November 30, 2010

Birthday Cake for a Brand New Baby

Life gets trippy sometimes. For example, my mother and I each have new grandbabies, born three months apart.

These precious little ones come to each of us via marriage. Mom married a man a few years younger than she; I married a man a few years older than me, which accounts for the fact that we get to share this experience simultaneously. (Another trippy fact: Our husbands are a mere 6 years apart in age.) When our respective husband's children have babies, we get a front row seat to the joy and affection to be shared. And we get special honorifics, too. Mom is her same Grammie that my grown up children have always called her. I get to be GramPam for the first time.

We each live hundreds and hundreds of miles away from these little people and their moms and dad, so its a bit of a bigger challenge to support and encourage these budding young families; to come play with and rock the precious wee ones to allow their parents to run errands or take a deep and reconnecting breath; to sit the midnight shift when the babies might be feverish in order to allow mom and dad a night's rest; or to have them over for a Sunday dinner to connect, relax, and to together observe and delight in the babies growing into toddlers and then preschoolers.

I think we each are going to miss that a lot. I just got set up with Skype, and hope that serves as a connection aid, and there's already been a smattering of photos, art and "letters" from our new grandson's big sister, our 3-year-old granddaughter, magnetized to our fridge.

To celebrate the birth of a grandson this week, I baked a birthday cake. He was born the same week as his mommy and Grandpa Scott's birthdays, too, so it's really a cake to celebrate the birth of them all. It's straight from an old favorite cookbook, Flo Braker's The Simple Art of Perfect Baking. This old fashioned tender, buttery cake is highly adaptable, and this time, I've paired it with Flo's smooth and beige-y Maple Italian Meringue to celebrate the season of little Bennet's birth.

Along with frogs, snakes, secret decoder rings, and jumping off of very tall things, most little boys I've known are drawn to pyrotechnics. In that spirit, I took it a step further and torched the meringue for a touch of toastiness, and to welcome this special little boy with a blaze of glory.

I wish his mama, mommy and big sis could share some with us.

Buttermilk Cake with Maple Italian Meringue
2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar

Position the rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350˚.
Butter and flour two 8" or three 6" pans and line with parchment.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and set aside.

Crack the eggs into a small bowl and whisk.

Pour the buttermilk and vanilla into a liquid measuring cup and stir to combine.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter with the paddle on medium speed (#5) until it is light in color, clings to the sides of the bowl, and looks satiny (this should take about 30-45 seconds).

At the same speed, add the sugar in a steady stream. When all of the sugar is added, turn off the machine and scrape the gritty, sandy mixture clinging to the sides into the center of the bowl. Continue to cream at the same speed for 4-5 minutes, or until the mixture is very light in color and fluffy in appearance.

With the mixer still on medium speed, add the eggs a tablespoon at a time. Continue to cream, stopping the mixer and scraping the sides of the bowl at least once. When the mixture is fluffy, white and increased in volume (it should look like whipped cream cheese and the graininess should disappear) take the paddle and bowl off of the mixer.

Add 1/4 of the dry ingredients, sprinkling over the top of the creamed butter. Fold in with a rubber spatula, then add 1/3 of the buttermilk mixture. Repeat, alternating dry and wet ingredients. With each addition, scrape the sides of the bowl and continue mixing until smooth.

Spoon equal amounts of batter into each pan. With a rubber spatula, spread the batter, working from the center outward, creating a slightly raised ridge around the outside rim. (This helps to compensate for the usual raised center in baked cakes.)

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the baked surface springs back slightly when touched lightly in the center and the sides begin to contract from the pan.

Cool for 10 minutes before inverting on a cooling rack. Peel off parchment from bottoms and allow to completely cook before proceeding.

Maple Italian Meringue
1/2 cup (about 4) egg whites, room temperature
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup pure maple syrup

In heavy saucepan, boil maple syrup over medium heat. Continue boiling until temperature reaches 230˚. (This temperature is merely a guideline for when to begin whipping the egg whites.)

As syrup continues to boil, whisk the egg whites on low speed of your KitchenAid mixer until small bubbles appear. Increase speed, and pour in sugar in a steady stream. Continue to whip until stiff but not dry peaks form , about 2 minutes longer.

When maple syrup reaches 238˚, on medium speed slowly pour it into the whipped egg whites, pouring in a steady stream down side of bowl to avoid splattering.

