Winter

dijon vegetable chowderWhen you live in the Midwest, northern Minnesota to be more exact, where below-zero temperatures are no big deal, but just part of winter life, a hot bowl of hearty homemade soup is highly appreciated.

A few weeks ago I received a copy of "Enlightened Soups," by Camilla V. Saulsbury. As I was in the midst of holiday preparations, I didn’t have much time to look through the cookbook. But as the New Year rang in, I was ready to get back to a more healthful eating routine. And, during the first week of the new year, a few of Camilla’s Enlightened Soups have been a part of my lower fat, lower calorie eating plan.

As I paged through the cookbook filled with more than 135 light and healthful soup recipes, I soon noticed the recipes used ingredients that can be found in most supermarkets and that the soups did not take long to make. All can be prepared in an hour or less, some in just 20 minutes. Each recipe has a small illustration that shows how long it takes to prepare the soup. As I soon discovered, enlightened soups don’t need to cook for hours to deliver wonderful flavor.

Another feature of "Enlightened Soups" is the nutritional information included with each recipe. I first tried Red Lentil Mulligatawny. It was rich with flavor and took 45 minutes to prepare from start to finish.

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halibutcookedWhen the Deadliest Catch first aired, I watched with morbid curiosity as the crews manhandled heavy metal cages. Those cages sometimes swung wildly in the air, smashing against the ship's bulkhead, threatening to hospitalize crew members.

Many times, risking life and limb did not have the hoped for payoff when the cages contained the ocean's odds and ends rather than the prized catch of Alaskan king crab. When luck was with them, a cage would be filled with crabs, their pointed, armored legs poking out at any hand that risked a close encounter.

After that, when I ordered a crab cocktail I had newfound respect for my food. The crab meat might be delicate and sweet, but the effort it took to snatch it from the icy, turbulent ocean was marked by sweat, fear and danger. On so many levels, when I am cooking or about to eat, I am happy to be ignorant of the difficult work it takes to get the food from ocean or farm to my table.

Recently, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute made it easy for me. They offered to send a box of Alaska seafood for me to prepare and write about. Certainly I had bought, cooked and eaten Alaskan seafood before because it is available from local purveyors big (Ralphs and Gelson's) and small (Malibu Seafood).

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butternetchipotlesoupI'm not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point in the last several years, ginger butternut squash soup became America's #1 vegetarian soup of choice.

Ginger butternut squash soup is everywhere. Google it, and you'll get hundreds of recipes (I stopped counting after the eighth full page load). Every vegetarian cookbook has a recipe for it. It's the go-to soup for Thanksgiving holidays and dinner parties, and 9 times out of 10, it's the only vegetarian soup available at cafeterias and supermarkets food courts. I've seen brawls break out in Trader Joe's as people frantically try to scoop up as many cartons of butternut squash soup as possible.

I understand the love. I made my first pot of ginger butternut squash soup about 15 years ago from a vegetarian cookbook I bought right after we moved to North Carolina. It was a revelation: creamy, refreshing, soothing. I have made that soup so many times, the recipe is etched in my brain along with my telephone number and birth date.

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braisedfingerlingsIf you listen to conventional wisdom, you might think roasting is the only way to go when it comes to cooking fingerling potatoes. Now, I am usually the poster-girl for roasting (potatoes or anything else), and I’d like not to be burned at the stake for potato heresy, but I think fingerling potatoes are usually better braised or simmered, or, yes, boiled—any method that involves a little liquid.

I hate to generalize, because there are, in fact, many different varieties of fingerling potatoes. Fingerlings themselves aren’t a variety, but more of a type of potato, defined by their size and shape—small, knobby, and elongated. Their flavor is usually rich and concentrated, but the color of their skin and flesh, as well as their starch content, can vary quite a bit from variety to variety. (Popular varieties include Russian Banana, Purple Peruvian, Ruby Crescent, and French Fingerling.)

The varying starch level is why some fingerlings lean towards being fluffy and dry (like a Russet potato), while others have creamy or waxy flesh (like a Red Bliss potato).  Unless you cook with the same variety a lot, it’s hard to always know exactly what you’re getting at the store (or the farmers’ market) or how it will behave in the dry heat of the oven. While I’ve had bad experiences with Russian Bananas over-drying when roasted, I’ve never had a fingerling that wasn’t perfectly delicious when cooked with a wet-heat method.  

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kabochaI am all about kabocha squash.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I do have other obsessions, but today it’s squash.

I bought some of the stuff (aka Japanese pumpkin) at the Farmers’ Market in Santa Monica last weekend, from a vendor who had very nicely already pre-seeded, pre-peeled and pre-cut it. (Actually what I am all about is people who pre-do things like this since if I had to do them myself I would never eat the food that requires such tasks.)

Anyway, all I did was steam the squash till it was tender, then whip it up in the food processor with a little salt and pepper and a tablespoon of coconut milk and it was dreamy.

Kiss your butternut squash goodbye, my friends. This one is much smoother and sweeter. Needs no added oomph, like it’s demanding cousin butternut does.

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