Archive | February 2013

Spicing up Winter Soups

Winter Soup

It’s the end of winter–the season of the root cellar. That’s where I go for the ingredients for winter soups: potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips, cabbage, winter squash, onions, and leeks. These are humble ingredients, full of mellow, earthy flavors. These understated flavors beg for some pizzazz, so cooking with them provides a perfect opportunity to play with spices. Lentils and Indian dals (beans) combine well with winter vegetables, so making curry powders and spice blends is a natural path to follow.

Spices in a Pan

Spice Basics: Spices begin to lose their flavor as soon as they are ground (that’s one reason it is so satisfying to use a mortar and pestle –you get to enjoy the wonderful aroma of fresh spices as they are ground). Start with whole spices whenever possible and grind them in small amounts. To get the most fragrant spices, shop from mail-order sources or stores with customers who appreciate spices and buy them frequently. Protect all spices from air, light, and heat.

Releasing Flavor: Before spices can impart their full flavor to foods, they need a little help. Cracking, grinding, dry-roasting (toasting), and blooming are all methods of releasing the flavors of spices.

*Grinding, Cracking, Crushing: These methods release aromatic oils. Coarsely ground or cracked spices add little jolts of flavor and interesting texture to a dish. A fine grind can be more subtle and blends in more evenly. I usually toast (dry roast) whole spices before grinding to use in marinades or add to dishes near the end of cooking.

*Dry roasting: This method toasts whole spices without oil or liquid, transforming spices the same way toasting bread does. It is best to toast each kind of spice separately, as they require different amounts of time. Heat a dry, heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add the whole spice and stir or shake the pan continually to prevent scorching. Toast until the spices are fragrant and lightly browned. Transfer immediately to a spice grinder or mortar and allow to cool before grinding.

*Blooming: Cooking whole spices in oil extracts flavor and aroma quickly. Warm a few Tbs oil in a pan over medium heat. Add whole spices to the pan and cook until small bubbles rise around the spices. Turn the heat down or off and stir a minute or so until the spices are fragrant but not browned. Bloomed spices can be the way to begin a recipe, or poured over the top of a finished dish (spice oil for finishing is called Tarka). Ground spices made into a paste with moist ingredients like garlic, ginger, and fresh herbs and chiles are also bloomed at the start of cooking.

Playing with spices: Start with one or two spices at a time. Cumin, either whole or ground, is friendly presence in a wide variety of dishes. Cumin and coriander or cumin and mustard seed enhance each other, and the three spices are often used together. Their flavors are companionable and taste earthy and warm. Fennel is another easy-to-add spice that is welcome in food from Italy to India.

Start small. A little can go a long way. A good way to experiment is to toast and grind the spice or spice mixture to a powder. Add a pinch or two at the end of cooking, stir and taste. You can always add more. Adding spices to a bowl of potato soup or other simple stew can be a revelation. Or, put a few pinches of whole spice into the oil at the start of a stir-fry or braise; cook about 30 seconds before adding other aromatics.

Harira with Baharat and Meatballs


A hearty mixture of grains, lentils, and chickpeas, Harira is a Moroccan soup commonly served during the fasting month of Ramadan. This is an excellent soup for a blustery winter night, with or without the meatballs. Baharat is an Arab spice mix.

Baharat: 1 tsp black peppercorns, 2 tsp coriander seeds, 1 3-inch cinnamon stick, 5 or 6 whole allspice or cloves, 2 tsp cumin seed, seeds from 2 cardamom pods, 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg. Break the cinnamon stick into pieces. Dry-roast all the spices except the cardamom and nutmeg. Grind to a powder in a spice grinder.

Meatballs: 8 oz ground beef, 6 to 8 oz ground lamb or turkey, 1 small chopped onion, 2 finely chopped garlic cloves, 1 beaten egg, 4 Tbs bread crumbs, 1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, mint, thyme), 2 tsp Baharat spice mix (or 1 tsp ground cumin and 1/4 tsp each ground cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg), 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper.

