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Cream of curried parsnip soup

Cream of curried parsnip soup ©DPaul Brown

Back in 2003, the year of our respective 10th anniversaries, we traveled to England and Scotland with our dear friends Sally & Lisa. We started in London, as one might expect, where we spent a few chilly but sunny days in March. From there, we took the train to Edinburgh.

En route, we were seated across the aisle from an Edinburgher couple. We remarked to them how clear the weather had been, and expressed hope that it would continue during our sojourn in Scotland. In unison, they looked at us through sad eyes and said, “oh, no.” It was inconceivable that the the sun would persist in the northern hinterlands.

Our first evening in the city proved them right. The winding streets were filled with moody, low fog. You gain an appreciation for the warming jolt of whisky on those gloomy, atmospheric nights. However, the next day broke as clear and bright as could be, and so it remained through the rest of our trip. 

On the train, we had asked our aislemates about food options, and were surprised when they rattled off an amazing array of cuisines. “You’ll be spoiled for choices,” the man said, and right he was. But as tempting as the selection of ethnic restaurants were, the most memorable food we had decidedly and indigenously Scottish.

Of course we had haggis. I mean, why would you fly halfway across the globe just to ignore Scotland’s most infamous foodstuff? And here’s the thing: It’s good. I mean, sure, you hear snouts and intestines and other gutsy bits with oats stuffed in a stomach, and you think, “ew.” But guess what’s in that breakfast sausage you ate this morning, hmm? Yeah. Anyway, you won’t have to take my word for it too much longer. Soon, you’ll be able to get haggis in the states once again, after a 21-year embargo. 

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Giambotta, Italian summer vegetable stew

Giambotta ©DPaul Brown

I don't know about you, but I would have thought that a cookbook that was spun off from a foul-mouthed primetime premium cable drama series should be nothing more than a schlocky gimmick, a way to squeeze a few extra bucks out of a fawning audience. So imagine my surprise when my great aunt back in Schenectady said that the recipes in The Sopranos Family Cookbook
were nearly identical to our family's repertory. Knowing I have an interest in documenting our Italian-American culinary heritage, she sent me a copy of the book, with hand-written notes slotted in alongside certain recipes, with an introductory note:

Hope you enjoy this cookbook. I never watched The Sopranos. The recipes are the closest I've ever seen to the peasant meals my mother cooked. She did not use a lot of hot stuff like red pepper or pepperoncini. The red pepper would be on the table along with the grated cheese for all meals.

Love as always,

Aunt Anne

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Burgoo, Classic Kentucky Stew

Burgoo, classic Kentucky stew

Why is it that so many of the world’s tastiest foods are the least photogenic?

I grappled with this when writing about ropa vieja, molha … heck, even those rich-as-the-dickens mini Hot Browns are a tetch hard to make look as appetizing on camera as they are in life. It’s not like I deliberately go out of my way to make my beleaguered, talented photographer husband’s life more difficult. Brown food is good food, I guess.

Case in point: Burgoo. This most quintessentially Kentuckian dish delivers in the delicious department, but boy howdy is it brown.

Burgoo’s Kentucky roots are fairly universally credited to French chef Gus Jaubert of Lexington, KY, who served the stew to General John Hunt Morgan and his Confederate Raiders. Clearly, this is designed to be a dish of great proportions — to be made in quantities literally enough to feed an army. James T. Looney assumed the mantle of “the Burgoo King” and, according to The Kentucky Encyclopedia, had this recipe for 1,200 gallons of the stew:

…Lean meat (not game), fat hens, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, tomato puree, carrots, and corn, seasoned with red pepper and salt and his secret sauce…

That’s a fairly tame estimation of the ingredients. In A Love Affair with Southern Cooking: Recipes and Recollections, Jean Anderson found anecdotal information that Jaubert’s original recipe contained blackbirds; more rustic versions allegedly contained mostly squirrel; and perhaps more alarmingly even heard tell of a “mysterious ingredient” that married the flavors together — a black snake that would fall into the stew during the dark of night.

Living as we do in a major modern metropolis, blackbirds and squirrel (not to mention black snake) are surprisingly difficult to source. Not wanting to disappoint, we resorted to the most readily available locally sourced ingredients we could find. There is, after all, no shortage of pigeons and rats on the streets of San Francisco.

Or, we could buy some chicken and pork.

Fact is, modern versions of burgoo are quite tame indeed. The recipe we used as our base, from Anderson’s book, is nothing more than chicken, pork, peas, corn, beans and salt and pepper. That’s it, though it doesn’t suffer from a dash of hot sauce.

And served with a hot biscuit fresh from the oven and a nice arugula-strawberry salad, it transforms from soldier rations to a satisfying brunch entrée.

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Pomegranate Borscht

Pomegranate borscht

The word “borscht” strikes fear and dread into the hearts of many. It conjures up images of cold, cheerless Pepto-pink liquid. But it need not be any of those things. It can be warm, complex, bright and delicious.

We knew we wanted a soup that was festively red, using seasonal ingredients. Pomegranates sprung immediately to mind, and so I researched a famous Persian soup, Ash-e anar. Delicious though it is, it involves meatballs, and we wanted to keep the soup light so folks wouldn’t fill up too early in the evening.

