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14
Lentil Soup: my last lunch.


One year and three days ago, at 3:30 in the afternoon on 11/11/11, I was eating lentil soup.  I am able to tell you exactly that, as it was the meal I finished just as my water broke for the birth of my son.  Truthfully, it was lentil soup followed by a scoop of my husband’s homemade vanilla bean ice cream, topped with a generous drizzle of David Lebovitz’s perfect hot fudge recipe, and it may or may not have been then topped with a few crushed peanut M&Ms that had been unclaimed by trick or treaters eleven days earlier.  If there was ever a time to treat myself to a tasteful hot fudge sundae in the middle of the afternoon, my due date seemed the best day of any.

Standing at the edge of the new parent cliff, really having no idea what the next many weeks would hold for us, I had been furiously putting meals away for days and days.  I don’t know what I expected, but my level of anxiety was fairly appropriate.

And when I get anxious, I cook.

When someone is struggling, I cook.

When things seem grim and I have no idea what to do, out come the cookbooks.

And so for the very expectant weeks prior, I had been cooking and cooking.  Our chest freezer in the basement was a culinary tetris, packed tightly with calories to keep us going in the 3ams of the coming weeks.  Quart container after quart container of warming stews, gumbos, and soups were obsessively stacked alongside a half dozen bags containing fifty frozen dumplings each, devotedly hauled home from Chinatown in the city.  I may have been facing a month without leaving the house or having both hands free at once, but I was not going down on an empty stomach.  I didn’t know who I’d be on the other side of all of this, but I knew I’d still demand great food.

Lentil soup has been a comfort food staple for me through most of the very varied episodes of my life.  Cheap, simple, high in protein, and even vegetarian—for that twenty-year phase I went through—its sum is definitely more than its parts.  And this will always be the last thing I cooked as a person who wasn’t someone’s mom.

As soon as it gets dark before quitting time and a tiny chill shimmies under the door, I crave this recipe.  And eating it again this year, days before I became a person who is the mom of a one year old, I am brought right back to a year ago, or my lunch break room in graduate school, or the kitchen in my first apartment in New York, and also my tiny dark brown dorm fridge.

I look at the photo we snapped just before walking out the door to drive to the hospital, and am astounded by how I feel like I don’t even know those people.  But it is indeed me, as is the girl hosting her first dinner party in a studio apartment, or the girl with the giant mug in her window seat in college, all recognizing each other by the smells and tastes of the recipes that make up my life’s cookbook.

Happy first birthday darling boy.



Lentil Soup

Makes about three and a half quarts.
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups diced onion, from about one large onion
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 lb lentils, rinsed and picked over
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cups crushed tomatoes and juice, bonus points for using your own canned tomatoes
7 cups stock (chicken or vegetable) or water
2 cups diced carrots, from about 4-5 large carrots
salt
1 bay leaf
8 ounces fresh baby spinach leaves

In a large soup pot, gently heat the olive oil.  Add the onions and saute on medium-low heat until softened.  Add the garlic and continue to saute for a few minutes, lowering the heat if the garlic starts to brown at all.  Add the cumin and cinnamon to the pot, adding a bit more oil of the mixture seems dry, and saute the dry spices in the oil for a couple of minutes to wake up the flavors, being very careful not to burn.

Add the carrots, bay leaf, lentils, tomato, stock and a half teaspoon of salt, scraping any browned onions or spices stuck to the floor of the pot.

Bring to a boil and then cover and reduce to a simmer for one and a half hours, until the lentils are tender.  Taste and add more salt if desired.

Just before serving stir in spinach leaves, until just wilted.

Serve topped with grated sharp cheddar or a swirl of plain greek yogurt, and maybe some grated lemon zest.

The soup is even better the next day, and will keep in the refrigerator for up to five days. It can also be frozen, for emergency late-night nourishment.



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10
Little Neck Clams with White Wine Cream Sauce


Here is an elegant meal or appetizer, that takes not more than minutes to whip up.  Warm, rich and creamy, it is a great recipe to keep in mind for winter holidays.  Serve it with crusty bread for soaking up the outrageously good sauce left behind, or serve the whole thing over pasta for a more substantial dish.




Little Neck Clams with White Wine Cream Sauce
by Catie Schwalb

Makes four appetizers, or two main courses, or four main courses if served on pasta.

3 dozen little neck clams, cleaned (see information on how to clean clams here)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 shallots, minced
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup heavy cream, reduced slightly
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon zest
-no salt- (the clams should be plenty salty)

Heat butter and oil together in large, lidded, heavy bottomed pot.  Add garlic and shallots and saute until fragrant over medium-high heat.  Gently add clams and white wine, and cover.  Allow the clams to cook in the wine mixture, in the covered pot, until opened, about five minutes.

When all, or the majority, of the clams have opened, carefully remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon and cover them to keep warm.  Discard any clams that have remained closed.

Add the reduced cream to the wine clam broth in the pot, and continue to reduce a bit for a couple of minutes, over medium-low heat, if the sauce feels to thin.  Return the clams to the pot and gently mix to evenly cover with the sauce.  Sprinkle with fresh parsley and lemon zest.

Serve immediately, either with bread or add cooked pasta to the pot and portion out dishes.



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08
Technique Tuesday: How to Clean Clams


Not just for summer fetes on the beach, clams and other bivalves are a spectacular, and traditional, addition to the holiday table, and perhaps even more importantly, the holiday cocktail hour.

A few critical steps can help insure a grit-free mouthful, and will dramatically reduce your chances of getting that one bad clam.

Buying

Buying the freshest seafood you can get is always the most important place to start, and the best way to help with this is to get to know the people at the seafood counter.