Put all the ingredients together in a bowl. Mix with your hands and shape into small balls about 1-inch in diameter. Warm 2 Tbs olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. When the oil is hot, fry the meatballs until browned on all sides. Set aside.

Ingredients for soup: 2 Tbs olive oil, 1 large chopped onion, 2 cloves chopped garlic, 1 cup diced carrots, 3/4 cup chopped celery, 1 cup diced parsnip, 1 cup brown lentils, 1 cup barley, farro, or bulgur wheat, 4 cups vegetable, chicken, or meat broth, 2 cups water, 1 1/2 cups diced fresh or canned tomatoes with juice, 1 Tbs tomato paste, 2 tsp ground coriander, 1 2-inch cinnamon stick, 1 tsp salt, 2 tsp Baharat, 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas, chickpea liquid or water to thin soup, 1 cup chopped parsley leaves, 1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves, salt and black pepper. Lemon wedges for serving.

Warm the oil in a large Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook until softened, 5 or 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook one minute. Stir in the carrots, celery, and parsnips and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, ground coriander, cinnamon stick, and salt. Cook 1 or 2 minutes. Add the grain and stir for a couple of minutes. Add the broth, water, and the lentils. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer gently over low heat 20 to 25 minutes. When the grain is barely tender, add the Baharat, meatballs, chickpeas, and more liquid as needed. Simmer another 15 to 20 minutes, until the grain is fully cooked. Stir in the fresh herbs and season to your taste with salt and black pepper.

Cauliflower and Potato Curry with Chickpeas

Bowl of Spices

Marcella Hazen wrote in her cookbook of Classic Italian Cooking, “Soups are where good leftovers go when they are reborn.” Leftovers from a dinner of rice, dal, and curried vegetables found a new home in this culinary collision of Indian curry and Middle Eastern spiced chickpeas. 

Garam Masala: 11/2 Tbs cumin seed, 1 1/2 Tbs coriander seed, 1 1/2 Tbs black peppercorns, 1/2 tsp fennel seed, 1 tsp whole cloves, 4 green cardamom pods, 3-inch stick whole cinnamon, 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg, 1 tsp crushed red chiles

Dry roast the spices (except the nutmeg and chiles). Transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder.

Curry ingredients: 2 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs vegetable oil, 1 tsp whole cumin seed, 1 tsp whole coriander seed, 1 tsp whole black mustard seed, 1 thinly sliced medium onion, 1 minced small hot chile, 2 Tbs grated ginger, 2 cloves crushed garlic, 1 1/2 cups fresh or canned diced tomatoes, 2 carrots cut in 1/4-inch slices, 1 lb potatoes (or winter squash) cut in 1-inch chunks, 1 medium head cauliflower cut into florets, 1 tsp salt, 1 1/2 cups water or broth, garam masala, 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (1 15-oz can), 1 tsp whole cumin seed, 1/4 tsp red chile flakes, chopped fresh coriander, parsley, and mint leaves, and yogurt.

Warm the butter and oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat with the whole spices. When they are fragrant and sizzling, stir in the onion and cook 5 or 6 minutes. Add the chile, ginger and garlic and cook 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and their juice and heat to a simmer. Stir in the carrots, potato, and cauliflower and stir to combine. Sprinkle with salt and the water or broth. Cover, and simmer 20 to 25 minutes, stirring once or twice. When the potatoes (or squash) are tender, gently stir in 1 tsp garam masala. Taste, and add more spice or salt if desired. Simmer 5 more minutes over very low heat.

While the vegetables cook, make the spiced chickpeas: Put the drained chickpeas in a bowl and toss with 1 tsp garam masala  (or 1 tsp ground cumin seed, 1 tsp ground allspice, and 1/2 tsp ground cardamom), and 1/4 tsp salt. Warm 2 Tbs olive oil with 2 cloves minced garlic and 1/4 tsp red chile flakes in a skillet over medium heat. Cook about 1 minute, then stir in the chickpeas. Cook 2 or 3 minutes, shaking the pan or stirring to toast evenly. Add the chickpeas to the curry. Sprinkle the top with a handful of chopped fresh herbs.

