The inspiration for our meals comes from a thousand different places. Sometimes it’s from stopping by the farmstand and seeing fat green leeks sticking up from black buckets like an awkward floral display. Sometimes it’s from our friends’ cookbooks and blogs — ooh, that looks good. Often food arrives on the table because we needed something for the kid fast. That’s why we’re working on stocking our pantry well these days, so we always have interesting ingredients to throw together.
Sometimes, however, our best dishes come from the food we cannot eat.
We have a recipe in our cookbook for a blue cheese cheesecake with a fig crust. (It’s really good, that one.) The only reason it exists is because Danny and I were in Vancouver, doing a weekend event for my first book, and we ate at a great little restaurant called Salt Tasting Room. There were curlicues of good prosciutto and choices of local cheese that made it difficult to decide what to eat, chutneys and pickles and interesting twists. We ate well. All the dessert options, however, had gluten in them. Mostly, I wanted the blue cheese cheesecake.
So we went home and made it, used the fig cookies from my first book as the crust, and took a bite. “Book. That’s going in the book,” we both said.
A little deprivation helps sometimes.
In December, we were at Palace Kitchen, one of our favorite restaurants in Seattle. We don’t go out for dinner often these days. In fact, almost not at all. We live on an island where the best restaurant is the one where Danny cooks. Evenings in Seattle are spent at friends’ houses, but mostly we’re on the road for the ferry with Lu’s eyes growing droopy as we drive. A night out is a rare celebration.
(My goodness, life has changed in the last three years!)
We were eating dinner after a big cookbook event, along with friends Amy Pennington and Lara Ferroni, whose books had been selling fast.. We were happy to be together, laughing and relaxing after being on all evening. Danny and I enjoyed our applewood-smoked chicken and pork chop. Lu ate everything when she wasn’t giggling with Amy. However, I noticed Lara’s silence most. She dipped her spoon into her potato-sunchoke soup slowly, savoring each taste. When she did talk, she pointed to the chile oil quivering on top of the soup. I’ve never seen anyone enjoy soup so much.
Danny and I looked at each other. We didn’t have to talk. We knew what the other was thinking.
We’re making that soup at home.
Here it is.
You know, sometimes we hear from folks: “Your recipes look good but they look too fancy for our house.” We all have different cooking styles, so we’re not out to please everyone. We’re just trying to share what’s in our kitchen.
However, before I met Danny I also divided dishes into a) simple enough for me to do and b) the stuff that restaurant chefs make. Having this restaurant chef around the house is wonderful for so many reasons, but mostly because he has shown me to not be intimidated by food. If I go into a recipe ready to learn, and take my time on a slow Saturday afternoon, I’m usually amazed by how easy it is. The next dish after that success takes half the time because I get out of my own way and just cook.
Also, fancy-sounding recipes start with a cutting board full of humble ingredients, mostly.
We don’t do a lot of posts where we show you every step in photos here. With a two-year-old running around, there isn’t time! But this weekend, while my parents danced with Lu to the soundtrack of Glee, Danny and I cooked. Actually, he cooked and I sat up on the kitchen counter to take photos for you.
We want you to have this soup.
So you start with a hot pan and some pancetta. Pancetta is an Italian favorite, a little like bacon but not smoked. It’s usually cured with salt, sugar, fennel seeds, and pepper. Use a touch of pancetta in this soup and all those flavors will slip into your spoon as well.
If you don’t have pancetta, you can use a little bacon or ham here too.
And if you’re vegetarian, you can skip the pancetta entirely. Use the onion instead.
You chop an onion. I can’t really think of a soup that doesn’t start with 1 large onion, peeled and chopped. Onions are humble but wonderfully useful. If you’re using the pancetta, you can cook the onion in the rendered fat until it’s soft and translucent. However, if you don’t want the meat, caramelize the onion pieces instead. Cook them on low heat, slowly, until they are limp and dark brown and clinging to each other. That caramelized taste will add a depth of flavor to this soup you’ll love.
These are sunchokes.
You might know them as Jerusalem artichokes instead. They’re not flashy vegetables look at those knotty tubers! They look a little like fresh ginger root, but they are nothing like ginger. They have the name artichoke in them, but they taste nothing like an artichoke. They’re actually from the sunflower family. In Italian, the name for sunflower is girasole. Someone heard that in English and thought it sounded like Jerusalem. They’re not from Jerusalem. These are confusing little vegetables, right?
Actually, they’re lovely. They have a slight nutty taste, a faint sweetness, and a wonderful crunch. They’re also full of iron, apparently. There’s a hint of water chestnut in the bite of a sunchoke. I love them. And I had never heard of them before I met Danny.
One of my favorite moments of being pregnant with Lu was when I returned home to find a big jar of pickled sunchokes on our front porch, thanks to our friend Brandon. (Pregnant women love pickled things, you see.)
(Some people complain that eating sunchokes gives them intestinal upset. Sunchokes are high in fiber and contain inulin, instead of traditional starch, so that can cause upset in some folks. If you’re not eating a diet high in fiber right now, these might come as a shock to the system. Danny and I have never had a problem, however.
Mixing the sunchokes with the potatoes might cut down on the effects, if you suffer from them.)
Seriously, you want to try these.
