Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Fresh snow, fresh tracks, fresh start.

It's snowing again in Boston. The peaceful flakes drop to the ground and cover the land and it seems so appropriate that it's also New Years Eve day. This year has been big, both on national and global scale, but as well as on a personal scale. We all know the basics: Obama, AIG, China earthquake, Lehman, Iraq. Closer to home, we remember the year with Senator Ted Kennedy, Tom Brady's injury, Celtics championship, and Clark Rockefeller. And on a personal note, I recall our new puppy, Wrigley, the birth of my first nephew, Jake, the wedding of my brother, refinancing three times in the past year, bringing in just under $100K in my first year of catering sales, and spending time in Israel with my mom to celebrate her 60th birthday.

As my husband and I celebrate this evening with our 6th annual New Years Eve party, the coming year will hopefully bring about the most significant change in our lives: a little baby Kohen. Of course, we'll see what happens, but we're now at least open to the thought. In addition, building on the success of my first year in business and becoming one of the 'go-to' caterer in Metrowest Boston.

While guests are bring appetizers and desserts, I couldn't let them have all the fun. With the sparkling reaction to my bacon mac n'cheese meal, I'm going to make it again, but this time in individual cheese cups to make them more finger food friendly. And to ring in the new year, a delicate addition of truffle oil will raise the level of richness and create a true sense of occasion.

In addition, I'm going to make crab cakes with a horseradish aioli. Shallots, parsley, crab, salt, pepper, mayo, dijon, and panko. That's it. A quick sear and they are perfect bite size presents that are wonderful hot, as well as room temperature.

So break open those champagne flutes, groggers, and silly '2009' glasses and let's celebrate not only the beginning of a new year, but the end of one as well.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Prep continued....

With the insanity of the weekend over, I slept in on Sunday until 10 A.M. That may not seem late, but I don't think I've done that since after college. My body was exhausted. I even slept through my husband raking snow off our roof. My intention of Sunday was to have a lazy day of football watching, but two feet of snow fell and our driveway and puppy was calling. So my day of relaxation was put on hold.

Back to the catering. Shopping for my product took longer than anticipated and I my Thursday was spent in the car instead of in the kitchen. Once I was settled at home, I did some preliminary prep. I trimmed three tenderloins for one party, marinated the chicken (tequila-lime) and lamb (Mediterranean), roasted twenty pounds of beets, marinated the olives, and grilled all the vegetables. I didn't get a lot done on Thursday and therefore my Friday was long. Very long.

I started at 6:30 and didn't sit down until 8:30 that night. The true mark to the end of my work day is when I take my shoes off. Once the pressure is released and my feet can breath, there is no turning back. There is no use in listing all the prep that I did and it's hard to convey how many details are involved, but it's a lot. And especially for one person, it's a lot. Just even making the individual Parmesan cups took hours. I'm only able to bake seven at a time. They take seven minutes to bake and then have to be shaped in the molds. I repeat until I have 70 cups.

Let's take the citrus crab in cucumber cups. Each cucumber gives me about 12 pieces. I only use English cucumbers because the shape is easier to work with and they have less seeds.

Here are the steps involved:
1. Peel the cucumbers and cut then into 12 pieces, about a half an inch each.
2. Core the seeds to create small cups.
3. Lay the pieces on paper towels and refrigerate until some of the liquid is lost. Change the paper towels and flip the cucumbers and continue to drain.
4. Pick over the crab and pick out the small pieces of shell.
5. Prep the rest of the salad: Brunoise red and yellow pepper as well as red onion. Because there are going into small cups, it's important to keep the cut to a true brunoise (1/4 inch dice).
6. Zest orange, lime, lemon and grapefruit.
7. Combine all the ingredients and flavor with OJ, salt, pepper and fresh chives. Let the mixture marinate for a couple hours, taste, and adjust the seasonings.
8. Once the flavor is on and the cups are dry, fill them with about a half a teaspoon of the mixture.

