herbs, onions, tomatoes, and comfort

It’s been raining and dreary here for days, and will be raining and dreary for many more days. I count myself lucky, though; friends just an hour to the south are being rained out of their businesses and homes.

I’m also lucky that my momma taught me to cook whatever is on hand in the pantry, without going out in the driving rain to pick up groceries. That’s exactly what I did last night at her house; we had a comforting but tempting dinner cobbled together from whatever I found on the pantry shelves. Most of the recipes were experiments, and they turned out so well that I wanted to document them here, for future rainy nights*.

soup: cream of tomato with golden sherry
tartines: sun-dried tomato, sautéed mushrooms, black olives, herbed neufchatel, and parmesan on onion herb bread
oven-fries: potatoes and sweet potatoes
salad: mixed greens with chile-spiced almond slivers and balsamic vinaigrette

* The next of these future rainy nights was sooner than you think: D and I had the soup, sandwiches, and sweet potato fries for dinner the very next night. I had my camera (thanks, Elli!) along, and just plain forgot to take photos. Infuriating.

cream of tomato soup with golden sherry
This is more a loose set of instructions than a recipe. Don’t leave out the tiny bit of curry powder; combined with the sherry, it provides a rich fragrant background depth, but not a pronounced curry flavor. This looks dauntingly long and complicated, but is in fact a lazy affair; for the most part, you can dump the ingredients in the pan and wander away for as long as you like, stirring whenever you happen by.

1 tsp butter
1 tsp olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 large garlic clove, gently whacked with the flat side of a chef’s knife (or under a can of tomatoes) to leave it whole but slightly crushed
1 15 oz. can of tomatoes, unsalted (whole or diced)
2 TBS tomato paste
1 TBS sugar
water, about 1 1/2 cups?
a generous splash of golden sherry (vermouth or white wine would do, too, though not so cozily)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 TBS butter
1 TBS olive oil
2 TBS flour
1 can (2 c.) evaporated milk (not sweetened condensed!) or 2 cups whole milk with a generous splash of half & half
kosher salt
1 bay leaf
pinch each of: curry powder, freshly ground nutmeg
several pinches each of: oregano, chili powder, freshly ground black pepper, fresh or dried parsley

In sieve, drain tomatoes; reserve juice. In a large, deep soup pot over medium-low heat, heat 1 tsp each butter and olive oil until butter foams slightly; add onions and whacked-up garlic clove, and sprinkle lightly with salt. Cook until onion is soft but not browned.

Add drained tomatoes, stir in tomato paste and sugar, and turn heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring as needed, until tomatoes are bubbly and thick. (If they brown a bit here and there, that’s good, too.) Pour in reserved tomato juice and remove from heat, stirring to loosen the fond from bottom of pan. (Letting the tomatoes bubble and brown a bit gives the soup depth and complexity, and is well worth the extra few minutes.)

Stir in 1 c. of cold water. Pour tomato mixture into blender and whirrrrrrrrr until the texture suits you. You might like it with toothsome bits of tomato; I like a rough purée, myself.

Return the empty pan to medium heat, add a drop or two of oil, and toss in the bay leaf, oregano, chili powder, pepper, and parsley. Cook for a few minutes, until fragrant, then add sherry and simmer several minutes more. Return tomatoes to pan and let simmer. (You may add more water if you like; the longer it simmers, the tastier this is, so thin as necessary.) Sprinkle with baking soda; this counteracts the acidity of the tomatoes and prevents curdling when the tomatoes and milk mix together. When you stir in the baking soda, the tomatoes will foam and froth, so don’t freak out.

Meanwhile, you’ve been preparing a cream sauce: melt 1 TBS each butter and oil in saucepan, then mix in flour. Cook until bubbly and golden. Stir in curry powder and nutmeg, then immediately whisk in milk; cook over low heat, stirring, until thick. If a skin develops, skim it off.

(At this stage, you can hold these as long as you like: keep them over very low heat, thinning with water as necessary, or cool them and reheat when ready to serve.)

