...if you are using the "one-cut" version of releasing the successive segments, rotate your wrist to the left, etc.).

The citrus salad I'm sharing today was inspired by a recipe in Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques.  Her salad is a simple and classic combination of citrus and avocado, enhanced by tangy-salty green olives and peppery greens.  It is a delicious salad (perfect for brightening up a dreary winter day) and I have taught it exactly as published in my Winter Salads class for years.  But one day this past week I made a slightly altered version for my lunch.  I liked it so well it is probably the version I will teach in the future.   

The original salad includes watercress and frisée lettuce.  These are lovely in the salad, but the frisée is not reliably available in my area.  Moreover, it can be quite expensive.  Watercress too can be difficult to find (and even when it is available, its quality isn't always so fine).  Fortunately all of the interesting greens and lettuces aren't quite so hard to come by.  Arugula of good quality is widely available.  Because I love it I tend to keep it on hand anyway.  It echoes the peppery contribution of the well as the slightly bitter note of the frisée.    

I have also altered the vinaigrette slightly.  Goin includes some of the mixed citrus juices in her vinaigrette.  I have left them out...their addition always made the salad seem slightly soggy to me.  The flavor of the citrus is still front and center without them and the resulting sharper vinaigrette is a perfect foil for the rich avocado and peppery arugula.   

For my version of this salad I like to toss all of the elements separately.  This allows me to arrange them in a purposeful way on the plate.  But it would probably be fine to simply place all the ingredients in a big bowl and toss them together.  When prepared this way, the salad might not be quite so beautiful on the plate....but it will still taste delicious.

With some multi-grain toast...a satisfying winter lunch.

 Citrus & Avocado Salad with Green Olives & Arugula

4 lbs. mixed citrus fruit (oranges, blood oranges, grapefruit, tangelos, clementines, etc.)
3 T. finely diced shallot (about 1 medium shallot)
1/2 T. red wine vinegar
1 1/2 T. lemon juice
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 large ripe, but not too soft, avocados (preferably Haas)
1/2 c. pitted green olives—Lucques, Picholines, etc.—halved
2 handfuls arugula (about 2 oz.)
Salt & Pepper

Prepare the citrus fruits:  One by one, cut the stem and blossom ends from the fruit.  Place each fruit cut side down on the cutting board and following the contour of the fruit with your knife, remove the peel and cottony pith—working from top to bottom, and rotating the fruit as you go.  When the fruits are all peeled, hold them one by one over a bowl (to catch the juices), and carefully slice between the membranes and the fruit to release the segments.  When all of the segments have been released, squeeze the membrane to release the juices into the work bowl.  If you're using blood oranges, don't cut them into segments; after removing the peel and pith, slice them into pinwheels and set aside on a small plate.  (They will "bleed" into the other fruit.)  Discard any seeds that you find.  You may store all of the other mixed citrus filets in one bowl or in separate you prefer.  If not serving right away, store the citrus filets in their juice.   When ready to serve remove the filets from their juice.  (The juice may be used for another preparation...or enjoyed as a refreshing drink.)  You should have a total of 3 cups drained citrus fruit.   

Fruit for half a recipe...1 tangerine, 1 Cara Cara orange, 1 blood orange,
1 grapefruit and 1 clementine (not pictured)
Prepared citrus, sliced avocado and macerating shallots.

Make the vinaigrette:  Combine the shallot, the vinegar, lemon juice and generous 1/4 t. kosher salt in a small bowl.  Let sit 5 minutes.  Whisk in the olive oil.  Taste and correct the balance and seasoning.

When you are ready to make the salad, halve the avocados and remove the pit and peel.  Cut the avocado into scant half inch wedges, and place on a plate or a tray.  Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with vinaigrette. 

Season the blood oranges with salt and drizzle with some of the vinaigrette.

Place the drained citrus segments in a large bowl and drizzle in two or three tablespoons of the vinaigrette.  Season with salt and toss gently to combine.  Place the arugula in a small bowl, season with salt and pepper.  Drizzle in a very small amount of vinaigrette and toss to coat.    

The salad may be built on individual serving plates or on a large platter.  To build, scatter half of the arugula over the plate(s).  Arrange half of each of the other elements (blood oranges, mixed citrus, avocados and olives) over and among the arugula.  Repeat this layering a second time.  Drizzle any remaining vinaigrette from the bowl of mixed citrus over the salad(s) and serve. 

Serves 4 to 6

 (Adapted from Sunday Suppers and Lucques, by Suzanne Goin)

For an alternative presentation, arrange all of the avocado slices on a plate, season and drizzle with the vinaigrette.  Arrange all of the dressed citrus (in this case just Cara Cara oranges and Ruby Red grapefruit) over the avocado and scatter the olives over the citrus.  Dress the Arugula and place a small fluff in the center of the plate:

Friday, January 10, 2014

Cream of Mushroom & Wild Rice Soup

The country has been in the midst of a cold snap that will probably place the winter of '14 in the record books.  Apparently one spot in the Aloha State even dropped below 32° F the other morning...making it so all fifty states were reporting temperatures below the freezing mark in at least one location.  In many parts of the country it is so cold that 32° sounds downright balmy.  Where I live the polar vortex has moved on by, but it is still cold...and now it is damp too.  I imagine that for most people, heading back out into the elements after a long day at work, just to get something to eat, would be extremely unappealing...making this perfect weather for staying in to cook.  Perfect weather for a rich casserole or a stew...a creamy or hearty baked pasta...or a warm and flavorful bowl of soup.

