Shrimp, Corn, and Squash Soup

Nothing makes me crabbier than fall. That cheerfully crisp weather, that can-do spirit that forces you off the porch and into some useful activity–it’s all too horrible to contemplate for very long.

This year, though, good news has buoyed me up, helping me to face fall’s dreadful enthusiasm with a sense of hope: The Louisiana shrimpers are headed out into the Gulf again.

For me, the Gulf oil spill has loomed all summer like . . . well, like the black oily cloud it is, seeping into the fragile marshes, threatening the livelihoods of shrimpers and fishermen even more than cheap seafood from China, oozing into delicate marine life and causing damage we may not fully realize for years. Still, earlier this week the shrimpers were out on the water again. They didn’t catch much. But there’s a little hope.

To celebrate, I’m offering this soup recipe that I developed at the beach, using these gorgeous shrimp from the North Carolina coast, caught the same day they were served. Fred’s little camera doesn’t begin to do them justice.

This dish is a lot less complicated than it looks. If you can boil water, you can make the shrimp stock, and it cooks while you prepare the other ingredients. Besides, there’s almost no way to mess up the combination of fresh corn, squash, and shrimp–a hearty yet delicately flavored combination that may well be the perfect summer dish, just in time for summer to end.

You can, of course, cheat by using frozen shrimp and corn and substituting water or chicken broth for the shrimp stock. But you’ll regret it. And you need to help the shrimpers get back out there.

Shrimp, Corn and Squash Soup

Serves 6

Kernels from 6 shucked ears of fresh sweet corn (do not substitute frozen)
6 small to medium yellow crookneck squash, quartered lengthwise and sliced (may substitute 1 – 2 small zucchini for 1 – 2 of the squash for added color)
2 tbsp. olive oil or butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 fresh jalapenos, minced (optional)
1 lb. large fresh shrimp, peeled, deveined, and cut into 3 pieces each; shrimp peels and tails set aside in bowl
1 15 oz. can evaporated milk
Salt to taste

Begin by making the shrimp stock. Place shrimp peels and tails in medium saucepan. Add enough water to cover by about 1 inch. Bring to boil on high heat. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for about 20 minutes. Drain stock into bowl, discard peels and tails, and set aside.

While stock is boiling, sauté onion in olive oil in large pot on medium high heat until translucent. Add garlic and jalapenos and stir. Add squash and sauté until tender, about 5 – 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Pulse in food processor until very finely chopped. Return to pot. Add corn. Cover with shrimp stock and increase heat to high; add water just to cover if there is not enough stock. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium low. Add evaporated milk, cover, and simmer until corn is tender. Cooking times can vary significantly depending on the type of corn you use, anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes; taste periodically until the corn is tender but not starchy. When corn is cooked, reduce heat to lowest possible flame. Add shrimp and cover; cook about 3 minutes or until shrimp are cooked.

Cucumber-Avocado Soup

Several events converged in the making of cucumber-avocado soup yesterday.

 A reminder that The Newlyfeds is about the stories and food, not the photos

The first was last month’s family trip to Kiawah Island, South Carolina, where we made our annual pilgrimage to Hege’s. Hege’s is a “brasserie Francais classique” focusing primarily on seafood. (Fred, of course, ordered steak.) On this trip, they offered a cucumber-avocado soup as a special. It was so good that even my seven-year-old niece loved it. The color was the perfect green for this kind of soup but it’s hard to describe exactly what it was–the only thing that comes to mind is a very unappetizing comparison to a 1970s appliance, only about six shades lighter. Or maybe the minty color of a bedspread you’d get at Pottery Barn.

Color aside, the soup somehow managed to taste like neither cucumber nor avocado, but a summer evening, with a dash of cream and chives. (The server claims there was no cream in the dish, but I am sure he lied–see below). I was determined to try this at home.

The second event was the avalanche of produce that is coming out of the nascent community garden at our church, St. John’s Presbyterian.

You can see the cucumber plants in the fourth box from the front. There are a lot of cucumbers buried in those plants–so many that our small congregation can’t quite manage all of them. And there’s parsley, enough to supply the entire city of Durham for the remainder of 2010. 

Here, of course, was my opportunity to re-create that spectacular cucumber-avocado soup, only this time with parsley in place of the chives. I was a bit reluctant to replace those chives, since they complemented the other flavors of the soup so well. But I hated to see that parsley go to waste, and there’s only so much tabbouleh that one person can eat.