I added the leftover moong dal (red lentils) to the stew, as well. To try that incarnation, cook 3/4 cup well washed dal in a saucepan with 4 cups water. Bring to a boil and add 2  bay leaves and a small stick cinnamon. Simmer until the dal is tender, about 25 minutes. The dal should be thick but soup-like. Remove the bay and cinnamon. Stir in 1/4 tsp turmeric and 1/2 tsp or more salt, to taste. Stir the cooked dal into the vegetable curry before adding the chickpeas. 

South Indian Lentil Stew with Sambhar Masala


Made with quick-cooking dal (small lentils, beans, and peas used in Indian cooking) and a generous amount of winter root vegetables, this soup is a lovely, warm yellow. Make your own Sambhar Masala, or substitute another curry powder.

Sambhar Masala: 1 1/2 Tbs channa or urad dal, 2 Tbs coriander seed, 1 1/2 tsp fenugreek, 1 tsp black peppercorns, 1 Tbs cumin seed, 1 Tbs black mustard seed, 6 small dried hot chiles (or 2 tsp ground), 1/2 tsp turmeric, 6 to 8 dried curry leaves (optional)

Dry roast the dal or split peas over medium heat, stirring constantly for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the coriander, peppercorns, and fenugreek. Continue to stir 2 to 3 more minutes, until the spices are fragrant and lightly browned. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder. Dry roast the dal, cumin, and mustard seeds. Combine with the other spices, red chiles (remove seeds for less heat), and curry leaves. Grind to a fine powder and stir in the turmeric.

The stew ingredients: 1 1/4 cups masoor or channa dal (red lentils or split mung beans), 2 Tbs vegetable oil, 2 cups diced onion, 1 cup diced carrot, 2 cups diced potato, or parsnip, 1 1/2 Tbs grated ginger, 1 Tbs chopped garlic, 1 finely chopped jalapeno, 1 tsp salt, 2 cups chopped fresh or canned tomatoes, 2 or 3 tsp Sambhar Masala spice mix (or other curry powder), 1 Tbs tamarind paste or fresh lemon juice

Wash the lentils well, drain, and set them aside. Warm the oil in a Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and carrot and cook 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the ginger, garlic, and jalapeno. Add a few Tbs water, sprinkle with salt, and cook 1 minute. Add the potatoes or parsnips, the lentils, and 6 cups water or broth.  Bring to a boil, and simmer partially covered for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring once or twice. When the lentils and vegetables are tender, stir in the spice mix, chopped tomato, and tamarind or lemon juice (tomatillo salsa is good, too). Simmer 5 to 10 more minutes. Puree the soup and check the seasoning. Serve with a dollop of plain yogurt or yogurt sauce.

Make a Tarka for this soup: Heat 2 Tbs oil in a small skillet or saucepan. When the oil is hot, add 2 tsp black mustard seed. Cook until they begin to pop. Add 1 tsp cumin seeds and cook about one minute. Pour the tarka into the soup, stir well, and serve.

Yellow Split Pea Soup with Chinese and Bengali 5-Spice

Split Pea Soup

I just discovered the Bengali 5-spice mix at my favorite store for all things Asian, so I had to use it.  Bright orange Kabocha squash lends sweetness and color. Spices add fragrant warmth.

*Chinese 5-Spice: 4 whole star anise, 1 tsp fennel seed, 4-5 whole cloves, 2-inch stick cinnamon, 2 tsp Sichuan pepper

Dry roast the cloves, cinnamon (broken into pieces), and Sichuan pepper. Use a spice grinder to grind all the spices to a fine powder.

*Bengali 5-spice (Panch Phoran): 1 tsp brown mustard seed, 1 tsp cumin seed, 1 tsp fennel seed, 1 tsp onion seed (Kalonji) or nigella, 1/2 tsp fenugreek seed

This mixture of whole seeds is bloomed in oil to make a flavor base for braises, soups, and stir-fried dishes.

