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Stone soup. December 15, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I guess between my post yesterday on how to make good soup (“A sorry excuse for soup”), and our friend Ben’s post on preparing for hard times (“Are you ready for the storm?”), I have soup on the brain. Combining the two topics reminds me of that classic story, “Stone Soup.” Do you remember it?

In the story, a starving but ingenious fellow, presumably in Mediaeval times, finds his way into a village. He tries to get the villagers to contribute food for his supper, but, mindful of their own dwindling stores, they refuse. So he fills a pot with water, sets it over a fire, and puts a stone in it.

The villagers, bemused by this unusual cooking style, gather round. “What are you cooking there?” one asks. “Why, I’m making stone soup,” the cheerful man replies. “Stone soup! What on earth is that?” a skeptical villager demands. “Do you think you can make a meal out of a stone?!”

“Of course I can,” the man confidently replies. “Not just a meal, but the most delicious soup you’ve ever tasted. All I need are a few herbs…”

“Here, I have some herbs,” one village woman said, handing the man a few handfuls. “Let’s see this famous soup then.”

“Ah, yes, that smells good,” the man announced, chopping the herbs and adding them to his pot with the stone and water. “But I don’t think the soup is quite done yet. It really needs a couple of onions.”

“All right, I have two onions,” the greengrocer said, handing them over.

“Excellent! But, ah, I see that the soup is still not at its best. It would benefit from a few carrots and potatoes.”

“Here, take these carrots.”

“I have a few spare potatoes.”

“That’s marvelous! But you know, I think this soup might taste a bit flat without a few grains of salt…”

You get the idea, of course. By the time the man was finished, the villagers that previously wouldn’t give him so much as a grain of wheat had provided the makings for a delicious soup, which he then shared with the entire village.

One of the beauties of soup—and also stews and chilis—is that they’re so forgiving. As long as you don’t have your heart set on a specific outcome—say, French onion soup, the perfect consomme, Greek avgolemono (egg-lemon-chicken-rice soup), or cream of tomato—you can play around and still come up with good soup.

Soups, stews, and chilis are the perfect vehicles for using up odds and ends. This is true whether you’re talking about leftover produce (a couple of carrots, half an onion, three new potatoes, a wedge of cabbage, the last few mushrooms), the bottom of the box, bag or jar of lentils, rice, or pasta, leftover cooked veggies of all kinds (a cup of green beans or asparagus, mashed potatoes, corn), or leftovers, period (refried beans, a half-cup of tomato sauce, a dab of pumpkin puree, the last tablespoon of half-and-half). Or, of course, any kind of meat.

I’ve made silky, delicious chili with leftover pumpkin puree and cream. (Really! Use our search bar at upper right to find “Weird, wonderful chili” for the recipe.) Or hearty, spicy chili and black bean soup with leftover spaghetti sauce and the last few tablespoons from a jar of salsa. I’ve added the last spoons of marmalade or preserves and/or the last handful from a box or bag of raisins to give the perfect flavor to dal (a thick, spicy Indian lentil or split-pea stew). If I’m almost through with a jar of some herb or spice, I’ll create a soup that will benefit from adding it. Ditto the grated end of a piece of cheese. (Can you tell I can’t bear wasting shelf or fridge space on something that’s almost empty?!)

Another way to use up those almost-empties is to swirl them into or on top of the soup/stew/chili just before serving. Sour cream, yogurt, salsa, queso dip, even guacamole can work when paired with the right soup. Not to mention  shredded cheese or crumbled hardboiled egg. A little shredded (unsweetened) coconut can enhance a curried soup. For a bit of extra texture, you can always sprinkle pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds), sunflower seeds, or crumbled almonds, pecans, walnuts or what have you on top, but again, make sure the flavors marry well; it’s probably wisest to pass a separate bowl and let diners sprinkle on their own just before eating their soup. (That’s not a bad idea for any topping that you don’t swirl into the soup.)