The parsley was a stroke of genius. As a garnish, it added crunchiness and a gentle undertone, with a hint of creamy pine nut balancing its natural sharpness. And like the original, this soup tasted just like summer.

Cucumber-Avocado Soup

4 servings

4 large cucumbers, seeded and roughly chopped
1 avocado
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 tbsp. Salvadoran or Honduran creme
2 tbsp. heavy cream or half and half
6 – 8 large Italian (flat-leaf) parsley leaves, plus generous amounts for garnish (about 1 cup)
2 mint leaves, torn (optional, but these smooth out the flavor)
Salt to taste

Scoop avocado from peel and remove pit. Puree cucumber, avocado, and garlic in food processor until finely minced. Add remaining ingredients except for water and pulse in food processor a few seconds at a time until ingredients are combined. Add water until soup reaches the consistency of thin grits or whatever you prefer. Garnish with very generous amounts of parsley.

The soup is best if served immediately. The avocado will create a brownish film on top of the soup if it is kept overnight.

Note: The creams and avocado make this a rich dish, and I noticed a bit of greasiness around my mouth after each bite that some might find unpleasant. To correct this I would suggest reducing the Salvadoran creme to a teaspoon and substituting half and half or whole milk for the heavy cream, or even omitting these and adding chicken broth until the dish is the proper consistency. I did not have chicken broth on hand when I made this, and that may well be what Hege’s used to get the right flavor instead of cream. But I still think the server lied.

Sweet Potato and Black Bean Soup

This recipe comes with deepest apologies to the pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian Church. Last Sunday, as Fred and I sat dutifully in worship, I wrote out a new recipe for a sweet potato and black bean soup on the church bulletin instead of thinking about Mark 6:45-56 and Jesus walking on water.

Some might say I should apologize to God instead of the minister for this kind of behavior. But God knows better than anyone that while you can always get a copy of the sermon, you can’t always remember a good recipe idea.

And if you want proof that God favors those who care about food, I discovered the North Carolina Sweet Potato recipe contest while I was doing a little online research for this blog posting, just in time to enter the contest before tomorrow’s deadline. Frankly, I don’t see how the judges can NOT pick a recipe that was originally written out on a church bulletin (even if that bulletin serves as proof that the recipe creator was not paying very much attention to the sermon).

The idea for the dish was not actually triggered by anything in the service but by a recent potluck dinner, where one of the guests brought a dish with sweet potatoes, black beans, rice and chicken. I had been wanting to make something interesting with the Carolina Ruby sweet potatoes sitting on my counter, the only ones from Whole Foods that were under $2 a pound.

My constant carping about Whole Foods and their prices aside, our unit on Ninth Street is certainly a friend to North Carolina’s sweet potato farmers–a good thing, since the state produces forty percent of the sweet potatoes grown in the US and is the country’s number one producer. On any given day the store will feature up to five different varieties, including purple ones.
We’d already enjoyed two of the Carolina Ruby potatoes served mashed with a little butter, but the remaining two deserved a more exciting end. Here’s what I came up with–a combination based in part on the potluck dish and part on a Cuban-style black bean soup I’d tried years ago. The dish is unexpectedly but pleasantly spicy, which complements the sweetness of the potatoes. To me it’s a welcome change from our Southern tendency to smother these wonderful vegetables with sugar and pecans. After all, there’s a lot more to a sweet potato than the sweet.
Here’s hoping the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission will like this recipe as much as we did.
Sweet Potato and Black Bean Soup
Makes about 2 1/2 quarts, or 6 – 8 servings

2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)

3 large cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tbsp.)
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes (about 6 1/4 cups)
4 cups chicken broth (homemade or low-salt)

2 1/2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. thyme
2 medium-sized bay leaves
1/2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes (add more or less to taste)
2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
3 tbsp. fresh squeezed lime juice (do not substitute concentrate)
2 cans black beans, drained
1 c. crushed tomatoes
1 c. evaporated milk
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish (optional)

Heat oil on medium high heat in large pot. Saute onions until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and stir. Add sweet potatoes, broth, and spices. Cover and turn heat to high, bringing to boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until potatoes are becoming tender, about 5 minutes. With potato masher, mash potatoes briefly, crushing into smaller pieces but not pureeing–there should still be distinctive pieces of sweet potato in the soup, but crushing them will distribute the flavor throughout the dish.

