Creamless Creamy Tomato Soup

America's Test Kitchen (ATK) mailed me their new cookbook and asked me to make something. Twist my arm. 

I get loads of solicitations in my inbox, and I say no to 99.9% of them. I don't want to clog your feed with product placements and fake enthusiasm for cookware or food novelties that no one needs. Practice is really the key, not expensive pans or specialty food items. And ATK espouses that so beautifully. I've learned so much from letting those 50 test cooks do the work and then tell me about it!

America's Test Kitchen 100 Recipes has countless gorgeous photos and the rationale behind every recipe. The back page says, "Master twenty recipes in this book and you will have earned the right to call yourself a great cook." I love that. It's not about novelty or creativity. Just getting in the kitchen and doing it. (And knowing a good recipe when you see one. Or letting ATK take care of that for you.)

When I get a book like this in my hands, I'm always looking out for one thing--something to answer the perennial question of family dinner. For me, that's got to fit this criteria:

  1. 30-40 minutes
  2. Kid-friendly (thankfully, that's pretty easy with my kids)
  3. Not a heavy reliance on meat. I tend to use meat more as a flavoring than a main dish, and the more I read, the more I want to eat lower on the food chain.
  4. Bonus if I don't have to go to the store.

This soup fit the bill. And as it happens, people will be eating at three different times tonight (basketball season is upon us), so something that can be easily heated up is even better.

This soup gets its creamy mouth feel from olive oil and bread that becomes a silken puree in the blender. And the croutons are good, old-fashioned full-of-butter cubes of loveliness which I'll need to hide so they don't get devoured without the soup. All it needs is a salad or some grilled cheese sandwiches. Or both, if you don't have to make six trips to the Boys and Girls Club gym.

In this week of giving thanks, it occurs to me how many millions of people might not be in the mood, and how underservedly lucky I am to have a stove to cook on, a pantry that's filled, and a bed to sleep in. It's always cold somewhere, and I hope the love I give today, in the kitchen and elsewhere, warms this world up a little bit. Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

Creamless Creamy Tomato Soup
Serves 6-8. Make sure to purchse canned whole tomatoes in juice, not puree. If half of the soup fills your blender by more than two-thirds, process the soup in 3 batches.

 1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
1 bay leaf
2 (28-oz) cans whole tomatoes
3 slices hearty white sandwich bread, crusts removed, torn into 1" pieces
1 Tb. packed brown sugar
2 c. chicken broth
2 Tb. brandy (optional)
1/4 c. chopped fresh chives
1 recipe butter croutons (see below) 

Heat 2 Tb. oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, if using, and bay leaf. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent, 3-5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and their juice. Using potato masher, mash until no pieces bigger than 2 inches remain. Stir in bread and sugar. Bring soup to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until bread is completely saturated and starts to break down, about 5 minutes. Discard bay leaf.

Transfer soup to blender. Add 1 Tb. oil and process until soup is smooth and creamy, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and repeat with remaining soup and remaining 1 Tb. oil. Rinse out Dutch oven and return soup to pot. Stir in chicken broth and brandy, if using. return soup to boil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle soup into bowls, sprinkle with chives, and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with croutons.

Butter Croutons
Thick-sliced bread works best. Do not use thin-sliced. Either fresh or stale bread can be used. If using stale, reduce the cooking time by about 2 minutes.

 6 slices hearty white sandwich bread, crusts removed, cut into 1/2" cubes (about 3 cups)
salt and pepper
3 Tb. unsalted butter, melted

Adjust oven rack to upper middle position and heat to 350. Combine bread cubes and salt and pepper to taste in a medium bowl. Drizzle with butter and toss well with rubber spatula to combine.

Spread cubes in a single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Bake croutons until golden bornw and crisp, 8-10 minutes, stirring halfway through baking. Let cool on a baking sheet to room temperature. (Crotouns can be stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.) 


Masala Chai


Yancey and I went to Vancouver last weekend for his birthday, and every second was divine. Including the Kashmiri Chai we drank from Vij's food truck in the middle of Olympic Village and the chai from Granville Island Tea, both drunk in the full-on October sun with the man I've been in love with for 26 years. (Nuts. We met on a school bus on his 16th birthday. So I guess the "in love" part is maybe 25.9 years. It didn't take long. Thank you, teenage self, for having a decent head on your shoulders. And thank you, sheer circumstance and fate.)