When concocting a soup, remember that the secret to any great soup is to add a little fat. This can come from oil, from butter or cream, or from, say, bacon, ham, or chicken fat. But a soup without some kind of fat falls flat. If you doubt me, try making two pots of the identical soup sometime, and add fat to one and not the other. When they’re done, taste and see! Fortunately, it won’t be too late to add some to the other pot.

So, next time you think you don’t have a thing in the house to cook, or are stuck with a bunch of leftover odds and ends, consider making your own stone soup. You may not be able to feed a whole village, but your family will love it!

             ‘Til next time,


Bean cuisine. June 25, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Yesterday our friend Ben and I were visiting our good friend Huma and her delightful 17-year-old twins, Rashu and Sasha, up in the Poconos. Huma treated us to some delicious dal, and I want to share the recipe, along with a few others she sent home with me that feature beans or other legumes in a starring role. (Rashu, already an accomplished baker, made a yummy pear-pecan pie, including a lattice crust, from scratch. But sadly, I didn’t get the recipe for that!)

First, though, a few words about dal. Dal is basically a sort of spicy porridge or soup that uses various types of lentils or split peas as the chief ingredient. There are probably thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of variations, so you have lots of leeway to vary the ingredients and thickness. (I, for example, prefer a thick texture, like a thick, chewy oatmeal or mashed potatoes or grits when they’re cooked right. But if I order dal in an Indian restaurant, it’s almost invariably thinner and runny, which makes me suspect that that’s the traditional texture.) I’ve always thought of dal as an Inidan dish, but Huma is from Pakistan, so perhaps it’s popular across the whole subcontinent. (Stupid me! I should have asked her while I was there. For all I know, she might have first encountered it in an Indian restaurant, too.)

I of course have my own dal recipe, too, and (of course) it’s my favorite. But let’s start with the one Huma gave me, which is not only yummy, but is a gorgeous golden color, unlike mine, which is a lentil brown. Incidentally, dal is traditionally eaten with bread, such as Indian naan or roti. But I often make a simple but satisfying meal of dal (remember, I like it mashed-potato thick, not soupy), rice, and plain yogurt (the simplest possible palate-cooling raita), with a few chutneys and other condiments on the side.

Huma makes a raita that’s only slightly less simple by bruising a tablespoon or so of whole cumin seeds with a mortar and pestle and then roasting them in a hot, dry pan over a burner for a minute or two, shaking constantly, before adding them to the yogurt with some ground cayenne and salt. There are tons of raita variations as well, the best-known incorporating finely minced cucumbers (sometimes with minced onion), and many adding green chilies and a variety of spices sauteed in ghee (clarified butter), butter, or oil. One of my favorite raitas is from Anna Thomas’s The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two, and features unsweetened coconut and bananas. But plain yogurt is just great as far as our friend Ben and I are concerned. It does its job well, which is cooling down the mouth in the wake of fiery Indian fare, and its simplicity is pleasing in the face of the complexity of so many Indian dishes. But of course, if I were cooking for company I’d dress it up a bit. 

Yikes, I can see that I’m getting carried away and drifting off point. So let’s get back to those recipes. You can find all the ingredients in Indian markets, and many in well-stocked supermarkets in the international aisle:

              Panchmel Dal

1 cup chana dal, washed

1/2 cup urad dal, washed 

1/4 cup moong dal, washed

1/2 cup masoor dal, washed

Salt to taste

1/2 tsp. turmeric

6 tsp. clarified butter (ghee; can substitute 1/2 stick regular butter)

2 onions, sliced

2 tsp. garlic paste (sold in tubes in produce aisle)

2 tsp. ginger paste (sold in tubes in produce aisle)

