The holiday feasting (OK, wretched excess) is winding down – or gone altogether – and I find myself craving something clean and refreshing, like a perfect grapefruit. I used to think Texas Ruby Red grapefruit was the best to be had, and passed right by Florida grapefruit as I do Florida avocados. But that was before I visited a grapefruit grower in Indian River country in Florida, who showed me how to pick a great grapefruit. The quarry is not gigantic, smooth-skinned, a bit battered, with some brown traces on it as well as a bit of green and heavy for its size. I spied a pile of exactly such grapefruit at Food Lion last week, with a Rio Citrus label from Fort Pierce, Fla. Wonderful!
But I’m not ready yet to live on grapefruit and cottage cheese, so I’m leaving the feasting behind with some humble but gratifying soups, plus the best cornbread I’ve ever eaten. There’s also a good winter project, making homemade limoncello, the lemon liqueur that ends so many meals in Italy (though this particular recipe comes from Greece). Making limoncello hardly qualifies as a project, since it’s the work of minutes, and involves only three ingredients plus a month or more steeping time. Keep a bottle in your
your freezer – there’s nothing better after a summer dinner with friends than a very cold sipping glass of limoncello – extra points for homemade. And after all, it’s part of the Mediterranean Diet.
I happily admit that there are always at least two boxes of the organic tomato and red pepper soup from Trader Joe’s in my cupboard. I usually serve it with grated Parmesan or Asiago or Pecorino scattered on top or a swirl of pesto, even with a fling of the upscale Lars Own brand Crispy Onions that appear at Weaver Street Market starting around Thanksgiving. I’ve served this soup to company and been begged for the recipe.
SENEGALESE PEANUT SOUP (recipe by Leslie Kaul, Bob Spiegel, and Peter Siegel)
Serves 8, freezes beautifully
You might imagine this intriguingly complex tasting soup was full of exotica like coconut milk, chiles, exotic spices, and some cilantro. It contains none of these, unless you consider curry powder exotic. But it couldn’t be simpler, full of ordinary ingredients you may have on hand. The secret ingredient is peanuts, a whole pound of them, simmered slowly in a base of onions, celery, tomatoes, and leeks. The fragrance becomes almost overwhelming as it cooks. The recipe makes a lot of soup, so there should be enough for instant peanut soup out of the freezer on some future bleak day. It’s both consoling and invigorating at the same time.
1 pound dry-roasted salted peanuts, about 3 cups (you can also use fried peanuts)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 large Spanish onion, chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
2 leeks, well washed and chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon salt
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
6 cups water
½ cup chopped scallions
½ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Chop ½ cup of the peanuts and set aside to use as a garnish. Puree the remaining peanuts in a blender or food processor until a thick paste forms; set aside.
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and leeks and cook gently, without browning, for about 4 minutes or until tender. Stir in the sugar, curry powder, cumin, cayenne, and salt. Add the tomatoes, water, and peanut paste. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour.
Stir in the scallions, cream, and garlic and simmer for 2 minutes more, or until heated through.
To serve, ladle into bowls and garnish with the chopped peanuts.
Note: You can add cubes of tofu or chicken along with the scallions and cream for a soup that’s a hearty meal in itself.
YELLOW PEPPER AND PINE NUT SOUP (recipe by Han Feng)
This super-simple soup is unaccountably delicious. Han Feng is a celebrated Chinese fashion designer and passionate cook from Hangzhou who likes to refine Western dishes with eastern flavors. This golden soup combines tender yellow peppers with sweet, fleshy pine nuts with a touch of thyme – it’s pure alchemy.
Simple though it is, the soup makes an elegant first course for a dinner party.
Serves 6 to 8
6 cups chicken broth
3 pounds yellow bell peppers (6 to 10) – halved, cored, and seeded
1 cup pine nuts
Salt and freshly ground pepper
8 small thyme sprigs
Bring the chicken broth to a boil in a large heavy pot. Add the peppers, poking them down into the broth. Cover and simmer over medium heat, turning the peppers once or twice, for about 30 minutes or until soft.
Meanwhile toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet over medium-low heat for 3 to 4 minutes or until golden, stirring constantly to prevent burning – once they approach golden, they can burn in a heartbeat.
Immediately transfer the pine nuts to a small bowl. With a slotted spoon, move the peppers to a blender or a food processor and add the pine nuts. Blend until smooth, in batches if necessary, adding a little broth if it makes the blending easier.
Stir the puree back into the broth and add salt and pepper to taste. Heat gently. The soup can be made a day ahead and gently reheated before serving.
Top each soup bowl with a thyme sprig or a few dried thyme leaves.
Note: The best pine nuts are likely to be Italian. Cheap ones – from China, Russia, or Afghanistan – aren’t nearly as tasty. Pine nuts are expensive and fragile; store them tightly covered in the fridge for up to 6 months because they turn rancid easily but use them up as soon as you can – no telling how long they sat in the shelf before you bought them.