At the parties, they are garnish with a delicate piece of chervil. I prepped 120 for the weekend.

To take break from cooking during the day, I gathered all the equipment and serviceware for the FOH and BOH for each party. It's just different body motions. It's walking, bending, twisting, and reaching, instead of standing and standing and standing some more. The key with this is to pack enough of everything (cocktail napkins, coffee prep, bar bins for wine and beer, business cards, leftover containers, gloves, sheet pans, etc) and pack it efficiently so I can fit all the parties in my car at one time.

Once the shoes came off and I slithered into a bubble bath, I quietly feel asleep and woke up to the taste of soapy bubbles. It was time to get some rest and focus on Saturday. I kept a piece of paper and pen at my night table for all of the random thoughts that I had.

I'll continue later as dinner calls.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Let's Get Cooking...

After a derail in New Jersey and New York for a few days, I've returned home to prep for this weekends' catering gigs. It's now Wednesday night and I'm scrambling to put together my final lists for my vendors and of course, waiting on clients for the final numbers. I have three parties on Saturday with estimates of 100, 70, and 40 guests.

After securing one menu, I tried to sell the same items to the other two clients. Streamlining any of the prep is always ideal. But it didn't work. I only have one item overlapping between two of the events. My shopping lists are long and varied, from crab meat and tenderloin to fresh figs and brie. The most involved menu is below. Nothing is complicated to prepare, but there is just a lot of different items.

Antipasto Station. To Include:
Prosciutto Wrapped Grissini
Orange and Thyme Scented Oil-Cured Olives
Artichoke Hearts and Mozzarella Salad
Assorted Cured Meats and Italian Cheeses
Grilled Vegetables, Crumbled Goat Cheese, Snipped Chives

Mediterranean Station. To Include:
Grilled Eggplant, Tomato and Mozzarella Salad with Fresh Basil
Toasted Pita with Hummus, Baba Ganoush, and Tzatziki
Mediterranean Lamb Kebabs over Cherry Tomato-Red Onion Salad
Roasted Red Beet Salad with Watercress, Feta, and Pomegranate, Orange Honey Vinaigrette

Assorted Skewers:
Tequila Lime Chicken with Cilantro Dip
Charred Shrimp with Red-Onion Port Sauce
Caprese Skewers with Pesto

Assorted Canapés:
Curry Chicken Salad on Pompadums
Citrus Crab Salad in Cucumber Cup
Goat Cheese Mousse in Parmesan Cups, Candied Red Onion
Figs in a Blanket: Fresh Figs Wrapped in Prosciutto
Beef Tenderloin on Horseradish Cream and Caramelized Onions

Assorted Mini Pastries

This menu combined with the other two means I have to be creative with refrigerator space. It's times like these when I'm glad I live in New England. Worst case scenario, I can store items outside overnight. To add to all of the confusion, Boston is due for a foot of snow on Friday. I will be hunkered down in my kitchen chopping, dicing and searing, but last minute trips to the store will be unlikely. I must check and recheck my lists and work efficiently given the time constraints and potential weather.

My plan of attack:
I will spend Thursday morning placing final orders, including pastries, rentals, breads, and ice. I'm going to order my produce this evening and pick it up tomorrow. Delivery is available but I've never once received an order that is 100% correct. It's just easier for me to look things over in their shop so I can check the quality and make sure the order is complete. If they deliver and forget something, it could be hours until they make their way back to me. In addition to my produce vendor, I will also head to my restaurant supply store for meats, cheeses, and dry goods. I should be back to my kitchen by noon and after taking an hour to unload and organize, I should be ready to get cooking by 1.

I plan to have a long day Thursday so I can spend Friday finishing last minute things and getting organized and ready for Saturday. It takes a decent amount of time to gather everything needed for both front and back of the house service. This includes all cooking equipment and tools necessary for cooking on site as well as passing and serving platters, risers, table decor, serving utensils, coffee necessities, and aprons for staff. I also review each menu and prepare garnishes for each dish. I keep things simply, garnishing only with items used in those specific dishes, typically using lots of fresh herbs. I also print out invoices and menus, and package half a dozen truffles that I leave as a 'thank you' gift for each client.