Ingredients: 1 1/2 cups yellow split peas, 1 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs olive oil, 1 tsp panch phoran or 1 tsp whole cumin seed, 2 thinly sliced medium onions, 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 1 tsp salt, 6 cups vegetable broth or water, 1 tsp Chinese 5-spice powder, 4 to 5 cups winter squash or sweet potato cut in 1-inch cubes, 1/4 cup fresh orange juice, 1 Tbs fresh lime juice, 1 tsp orange zest

Put the split peas in a large saucepan and cover them by 2 inches with boiling water. Cover and let sit for 2 hours or longer.

Warm the butter and olive oil in a Dutch oven or soup pot. Add the cumin seed and cook 30 seconds. Stir in the onion and cook over medium-low heat 5 or 6 minutes. Add the garlic, and ginger. Cook 1 minute. Drain the split peas and add them to the pot with 1 tsp salt and 6 cups water or broth. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer 20 minutes. Add the squash and 5-spice powder. Simmer 20 more minutes until the squash and peas are completely tender. Puree the soup in a blender with the orange juice. Season to taste with  salt, orange zest, and lime juice. Serve with yogurt sauce.

Yogurt Sauce

Plain yogurt is fine, and  yogurt sauce is even better. Mix 1 cup thick plain whole-milk yogurt with 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 1/2 tsp toasted and ground cumin seed (or 1/2 tsp freshly made spice powder), 1/2 tsp lemon or lime zest, a few Tbs chopped chives, mint, or cilantro, and salt to taste.

Variation: Add 2/3 cup finely chopped radish, or cucumber.

Culinary Collisions and a Medley of Marinades


Our good friends Joe and Suzy came by with another new cookbook. “Your food looks just like the pictures in this book, so I got it for you,” Joe told me. . The book is Jerusalem the Cookbook by Yotam Ottalenghi and Sami Tamimi, so I am in good company. One photo displays a plate of ground lamb topped with golden yellow egg yolks, shining red cherry tomatoes, a shower of emerald green parsley, and great globs of yogurt and spices. Their food is so startlingly beautiful it could be hanging on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art.

Reading through the book, I came across a passage describing Jerusalem as a collision of culinary traditions that creates an immense tapestry of cuisines. It brought to mind our travels in Sweden last summer, where we experienced some culinary sliding, if not actual collisions. More like a patchwork quilt than a tapestry. Sweden is very generous and welcoming to refugees and immigrants, and many new food traditions are arriving with them. In Overkalix, we ate Thai food and reindeer sausage at the big outdoor market; Nina fixed Lebanese chicken and tabouleh, and Beth and Annalie made dolmathes. When we visited Hans Karlsson, he made several traditional Swedish meals for us: smoked lake fish, pickled herring with all the fixings, new potatoes with butter and dill… but he also pulled out his favorite supplies from the local Turkish store.

One evening we planned an outing to a nearby island. We’d meet Hans’ son Andreas and his family, make a fire, and have a cookout. Hans asked if I would make a marinade for the chicken kebabs. “Sure. What do you have?” I asked. The pantry yielded a jar of eggplant stuffed with red pepper and walnuts in olive oil, Sambal Olek (Indonesian chile sauce), mushroom soy sauce, garlic, fresh ginger, lemons, and several varieties of sea salt–the ingredients for a fine marinade. I mixed together the flavorful oil from the jar of eggplants, garlic, ginger, chile sauce, soy sauce, and fresh lemon juice. I rolled the strips of chicken around in the bowl of marinade, scraped it all into a zip-lock bag, and we all got in the boat.

Chicken Kabobs

On the island, we threaded the chicken onto skewers with Halloumi cheese (a soft-curd cheese from Cyprus that is particularly good for grilling and frying) and Hungarian sausage. We ate our grilled chicken kebabs with Greek tsadziki, shrimp dip, and a French sourdough baguette, followed by Swedish sausages with mustard. It was a grand culinary collision, and a blissful view of the long Swedish sunset over the water.