Add remaining ingredients except evaporated milk. Cover and cook until potatoes are very tender, 5 – 10 more minutes. (At this point, soup can be frozen. When ready to serve, thaw and finish according to instructions.) Add evaporated milk. Cover and continue to simmer until flavors are blended, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. (The soup’s flavor continues to improve the longer it sits and is better the next day.) Correct seasonings and garnish with cilantro if desired. Let cool slightly before serving.

Warm Food for a Chilly New Year

We are back for 2010, after a long vacation over Christmas that included our third wedding anniversary and a week in Jackson Hole, WY, with family. We limited the possibility of injury by sticking to snowshoeing. Fred also took his first cross-country ski lesson, during which they taught him to fall down. He was so pleased that he practiced falling down quite a bit thereafter, and seems to have mastered the technique quite well. 

I was also reminded why I married him, because he is the only man I know who would bring a copy of Poetry magazine on a snowshoeing excursion. (I post this photo as a tribute to Ruth Lilly, the benefactor of the magazine, who died while we were on the trip.) 

Returning to Durham, we were surprised to find the temperature was very nearly the same as it had been in Wyoming. The cats responded appropriately. See if you can spot which one made herself at home in our sweater drawer.

And finally, I made this delicious pork and bean soup. I post it despite my concern that it’s not possible to replicate it. For starters, the broth I used was from a Cornish game hen I roasted over Christmas. The hen was stuffed with sage dressing, and the flavors may have infused the broth. 

Second, the pork came from a container of pulled pork “barbecue” from Whole Foods. As barbecue, it was lousy–tender but lacking anything in the way of zip, zing, or flavor. Not even worthy of a sandwich, it was heartlessly tossed into the pot, where it took on a new life so tasty that it may convince me to buy it again for the sole purpose of making this soup.

Pork and Northern Bean Soup

Makes 3 – 4 servings

About 1 quart chicken or other poultry stock
1 medium onion, chopped
3 – 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry Great Northern beans
1 cup small carrots, sliced
1 tbsp. herbes de Provence (could substitute a mix of sage and thyme)
1 cup mild pork barbecue, shredded or chopped*
1 small can evaporated milk, or more to taste
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

*Note that this is North Carolina-style barbecue, which is vinegar based and uses no tomato. If this type of barbecue is not available, I would substitute leftover smoked pork shoulder, pork chops, tenderloin, or even ham.

Put enough chicken stock in bottom of soup pot to cover and saute onion on medium high heat. Add garlic and stir. Add beans, remaining chicken stock, and a large pinch of kosher salt (a teaspoon or so–it really does not matter as long as you don’t overdo it, since seasonings will be corrected at the end.) Bring to a boil and let boil for 1 -2 minutes. Cover, reduce heat to medium low, and let simmer until beans are just tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Check every half hour or so; add water or more stock if liquid level begins to get low, enough to keep ingredients well covered. Add carrots and herbes de Provence. Cover and continue to simmer until carrots are tender, 15 – 30 minutes. Add pork and evaporated milk and stir. Remove from heat immediately or when soup is sufficiently warm; do not overcook the pork. Add more salt to taste and pepper if desired. Serve immediately.

Chicken Soup with Herbes de Provence

If you think this is not a thrilling post–“Chicken soup??”–you have never tried herbes de Provence. The French may be a pretentious, snooty, and cold people, but if they do nothing else besides create herbes de Provence and demonstrate to the world that six-week vacations ought to be mandatory, they deserve our love and respect.

Herbes de Provence are a magical mix of, obviously, herbs, chief among them thyme and lavender flowers. The proportions and spices will vary and can include savory, basil, fennel, sage, rosemary, and marjoram. My source, Whole Foods, offers a great combination in their bulk spice section–one of the few places you can actually get a bargain there.

Herbes de Provence are ideal for vegetables, fish, and chicken dishes. This soup allows their flavor to stand out, and the aroma alone makes it worth making on a cold day.

Chicken Soup with Herbes de Provence

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1 – 2″ pieces (small enough for spooning)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium clove garlic, minced or grated (do not add more or it will overpower the herbs)
4 smallish/mediumish red potatoes, cut into 1″ pieces (3 – 4 cups)
2 cups peeled and sliced carrots
Chicken stock/broth to cover
1 – 2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. herbes de Provence
Salt and pepper to taste

In large soup pot, melt butter. Add onion and saute on medium-high heat until translucent. Peel and slice carrots and add to onions; saute about 5 – 10 minutes. While carrots are sauteeing, cut up potatoes, then chicken. Add garlic and stir. Add chicken to pot and cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until chicken begins to be cooked through. Add potatoes, herbes de Provence, and salt and pepper; stir to coat ingredients with spices. Add stock to cover. Cover pot and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until potatoes are tender, 20 minutes or so. Add cream to serving bowls if desired.