I'm working the event with the above menu and looking forward to it. I love seeing my ideas become reality and observing the guests reactions. The true test is how many business cards are left by the end of the evening. I'm pushing to really impress this weekend. It's my first December in business and word of mouth is my best marketing tool. This weekend could really boost my sales for 2009.

Wish me luck!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Joke of the Day!

Woman: What do you do?
Man: Me? Oh, I write books.
Woman: How interesting! Have you sold anything recently?
Man: Why, yes. My couch, my car and my flat-screen television.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

'Tis the Season for Holiday Parties

This weekend I'm catering a holiday party for fifty guests. It's at the home of the client. She's in the process of building an addition on the home and 'hoping' that it's done in time for the party. I am, too. Part of the addition is half of a basketball court, where she is anticipating the guests will dance the night away. (I guess that economy thing hasn't hit Sudbury yet).

I'm preparing passed hors d'oeuvres and a lot of the them. I only serve my items on silver platters and don't overcrowd the platter to showcase the individual beauty of each piece. Stressing her concern about having enough food, the client has requested two pieces of each item per person. So, 100 pieces. They include:

  • Trio of Brie-Phyllo Cups: Fig Chutney, Tomato Confit, and Candied Pecans
  • Beef Tenderloin on Crostini with Horseradish Cream and Caramelized Onions
  • Ginger Chicken Skewer with Sweet Chili Sauce
  • Figs in-a Blanket: Black Mission Figs Wrapped in Prosciutto
  • Caprese Skewers with Pesto
  • Shao-Mai: Pork, Shrimp and Vegetable Dumplings
  • Smoked Salmon Tartare with Lemon Crème Fraiche on Toast Points

The great thing about this menu is that everything can be done the day before. Unless I'm totally swamped, I prefer not to make most things two days ahead. It does depend on the food. Vinaigrettes, dips, dressing and marinates are fine to make ahead of time. It's just about keeping things fresh and using common sense. The way a refrigerator creates moisture and makes everything smell the same grosses me out. Over time, there are just some things you learn. For example, lettuce should only be prepped the same day of service. It must be washed and completely dried. Only slice tomatoes on the same day of use. Make all sandwiches the same day of service.

My catering philosophy is simple: keep things fresh, looking spectacular and tasting phenomenal. Other things that comes into play include service, of course. You could have the best meal of your life and not remember anything about it if the service sucks.

Most of the catering I do are drop-offs. I'll bring the food, set everything up, and pick everything up the following day. I prefer to do this because it frees up time on my end. I would bring in more money with the labor charge, but it's always where clients cut first when estimates are over-budget.

It's the end of my prep day and I'm exhausted. I started at 7 A.M. and am just sitting down now (it's 9:45 P.M.) I had a few sips of beer to relax and now I feel my eyes lids fluttering. This is what happens in December. You go, go, go until it's done. You have no choice. It's a lot right now because I do everything myself. I will be up tomorrow morning at 6 A.M. to make 40 wraps sandwiches and pinting twenty pounds of curry chicken salad for one of my corporate accounts.

Steady week coming up and then four events next weekend.

Homemade Soups. Take Five: Cream of Mushroom

We're almost there. The fifth and final soup is upon us. I always make my Cream of Mushroom last. To be honest, it makes a mess out of the bottom of my 30 quart pot and I dread cleaning it at the end of the project. But while I vigorously scrub the darkened roux from the depths of the dish, the back of my shoulders and neck tighten and I know the end is in sight. After days of slicing, chopping, pureeing, cleaning, bottling, and savoring this seasons' soups, I scour and scour until my pot is just as clean as when I started. It is packed away in the basement until next season.