Swedish Sunset

Around the World in a Marinade

I love making and using marinades for traveling around the world of food. Making your own marinades from fresh ingredients is intoxicating and addictive, especially if you use a mortar and pestle to release the aromas of freshly toasted spices, fresh citrus, garlic and herbs. Marinades are great infusers of flavor, working wonders with chicken breasts, lean pork, lamb, mild fish or seafood, and tofu. Plan on roughly 3/4-cup marinade for 3 lb meat, poultry or fish. Coat the food completely with the marinade (enough to coat well, but not float), place it in a leak-proof plastic bag or covered glass container, and refrigerate. Marinating takes time: fish fillets 1 hour, boneless chicken and small portions of meat 2 to 4 hours, bone-in chicken, whole fish, and larger cuts of meat 6 to 12 hours, and tofu 2 to 12 hours. Turn the food every hour or so. After marinating, the food can be grilled, sautéed, sear-roasted, broiled, or roasted.


*Mediterranean Herbs and Olive Oil: 1 Tbs fresh thyme leaves, 1 Tbs fresh rosemary leaves, 1 Tbs oregano or mint leaves, 2 garlic cloves, juice and zest of 1 lemon, 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 tsp sea salt. Chop the herbs and garlic. Whisk all the ingredients together. Especially good for grilled or roasted chicken, pork or lamb chops, and whole fish.

Mediterranean Sear-Roast Chicken Breasts

Chicken Marinade

Place 4 to 6 boneless skinless chicken breast halves in a shallow glass container and coat well with marinade (set aside un-used marinade to drizzle on after cooking). Cover and refrigerate at least 2 and preferably 4 hours. Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Take the chicken out of the marinade and season lightly with salt. Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium high heat. Add 1 Tbs olive, canola, or grapeseed oil to the pan, swirl it around, and place the chicken in the pan. Sear 2 minutes without moving. When well browned, turn the chicken over and cook 1 minute. Transfer the pan to the heated oven and roast 5 to 8 minutes to reach a temperature of 165 degrees F.

Serve this topped with a sauté of red peppers and onion: Warm 3 Tbs olive oil with some thinly sliced garlic and red chile flakes. Stir in 1 chopped red onion and sauté 3 or 4 minutes. Add two diced red bell peppers and sauté until softened. Add 1 Tbs balsamic vinegar, 1/3 cup dry white wine, and 1 Tbs capers. Cook until the liquid is reduced. Season with salt to taste.

*Asian Marinade: 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup mirin, 1/4 cup sake, 1 1/2 Tbs grated ginger, 1 tsp orange zest (and/or 1 Tbs orange marmalade), 1 Tbs toasted sesame oil. Add 1 or 2 tsp chile sauce and 1 or 2 cloves minced garlic, if you like.

Equally good with roast  or grilled pork tenderloin, or sear-roast tofu.

Roast Pork Tenderloin with Asian Marinade

(Thanks to John Ash)

Combine 1 1/4 to 2 lbs pork tenderloin with the Asian marinade (about 1/2 cup per lb meat), rubbing the marinade into the meat. Place in a zip-lock bag or covered container and refrigerate 4 to 6 hours, turning two or three times during that time.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Remove the tenderloin from the marinade and place on a rack in a roasting pan. Add 1 cup water to the pan and roast 25 to 30 minutes, until the center of the meat reaches 155 degrees F. Baste with marinade two or three times while cooking. Allow the meat to rest 5 to 10 minutes before slicing.

I like to serve this thinly sliced on a bed of quickly stir-fried cabbage and ginger.

Baked Tofu

Cut a 14 oz block firm or extra-firm tofu into 4 slices. Place in a shallow container and cover with Asian marinade. Refrigerate 2 to 8 hours, turning the slices once or twice. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Heat an ovenproof skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add 1 Tbs oil and swirl to coat the pan. Place the tofu in the pan and cook 1 or 2 minutes until lightly browned. Turn the tofu over and transfer the pan to the oven. Roast 3 or 4 minutes.