Chickenless Chicken and Dumplings

Faced with a fresh pile of vegetables from our CSA once again, I was forced to turn down an invitation to the Durham Bulls game last night to stay home and cook them. (The unpleasant prospect of sitting outdoors on a cloudy, muggy, rain-splattered evening had nothing to do with it.) And so I felt compelled to Do Something.

My first thought was to make a vegetable pot pie, so I pulled out my handy Cook’s Illustrated: The Best Recipe for some guidelines. But the book magically opened instead onto the recipe for chicken and dumplings.

It’s been years since chicken and dumplings crossed my lips, and what a sad thing that is. They were a childhood favorite (back when the first line of my grandmother’s recipe would have read, “Kill chicken”), but I don’t find myself making them very often. The main reason is that I can no longer call my grandmother to get the recipe because I’ve forgotten it and could never remember to write it down.

Unfortunately my mother cannot be of help here because this is an area of deep division between us. Her mother (my other grandmother) was a proponent of flat dumplings, which are rolled out before they are added to the dish. My father’s mother was squarely on the side of drop dumplings, which are formed into balls and “dropped” in.

The flat/drop debate has raged in our family for decades now with no clear resolution. My mother, usually right about everything, has yet to see the merits of my argument in this particular case. To me, flat dumplings cannot even approach the fluffy perfection of a well-made drop dumpling. Properly done, drop dumplings are exceedingly light, with an inside like a tender, cakey biscuit, all surrounded by a very thin layer of rich, creamy dough. How can a flat, chewy lump even compare?

Still, the biggest obstacle to my making chicken and dumplings last night was that I had no chicken, and I wasn’t going to send even Fred out into a misty, damp evening to get one. Luckily, the Cook’s Illustrated recipe is called “Chicken and Dumplings with Aromatic Vegetables”–and I figured I had the second part of that covered. So I modified the recipe and came up with this dish.

Of course, the dumplings are not quite as light and fluffy as my grandmother’s. But lost recipes are like that–always made better by the fact we can’t have them anymore.

Note dumpling’s fluffy, tender goodness

Vegetable Stew with Dumplings

4 tbsp. butter
1 onion,chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 large zucchini, cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 medium yellow squash, cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 1/2 c. frozen peas
6 tbsp. flour
2 tsp. thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
4 c. chicken stock
Cream, if desired

Melt butter in soup pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add onion and saute until translucent. Add carrots and saute for 5 – 10 minutes. Stir in zucchini and squash. Cover and cook for 5 – 10 minutes, until vegetables are just tender. Make dumplings and set aside. Stir in flour, thyme, salt, and pepper until flour vegetables are coated. Add chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Add peas. Add cream if desired. Lay dumplings over top of liquid. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes until dumplings are done.

Baking Powder Dumplings (from Cook’s Illustrated: The Best Recipe, p. 162)

2 c. flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. butter
1 c. milk

Mix flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl. Heat butter and milk to simmer and add to dry ingredients. Mix with a fork or knead by hand two to three times until mixture just comes together. Form dough into balls about 2″ in diameter.

No such thing as too many collards

Perhaps it’s come to your attention that our Weight Watchers updates have decreased in frequency. We haven’t quit; we’ve just plateaued. Our collective weight loss stands at 32.8 pounds–15.8 for me, 17 for Fred. With just 1.2 pounds left for me and 6 for Fred (to reach his initial goal of a 10% weight loss), we’re now entering the final push.

This means more soup. At least that’s what was suggested at our last WW meeting.

If you’ve ever wondered how Jell-O salad ever got to be popular, come to a Weight Watchers meeting. I’m often stunned at the culinary tactics some of my fellow members deploy in the kitchen.

In our last meeting, the leader divided us into groups to come up with ideas for fall soup recipes. Our group (led–some might say dictated–by me) devised a spicy butternut squash chowder. This idea was met with murmured confusion, even by some group members. (But like Sarah Palin, and Stalin–who must be related to her since Alaska is so close to Russia–I had managed to suppress dissent.)

The most popular idea was to take a bag of frozen vegetables and dump some canned chicken broth in it. I was forced into seething, bitter retreat.