The meringue expands as the syrup in incorporated. Whip for about 2 minutes or until fully expanded. Then decrease speed to low and continue to whip for about 5-7 minutes to stabilize the meringue's texture as it cools to room temperature and thickens.

To assemble:
Split cake layers in half. Spread about 1/4" of the meringue over each layer. Frost top and sides with remaining meringue. Brown with a propane torch for added drama if you want, but the meringue is fully cooked and doesn't require it.

November 27, 2010

House in the Sun Lacquered Duck

Spicy Lacquered Duck, Sautéed String Beans, Wild Mushrooms and 5-spice Yams

We have been making unusually colored foods around here lately. Unlike our recent purple bean soup, though, this dark mahogany duck is not a mistake. Lacquered duck isn't some new craft fad that involves dipping a duck in shellac or affixing old postcards and maps to it with mod podge. Lacquering a duck results in a lustrous deep reddish finish similar to a Chinese objet d'art and carries the richest of Chinese flavors. It's juicy meat and crispy skin tastes fantastic, and makes the house smell infinitely better during it's preparation than, say, shellac.
Our crowning wine tasting adventure in New Zealand provided the inspiration for this meal. Te Whare Ra (tea far-ee ra, meaning House in the Sun in the Maori language), an inspiring boutique winery in Marlborough's Wairau Valley wine-growing district, provided a personal wine-tasting apex for me.

Te Where Ra's Aromatic Whites

Winery owners and serious wine makers Jason Flowerday and his wife Anna produce a fantastic portfolio of premiere wines. Have you ever tasted beeswax, buckwheat honey, slate, or hoisin sauce in your wines? These are the kind of nuanced yet clear flavors that come along with the fully-ripe juiciness and zippy acidity found in each of the remarkable Te Whare Ra wines.

Jason and Anna's whites, Sauvingon Blanc; Riesling "M" (medium bodied, in the Mosel style); Riesling "D" (in the dry style); Pinot Gris; Gewurztraminer; Chardonnay; a lovely blend named Toru (three, in Maori, for the three varietals from which it is made;) and Noble Riesling (a Botrytis dessert wine) provide the most aromatic, balanced, and elegant profile of any white wines I've ever tasted.

The reds, Pinot Noir and Syrah, were big, deep, highly structured and also very elegant. Jason aptly described the Pinot Noir varietal as an iron fist in a velvet glove, and Syrah as a bigger fist in a bigger glove.

Customs regulations being what they are restricted My Baby and I from bringing home every one of these gorgeous wines. We'd already purchased several bottles along the way that we felt we couldn't live without, and therefore could only pack one Te Whare Ra wine. Choosing which one, my friends, was the biggest dilemma of the entire trip.

It was the savory hoisin-undertoned Syrah that immediately conjured thoughts of this duck. It was this Syrah that we couldn't leave behind.

Spicy Lacquered Duck
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
2 Tablespoons honey
2 Tablespoons hoisin sauce
4 cloves fresh garlic, pressed
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 5-pound duck, rinsed, giblets removed and reserved for another purpose

Place the first 10 ingredients (soy sauces through cayenne pepper) in a 2 gallon plastic bag with a zipper top. Squish with your hands to thoroughly mix. Place duck in the bag and roll a few times to coat duck with spice mixture. Place on a large plate in the refrigerator. Turn every few hours for as few as four hours and up to two days.

Preheat convection oven to 400˚. Remove duck from marinade and drain well. Arrange duck, breast side up, on roasting rack in baking pan. Reserve marinade to small saucepan. Pat duck dry, inside and out, with paper towels. You'll never believe that it will turn so dark and richly colored at this point, but it will.

Roast duck for 45 minutes. Turn duck over. Roast duck until tender and deep, dark brown, about another 15 minutes. Insert a long wooden spoon into main cavity of duck and tilt, allowing juices into drain into roasting pan. Place breast side up again, and roast for another 10 minutes, or until thermometer inserted into thickest part of the breast reads 155˚, or 180˚ at the leg joint. Allow duck to rest 15 minutes before carving. While the duck is resting, bring the marinade to a rapid boil for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, to create a highly-flavored sauce to serve alongside the duck.

Warning: My experience with roasting duck has borne out that it is a good policy to run your hood fan during the process. Highly fatty (and highly flavorful) duck drippings smoke easily. Save yourself a problem and just turn on the fan when you turn on the oven, and leave it on for the duration.