When I first started making these soups, I revelled in the joy of feedback. Ooohhs and aaahhhs warm my heart. And of course, the appreciative comments are still welcome. But sometime, I find the actual process of creating the soups more enjoyable than enjoying them with a salad or sandwich. Isn't that what it's suppose to be about? I mean, it's great that I can make dinner for the long Boston winter months in just one week if I wanted to, but the process of eating a bowl of soup just doesn't compare to the process of making it from scratch. Lord knows, in our home, our dinners are spent in front of the television and in 1o minutes flat, we're done and looking for something sweet. There is no calming, soothing method to that. It's more in building the flavors, changing the textures, and enhancing the final product.

As with many of my other soups in my repetoire, I started sauteing a mirepoix of carrots, onions, celery and also added shallots (about three pounds), two bay leaves and fresh thyme. With this soup, I used unsalted butter instead of oil for my fat of choice. Most cream based soups are based with a roux (an equal combination of fat and flour, used as a thickening agent).
Once the vegetables softened over low-medium heat, I tossed in the flour. I didn't measure, but traditionally it is equal parts by weight). With such a large amount of soup, I could fudge with the consistency later if I needed to. I cooked the roux mix until the flour scent dissappeared, about five minutes. After I tossed in two cases of botton mushrooms and some home-made chicken stock, the soup was brought to a boil and simmered for a few hours. To keep my costs down, I limited myself to buttom mushrooms, which taste delicious in this soup. But to simply raise the sohpistication of the soup, I suggest using portabellos, dired porcinis, creminis, or any combination that you prefer.

About two hours later, I buzzed up the soup with my hand blender, added some fresh parsley, salt, pepper, two quarts of heavy cream and let the soup simmer a little more until the flavors came together. While this soup did do the most damage to my pot, it's rather simple to make. It just takes patience and time.

To serve it, a delicate drizzle of truffle oil will send this over the top. Add that with a quick saute of some fresh mushrooms with garlic and you're set for the night. Taking a spoonful is like slithering into a steaming hot bubble bath. I promise.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Homemade Soups. Take Four: Butternut Squash

The first time I really tasted the simple treasure of butternut squash soup was at Gabrielle’s Restaurant at the Richmond Hill Inn, in Asheville, North Carolina. My mother and I were visiting to see if I wanted to intern in Asheville as part of the culinary degree program with Johnson & Wales University. We decided to treat ourselves to an elegant dinner at this mountaintop 1890’s Victorian mansion. The aroma of the soup grabbed me instantly and I was hooked. Apple wood smoked bacon and sage were gently woven into the sweet squash and the velvety texture enveloped me. I asked for any secret ingredients that could give its' addictive quality away, but I walked away empty handed.

When I choose to make my version, the experience is just as powerful as my tasting of it at Gabrielle’s. I start by roasted the split squash after they’ve been sprinkled with spices, dabbed with a generous pad of butter and wrapped in foil. Once in the oven, the sweet nutty aroma increases as the butter melts into the flesh of the squash. Meanwhile, I dice up a few slabs of bacon and sauté the cured meat in my stockpot. It will add a salty smoky component to the final product. Next come the onions and as they hit the pot, they release an exquisite crackle. In a simple exchange, a layer of sugary sweetness surrounds the bacon, while a smoky flavor lathers the onions.

The squash is perfectly tender as I pull them from the oven and tear them open like a birthday gift. Leaning over, I receive a brief facial as I breathe in the bouquet of nutmeg, butter, and cinnamon. I scoop out the orange colored flesh and add it to my stockpot of bacon and onions. I add my personal secret ingredients and once everything is combined, its time to puree. In the food processor, the pieces of my puzzle swirl and whip together. The orange darkens to a rustier tint, as steam billows out the top like a smokestack and specs of bacon appear and disappear as the tornado continues.