If picking them out yourself, look for clams that are not chipped, cracked, or have a damaged shell in anyway.  If buying them already bundled, discard any that are broken.  Always buy a few more than you need in case of broken shells or clams that don’t open.

Storing

Store clams in a bowl in the refrigerator covered with a damp cloth.  They can keep for a day or two, but the sooner you use them the better for all.

Cleaning

The day you want to cook them again go through all of the clams and discard any that have a damaged shell.  (when in doubt…throw it out.).  Scrub the outside of each shell thoroughly to remove any dirt.

As you are going through, one by one, if you find a clam that is open, gently tap it on the counter.  If it doesn’t close within a minute or two, it is dead and should be thrown out.  This is a critical step, as it will look like all the others that have also opened, after they all cook, and yet could potentially make you sick.  Any that are dead at the start need to go.

Place all of the scrubbed clams in a large bowl, or the sink, and cover with cold water by an inch or two.  Allow the clams to sit for twenty minutes in the water.  The clams will spit out any grit they have inside their shell.  Don’t leave them in the water for much longer than twenty minutes, or they will die.

Remove the clams gently, by hand, from the bowl, leaving the dirt and sand behind at the bottom.  Pouring them into a colander or scooping them out abruptly could stir up the grit and get it back in the shells.

Cook as desired (more on this later this week.).  And discard any clams that have not opened during the cooking process.



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18
Turnip Soup


This remarkably simple, and remarkably comforting recipe has always been a part of our holiday meals.  When she first started making it, my grandmother used to enjoy quizzing unsuspecting guests as to what the star ingredient was in the soup.  It is so mellow, and balanced, and not cluttered with leek or potato, that it is actually hard to discern that it is simply the lowly turnip.

As a kid we would slurp down bowl after bowl of this creamy winter favorite.  It was always present at cold weather dinner parties thrown by my parents, as surprisingly, it was a safe bet to please a large crowd.  Again, not attributes, if I think about it now, I would consider assigning to this particular vegetable.

But try this one!  It is wonderful, and makes me joyfully lug home heavy bags of turnips (white or purple) as soon as they arrive at the farm stands.  It is a warm and soulful start to most of our Thanksgiving meals together.


TURNIP SOUP
by Catie Schwalb

Serves 6

5 TBS Butter
5 TBS Flour
6 cups Chicken Stock, or Vegetable Stock or water
1 medium or 3-4 small Turnips, white or purple, peeled and cubed, yielding about 3 cups
1/4 tsp White Pepper
Salt, to taste
1 cup Milk or Cream

Melt butter in heavy bottomed soup pot. Sprinkle flour over melted butter and stir to combine. Gradually whisk in stock until all incorporated. Add cubed turnip, bring to a gentle boil, and then reduce to a simmer until turnip is tender.

Puree soup either in a blender or with an immersion blender. Return to low heat, add milk or cream, and then season with salt and white pepper.

Soup can be made up to 3 days in advance and reheated before serving.
Shown below garnished with crispy shoestring carrots and turnip chips.



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17
Spiced Cranberry, Ginger, and Pear Sauce


I was recently asked to be a guest blogger for the wonderful heart-healthy food blog What Would Cathy Eat? Cathy asked for a cranberry sauce for thanksgiving, that was less sweet than usual.  Here is the post and recipe below, in case you hadn't caught it on her site.  --Catie

For years, as a child at the 1970’s American thanksgiving table, I too believed that cranberry sauce was always cylindrically shaped, with neatly organized parallel rings encompassing it. That is not to say that my family were not great cooks, slaving for days before over dozens of homemade recipes. However, somehow that little wobbly dish seemed like a required fixture on the holiday table, that someone very well might miss if absent. Though it felt far from “food” and as a result, usually went untouched.

It also seemed somewhat sacrilegious to think of smearing that puckeringly sweet jelly on that luscious turkey meat that I had waited an entire year for. How could this red goo possibly improve on roasted perfection?

So I took a crack at it myself this year. Drawing on ideas of recipes like Duck with a Sour Cherry Sauce, or a deeply flavored Indian Chutney stirred into a chicken salad, ending up with a condiment that I would actually want to add to my turkey to add to it’s flavor. I eliminated a lot of the sugar found it most recipes (up to a cup of white sugar was common). It’s on the tart end of the spectrum, but balanced, with lovely spice notes that will be beautiful with the richness of the meat. I think it would also be outstanding dolloped on top of a bowl of Greek yogurt for breakfast the next morning, and though not yet tested, I imagine pretty great pureed and used as a base for a holiday prosecco cocktail.


SPICED CRANBERRY, GINGER AND PEAR SAUCE
By Catie Schwalb

Yields approximately 2 ½ cups

12 oz (3 cups) Fresh Cranberries
2 Bosc Pears, very ripe, peeled and finely diced
1 ½ TBS Fresh Ginger, grated
¾ cup Water
3 TBS Light Brown Sugar
1 3” Cinnamon Stick
¼ tsp Ground Cardamom
¼ cup Honey

Combine cranberries, pear, ginger, water, brown sugar, cinnamon stick, and cardamom in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally. After about 5 minutes, add the honey. Cook for about 5 minutes more, until the berries have collapsed and the pear had started to breakdown and dissolve.

Will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator, and will also freeze well.
Serve at room temperature or slightly warmed.



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Catie Baumer Schwalb is a chef, food writer and photographer, who splits her life between the city and the country. Not too long ago Catie was a New York City based actress and playwright for more than a decade. She has her Master of Fine Arts from the National Theater Conservatory, and her Grand Diplôme in classic culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. ... Read More

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