So when we came home this week to full-on wind and rain, it seemed a good time to make a batch to warm us up and hold on a little longer to our magical 24 hours in Vancouver. I'm not big on the chai served in most coffee shops--too sweet. Making my own lets me add as much fresh ginger and as little sugar as I want. And have some to give away.

I'm really feeling the changing seasons this year, marveling at how it happens despite global warming, despite not receiving an edict from the White House or a buyout from shareholders. We live under the shadow of Mt. Baker, and my favorite bumper sticker from the last few years is, "Vote No Eruption of Mt. Baker!" There are so many things we can't control, so I'm always coming back to what we CAN control. Creating microclimates of kindness around us, asking for forgiveness when we haven't, making the bed in the morning (have I already told you how revolutionary that's been for me?), getting back to people who ask something of us, remembering that we come from love and are born for love. So yes, more poetry. Lots of love to each of you.

Every Year at This Time

In last light, before dinner,
the oak is resplendent
with half-dead leaves,
full of spaces to hold
the autumnul glow.

A cat crosses the alley,
sure-footed on wet pavement,
and kitchen lights blink on. 

The season is turning,
as it does, as it should,
every year at this time.

I'm witnessing it
for the forty-first time,
finding again
that we--me, the cat, the tree--
were made for change,
to shine, let go, die
and be born again.

Spiced Milke Tea (Masala Chai)
I quadrupled this. As long as you're going to the work to grind spices and steep things, might as well make some for later. I store it in quart mason jars in the fridge, reading to be warmed up for a crowd in a saucepan or in microwaved mugs. This recipe is from "Gourmet Today," one of my big Gourmet cookbooks that I treasure. I subbed fresh ginger for dried, and you can use any "plain" tea. They call for loose tea, but I just throw some PG Tips in there. Lipton or English Breakfast would be fine. And I'm sure you could sub non-dairy milk. Serves 4.

10 green cardamom pods, cracked, seeds removed and pods discarded or 1/2 tsp. cardamom seeds
1 1/2 inch piece cinnamon stick
4 peppercorns
1/4 tsp. fennel seeds
1" piece of fresh ginger, very thinly sliced
2 c. whole milk
3 1/2 Tb. packed brown sugar, or to taste 
1/8 tsp. salt
2 c. water
4 Lipton or PG Tips teabags

Grind together cardamom, cinnamon stick, peppercorns, and fennel seeds with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.

Bring milk just to a simmer in a heavy saucepan. Stir or whisk in brown sugar, salt, spice mixture and fresh ginger. Reduce heat to low and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes to infuse flavors.

Meanwhile, bring water to a boil in another saucepan, add tea, and steep for a few minutes. (I like mine extra strong.)

Add tea to hot milk mixture and strain the whole thing through a fine-mesh strainer into cups or jars. 


Roasted Yam and Black Bean Dip

Black bean, feta, and roasted yam dip

My motto for myself for the last few months has been, "Out of the juicer and into the cup."

I got a juicer for my birthday, and I let everything swirl together in the cannister before I open the cap and watch it splash into a glass. Crazy mixtures of bright things--fresh tumeric, tangerines, ginger, carrots, apples; beets, beet greens, celery, cucumber, lemon. Stuffing all that produce down the shaft, it occurs to me every time that too much input will result in a big mess. And no juice to drink! At some point, all that beautiful, bright juice has to be let out. 

And, as Elizabeth Gilbert says in her new book, letting out what's inside us, unleashing the "big magic," isn't about being a virtuoso in something. It's not about quitting our day jobs. It's about befriending our fears but never, every putting them in the driver's seat. 

For me, one of the clogs in the juicer lately has been writing. The more writing I consume in books--articles, on Facebook--the more I labor under this seductive, false idea that I don't have anything to say. That it's all been said. Wow. That really lets me off the hook. Meanwhile, that juicer is spinning, and the liquid is getting dangerously close to exploding all over the place. So here's to letting it pour out. To my health, and yours!