Served with dry-sautéed string beans (email me and I'll send you the recipe), stir-fried wild mushrooms and sweet red pepper from our garden, and baked yams with 5-spice butter, the duck and Syrah brought back wonderful memories of the Marlborough House in the Sun while creating some new ones in our Oregon House in the Rain. Too bad that it was the only bottle of Te Whare Ra to be had for a long while.

November 23, 2010

Deep Dark Chocolate Cake and Champagne

Our Flourless Chocolate Wedding Cake

I love cake.

Over the years, I've created choo-choo train and teddy bear cakes to commemorate first birthdays and engineered conical volcano cakes replete with spewing lava (dry ice) and plastic dinosaurs to entertain six-year-olds. The "I'd rather have pie as cake" request was fulfilled once or twice. Young John had a multi-year stint with peanut butter frosting on a chocolate cake as his favorite. Lacy pink cakes said "Happy Sweet Sixteen", and German chocolate cakes were the once a year preference that signaled that it was Dad's birthday. Countless baby shower cakes, anniversary cakes, and even a few wedding cakes made it in to my cake baking history for dear friends and family. And a plain ol' oatmeal spice cake with burnt sugar topping or the like was often found waiting as a quick snack between school and soccer practice.

I Really Like This Man

So who was I to say no when the wedding coordinator at King Estate Winery asked us to come for a tasting to select our choice for wedding cake? We were presented with a variety of selections: Hazelnut cake with vanilla buttercream (a little too much cinnamon for the occasion), white cake or chocolate cake, filled with a variety of estate made preserves and topped with fluffy buttercream (delicious but too "wedding-y" for people our age, we thought.)

My Baby and I, Taking in Our Guests at Our Reception

"May we just have your flourless chocolate cake, the one that's always on your menu, served with pistachio ice cream like you do in the restaurant?," we asked. "Three small layers, no fancy frosting but dusted with cocoa and 10x sugar?" Toby, King Estate's talented and artistic baker made a quick sketch. "Like this? Would you like me to add grape clusters from our harvest and little fruits and flowers from the estate to add a finishing touch?"

Perfect. Almost as cool as the volcano cake.

And I love celebrating. Throw a little champagne in with the cake, and any moment can become a party.

Cake Top

The day after our wedding, we packed up our little wedding cake layer top and a lush bottle of locally produced Domaine Meriwether champagne and drove to San Francisco for an overnighter before catching a plane to New Zealand. In San Francisco, the dense chocolate cake and the bubbles extended our celebration even further, this time a bit more privately.

What Could Say "Celebrate" Any Better?

Yesterday, a big box marked FRAGILE FRAGILE FRAGILE arrived on the doorstep. Inside was a wedding gift of 18 sparkling crystal champagne flutes, identical to some special ones we'd sipped champagne from on our honeymoon.

A Lifetime of Memories, Waiting to Happen

At a swank New Zealand restaurant, I'd enjoyed the glass almost as much as its contents, and made the following note in my travel journal. "Schott Zwiesel champagne glass: Gentle understated curve of the stem, appropriately restricted rim to capture bubbles. Form and function elegantly intersect."

Schott Zwiesel, the Elegant Champagne Glass

So, upon unwrapping the thoughtful gift, what did we do? We popped a cork, of course, filled one of the fine glasses the first of many times ahead, and commemorated yet another wonderful day.

Flourless Deep Dark Chocolate Cake
4 oz. good quality dark chocolate (I often use Trader Joe's 72% Belgian Chocolate, sold in 17 oz. bars), chopped
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut in 8th's
pinch of sea or kosher salt
3/4 c. sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 375˚. Butter one 8" round cake pan, and line bottom of pan with wax or parchment paper.

In double boiler, melt chocolate and butter together until smooth, stirring constantly. Stir in sugar and salt. Whisk in eggs until thoroughly combined. Sift cocoa powder over top, and gently fold in, then stir briefly just to combine.

Pour batter into prepared cake pan. Bake for 25 minutes, until top develops a thin crust. The traditional toothpick or skewer cake testing method doesn't work here. You don't want to dry the cake out, and it will set up once cool, so it's a bit better to under- rather than over-do-it on this one.

Allow cake to cool in pan for 10-15 minutes. Release any stuck edges with a thin knife, and invert on a rack to complete cooling. Serve dusted with additional cocoa and your favorite ice cream or berry sorbet.