I add some chicken stock to my soup’s base until the consistency reaches that of Cream of Wheat. I taste the soup. It’s a bit sweet and a bit smoky, but missing a little punch. I reach for the dried sage and sprinkle some into the pot. The subtly mint flavored herb infuses the soup and intensifies while simmering. Bitter sage is the perfect contrast to the sweet squash. The grand finale is a generous addition of heavy cream and the soup transforms into a luxurious treat.

In addition to the beautiful foliage and changes in temperature, fall brings an arsenal of culinary comforts. It’s an opportunity to expand and develop skills as a cook, be a little creative and share discoveries with friends and family. This recipe is simple to make and comforting beyond belief.

Make a large batch and freeze some for later in the winter. Again, the amount listed are estimates.

Butternut Squash Soup. Yield: 4-6 Servings
5 ½ pounds, butternut squash (about 2 medium sized)
4 TB, butter
1 teaspoon, cinnamon
Sprinkle of nutmeg
Sprinkle of cloves
3 slices, diced bacon
1 ½ cups, diced onions
3 cups, chicken stock
1 TB, dried sage
½ cup, heavy cream
Salt and pepper, to taste

Method of Preparation:1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Split the squash lengthwise in half and scoop out the seeds and pulp.
3. Sprinkle each half with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Place 1 TB of butter in each cavity.
4. Wrap each half in aluminum foil, place on a baking sheet, and place in the oven. Remove when tender, about 1 ½ hours.
5. Meanwhile, in a 5-6 quart pot, sauté the bacon on med-hi heat until half way cooked. Add onions and sauté until onions are translucent. Add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Unwrap squash and scoop out flesh. Add it to the bacon and onion mixture. Stir to combine.
7. Puree mixture in food processor (in batches, if necessary). Add mixture back to pot and bring to simmer. Add chicken stock and stir to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with dried sage.
8. Let soup simmer 10-15 minutes to combine flavors.
9. Stir in heavy cream and serve.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Seared Salmon with Green Lentils and Tomato Confit

I'm on a slight health kick this week. Very little of my catering dishes contain butter. Since I push to have them served cold or room temperature, I avoid butter because you can see it on the food. So, in taking a lesson from my own catering mantra, I going to stick to dishes this week that I serve to my clients, from seared fish to salads with a twist.

We used to make a lentil salad at the Ritz-Carlton that was lovely and delicate in its texture and flavor. Always simmered with house-made stock instead of water, the lentils held their texture but still tasted creamy and rich.

I started with a mirepoix: a very small dice of carrots, onions and celery. I find it best to keep components of a dish the same size. It would seem silly to have large chunks of vegetables with the small pea-sized lentils. I sauteed the mirepoix with just salt and pepper and add some parsley at the end for some bright freshness. I then added larger pieces of mirepoix, combined with thyme and garlic, chicken stock and the green lentils to a small pot. When cooking the lentils, I cut pieces of the mirepoix large enough so I could easily pull them out at the end of the cooking process. I let them simmer for 15-20 mintues, finished them with a bit of red wine vinegar and they were finished.

Meanwhile, I roasted two plum tomatoes, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper. The ends were removed and they were sliced in half and roasted, cut side down. Once the skin started to split, it pulled them and let them cool. Once I could handle them, I removed the skin and seeds and diced the flesh. I added some more salt and pepper, as well as some fresh parsley and a drop of truffle oil.

To prepare the salmon, I preheated a non-stick skillet and salted and peppered the fillets. While keeping the heat at medium, I gently lay the fillets in the hot oil. After a nice crust had formed, I finished the fillets in the oven for anther 5 minutes or so.

The resulting combination of the three components was a true success. A warm comforting meal that didn't leave us feeling like we ate too much. Lentils lend themselves very well to salmon. The fatty texture of the salmon pairs well with the delicate seeds (yes, lentils are seeds). Lentils are a wonderful source of iron and we all know the benefits of salmon. There was little fat in this meal, only being used to roasted the tomatoes and sear the salmon. Feel free to make this ahead of time and serve it room temperature. That's what I would suggest. It will be just as delicious.