Meanwhile, if I'm aware, my eyes are always open to the moments and people in my life who are figuring out how to let their juice fill the cup.

My friend, a single mother of 3 special needs kids, has taken in another needy young adult who's been abandoned and needed someone to love her and show her how to do laundry. Another case of that universal reality, that those with the least are often those who give the most.

Our new 4th grade neighbor girl (Loretta is in heaven--girls in the neighborhood!) who, after meeting Loretta, wrote her a card and made her a gift: Can we have a play date sometime? (Ladies, we have a lot to learn from this. Risk. Vulnerability. Letting women know we LIKE them.)

Cristina, who bravely moved to start a new job and listen to her calling even though it meant change and uncertainty all over again. (The silver lining for me, though I miss her terribly, is that my mailbox has been full. My love language, for sure.)

And my mom, who retired from her job of 24 years and knew when it was time to go. I see so many folks who malpractice, who stay somewhere much longer than is good for them and their patients, clients, students, co-workers, customers. I had a party for her, and 50 (mostly) women from the home store she's worked at over the years were at my house. We had a toast for her, and half the room was crying. (Me first, of course.) So energizing to see how she's continually paid attention to and loved those around her, and what beautiful juice has filled the cup.

I made this dip, and I've made it a few other times, too. A few weeks ago, I was on my way home, remembered I had to bring an appetizer somewhere, did a mental inventory of my pantry and fridge, and had this concocted by the time I walked through the door. It turned out to be a keeper. And I love it when that happens.

P.S. Here's a poem I wrote putting fear into the backseat where it belongs.

Get Started

Who am I to do this?
Who am I to find the burning bush,
and then to step closer?
To dare conversation with God,
take off my shoes,
tell the story of deliverance?
You try ignoring
a burning bush. 

Roasted Yam and Black Bean Dip
You could easily leave the cheese and sour cream out of this. If you do that, add a little more lime juice, olive oil or water to the bean mixture to make sure it's smooth enough.

2 cans refried black beans
1 tb. olive oil
one large onion, thinly sliced
1/2 c. sour cream 
juice of one lime
1 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. (or to taste) chile powder
1 c. shredded white sharp cheddar
1 very large or two medium yams or sweet potatoes, skin on and diced into 1/2"
more olive oil 
2 Tb. interesting seeds (chia, amaranth, buckwheat groats, sesame, poppy, flax)
handful chopped fresh cilantro
1 large or two small avocados, diced

Preheat oven to 375.

Toss diced yams with olive oil and a little salt. Spread out on a single layer on a baking sheet, and bake until just tender, about 20 minutes. 

Meanwhile, sauté sliced onion in olive oil until caramelized (or almost.)

In a 9x13 baking dish, mix beans with caramelized onion, sour cream, cumin, lime, chile powder, and salt to taste. Spread evenly into the bottom of the dish.

Top bean mixture with shredded cheese and roasted yams. Bake in the oven until the whole thing is warm and bubbly, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and top with seeds, cilantro, and avocado. Serve with tortilla chips.


Hot Chiles for my Hot Firefighter

Chile Crunch

I started making this condiment a few months ago, and we are addicted. When we run out, there's a lot of malaise, scrounging through the fridge for something that might approximate it. Sriracha? Too sweet. Tapatio? Too musky. Chile oil? Not crunchy. So I finally went to Cash and Carry, bought embarassing quantities of the ingredients, and once a week I can be found frying dried garlic and chiles in my wok, Wyatt walking up the stairs and asking hopefully, "Are you making that hot stuff?" He never eats a sandwich without it, which warms my heart.

And Yancey is even more nutso about it, putting it on almost everything. You may have heard that the central part of Washington is engulfed in flames, and Yancey and a crew of firefighers from his station have been sent to help. 3 men died earlier this week, and I'm just heartsick for their families. And for the evacuees, the pets and wildlife, everything and everyone in the path of this insatiable fire. I've been flooded with love, check-ins, and well wishes and have been passing those onto Yancey, and I don't feel worried. I'm not a worrier. But I do feel a deep sense of reality, like the veil has been lifted for a bit and we can see into the nature of things. We are not in control, we're always on the verge of catastrophe, and we'd better learn how to be present to one another now, without waiting. 