Wedding photos in this post are credited to William D. Pond. Thank you, Bill.

November 20, 2010

Playing House: Final Installation

Roasted Chicken with Herbs

Let's face it: You don't need yet another opinion about how to perfectly roast a chicken. A google search reveals 3,750,000 entries under the topic, and every decent basic cookbook includes a roasted chicken recipe. Food magazines have wars over the best methods, and the Times has often over the years enlightened us on the "news" of current chicken roasting practices.
Portrait of a Nude (Chicken)

When it comes to cooking, I lean into the adage, "There are 101 ways to skin a cat." What works perfectly for one cook may be a flop for another, depending on a multitude of variables. But this way of roasting a chicken works nicely for me. I'm not promising here that I won't ever do it another way, but this is a solid stand-by method, loosly adapted from ">The Zuni Café Cookbook.

Dry-Brined Chicken

This chicken was the delicious anchor to our domestically-oriented "play house" day meal, and the recently released LaVelle 2009 Estate Pinot Gris pulled the whole thing together with panache. The wine has a classic Oregon Pinot Gris profile with big juicy pear and crisp apple on the nose. While it has a nectarlike mouthfeel, it is very dry and crisp on the palate, and merged gleefully with the autumnal elements of our roasted meal.

Roasted Chicken the Sticks Forks Fingers Way
  • One wildly expensive organic chicken purchased at your local farmer's market from a plainly dressed Mennonite woman and her doe-eyed children, who had probably thought of the hen as their pet just days before
  • Fresh herbs of your choice (I recommend a mix of thyme, sage and rosemary) from your back-door herb pot
  • Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
Necessary Equipment:
One 10" well-seasoned cast iron skillet

Wash and dry your chicken. A very dry chicken is imperative to the success this method. Being careful not to tear the skin, slip your finger between the skin and breast of the bird at the butt end. Carefully and slowly, make a pocket over the breast and down over the leg and thigh on each side. Slip in herb leaves at the thigh, leg and breast. Pat the skin down nicely in place, pushing out any air pockets.

Mix several tablespoons kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste in a small bowl. Pat and rub the salt mixture over the entire surface of the bird. Sprinkle a little into the butt end.

It is at this point where ">The Zuni Café Cookbook and I diverge, usually because I'm working with a shortened timeline. Zuni allows their birds to dry-brine for up to two days in the refrigerator. I'm lucky to get two hours of brining, which I find to still render terrific results. After its salt massage, I place my little birdy on a paper towel-lined dinner plate to help with the dry factor, loosely covered with plastic wrap, and sit it in the fridge until an hour and 45 minutes before I want to serve it. The longer the chicken sits in the fridge the better (up to 2 days), with the refrigerator environment aiding in drying out the skin as much as possible.

An hour before putting the chicken in the oven, preheat it to 450˚ along with the cast iron skillet on the middle rack. The combination of the very hot skillet and the very dry skin means that your chicken will not stick to the pan (thereby tearing the skin during the flip and inadvertently releasing all the good juices.)

When the oven and skillet are good and hot (about one hour of preheating), place the dry dry dry chicken, back side down, into the hot skillet. Roast for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully flip the chicken over to its breast. Roast for another 20 minutes. Remove from oven and give the bird its final flip. Roast for another 15-20 minutes for the breast to completely crisp up. Remove from oven and allow to rest 20 minutes before carving.

November 19, 2010

Playing House: Part Two

Savory Stuffed Pumpkin, a la Dorie
re•new [ri'n(y)oo]
give fresh life or strength to
restore, rejuvenate, regenerate

Red Kuri Squash
My Baby and I were sinking in to our stay-at-home "play house" day. My cookbook collection needs a permanent home in this house, so we measured walls and discussed ideas for an upcoming bookcase project. Talk was made about mowing the two acres of hirsute lawn for the last time of the season, but the cursory intervals of dry weather kept it at only talk. The dining table-cum-home office desk was cleared of several days worth of paperwork, and set with finery in anticipation of our renewing weekend feast.

The house was taking on pleasing scents of freshly cut herbs, the splayed mist of lemon oil being stripped from its pith and roasting chicken.

Earlier in the week, I'd been inspired by Dorie Greenspan's recipe for Pumpkin Packed with Bread and Cheese: A Recipe in Progress. Dorie was given the concept from a friend, who asked her to improve upon it. That is a spirit about cooking which I so appreciate. By taking ideas a step further, food ideas and "recipes" are always fresh and evolving. Rather than issuing recipe edicts, Dorie respectfully submits her concept with full expectation of that evolution, which in my opinion makes it all the more easy to give her credit for inspiration.