SKILLET CORNBREAD (recipe by John Martin Taylor)
The cornbread wars will never end, of course, but I am firmly in the camp of stoneground cornmeal, buttermilk, and no sugar; for me, everything else is cake.
This perfect recipe, from a great home cook and researcher/writer who almost singlehandedly resuscitated classic American Lowcountry cooking, is baked in a cast iron skillet (mine is square, for cornbread). There’s just enough bacon fat to give a crisp, delectable crunch to the edges. Cut in squares or wedges, according to the skillet you cooked it in, and serve it hot from the oven, with lots of really good butter – such as Kerrygold, but there are plenty of others.
Enough bacon grease to cover a cast iron skillet – 1 tablespoon or more
2 cups buttermilk, at room temperature
1 large egg, a little beaten
1¾ cup cornmeal, preferably whole grain and stone ground
1 scant teaspoon salt
1 scant teaspoon baking powder
1 scant teaspoon baking soda
Heat the oven to 450°. Coat the pan with bacon grease and stick it in the cold oven. While it’s heating, about 10 minutes, mix the cornbread batter.
Put the buttermilk in a medium bowl and mix in the egg. Mix in the cornmeal.
As the skillet is getting hot, wait until it’s smoking and quickly add the salt, baking powder, and baking soda to the batter; mix in well.
Remove the skillet from the oven and add the batter all at once. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until cooked through. The aroma will change to a delicious roasted corn smell when it’s done. Cut the cornbread in the skillet into nine pieces. Either load them onto a platter or wooden board or turn the skillet over onto a platter and serve with plenty of butter.
LIMONCELLO – LEMON LIQUEUR (recipe by Aglaia Kremezi)
There’s something quite thrilling about making your own liqueur. In this case, it’s way less than an hour’s work, then 4 to 6 weeks of steeping, adding a sugar syrup, and filling the bottles. This recipe comes from Greece, from a really good free newsletter about Greek food, aglaiakremezi.com, where you can find wonderful olive oil cake recipes as well as sophisticated riffs on traditional Greek food. You can also visit Aglaia on her island in the Cyclades and take cooking classes. Reading her newsletter and ogling the photos is a great winter escape in itself.
Aglaia adds herbs to her liqueur (and I’m thinking of trying lemon verbena) but make it without herbs the first time to get the classic version. Bulk lemons are coming into the market now – check Costco, Aldi, even Walmart. Try hard to find organic ones; otherwise you’ll need to wash them with soap and scrub them well, which takes off a bit of the flavorful oil.
Makes about 2 quarts
5 very fresh, thick-skinned organic lemons
1 quart vodka
2 sprigs fresh mint or other aromatic herb, such as rose geranium, lemon verbena, etc. (optional)
3 cups sugar
3½ cups water
Wash and dry lemons. With a vegetable peeler remove the yellow part of peel in thin strips, starting from tip and ending on the stem.
Place peels in a 1-quart mason jar and fill with vodka. Add aromatic herbs if using. Let stand at room temperature for 4 to 6 weeks, shaking every now and then.
After the 4 to 6-week steeping time, mix sugar and water in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until sugar dissolves completely. Keep mixture boiling.
Drain vodka into a clean jar and set aside.
Keep peels in sieve. Pour boiling syrup over peels and set aside until completely cold.
Mix reserved vodka and cold syrup and pour into clean bottles. Seal and store in the refrigerator.
Score: At Weaver Street Market there are some especially delicious sweet potatoes called Hatteras that are usually very scarce. They’re supposed to be the sweetest of the sweet potatoes, but they also have an interesting complex of flavors. They’re a bit smaller than most other sweet potatoes.
A sweet potato grower on Edisto Island in South Carolina once told me to look for long, narrow sweet potatoes that are “pointy both ends,” so I do, though I’m not sure they’re better than squat sweet potatoes – sometimes there’s only squat Hatteras and they’re just as delicious as their leaner cousins.
— Dark chocolate alert: Both Consumer Reports and consumerlab.com have been going after toxins in dark chocolate bars, which they’ve found in some surprisingly high-end brands, like Green & Black’s and Scharffenberger. These poisons are lead and cadmium, nothing you want to be ingesting. The large single-origin (like Uganada) bars by the upright displays next to the checkout counter at Trader Joe’s are on the list but not the Belgian chocolate Pound Plus (HUGE bargain) or the small 1.65-ounce bars of the same chocolate sold in wrapped packets of three in the floor cabinets near the checkout. Those two tested safe. As did Ghirardelli and Chocolove.
Fran McCullough is a James Beard Award-winning editor who has also authored several books on food. She lives in Hillsborough.