And I'm disporportionately nostalgic about things that remind me of Yancey--chile crunch, his tools in the garage, his little pile of keys, receipts, and flashlights by his bed. My neighbor and her infant daughter are without their husband/father for a year because he's been called up to the Army reserves and is serving in Afghanistan. This week is giving me the tiniest, teensiest idea of what it must be like for her, reading the news, checking Twitter feeds, looking for texts or emails. There are millions of people who, for many reasons, know they are on the edge all the time, and I'm appreciating them this week. (Thinking a lot about the anniversary of Katrina, too. For a great window into New Orleans then and now, I recommend my current favorite podcast, Death, Sex, and Money, its fabulous host Anna Sale, and her beautiful series on New Orleans.)

I've been fascinated by some studies I've read about collective trauma, and that part of what saves people is being about to do something with their bodies in the wake of diaster or in the middle of anxiety. That's probably why we cook for funerals and probably why I'm in the kitchen more than normal this week, makiing chile crunch, roasting hatch chiles, making granola, keeping my brain just busy enough and my body connected to the ground. I wish the same for you wherever are. xo

Crunchy Chile and Garlic Paste
This won't taste quite right at first and needs to sit for about 24 hours to let all the flavors meld. So if you taste it right after it's cooled, you might be non-plussed. Be patient. It will reveal itself to you. And it keeps forever in the fridge. 

1/2 c. dried minced garlic (not garlic salt or garlic powder)
1/2 c. crushed red pepper flakes
2 Tb. dried onion flakes
1 tsp. salt 
1 c. canola oil 

Mix all ingredients together in a wok or heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring often, for about 5-7 minutes until oil is sizzling and garlic is just beginning to barely turn color. Turn off heat, let cool in the pan, and scrape into a glass jar. Cover and refrigerate.


Brown Sugar Choco Chunk Cookies

Brown sugar choco chunk

The kids are at camps this week, which means lunch-making has ensued. This morning's was pretty meager and I found myself scrounging for some Kirkland fruit snacks that I have hidden in the basement. Time for cookies. These are my usual, changed a bit with all brown sugar instead of white, chocolate chunks instead of chips. Yum.

I thought of posting some "let's-get-real" summer photos here. My dried up herbs and brown, bolted spinach on my peeling deck. The damp towels in piles everywhere, the tower of neglected paperwork on my desk. #$*&!! you, Pinterest! 

For the longest time, I had some rules posted on my bulletin board when the kids were younger. One was "Go outside whenever possible" (still the wisest rule I've ever made for myself). Another was "See my world (and messy house) through eyes of love."

Eyes of love. So, I bless you, old fraying beach towel. I bless you, softening once-perfect organic apricot that I should have used for something amazing. I bless you, 6 dozen half-used bottles of ancient sunscreen in 27 different obscure locations. I bless you, shedding dog, who adds 3 hours of housework onto every blessed week. I bless you, turning earth, and your persistence in providing for us no matter what we do to you.

Here's a little poem I wrote about the ordinary things in my pantry. I hope that, somehow, your ordinary becomes extraordinary this week. xo

Prayer of Thanks for Pantry Staples

For the black turtle beans,
hard, a little dusty, even,
half-filling a cannister in the back
of the pantry, and how,
after two hours in the pot,
they are creamy, soft,
warm, salty, filling this family
for a dollar. For them,
and all the daily ways
water becomes wine,
thank you.

And here's those cookies. Don't act like you didn't skip over the damn poetry for them.

Brown Sugar Choco Chunk Cookies

1 3/4 c. flour
2 c. old fashioned oats
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. brown sugar
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
2 cubes (1 cup) unlsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp. vanilla
1 pkg. chocolate chips or chunks 

Mix first 5 ingredients together. Add egg mixture, melted butter, and vanilla. Stir until just combined. Add chocolate chunks, and refrigerate dough for a couple hours (even better overnight).

Form into balls and bake on parchment-lined sheets at 350 for 9-10 minutes, until just set. I like to do little ones, fitting 15 on a standard sized jelly roll pan.