Tomato-basil soup

It's raining today, and the house is quiet and lonely [how can a house be quiet and lonely when it still contains two children? It just can.], and perhaps you are feeling like some nice comforting soup?  I have just the thing.

You know, I never liked tomato soup as a child.  But then, this soup is quite different from the Campbell's kind.  It's my own lovingly-developed recipe.  Its texture is mostly smooth, with little salty bits of cheese and bright bites of herb flavor here and there for interest.  Feta cheese adds the perfect amount of creaminess without sacrificing that tangy tomato-y taste.  And fresh basil, while optional, is the ideal complement.  I could eat this soup every day.  It's healthy and it takes 15 minutes to put together, and it makes great leftovers (it may be even better the next day).  In fact, this soup is also the first meal that induced Daisy to sign "more" (see for yourself):,
and it remains one of her favorites.

Ideally, you'll have some nice fresh artisan bread or wheat bread with which you can make grilled cheese sandwiches to go with your soup.  They elevate it to a whole new level. 
But if not, it's still one of my favorite soups ever.  And I like a lot of soup.

Creamy Tomato-Basil Soup

4-5 cans diced tomatoes
2-3 T. olive oil

Combine in a large soup pot and bring to a boil, then turn heat down and simmer for 5 minutes or so.  Blend with immersion blender (or in regular blender).  You can let it simmer for longer if you want the flavors to deepen more, but it's good immediately, too.  Then stir in:

salt to taste
1 T. fresh oregano (or 1 t. dried)
1-2 T. fresh basil (or 1-2 t. dried), plus more for garnish
2 c. milk or cream
2 c. or so grated cheese---my favorite is feta, or a combination of gouda and cheddar

Stir and heat until cheese is mostly melted.  Garnish with more fresh basil.  Serve warm with grilled cheese sandwiches.
Sometimes I wonder if anyone is bothered by my enthusiasm for my own recipes.  I don't mean to be conceited.  It's just that who would want to try it if I said, "This food is not that good.  You probably won't like it very much."?  And, frankly, that just wouldn't be true and I couldn't, in good conscience, say it anyway.  So forgive me singing my own food's praises.  It's not me that's good, it's the food, and I just want to share it!
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Treasure

For back-to-school this year we had a "fancy dinner" (the boys always want to do this---it means a multi-course meal).  Each person chose one of the courses.  Which could have led to strange combinations, but it turned out fine.
Drink (Abe): Lime Freeze (that's lime juice, 7-Up, and ice cream blended together)
Appetizer (Seb): Roasted Artichoke Dip with Sourdough Bread
Salad (Ky): Spring Mix and Baby Spinach with Grated Parmesan and Homemade Ranch Dressing (yes, he really chose this himself; he loves salad)
Main Dish (Sam and Daisy): Saag Paneer made with fresh chard and homemade paneer (cheese), Yellow Daal, and Naan

Then we set off on a treasure hunt which took us on our bikes all around the neighborhood.  It was a perfect night.  A little cool and Fall-y.  But still sunny and pleasant.  The boys got VERY INTO finding all the clues.  They were good at it, too.
Did I mention it was a really gorgeous night?  The light changed every few minutes, and the sky with it.

The clues were in pictures so that everyone could help guess which place was next.  Luckily we have nicknames for almost everywhere ("the goblet playground," for example) so it wasn't hard to come up with images.  Sam hid most of them.  Some were pretty hard to find, but he gave hints.
Mushroom-head


We ended up at the boys' school, where we read Doctrine and Covenants 89, which talks about how we can find "great treasures of knowledge" when we obey God's commandments.  We talked about why wisdom and knowledge can be a treasure to us.  And then we found the treasure box, which held a new book for everyone.
And THEN we went home and had dessert, which if I may say so was also quite a treasure.  Volcano cakes with caramel lava hidden inside.  (You just make this recipe---but you put a caramel inside instead of the chocolate filling.  I had made the caramels the night before---recipe is here as part of the Twix bars).  It doesn't follow the no-desserts-that-are-two-desserts rule.  But then, that was never my rule anyway.

