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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Soup!

As the saying goes, everyone talks (or complains) about the weather but no one does anything about it. Weather talk does make a handy conversation starter. Where I live it’s somewhat less of an issue than some places – but even in the absence of extreme snowstorms, tornadoes and earthquakes, we can find something to complain about. The last few weeks have had more than our share of rain, which in Southern California is an anomaly and welcomed only by some.
However the last few days in Orange County have been bright and sunny. We’ve had a spell of very warm weather considering its February, much to the gratitude of those whose homes lie in the path of mudslifes and flooding. And to the rest of us who much prefer sun to rain and dark days, even if we don’t have those particular concerns.
No doubt the cool weather will return and prevail for a while longer. I keep reminding myself that when it is winter it has to act that way. Summer will come again. During the coolness I understand how the coffee culture came to be invented in cold places like Seattle. Being indoors with a hot drink is a perfect antidote for damp surroundings. Other perfect things are comfort foods like risotto and spicy foods like Mexican dishes. But for something lighter and just as satisfying there’s soup, which typically will have less carbohydrates and fat or other things that might not agree with your digestive system.
Over the years I have accumulated a fair number of soup and stew recipes. However, as with most recipes, or most things maybe, it’s always easy to fall back on the known and familiar,like Au Pistou which is very forgiving since it has a variety of ingredients, and always tastes wonderful. So I keep making a few of them over and over, then in some cases I don’t even make the attempt. For example since I have an excellent clam chowder source I don’t even have to try making that.
Under all circumstances the type of recipe that appeals to me to take on is usually something that is not commonly available. With soup this has become more and more of a challenge since now there are so many places to obtain fresh good soup to take away. Most grocery stores have a nice selection and we’re not just talking about places like Whole Foods Market or small places like my neighborhood Zinc Market and Café. Even Trader Joes has some pretty good soups like the butternut squash and the roasted tomato, though they are packaged and not fresh. During our recent rainy spell, I made a soup of the type I love if I am even going to bother with it; one that is less common and that I have not seen around. I prefer a dish that has a lot of chunkiness to it with fresh vegetables. All kinds of vegetables but I particularly love root vegetables probably because you don’t see them used in recipes as much although I will say that they appear to have gained favor in the last few years. It must be the influence of celebrity chefs who focus on seasonal and local foods.
Surprisingly, I have had this recipe for years, but not made it. For some reason (cold rainy weather?) as I was leafing through my binder of possibilities it just jumped out at me that day. so I prepared it for us and our friend Larry, who came to share our meal. He brought a nice bottle of Pinot Noir which complemented the dish perfectly. I baked cornbread to go with the soup which did taste good, but in retrospect I think that a crusty artisanal bread might have been a better choice. To dip in the broth, you know.




Root Vegetable Soup with Lentils & Gruyere
Ingredients
1. 1 cup green lentils
2. Salt
3. 1/4 lb pancetta, sliced 1/4 inch thick and finely diced
4. 6 garlic cloves, finely minced
5. 3 carrots, finely diced
6. 2 celery ribs,diced
7. 1 onion, diced
8. 2 medium red potatoes
9. 11/2 cup diced peeled butternut squash
10. ½ cup fdiced peeled rutabaga (1 lg)
11. ½ cup diced peeled parsnip (2)
12. ½ cup diced peeled turnip (1)
13. Freshly ground pepper
14. 3 quarts chicken stock or canned low-sodium broth
15. 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
16. 2 tablespoons chopped thyme
17. 1/4 pound Gruyère, thinly shaved
18. 1 tablespoon olive oil

Directions
1. In a small saucepan, cover the lentils with 1-2 inches of water and add a large pinch of salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain.
2. In a large saucepan, cook the pancetta over moderately low heat, stirring, until most of the fat has been rendered, about 8 minutes. Add olive oil to the pan and then then garlic and, onion, and cook over moderately high heat for 2 minutes, then add carrots, celery and root vegetables stirring to coat with fat. Season with salt and pepper and cook until the vegetables soften, about 10 minutes longer. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes
3. Stir in the lentils, parsley and thyme and season with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls, top with Gruyère shavings and serve piping hot.