2 green chillies, finely chopped

3 tomatoes, sliced

1 1/2 tsp. whole cumin seeds

1/2 tsp. ground cayenne pepper

1 tsp. paprika

1/2 to 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped

Cook all the types of dal (lentils) with the turmeric in water to cover over medium heat for abotu 30 minutes, adding more water as needed. Add salt to taste. Heat 2/3 of the the ghee or butter in a heavy saucepan and sautee the onion until light brown. Add the green chilli and the garlic and ginger pastes. Cook for 2 minutes. Add the tomato and cook until soft. Pour this masala over the cooked dals and stir it in gently. In a separate pan, heat the remaining butter and saute the cumin seeds until they splutter. Add the cayenne and paprika and immediately add them to the dal, stirring well. Once the dal has thickened to the consistency you want, add most of the cilantro and stir well, reserving a bit to garnish each bowl. Serve with hot flat bread (such as naan) or steamed rice. Serves four. (Note from Silence: This reheats beautifully, and is better—in my opinion, anyway—the second day.) 

As you can see, dal isn’t the simplest dish to make. But it’s satisfying and delicious, and there’s almost always enough left for a second meal that just needs a quick reheating (and more bread or rice!). Here’s my own recipe:

              Silence’s Divine Dal

2 cups lentils (regular, French, tiny orange,or a mix)

1 or 2 large sweet onions (Vidalia, WallaWalla, or Candy type)

2/3 stick butter

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1 heaping tablespoon black mustardseeds

1 heaping tablespoon whole cumin seeds

1 heaping tablespoon garam masala

1 heaping tablespoon curry powder

1 tablespoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon ginger paste

1 tablespoon cilantro paste

1/2 to 1 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped

1/2 cup raisins, preferably mixed

1 tablespoon marmalade or apricot jam

2 tablespoons chutney

hot sauce to taste (we like Pickapeppa)

salt to taste

Rinse lentils well in a sieve and cook them in enough water to cover, adding more as needed, until they are thoroughly soft and beginning to disintegrate. While they are cooking, melt butter in a heavy saucepan and add fresh ginger, black mustardseeds, and cumin. Add onion and cook until clarified. Add remaining spices, hot sauce, raisins, and ginger and cilantro pastes. When lentils are thoroughly cooked and water has evaporated, add the sauteed ingredients to the lentil pot, stirring to blend. Add marmalade/jam and chutney, stirring well. Add fresh cilantro. When dal is thoroughly hot, taste and add more salt, spice, hot sauce, etc. as needed. (It’s my experience that dal can take a lot of spice and salt.) When thick and luscious, serve as a side with other Indian dishes (like my vegetable curry—see my earlier post, Super Summer Squash Recipes, for that—and festive rice) or simply with rice and yogurt.

Yow! Ready for something easy now? If you use canned beans, the next dish will come together in a comparative flash. Of course, you can also soak your beans overnight and then rinse and simmer them in a pot of water until they’re completely cooked through. But I confess, we love the convenience of canned beans!

               “Baked” Beans Indian-Style

These beans aren’t baked or sweetened, so they won’t taste like American baked beans. But I called them that because they have the same consistency as baked beans and the finished dish looks a lot like ’em. Enjoy these beans as a side or as a main dish with rice or Indian flat bread (naan or roti).

2 cans red kidney beans, black-eyed peas, or pintos

3 onions, finely chopped

2 tomatoes, diced

2 tsp. each ginger and garlic pasts

2 tsp. each red chilli, coriander, turmeric and cumin powders

6 tsp. clarified butter (ghee) or 1/2 stick butter

Salt to taste

Heat butter in a Dutch oven or other heavy pan. Saute onion with garlic and ginger paste until golden brown. Add tomato, salt, and coriander, chilli, turmeric and cumin powders, stirring until tomato has softened and broken down. Add canned or cooked beans or black-eyed peas and cook until thoroughly hot and sauce is reduced.

I hope you enjoy all three recipes! And, as always, please feel free to share your own with us. We’d love to try them!

              ‘Til next time,