It sounds trite to say this, but my family is MY treasure.  I love them so much I can hardly stand it.  I love planning surprises for them and doing activities with them and making yummy things for them to eat.  I feel like the luckiest one of all.
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Speaking of sandwiches

Daisy ate an entire roast beef sandwich today.  In case you're wondering:
She was very happy about it.
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THE SANDWICH; or, Naan


I don't know if you read Sam's comment on the last post?  He is very alarmed.  Upset, even.  Because I neglected to mention THE SANDWICH.  Well, if he had been slightly more patient, he would have soon seen that I was planning to post on naan next.  Naan is the essential ingredient to THE SANDWICH, and it elevates hummus and labneh to a new plane, as well.  The question is, can we make some as delicious as the naan at Bombay House?  I've been trying for years.  Without the tandoori oven, I thought maybe it wasn't possible---but then I discovered a startling secret.  Milk!  And a frying pan!  And now, behold the glory of the naan:


Seriously, this is amazing.  I mean, I like ALL bread.  And I make a lot of different kinds.  But this naan is going to change your life.  It will be the best part of your next Indian meal.  Or of your next sandwich.  You mark my words.

Before we get on to the recipe, let me assure you that I have tried variation after variation trying to get this right.  Many people say to bake it on the pizza stone, as it's the next best thing to a hot tandoori oven.  Others advise using the grill as your high-heat source.  I've tried both (and grilled naan is pretty good)---but neither of those options give you the airy, flaky, bubbly, soft-and-chewy-with-a-few-key-crunchy-bits texture that naan needs.  The stone yields a crispy-crunchy bread that dries out fast, and the grill is fickle and unpredictable.  Sometimes a piece of naan is too thick and gives you a dry spongy bread.  Other times your thin dough droops into the grill grate and gets charred on one side.  Not the perfection we are striving for.  Instead, you're going to pan-fry this dough.  Gently, without oil.  Before frying, you brush each side with a thin coating of milk.  The milk absorbs the first shock of heat from the pan and leaves that crust supple.  But then as it evaporates, it allows the bread to crisp up just slightly, giving you in parts a thin chewy crust almost like that of artisan bread.  Variations in thickness are not only acceptable but desirable---the thicker parts are tender and the thinnest parts have just enough crackle.  You'll love it.

Naan
By the way, please do not call it naan bread.  "Naan" means bread.  And you know how I abjure the use of redundancies like "ATM Machine."  Also, it sounds like you are saying "non-bread" which is just, you know, wrong.

1 cup warm water
1 1/2 Tablespoons instant yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 c. oil (canola or olive)
2/3 c. plain yogurt
2 beaten eggs
5 c. flour, or enough to make a smooth dough

Mix together ingredients to form a smooth, elastic dough.  Knead well and let rise in large greased bowl until double in size, about 1 hour.

Divide dough into small golf-ball-sized pieces.  Roll each one out into a very thin teardrop shape.  Don't worry about small variations in thickness, since these add interest and deliciousness to the bread.  Brush the top of one piece of rolled-out dough with milk.  Carefully lay dough milk-side down onto a hot frying pan or skillet.  Let cook until small bubbles fill the surface.  When the bubbles have formed, brush the upper side with milk, trying not to deflate the bubbles.  Then flip the bread and cook the uncooked side.  (This will take about 2-4 minutes total on a hot pan.)  Remove naan from pan, place on plate, and brush with melted butter.  Repeat for remaining pieces.  Serve with various curries, for dipping in hummus, or just plain.

And now for THE SANDWICH.  Sam has been head-over-heels (in a manly way, of course) for this ever since we last made it.  After eating three sandwiches, he announced, "For dessert, I would like . . . another sandwich!"  It IS quite delicious.  Delicious and just unexpected enough to be pleasant.  It tastes like it could be an expensive sandwich.  But it is delightfully simple.  To create it, spread naan generously with hummus and labneh; then add turkey, spring mix, sprouts and cucumbers, avacadoes, or whatever vegetables you have on hand.  Eat, but do not go overboard.
Note the doll lying in the background---this is supposed to be one of those pathos-inducing photos, like these
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Hummus, labneh, and Big Macs

I have about a million recipes lined up to post about.  But I have been going back and forth about posting these specific recipes for a couple reasons.  First of all, cooking (or eating) Mid-eastern/Mediterranean food seems to be one of those trendy things people do to make themselves seem all hip and multi-culti.  Second, I have never liked my hummus that much.  But I recently got a food processor (it was cheap on eBay . . . it was yellow . . . it seemed like fate) and now my hummus is SO GOOD.  Not to boast or anything.  If I didn't love it so much, I could have refrained from sharing it.  But it seems cruel that some of you could be making this, and aren't.  And then I thought maybe I would sound less pretentious if I included Big Macs in the title.  Sam's Israeli friend says that hummus is so ubiquitous in Israel that no one on the cutting-edge would dream of serving it.  It's slightly lowbrow---you know; the food of the masses---like Big Macs or something here in the States.