DPaul and I are both big beet eaters (well, we like the small ones, too), so we decided to take this more in the borscht direction. We found one recipe that became our springboard, and adapted from there. It, too, called for meat, but again we were looking for something less substantial. I subbed in celery and anise seeds for caraway, looking for a somewhat more exotic flavor profile. But the real star here is the pomegranate syrup, which subtly holds up the entire dish with a wine-like complexity.  

The end result is an intensely colored soup with a balanced, flavorful broth and just enough substance. This will become part of our repertoire for sure.

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English Pea Soup

English pea soup

I am addicted to KCRW’s Good Food podcast. I love host Evan Kleiman’s effervescent yet lucid tone as she investigates a wide spectrum of food-related topics. And I especially love the kick-off segment, the Market Report with Laura Avery, who interviews farmer’s market vendors and local chefs with the intensity and sincerity of an embedded reporter in Tikrit.

The main reason I enjoy the Market Report, though, is hearing what produce is coming into season in sunny SoCal, knowing that in a matter of weeks the same things are likely to crop up here in the north. Case in point: English peas.

The peas first made their market debut during Avery’s March 1 report, and started appearing at Ferry Plaza a few weeks later. Now, at the tail end of their season, I was able to nab a good hearty bagful at the Noe Valley market, pods plump with bright green orbs within. In Avery’s report, she talked with LA überchef Mark Peel of Campanile, who shared a simple, fresh pea soup with a luscious, creamy texture without using actual cream. In fact, Peel’s original recipe is completely vegan, with just peas, potatoes, onion and garlic. I used chicken stock simply because we have gallons of the stuff.

The pureed potatoes and peas lend a soothing, velvety texture and pleasant weight. A simple garnish of a few glowing dots of bright-green McEvoy Ranch olive oil completes the presentation. A perfect bowlful of springtime freshness.

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White Gazpacho

White gazpacho

In 2001, DPaul and I spent a month traveling and eating our way through Spain. We began the trip in Sitges and Barcelona, meandered our way through Andalucía for nearly two weeks, then wrapped things up with a quick jaunt to Toledo and finally nearly a week in Madrid. It was a life-changing trip on many levels.

Andalucia was the unqualified highlight. Being the last holdout of the Moorish kingdoms until the advent of the Catholic Monarchs at the end of the 15th century, it remains a place that speaks of cultural connections to the Islamic world in a way otherwise unseen in modern Europe. To this day, the whitewashed streets of Granada sport signs in Arabic, and you’re more likely to encounter a tea house offering strong, tooth-achingly sweet mint tea than a Starbucks.

Our last stop in Andalucia was Córdoba, once the Moorish seat of government of nearly all of Iberia. The site to be seen is the Mezquita, a former mosque-turned-cathedral, famed for its forest of columns spanned by candy-striped arches.

Traveling with our friend Kate, we descended upon Córdoba by train from Sevilla, having already spent some ten days in the region. The Mezquita was our destination, but first, lunch beckoned.

We didn’t really have a plan, just stumbling into the first place that looked nice nearby the Mezquita. Not uncommonly, this restaurant was nestled into an older building, occupying an al fresco courtyard, almost a cloisters. We took our seat, and were immediately presented with a glass of sherry poured directly from a cask in the middle of the floor. Good start.

I don’t remember everything we had that day; in fact, I remember only one thing: A white gazpacho. It had never occurred to me that there was any kind of gazpacho other than the tomato-based variety, and I was entranced.

I knew it was made with almonds, but nothing more. For years it haunted me, and until recently I could find no recipes or even reference that such a thing existed. But then, just as it once again began to knock about in the dark corners of my memory, it presented itself to me. Catherine had beaten me to the punch, and posted a recipe. Such timing.

Similar to the classic ajo blanco, utilizing the same ingredients but with a lighter hand on the garlic and more grapes, this dish is everything I remember: The richness of almonds, sweetness from grapes, coolness from cucumbers and an unctuous texture. There’s nothing like it.

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Escarole Soup

Escarole soup

Two doors down the street is a flat-roofed apartment building; its roof is the immediate foreground of the view from our kitchen window. During the winter, it tends to flood with rainwater, creating an Okavango-esque wetlands that draws gaggles of birds of all kinds. The past two mornings our private lake has been completely frozen solid.

This has added a layer of amusement to our own little nature show. We chuckle as robins and sparrows skitter across the icy surface. Even more interesting is watching the crows figure out how to crack the shell and pull up glittering chips of ice that they wield with pride but obviously have no idea what to do with next.

Cold weather is soup weather. Escarole soup is one of my favorites, and it was my grandfather’s, too.

When he was ill with cancer, the chemotherapy left him with no appetite and no saliva even if he had one. Knowing this was his favorite soup, my mother brought over a pot of it one day. When she got home from running errands, the phone was ringing; it was him. “There’s something wrong with your soup,” he said. “Oh?” She asked, baffled. “It’s all gone,” he replied.

Today would have been my grandfather’s birthday. And thought he’s been gone nearly 20 years, I still think of him often. A hearty bowl of this soup is a fitting way to commemorate him.

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