Experiments With(out) Broth

Tossing out produce makes me feel horribly wasteful, so wilted vegetables and scraps generally end up in a bin destined for vegetable stock. I can't remember the last time I purchased packaged broth, since there is nearly always some homemade stock lurking in the freezer, but on a cold night not too long ago, I came home from work anxious to make some belly-warming soup only to find my stash had been exhausted. For a brief moment I stared despairingly at the ice box, but since I am not one who likes to change strategy midstream (to put it mildly), I used water in the soup instead.

Lately some of my favorite food writers have been advocating the use of water in place of packaged stocks and broth anyway. Michael Ruhlman strongly favors the exclusive use of water or homemade stocks, and Mark Bittman has been making the same point in his Minimalist column. Until now, I had smugly thought that I would never need to resort to lowly water in my soup making, but, much to my surprise, I quite like the result. This vegetable soup had a brighter flavor than expected -- a hint of summer in a still restorative soup.

The recipe is pretty basic, since I wanted to be able to identify differences in a water versus stock-based soup, but that doesn't mean it's bland. This is one of those times when the end product is better than the sum of its parts.

Basic Vegetable Soup

extra-virgin olive oil
2 potatoes, diced
2 carrots, sliced into coins
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 dried chili, minced
1 bunch of spinach, cut into ribbons
1 lemon, juiced
hard grating cheese, like Parmesan or Pecorino

Season potatoes and carrots with salt and pepper and saute in olive oil over medium heat until they begin to color a little. Add garlic and chili and cook until they become fragrant. Add water until the vegetables are covered by about a 1/2 inch. Bring liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender (15 - 20 minutes, depending upon the size of your vegetables). Stir in spinach and let cook until just wilted. Remove the soup from the heat and adjust the seasoning. Stir in the lemon juice, and ladle into bowls. Garnish the soup with a flurry of cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve hot.


Warm Lettuce is Tasty

While I like to think that I am an adventurous eater, I have frequently been accused of being a picky one. In reality, I just have clear preferences. For instance, I will eat squishy, white bread even if I don't really want to. But eat it I will. And if that squishy, white bread accompanies some really tasty barbecue, I will eat it without complaining.

However, that's certainly not barbecue in the picture -- it's a rather homely salad. For a long time, I've lumped green salads in with squishy, white bread. They've never been a favorite, but I eat them because a little roughage is good for the body and builds ones character (I hope). Eating salads French-style, after the main course, has helped me warm up to them a little. Tangy vinaigrette and crisp, watery leaves are a refreshing palate cleanser after a richer meal. Still, not everyone wants to wait for their salad, and this pontormo salad is one I will happily eat before a meal. A little scrambled egg and salty pancetta wilt salad greens ever so slightly, and the extra savory ingredients make the dish satisfying enough when I'm starving and ready for some "real food."

Pontormo Salad with Egg and Pancetta

This salad is inspired by one served at Cesare Casella's late restaurant Maremma. I rarely use dried herbs, but he used them successfully in his salad. Since the herbs get cooked with the pancetta, I suspect they stand up to the heat better than fresh ones would.

1 small spoon red wine vinegar
1 small spoon balsamic vinegar
1 small spoon red wine
pinch salt
few grinds of pepper
4 big spoons good olive oil
1 big spoon mixed dried herbs (use any combination that you like, preferably Italian herbs)
3 ounces pancetta, sliced and cut into strips
6 eggs
salt and pepper
1 head of dark green lettuce, washed and torn into bite-size pieces

To make the vinaigrette, whisk together the vinegars and the wine in a small bowl. Whisk in the salt and pepper, then two spoons of the olive oil.

Place the remaining olive oil, herbs and pancetta in a large frying pan and cook over medium heat. When the pancetta is transparent, after about 5, beat together the eggs, salt and pepper and scramble them in the pan. They shouldn't be too dry.

Dress the greens and mix with the eggs. Serve immediately


Dinner for One

For the most part, A and I eat together every night. When he is especially busy at work, he'll skip the food ordered by The Company in favor of eating at home -- even if that means dinner is served at 10pm. I would like to think that he prefers his meal accompanied by my stimulating conversation, but more likely the delivery food is pretty lousy and A would really miss Annabella's ritualistic post-meal-lap-sit.

Still, every once in a while there's an especially late night, and I'll eat dinner alone. I try to use the opportunity to prepare foods that are not among A's favorites. This meal was one of those. I had originally planned to eat the cute littleneck clams on the half shell, but shucking them seemed like too much trouble for a solo weeknight dinner. Steaming the clams made for a quick, delicious meal, and there was only one pot to wash -- always an important consideration when I assume dish-washing duties too.

Steamed Clams for One

To remove grit from clams, soak them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1/3 cup non-iodized salt (kosher or sea salt) to 1 gallon of water. Some people suggest adding cornmeal to the brine, but I've never found that to be necessary. Also be sure to discard any dead clams (those that don't close when tapped) after their bath.

12 littleneck clams (or steamer clams from the Northwest), soaked and scrubbed
knob of unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 bottle of dry white wine
red pepper flakes
crusty bread

Melt butter over medium heat in a medium pan until foam subsides. Add onion and garlic, and saute until onions are translucent. Add wine and pepper flakes to taste. Raise heat and bring to a simmer. Add clams and cover the pot for about 5 minutes. Remove clams that have opened to a serving dish, and continue steaming the rest for another 5 minutes. Transfer remaining clams to your dish, and discard any clams that did not open. Top clams with the remaining broth and serve with crusty bread for dunking.