I noted in Dorie's photo (above) the filling had more of a curdly cooked cream texture than I wanted in mine, so I adapted her recipe. I kept the flavor profile nearly the same, just played with the texture a bit. I loved the savory bread pudding-like results and will repeat the concept again and again.

My Version

Rather than spell it out again, click here for Dorie's recipe. Here's how I adapted it, and what I learned along the way:
  • Dorie warns that if you roast the pumpkin in a Dutch oven or casserole rather than a lined baking sheet it will help hold its shape, but will stick to the pan, making it more scoop-able than sliceable and therefore rustic in presentation. I overcame this obstacle by spraying my stoneware baker with cooking spray. No sticking; nice pretty serving slices.
  • Dorie emphasizes that cutting the cap off the pumpkin "isn't an easy job." Killing two birds with one stone, I microwaved the pumpkin twice at three minute intervals, waiting 5 minutes or so between each. The knife easily slips into the par-baked gourd, and cuts some time off the overall roast as well.
  • I created a custard with the cream by adding two eggs and mixing well with the salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg. To this, I stirred in the remainder of the ingredients along with two big handfuls of raw sliced chard, then packed the mixture into the pumpkin cavity.
  • Dorie sets her oven temperature at 350˚. Because I was simultaneously roasting a chicken at 450˚, the pumpkin was subjected to that temperature too. The result, as you notice in the difference between our photos, is that the bright reddish-orange skin of my pumpkin browned and blistered significantly. I knew this may happen, and being a one-oven kitchen, I opted for a crisp-skinned chicken over the unmarred pumpkin. The browned skin was barely noticeable with my sliced presentation at the table, and it tasted fabulous.
The day was shaping up to fill my need for domestic connection and renewal of energy. Next, I'll be discussing the process for our chicken, which was juicy and crispy-skinned with a herbal depth of flavor, and the impressive Pinot Gris My Baby selected as a gracious complement to the meal.

November 17, 2010

Playing House: Part One

Warm Barley Salad with Wild Mushrooms and Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette

hec•tic [hek-tik]
full of incessant activity
frantic, frenzied, wild, chaotic
leisurely, relaxed, unhurried

"Do you know what I'm looking forward to today?" queried My Baby as we woke on Sunday morning. "I'm looking forward to playing house with you today."

After weeks and months of excitedly and consistently being on the go (hectic), it was salve to my heart to commit our entire rainy Sunday as a "play house" day (unhurried). A second pot of coffee and lingering late in our jammies are luxuries even when interspersed with five loads of laundry, brushing burrs from the shaggy coat of Murray the Amazing Wonder Dog, replacing done-in lightbulbs, unpacking from last week's trip and a preliminary shot at 2010 taxes. (Filed jointly this year, I may add.) Home. A productive yet leisurely day at home is so satisfyingly good.

We've grown into the habit of creating something of a slow-food feast on Sundays. We plan for ample leftovers to carry us each forth a few days while I work out of town. This week, a nicely roasted chicken, a rotund stuffed pumpkin and a warm barley and wild mushroom salad with Meyer lemon vinaigrette composed our weekly celebration.

Each of the meal's components were inspired by various cookbooks (Judy Rogers' The Zuni Cafe Cookbook), blogs (Heidi Swansen's 101 Cookbooks and Dorie Greenspan's In the Kitchen and on the Road With Dorie), what the garden is mustering (Swiss chard, red peppers, rosemary, sage and thyme), and what looked beautiful at the market (one shiny, plump red kuri squash and some Meyer lemons. (Meyer lemons this early? A surprise gift for sure.)

I cannot begin to explain the inner delight that overcomes me in composing a menu this way. All the influences of available ingredients, serendipitous inspiration, acquired skills, color, texture, and the palate preferences and/or dietary restrictions of those you're cooking for converge, resulting in a never-again-to-be-repeated-in-exactly-the-same-way bit of performance art. Throw in the vast options of background music and various table settings, and who could ever grow bored at the table, even on a leisurely day at home?