The soup can be made ahead and refrigerated for 3 days. Make ahead is another one of the big advantages to soup. In most cases it is improved by the sitting.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fish Tacos

I will admit to being, shall I say, a trifle obsessive. That is, when I get interested or focused on a particular item, I will pursue it completely. This can occur with clothing, home decor, or more to the point here, with food.
Right now and for the last few months it’s been fish tacos. Fish tacos are just another type of taco, but as their own category really were virtually unheard of up until just a few years ago. The type of fish tacos I am talking about and captivated by are a new and improved type. They are commonly found in places like Baja (California) and sometimes considered “street food”, discovered by surfers and voyagers of that type.
Briefly, they consist of a warmed soft tortilla laden with thinly sliced cabbage and/or lettuce, a type of salsa known as “pico de gallo” which is usually fresh chopped tomato, onion and jalapeno peppers, served with a nice piece of grilled fish. Frequently served open-faced rather than rolled up, It’s light and healthy food! And when done right, delicious! New to Americans, no doubt Mexicans have been eating these for years. As the story goes about the discovery of this type of taco, my understanding is that on their trips south of the border, the surfer types so enjoyed the casual, delicious tacos they had that they created the market for them here, saying “why don’t we have something like this at home?” All of the rest of us benefit from their productive musing.
In my area the originators (or so we believe) are the Wahoos people. The owners of Wahoos fit the surfer mode and were also fortunate enough to be a part of a restaurant family when growing up so they had the background and business acumen to make it happen. The Wahoos tacos are some of the simplest of this category of taco. They have stayed true to the Baja/surfer roots. The Wahoos chain also offers other types of Mexican dishes but doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what they are; fast food with healthy and light touch.
Of course once something is successful, others will imitate; unfortunately it’s not just as easy as putting fish on a tortilla. The essence of this type of taco is for it to be light and healthy along with flavorful. There are many imitators who have added breading to the fish, and cheese to the finished product. But really, the trick is to keep it flavorful while simple. Not an easy task.
We have eaten fish tacos at different “healthy Mex” type of places. They’re usually not bad, but not necessarily great. Originally I took Wahoos as my template as to what a good “Baja” fish taco should be.
With that in mind, Steve and I have indulged in fish tacos in a number of places. We have a local place, La Fogata, within walking distance that is not part of a chain and considers itself healthy Mex. theirs has breading and some sort of spice that I don’t like though Steve likes them well enough so we go back. As a substitute I usually have their shrimp tacos which taste good even though they’re strictly not fish tacos. They also have a grilled veggie taco which is pretty good. Oh and the other thing Steve seems to like so well there is the condiment bar. Most Mexican places have them. Usually included are two or more types of salsas (hot sauce) sometimes cilantro (coriander) sometimes chopped onions. This one has all of that and also a pico de gallo salsa and a fresh corn salsa which consists of tomatos, onions, peppers and corn – sort of like a corn salad. This is s like a lagniappe for Steve. The tacos come on two colored tortillas, one of which I believe to be spinach so that gives it an additional healthy feeling.

That said, we recently discovered a new place in our area which now has most of our fish taco business. Unfortunately, not as close as La Fogata, and not as well known as Wahoos, but no matter. I am convinced theirs are the most delicious tacos I have ever had. The place is named Bear Flag Fish Company http://bearflagfishco.com and as the story goes started out as a fish market and expanded to include a few cooked items such as fish tacos, and other things that sound good like rice bowls with fish, fish sandwiches on C’est si Bon baguettes and other things, I guess. But I can’t get past the tacos, they’re so good! Theirs are made with a fish named Basa which I have never before seen or had. They grill the Basa so it tastes and looks like grilled fish with little charred edges and place it on a soft corn tortilla along withsome shredded cabbage and pico de gallo salsa, and avocado by request. It’s a testament to the place that I am willing to sit in a crowded noisy place with only communal tables to sit at and still enjoy the meal and keep going back. Although I admit that I will try to avoid Taco Tuesday from now on.

It’s now become sort of a challenge to see who has a really good version of fish tacos. The other helpful feature is that they are usually pretty low-priced so a good weekday meal. In the continuing experiment we have tried the fish tacos at our regular Friday night restaurant, Quiet Woman. The quality of theirs is consistent with everything else there, that is to say, quite good. But they’re not the casual “Baja” style that I’m expecting. We recently had fish tacos at another place that bills itself as “healthy Mex”, La Salsa . The tacos were good, theirs had cheese as well as the other stuff but not great. Another regular restaurant we go to is California Pizza kitchen. And would you believe that they too recently added fish tacos to their menu? Perhaps we are on the cutting edge here. Realistically I don’t imagine that CPK’s version will be terribly authentic, but I would expect it to be good and might be worth trying once, anyway.

In the meantime, I will continue to make my pilgrimage every two weeks or so to Bear Flag for the best fish tacos around. Could I make these tacos? Probably - but then I would have to shop for tortillas, salsa, fresh fish and then grill the fish and assemble it all. But why when I know where to go for the perfect one? I just think that there are certain things better eaten out or cooked by someone else. For me, pizza would fall into this category as would most Asian food. Arbitrary, I know but it works for me.
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