In response, I offer this very simple but MUCH better dish, which I made the next night.

Brat, Butter Bean, and Collard Soup

3 pork brats or sausages, quartered lengthwise and sliced

NOTE: The brat should have enough fat for the saute. If you use brats made with a low-fat meat like turkey, add oil or chicken stock to the saute mix to keep it from burning.

4 cups collard, cleaned and chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic
1 can butter beans, undrained
1 tsp sage
1 tsp thyme
2 bay leaves
1 whole dried chipotle pepper
Salt to taste
Water or chicken stock to cover

Heat chopped brats on medium heat. Add onions and saute until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add remaining ingredients. Cover and cook on medium heat for about 1/2 hour.

The F Word

Fat, that is.

Last week I went in for my annual physical and the scale revealed terrible, terrible news: I weigh the most I ever have in my life. Not much more, but that’s not the point. Apparently the desserts, the bacon fat, the butter, the steaks, the pasta, and the wine (the last purchased and consumed to cope with the outrageous food prices here in the RTP) have taken their toll.

And so, Fred and I have embarked on a . . . an effort to improve our eating habits and get in better shape as middle age attempts to settle itself around our waistlines. To that end, we bought shares in an organic CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture). The farm will deliver a box of fresh, organically grown vegetables to us each week at a mere $18 a pop–about the same amount as a small bag of lettuce at Whole Foods.

I made some particularly tasty dishes on our maiden voyage into the die–um, more vegetable-oriented food waters. One surprising effort was this soup:

Tomato, Cauliflower, and Ground Beef Soup

Serves 2 with leftovers

1/2 lb. ground beef (for vegetarians, omit beef and saute vegetables in 4 tbsp. butter)
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 stalks celery, chopped
1 head cauliflower, cut into very small stalks about 1″ in size, or chopped
1 16-oz. can crushed tomatoes (I had home-canned, but Muir Glen or another good brand would do)
2 c. chicken broth (if using canned, use low salt)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 – 2 tsp. crushed red pepper
2 tsp. thyme

Brown beef on medium high heat in medium to large soup pot. Drain all but 1 tbsp. fat, or leave fat in if you are not di–increasing vegetable consumption. Add onion and saute on medium high heat until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Reduce heat to medium; add celery and saute about 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients. Cover and cook on medium heat until cauliflower is tender, about 45 minutes.

Lentil Soup

With the temperature being an absolutely ridiculous 42 degrees yesterday, there was nothing more to do than make soup.

And read Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which I was supposed to read for my book club two months ago. Let’s just say I skipped the meeting. But now I’m working on one of our next items, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and it’s so dreadfully, horribly serious that I had to turn to something fun.

But back to the soup. Fred miraculously did not finish, or even come near to finishing, the steak he ordered at Feast on Saturday night, so it ended up in the soup. I felt a little guilty throwing a lovely steak into a lentil soup, but it was either that or overcook it.

For the recipe I’ve added more meat–there really was not quite enough leftover steak.

Beef and Lentil Soup

2-3 tsp. olive oil
1 lb. beef, cut into 1″ pieces
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 carrots, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. lentils, sorted and rinsed
2 quarts water
1 can unsalted tomato puree
1/2 – 1 cup white or red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive in soup pot over medium heat. Add and cook until just tender.

Add onion and saute until translucent. Add carrots and saute about 10 minutes.

Add garlic and stir. Add remaining ingredients, stir, turn heat to high, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium low, cover, and simmer until lentils are soft, about 1 1/2 hour.

And now–back to my day job.

Oh Lard!

I made the most spectacular soup I have ever had last night. It approaches Paul’s famous sandwich, The Hef.

The key ingredient was the LARD, mentioned in the Lardy Yellow Yard Sale post, rendered from a hog raised by a friend’s son-in-law. If you are able to find home-(killed? rendered? made?) lard you can easily replicate this at home. If not . . . too bad. I’m not sharing.

In large soup pot saute in 1 tbsp. lard and 2 tbsp. butter:
1 chopped onion

Add and saute for about 5 minutes:
2 thick slices Prague (or any not-too-salty) ham, cut in 1″ pieces
2-3 carrots, sliced

Add and saute for a few seconds:
2 large cloves minced garlic

Add salt and a generous amount of pepper.

Add 1 quart chicken stock. Cover and bring to boil. Add 1/2 head of coarsely chopped cabbage (1″ pieces or so). Reduce heat and cook until cabbage is just soft, about 10 – 15 minutes.