And I love that making soup means you can rough chop them. No need for meticulous precision when these are going to be pureed anyway.
I really don’t think that any soup (or dish, for that matter) that involves potatoes could be called that fancy. They grow in dirt. They have such knobbly skin.
I think potatoes are beautiful.
This is the size of the diced potatoes you want for this soup. We describe it in the recipe, but we wanted you to see it here.
You let everything cook, with some chicken stock or water, until the potatoes yield to the knife.
It only takes 30 minutes to make, if that.
We love our Vita Mix blender. (Thank you, Cari!) LOVE. IT. This blender makes the smoothest soups I have ever sipped. (And the grain attachment makes it easy to grind your own flours.)
However, until a couple of years ago, we didn’t have a Vita Mix. A regular blender works here too.
You can use an immersion blender, of course. We love that thing too. Just expect it to take a bit longer than with a powerful blender.
Also, when you use the blender, you have to blend in batches. This allows you to pour the soup through a strainer and watch the steam rise.
Oh, the smell. This soup smells rich and warm, the antidote to a cold winter day, like putting on a blanket.
There are no expensive ingredients in it, and it’s all vegetables and stock and spices. However, it smells as though it should cost much more than it does.
And there it is, topped with pancetta and drizzled with chile oil you made yourself.
See? You can do this. You want this soup.
POTATO SUNCHOKE SOUP WITH HOMEMADE CHILE OIL
There are a few unexpected touches, aside from the pancetta, that elevate this soup from ordinary. The thyme and nutmeg both nestle into the potatoes and sunchokes in such a comfortable spot that they may be hidden at first. Believe me, you need these spices. They are the brightness on a dark winter day. Some of you may have noticed that we usually call for fresh herbs in our recipes. However, I’ve convinced Danny that fresh herbs aren’t always available or inexpensive. As you know if you read this post, we have been chosen by McCormick to be part of their Real Gourmets program. We have been paid by them and sent a huge box full of the McCormick Gourmet spices. However, we had been using these for awhile, buying them ourselves. And I’m happy to say that the McCormick dried thyme is the first one Danny likes using in our food.
You’ll probably have more chile oil than you will need for this soup. Yay! You can use the leftover chile oil as a marinade for beef, chicken, or fish for tacos or fajitas. Cook up your favorite vegetables in it with cumin or garlic. We like it as the oil for popcorn. Use your imagination!
This soup is so easy to make that you’re going to go on a soup-making binge after this. Be prepared.
for the chile oil
½ cup grapeseed oil (you can also canola, safflower, or olive oil)
2 dried arbol chiles, stems and seeds removed
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon chile powder
Heating the oil. Set a small saucepan over low heat. Pour the grapeseed oil into the pan. Gently heat the oil to a small simmer.
Toasting the chiles and spices. Meanwhile, set another small saucepan over medium-high heat. Crush up the chiles a bit and toss them into the hot pan. Toast the chiles for a minute, tossing them around. Add the paprika and chile powder. Toss them all together in the hot pan until the spices release their fragrance, about 1 minute. Add 3 tablespoons of water to the chiles and spices and stir until you have a rough paste.
Letting the oil sit. Put the chile paste into a large bowl. Slowly, add the hot oil. Stir this up and let it sit for 1 hour.
Finishing the oil. Pour the chile oil through a strainer, lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter, into a bowl. Let the oil sit overnight to develop its flavors.
for the soup
4 slices pancetta, rolled up like a cigar and sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and medium dice
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 1/2 pounds sunchokes, cut into thick slices
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled
5 cups liquid (chicken, vegetable stock, or water)
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup heavy cream (we used dairy-free Mimicreme)
juice of one lemon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
Rendering the pancetta. Set a Dutch oven or large pot on medium-high heat. When the pot is hot, add the pancetta and the olive oil. Cook, stirring frequently, until the pancetta has crisped and the fat has rendered into the pan, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pancetta and set aside.
Sautéeing the onions and garlic. Add the onions and garlic to the rendered pancetta fat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the sunchokes and thyme and cook until you smell everything strongly in the room, about 3 minutes.
Cooking the soup. Cut each potato into half, lengthwise, then slice horizontally. Cut each potato half into thirds. (See photo above if this is not clear.) Throw in all the potato dices. Cook, stirring, until everything is well-coated, about 1 minute. Pour in the stock. This should be enough liquid to cover the potatoes and sunchokes. If not, add 1 cup more. Stir it all up, then cook until a sharp knife goes through a potato piece and a sunchoke piece easily, about 20 minutes.
Finishing the soup. Blend the soup in 3 batches, adding 2 tablespoons of the olive oil to each batch. You could try an immersion blender here, but a strong blender works better. Pour the first two batches of pureed soup through a sieve into a large bowl. (This will make the final soup smooth.) When you have blended all the soup, pour it all back into the Dutch oven. Add the cream and stir the soup, then the lemon juice and stir the soup. Taste. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste (you’re going to need more than you think!).
When the soup is seasoned as you like it, add the tablespoon of butter. Stir constantly, taking care not to scorch the soup, until the butter has disappeared entirely into the soup.
Ladle the soup into large bowls. Top with the crisp pancetta and drizzle with the prepared chile oil.