By the way, I also had my first clementine of the season. Not as sweet as they will be, but I'll be coming up with some dishes for those. I love cooking with the seasons. And tis the season for clementines. Perhaps a clementine marmalade or a perhaps a glaze for some grilled shrimp...I'll think of something.

P.S. I obviously need some help with my photos. I don't know why they always have such a yellow tint. Any suggestions?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Comfort me with Bacon and Melted Cheese...

My husband's face this morning said it all: blood shot eyes, hunched shoulders, uncombed hair. It looked like he been locked away working on a dissertation for months. Finally emerging from his cocoon, he foraged the shelves searching for his morning sustenance.

As he slowly moved a spoonful of 'Life' to his chin and pushed further to reach his mouth, I recognized his cry for help. I was observing while hovering over 20 pounds of curry chicken salad (that's a different story).

If you ask my husband what his favorite food is, he'll say stuffing. But we just ate 4 days of consecutive Thanksgiving meals and we're stuffed out.

And then it came to me...three cheese macaroni with bacon! And pecan pie! The non-baker in me forged ahead and made a pecan pie with a homemade crust! Okay, that was my intention, but I wimped out and bought a pre-made one. At least they were on sale from the overstock from Thanksgiving.

Here's the recipe I used for the pecan pie.

1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup dark Karo syrup
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup chopped pecans
1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a saucepan, melt the butter but don't let it brown. Mix in the sugar and corn syrup and cook, stirring, over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the eggs. Mix well. Stir in the pecans. Pour into the pie shell and bake for 1 hour or until firm when shaken.

This was idiot proof. Seriously. Hit the spot. I did use salted butter and added a little vanilla.

For savory dishes, I don't use recipes. I'll either work off of a pictures or concepts in my head. I'll give some estimates here, but don't hold me accountable for it. For the mac n'cheese, choose your favorite cheeses and go for it.

8 oz. bacon, diced and sauteed
1 lb pasta, cooked and drained
5 oz. shredded extra sharp cheddar
5 oz. shredded Gruyere
5 oz. Monterey Jack
Grated Parmesan
Fresh parsley
Cayenne, to taste
Panko bread crumbs
5 TB unsalted butter
4 TB AP flour
3 cups, whole milk
nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. To make the bechamel, melt the butter over low heat and then add the flour. Cook, with a wooden spoon or whisk until the flour scent is gone. Meanwhile, heat the milk in a separate pot. Slowly stream in the milk into the roux and whisk. Once the sauce has come to a boil, cook for another 3-4 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
3. Add half of each cheese (Cheddar, Jack and Gruyere) to the bechamel.
4. After draining the pasta, add the rest of the cheeses to the pasta
5. Combine the cheese sauce with the pasta and stir gently to combine. (When you think you've added enough sauce, add a little more). Check seasonings. Add fresh parsley, cayenne and bacon.
6. Transfer to a casserole dish. Top with panko and then Parmesan and bake until heated through...about 30 minutes.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Homemade Soups. Take Three: Chicken and Vegetable

Homemade chicken soup is up there with one of my favorite comfort foods. Let's not speak of canned soup. There is always something wrong when there are more chemicals than edible items listed in the ingredients.

This soup has the least amount of steps. It does involve making a chicken stock, but remember the turkey stock? It's easy. Just a few steps and then it does all the work for you.

Once you have the stock, set it aside and start the soup. I like to keep my chicken soup very basic: carrots, onions, celery, chicken, dill and parsley (and sometimes a little Tabasco, depending on my mood).

In a large stockpot, saute the mirepoix with some fresh thyme and bay leaves. You'll remove those later, so don't worry about picking off the little leaves.

Once the vegetables have softens, season with kosher salt and pepper and add your chicken stock. Of course, it's fine to add store bought stock to fill in the gaps and if you're really stressed for time, you can use that 100%. Theoretically, you're just strengthening the stock you already have. Let the soup come to a simmer and then add your chicken. I use boneless breast and dice the raw meat before adding it to the soup. Many people roast the chickens first and then pull the meat from that. But I like the idea of poaching the chicken. It remains tender and juicy and to be honest, its less effort.