Warm Barley Salad with Wild Mushrooms and Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
2 cups pearled barley
3 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cups chopped mixed wild mushrooms (this happened to be chanterelles, shitakes and criminis)
1 red pepper, chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins

Meyer lemon vinaigrette

1/2 cup toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
chopped flat-leaf parsley

Bring chicken stock and wine to boil in medium stockpot. Rinse the barley well, and toss in. Add a pinch of salt, cover, keep at a slow simmer for 40 minutes. Drain well.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet heat oil. Saute chopped mushrooms until soft and just beginning to brown, about 7 minutes. Lightly salt.

Add mushrooms, red pepper, onion and raisins to stock pot and gently stir. Pour vinaigrette over top and mix well. Toss in the pepitas and a handful of chopped parsley, reserving a little of each for garnish.

Serve warm the first time, but room temperature and even chilled is great for the leftovers.

Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
In a recycled jam jar, pour:
juice of one and a half Meyer lemons

Measuring with your eyes, add twice as much (1 part juice to 2 parts oil):
high quality olive oil (I used Stonehouse's Arbequina variety, citrusy in it's own right)

1-2 teaspoons honey, to taste
two hefty pinches kosher or sea salt (about 3/4 teaspoon)
about twice as much freshly ground pepper as you think you need

Screw the lid on tightly and shake well, until salt is dissolved. Viola. Dressing!

Check back, as in the next few days I'll be sharing the details of the creamy, cheesy, spiced stuffed squash, the crispy, herbal, well-browned chicken and it's pan sauce and the wine that so magically topped off this restorative meal.

November 14, 2010

Zuppa de Fagioli di Colore Violaceo

In other words, Purplish Bean Soup. Don't adjust the color on your screen... this soup really has a violet hue. Not so typical for a nice rainy day bean soup, and why purple?

Purple-skinned carrots freshly harvested from our winter garden, delicious and beautiful as they are, turned the broth and everything in it a lovely but unexpected lavender shade. The description on the seed package may have been a bit of an understatement, as about 3/8" of the flesh beyond the skin was this lovely intense bright violet. A little research confirmed my guess that these colorful carrots pack a phytochemical punch (those pigment-based bioactive compounds that are known to protect against disease) much greater then the usual orange-alone variety.

My Vivid Mirepoix

This recipe was adapted from David Tanis' Zuppa de Fagioli in his lovely cookbook, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes. Mr. Tanis' minimal approach is entirely enticing, and his book is beautiful. He may not necessarily nod to the violet quality of this knock-off version of his soup, but I believe he'd heartily approve of some other of my additions and changes.

Enormous butter beans, for instance, replaced his smaller white beans. I added some chard, thyme and rosemary from the garden and used about twice as much garlic as originally called for.

Inspired by our freezer full of local lamb, a browned a lamb shank was dropped into the soup pot, replacing Mr. Tanis' smoked ham hocks. In the end, the marrow was scooped from the bone and whisked into the broth, adding a silky texture and additional flavor. The small amount of meat made the soup a bit heartier for a chilly autumn afternoon in the northwest, but still let the vegetables and beans take the lead.

The rousing licorice-y aroma of the fennel crushing in the mortar had me humming La Donna e Mobile under my breath. With garlic bread and a nice bottle of Dolcetto, once again we could have been in the Italian countryside.

Zuppa deFagioli

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely diced
  • 5 celery stalks and leaves, finely diced
  • 3 chubby carrots, finely diced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 6 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 4 cups roughly chopped chard, stems removed, leaves reserved
  • 1 large bunch fresh thyme
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 4 cups (2 pounds) dried white beans, picked over, rinsed and soaked overnight
  • 1 medium lamb shank, well browned
  • 6 cups high-quality chicken stock
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds, finely crushed in a mortar or spice mill
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • Salt and pepper
To finish:
  • High quality, flavorful olive oil
  • Finely chopped rosemary leaves
Warm the 3 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat. Add the diced onions, celery and carrots and cook gently until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, bay leaves and chopped chard stems and cook for a minute more.

Add the white beans, browned lamb shank and thyme and rosemary sprigs. Cover with the stock and water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low. Simmer gently for an hour, stirring occasionally.

Add the ground fennel, red pepper flakes, and a good spoonful of salt. Continue cooking for 1 hour more, or until the beans are quite tender and the lamb shank has begun to fall apart.

During the last 10 minutes of cooking, stir in the roughly chopped chard leaves.

Serve in large soup bowls. Drizzle flavorful finishing olive oil on top and sprinkle with chopped rosemary. Viola!

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