Now, my non-hipster credentials established, on to the recipes.  Hummus is always one of my favorite things to eat, but I like it best when it's smooth and creamy.  But not bland.  The storebought hummus just doesn't excite me.  Sam and I ate at a place called Habibi (good name!) in Portland one time where the hummus was SO good.  I've been trying to re-create it ever since.  And labneh, a Lebanese yogurt dip, is about the simplest thing ever, but it goes perfectly with the hummus.  It adds a nice bright flavor in contrast.  A perfect summer dinner, in my opinion, consists of warm homemade naan, hummus and labneh for dipping, and, on the side, a spring mix dressed with something light and lemony. 

There are few things I've heard as "the secret" to good hummus.  One is to take the skins off the chickpeas (garbanzo beans) before you blend them.  I've tried this and it works pretty well, but it's kind of a pain and (now that I have a food processor) I can get it just as smooth with the skins on.  But if you are using a blender, as I used to, maybe taking the skins off would be worth it.  To do so, you just put your chickpeas in a colander under water.  Rub them between your fingers until the skins start floating to the surface, then skim the skins off with a spoon.  Keep rubbing and skimming until no more skins float up.

The second secret I learned from my sister-in-law: to mix the tahini and the lemon juice together first.  Once they are white and foamy, then add the chickpeas and other ingredients.

If you don't have tahini (it's by the peanut butter in the Harmon's by me; or you can find it at ethnic or Whole Foods-type stores, of course) you can make a Turkish hummus with yogurt instead of tahini.  It has a milder, more prominently lemony flavor, and is less nutty than the tahini kind, but is still quite delicious.

Also, measurements in this are very flexible.  Add more lemon and olive oil to your liking.  I left out the garlic (yes, altogether) because I like the flavors very pure and simple.  But most people do put garlic in hummus.  Try it without at least once so you can see if you like it!  I think a little more salt and a nice strong extra-virgin olive oil deepen the flavors nicely in its place.  Also, fresh mint not only makes a nice garnish, but tastes great with the hummus.  Scoop it right up with your bread.

Hummus
Please do not consider yourself cool just because you eat this

1/2 c. tahini
1/2 c. lemon juice
2 cans chickpeas, drained---reserve juice
1/4 c. olive oil, or so
salt, to taste
[add some garlic if you wish]
paprika or cumin, for garnish
fresh mint, for garnish

Pulse the tahini and lemon juice together in a blender or food processor until frothy.  Then add the chickpeas, olive oil, and salt, and process till smooth.  Add in reserved liquid from chickpeas, or more olive oil and lemon juice, until desired consistency is reached.  Spread in a shallow container and pour extra olive oil into the spoon grooves.  Sprinkle with paprika and garnish with mint.  Serve with fresh naan or pita chips.

****
Labneh

1 c. plain Greek yogurt, or 2 c. regular yogurt put in a cheesecloth and drained overnight
1/4 c. olive oil
1 t. salt

Mix together, taste to adjust seasoning, and serve as dip for naan or pita chips.


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Like shining from shook foil

Last Sunday we were out on our bikes when the clouds started looking really cool.  There were huge mammatus formations across the whole southeastern sky.  Sam (who is teaching a class on light and surfaces---there's a whole lecture on clouds---which is only a small fraction of the Great Lecture on Clouds he is continually giving me, which is why I know what mammatus are, and more about sub-surface scattering and so forth than any decent person should) tends to get very excited about this sort of thing, as do I (again, sorry to bring this up again, but the comparison is apt) so of course we took off in Great Nerdy Haste to the edge of the hill where we could watch the whole thing unfold before us.

The vertical sections of cloud had that eroded, cut-away look---like the rock layers here

First the sky was kind of a pale blue, with grey clouds and the occasional bright white spot. But then the sun started to set and everything started turning gold.  Every couple minutes the colors would change and some different part of the sky would light up like slow-motion lightning.
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