Give the cream sauce one final whisk ’til it is smooth and frothy, then whisk into tomato mixture. If you mix gently, each serving will be delicately swirled with shades of red, cream, and rosy pink — blushing and glorious. For an easy and elegant garnish, drip two or three drops of cream sauce on each serving, and swirl through with the tip of a knife.

onion herb bread, adapted from Anna Thomas’ recipe in
The Vegetarian Epicure

1 c. milk (I usually use 1%, because that’s what I have on hand)
3 TBS half & half
1 medium onion, finely minced
4 tsp dried rosemary, crushed coarsely (or 2 tsp if ground with mortar & pestle)
2 tsp dried dill weed
2 TBS sugar
1 TBS kosher salt OR 2 tsp iodized salt
2 scant TBS yeast
1 c. warm water
pinch of sugar
5 c. sifted flour (white or whole wheat), approximately
1 1/2 TBS cool butter

In small saucepan, scald milk and half & half; remove and discard skin. Add onion and herbs to milk and allow to steep over low heat until fragrant. Remove from heat and stir in sugar and salt; let cool.

In large bowl, mix warm water, sugar, and yeast; allow yeast to bloom no more than four minutes. Add cooled milk mixture and 4 1/2 c. flour; stir vigorously several minutes. Cover and allow to sit ten minutes, which exploits the autolyse process.
Knead briefly, working in butter. (This dough requires only two or three minutes, not the long kneading of standard yeast doughs; the original recipe calls for no kneading at all.) Add more flour only if the dough releases liquid or sticks to your hands in clumps; this dough should be quite sticky. Cover and allow to rise ’til double in bulk; punch down and shape. Preheat oven to 350 F.

I like to make three or four small loaves in well-buttered stoneware casseroles. The greater surface area means more crusty deliciousness, and the smaller loaves bake through beautifully. Larger loaves sometimes rise poorly and suffer from a wet, dank interior crumb.

Allow loaves to rise 30 minutes or so. They will likely not double in bulk. Place in 350 oven and immediately crank the temp up to 400 F. This sudden boost in heat promotes oven spring, plumping up your loaves. After five minutes, turn back down to 350; bake 40 minutes or until golden and crusty. To test doneness, slip a loaf out of its pan and knock gently on the bottom. If it sounds hollow, the bread is done.

Brush with milk or butter for a soft crust; place on a rack and cover with a clean tea towel to cool. This bread will tear badly if it is cut when fresh and hot, but the maddening fragrance of onion and herb will cloud your judgment.

Excellent with chowder, chili, and a must for roast turkey or chicken, or spread with a thin slice of cheddar and toasted under the broiler for a midnight snack.

I used the onion herb bread to make tartines with sun-dried tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, herbed neufchatel, and Parmesan. Spread half-slices of bread with neufchatel (see recipe below), and top with sliced black olives and minced tomatoes. Scatter with grated Parmesan and bake at 350 until melted and bubbling. Serve hot.

herbed neufchatel
2 oz. (1/4 packet) neufchatel, room temperature
kosher salt
black pepper
chili powder
a few gratings of lemon zest
2 tsp lemon juice

Mix together, adjusting seasoning to taste. This turned out quite lemony, but it was well-tempered by the unctuous sun-dried tomatoes and black olives and the rich, salty Parmesan.

oven fried potatoes and sweet potatoes
Potatoes, sweet potatoes
vegetable oil
kosher salt

Peel potatoes and sweet potatoes; slice into long thin strips. Drop into a bowl of cold water and toss. Soak at least one hour, changing water when it gets cloudy. This allows the starches to leach out, letting the potatoes cook up crispy instead of squishy.

Preheat oven to 425 F. Drain potatoes well, then dry in clean tea towel. Sprinkle clean dry cookie sheet liberally with kosher salt. Toss potatoes in dry bowl with oil (about 0.5 tsp for each large potato), and spread in single layer on salted cookie sheet, and sprinkle again with salt. Bake 20-25 minutes; turn fries over and return to oven until browned and cooked through. The cooking time depends, of course, in the thickness of your potato slices.

I sometimes sprinkle these with chili powder and black pepper, too. Yum.