There is no need for concern over salmonella. Chicken is safe when cooked to 165 degrees. (I pull it from the oven 5-10 degrees less than that because it will always continue to cook while resting.) So add the chicken to the soup, crank the heat and bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer the chicken until it's cooked through. All of the bacteria will be cooked out of the raw meat in the cooking process, just like it would be done in an oven. Try not to let the soup boil again. Nothing is worse than comforting chicken soup with chewy gummy chicken pieces.

Before serving (or bottling in my case), I add some fresh chopped dill anAdd Imaged parsley. And of course, taste, taste, taste. You may not need a lot of salt if you're using store bought stock, but I'm sure you'll need it from homemade stock.

Chicken soup is a global soothing mechanism. Variations differ from country to country. For example in Greece, it'a is traditionally made with lemon and egg, in China it is flavored with ginger, spring onions, soy and sesame, and in Mexico, it is often prepared with cabbage and potatoes and garnished with avocados and cheese.

Obviously, from the variations, this soup is a great base. You can add tomato paste, matzo balls, dumplings, mushrooms, fennel, squash, or anything else to mix things up.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Homemade Soups. Take Two: Grilled Tomato and Basil Soup

That's right. Grilled. My oven is busted. It's a little aggravating because a lot of my work depends on it, but it's also forcing me to be creative in my cooking techniques. In essence, a grill is an oven so I'm just going to go along with that and make my tomato soup via grill.

I grabbed about ten pounds of plum tomatoes, cut them in half and tossed them with kosher salt, black pepper, sugar, thyme, and oil. Because the tomatoes are out of season, they are solid as a rock and need some sugar to soften and sweeten them. After tossing them on the grill until they released some of their juices and the grates looked sadly speckled with black tomato seeds, I pulled them off and piled them on my sheet pan.

While they cooled, I prepped the base of the soup. I buried myself in the soothing scents of sauteed onions laced with fresh thyme and bay leaves. The grilled tomatoes were added, along with some crushed tomatoes and fresh basil leaves. The soup simmered until the flavors came together. I grabbed my hand mixer and buzzed up the mixture. Splattering red dotted my stove top and my chest. While I am obsessive about working cleanly, making a small mess here and there is also what cooking is about. I added some chicken broth to reach the consistency I wanted and let the soup simmer a little more.

I tasted it, checking for seasoning and depth of flavor. I always add more kosher salt, but the sweetness was there, thanks to the sugar and the anise flavored basil balanced with the acidity of the roasted tomatoes.

You can serve this soup in a variety of ways: with a simple green salad, a grilled cheese sandwich, or perhaps with a parmesan crostini. A delicate drizzle of aged balsamic or good olive oil (my favorite is Olio Santo) right on top before serving is a must.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Homemade Soups. Take One

Each winter, I offer homemade soups to friends and family. While it does bring in a little money to the business, it's more about offering comforting food to those I care about. Once the winter hits Boston, its easier to reach into the freezer and grab a soup rather than think about what to cook or where to order from. This year, I'm offering:
  • Roasted Tomato and Basil
  • Shrimp and Corn Chowder
  • Chicken and Vegetable
  • Cream of Mushroom
  • Butternut Squash

I have orders for 110 quarts total. A few tips when making soups, chowders, stews, etc. :

  • Always use kosher salt.
  • If possible, look for whole peppercorns and grind them yourself. It is more potent with a fresher flavor. For light colored soups, use white pepper. It is stronger than black, so use sparingly.
  • Make your own stock. It brings the soup to another level. Just throw the ingredients in a pot with cold water and leave it for a few hours.
  • Make a lot at once and freeze in smaller portions
  • Use fresh herbs and add them at the end

I'll start with the most popular: the chowder. I describe how to make it here.