At my house we have been eating a lot of soup:  Cream of Wild Rice with Vegetables & Country Ham....Classic Tomato....Corn Chowder....  Last night I made a Cream of Mushroom and Wild Rice.  Most of these soups were made just because I was hungry for them, but last night's was made in preparation for a winter soups class that I will be teaching next week (it's so nice that the weather is cooperating).  The class is filled with my favorites...some tried and true, and others that are old friends that I have updated for the class.  Last night's soup falls into this latter category. 

I have always loved the combination of mushrooms and wild rice so several years ago when I was asked to help develop some soup and salad recipes for a local restaurant and deli I decided to work this combination into a velouté-based soup similar to a cream of wild rice soup (mentioned above) that I have been making for years.  For the deli I made a thick, stew-like version that included pieces of shredded chicken.  It was delicious—chunky and satisfying... just the kind of thing one might expect to find at an old-fashioned deli.  To turn the recipe into something that is a bit more to my taste (for a class advertised as featuring my favorites), I have reworked it so that it is all about the mushrooms...increasing the fresh mushrooms by fifty percent, adding dried porcini and leeks (wonderful with mushrooms) and omitting the chicken.  The soup is still hearty...but it is also refined.  Just the kind of soup I like to eat.

So if soup is exactly what you are craving...and you love should give this one a try.  Or, you can check out some of the other soup recipes that I have shared over the past few years.  Hopefully you'll find one...or two...that will be just the thing—warming you right down to your toes and providing a much needed respite from the cold.

Cream of Mushroom & Wild Rice

1/4 oz. dried porcini (optional)
1 c. boiling water
4 oz. (2/3 c.) wild rice, rinsed
2 qts. chicken stock, divided
8 T. butter, divided
1 lb. mushrooms—I use Crimini & white button...but you could use whatever you like...cleaned, halved if larger than an inch across and thinly sliced
1/2 lb. Shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps halved if large and sliced thinly cross-wise

Mushrooms are cut so they will be in bite-sized pieces
2/3 c. white wine
1 large or 2 small leeks—white and pale green parts only, cut in a 1/4-inch dice and rinsed in several changes of water to remove all grit
1 onion cut in a 1/4-inch dice (about 10 oz.)
2 medium ribs celery cut in a 1/4-inch dice
2 cloves garlic minced
1 T. minced fresh thyme
1/2 c. flour
2/3 c. heavy cream
Salt & pepper, to taste
Minced chives or parsley

Ingredients for half a recipe

If using dried porcini, place in a small bowl and pour the boiling water over.  Let sit until rehydrated and soft...30 to 45 minutes.  Lift porcini out and rinse.  Mince finely and set aside.  Strain the soaking liquid through a coffee filter or dampened paper towel and reserve separately.

Important to rinse the soaked mushrooms and strain the liquid  through a filter
of some kind--note the grit remaining in the bowl in which the mushrooms
were soaked and in the filter.  You don't want grit in your soup.

Meanwhile, place rice in a pot with half of the stock.  Bring to a simmer.  Cover and simmer gently until the rice is tender, but not blown open—30 to 40 minutes.  Strain and reserve the stock and rice separately. 

Melt 4 T. butter in a large, wide sauté pan.  Increase the heat to moderately high and add the mushrooms along with a couple of good pinches of salt.  Cook stirring occasionally until the mushrooms have reduced in volume and any liquid they have given off has evaporated.  The mushrooms should be tender and caramelized in places.  

Add the wine and reduce to a glaze.  Set aside.

While the rice and mushrooms cook, melt the remaining 4 T. of butter in a stock pot over medium-low heat.  Add the leeks, onions, celery, garlic and thyme along with a pinch of salt.  Stir to coat the vegetables in the butter.  As soon as the vegetables begin to sizzle, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and sweat until very tender (15 to 20 minutes).  Uncover.  If the pan seems dry, add another tablespoon of butter.  Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2 or 3 minutes.  Add the remaining quart of stock and bring to a simmer.  Add the reserved mushrooms (both the sautéed and rehydrated) and the rice and porcini liquids.  Simmer, with the pot half covered, for 5 to 10 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.  Add the cream and the wild rice and heat through.  Season to taste with salt & pepper.  Serve garnished with minced chives or parsley if you like.  Makes a scant 3 quarts soup.

Note:  To make a hearty chicken variation, omit the shiitake mushrooms and leeks, increase the butter the onion and celery are cooked in to 6 T. and the flour to 3/4 cups.  Add 2 cups of diced or shredded cooked chicken when you add the wild rice.  

Warm soup on a cold night...