Cut the slices into bite-size cubes and serve on top of a salad of thinly sliced Chinese cabbage, red peppers, and carrots dressed with a little sesame oil and rice vinegar…or a stir-fry of cabbage, bok choi, and mushrooms.

*Chermoula Moroccan Marinade: 1 1/2 tsp cumin seed, 1 1/2 tsp coriander seed, 1 tsp red chile flakes, 1 tsp sweet paprika, 2 garlic cloves, 1/4 tsp sea salt, juice and zest of 1 medium lemon (or 2 or 3 Tbs chopped preserved lemon**), 2 Tbs chopped fresh mint, 2 Tbs chopped fresh parsley or coriander leaves, 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil.


Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Toast the coriander seed 1 or 2 minutes, then add the cumin seed and toast another 30 seconds, shaking or stirring so they roast evenly. Add the red chile and paprika, stir, and immediately transfer to a mortar or spice grinder. Cool and grind to a coarse powder. Put the peeled garlic and the salt in the mortar and grind to a paste. Add the lemon zest and herbs and crush them into the spices to make a rough pesto. Whisk in the lemon juice and olive oil.

**Joe and Suzy got me hooked on making preserved lemons, they are so delicious and easy to make. I followed the ingredients in Ottolenghi’s cookbook: Wash 6 organic lemons and cut a deep cross from the top to the base so that each can be stuffed with 1 Tbs coarse sea salt. Push the lemons tightly into a sterilized wide mouth glass jar to fill all the space. Seal the jar and store in a cool place for a week. After a week, press the lemons down into the jar to squeeze out the juice. Add fresh lemon juice to cover. You can add a sprig of fresh rosemary and a red chile, if you like. Top off with a thin layer of olive oil. Seal and leave in a cool place for a month before using.

Use Chermoula to marinate lamb, goat, or chicken. Smear it on thickly sliced eggplant, sweet potatoes, or winter squash before baking. Or, toss it with steamed, roasted, or pan-braised vegetables. Carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and cauliflower are particularly good with these flavors.

Carrots in Chermoula

Steam or pan-braise 2 lbs thinly sliced carrots until just tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Combine the warm carrots with Chermoula, tossing to coat well. Season with salt to taste and sprinkle with more chopped fresh herbs. You can add a few Tbs plain yogurt to the dish, or serve a yogurt sauce to dollop on top.

Serve with a bulgur wheat, or farro and herb salad, or with lentil salad and pita breads.

*Chipotle-Citrus Marinade: 2/3 cup fresh orange juice, juice and zest of 1 lime (3 or 4 Tbs), 1 Tbs cider vinegar, 1 or 2 chipotle chiles en adobo, 2 tsp adobo sauce, 2 garlic cloves, 1/4 cup chopped white onion, 1 tsp toasted cumin seed, 2 tsp Tbs chopped fresh oregano, 2 Tbs chopped fresh mint or cilantro, 1 tsp salt, 1/4 cup olive oil

Use a blender to puree all the ingredients. This marinade is also delicious made with fresh jalapenos instead of chipotle en adobo. I often use lots more cilantro and just eat it on everything.

Mexican Pork (or Chicken) Kebabs 

Cut 2 to 2 1/2 lbs pork loin or tenderloin, or boneless skinless chicken thighs into 1 1/2-inch chunks. Combine the meat with 2/3 of the marinade in a shallow container or plastic bag to marinate in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours. Heat a charcoal or gas grill (or stovetop grill pan or broiler). Thread the cubes of meat onto skewers, leaving a little space in between so they will cook all around. Grill the kebabs 7 or 8 minutes, turning to brown all sides.

Serve with grilled or roasted wedges of sweet potato, red onion, and poblano or Anaheim chiles…with the reserved marinade for a splash of flavor.