Monday, December 26, 2011

Winter Squash and Chili Peppers Bisque

I cooked Christmas dinner for six this year. On the menu: mustard-seed-crusted prime rib roast with roasted balsamic onions and horseradish/mustard/creme fraiche sauce—terrific!. Thanks, Epicurious; steamed broccoli with lemon and butter; baked yellow potatoes, and, in my opinion, the star of the show, this squash/pepper soup.
Loads of roasted green and red chilies, chipotles and  jalapenos combined with butternut squash make a savory bisque topped with a dollop of sour cream, roasted conquistador peppers, and a drizzle of reduced balsamic.

I searched the Web for a recipe, and found several that combined winter squash and peppers. But alas, they were all wimpy. Not enough peppers. Not enough heat or flavor. I had to have a roasted-pepper-heavy dish on the menu because one of our guests recently bestowed upon us a pepper roaster, a hand-cranked unit that blasts the rotating peppers with gas flame. We wanted to demonstrate our gratitude by including a dish dripping with flavor and loaded loaded with roasted peppers. 
PK is roasting Big Jim — New Mexico-type peppers. If only you could smell the pepper perfume!
So I improvised on a squash bisque I've made several times (including for our fundraising farm dinner in September). Before I get to the recipe, I must mention a couple other items on the holiday table: chipotle sauce and PK's ground pepper flakes—our ever-present condiments.  
From left to right: serrano, cayenne, anza, jalapeno, and up top, Italian hot.
PK grinds  his dried peppers  separately then blends them.
We garden together, but the peppers? HIS. His alone.

This is a block of frozen mostly green roasted chilies weighing about 10 ounces.
I added  it, partially thawed,  early in the soup prep. 
Other soup ingredients. Those little black things in the front are chipotles.
Conquistador peppers are in the bag, serrano sauce in the pint jar, jalapenos in the bowl. 
Winter Squash and Chili Peppers Bisque
1 whole butternut or other winter squash - about 3 pounds
1 medium to large onion, minced
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, minced
2-4 jalapeno peppers, seeded, minced
3 T butter
32-48 ounces of chicken or vegetable broth or stock
1 1/2 cups half and half or heavy cream (go for the heavy cream!)
1/4 - 1/2 cup serrano sauce (more about this later)
8-12 ounces of roasted green and/or red chili peppers
6-8 ounces of roasted red chili peppers (may substitute sweet), sliced 
2-3 dried chipotle peppers
2 tsp sea or kosher salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1-2 tsp. ground cumin
1 T honey (optional)

Bake the squash whole in advance at 350 for 60-80 minutes, or until a knife inserts easily into the most dense part. Poke with a knife a couple times before baking to prevent a squash-festooned oven. After the squash cools, it's easy to scoop out the seeds, peel it, and break into large pieces. You can refrigerate the cooked squash for a few days before using, or freeze it. 
Early stage of soup prep. Veggies have been sauteed, squash, broth, seasonings and chipotles added,
but the immersion blender has not been summoned.
In a stockpot over medium heat, saute minced onion, garlic, celery, and jalapeno in butter until golden. Use a food processor to do the heavy mincing. Add the roasted squash to the pot along with the whole dried chipotle peppers, the serrano (or Tabasco) sauce and the veggie or chicken broth. Reserve some broth to adjust thickness later. Cook for about 15 minutes til the chipotles begin to soften. Add salt, pepper, cumin and honey, if desired. If your squash is super sweet, you can skip the honey. But if you use serrano sauce, it's good to add a bit of sweetness to balance the vinegar in the sauce.

Now you have a big decision: to remove the softened chipotles or not? I removed them, but next time I won't.  Cooking the chipotle early in the soup prep and removing it before blending adds a whiff of chipotle flavor. Blending chipotles with the other ingredients would pack a more flavorful wallop. I like those wallops. Make sure your chipotles are stemless. It's OK if they have seeds. Need more info about chipotles? (Link includes a recipe for chipotle sauce.)

Now that everything is cooked, grab your immersion blender or a heavy-duty food processor. Immersion blenders are inexpensive and SO much more convenient in this circumstance. Blend ingredients right in the pot and add seasoning to taste. (serrano sauce, salt, etc.) 
When you're about ready to serve, stir in the cream, either half and half or heavy cream. You could even add sour cream. Once the cream is added, no more boiling. Place generous amounts of slivered roasted red peppers on top, along with a dollop of sour cream or chipotle sauce, if desired.
This soup is good for a few days refrigerated, and it freezes well for several months. 

I'm so fortunate to have all these peppers in my pantry or freezer—and for a couple months, in the garden. If you're not partners with a pepper maniac, you have other options:
OK. So you don't have him.
Some options if you lack listed ingredients:
  • Roasted whole green chilies: Readily available in most groceries. For this recipe, you'll need 2 or 3  cans, minimum. 
  • Serrano sauce: If you have access to fresh serrano peppers, consider making your own, or you could use a good quality hot salsa. We live in the sticks, so the concept of purchasing serrano sauce locally is remote. It's likely available in urban areas, and may definitely be purchased online. You may also substitute tabasco-type sauces, but in quiet careful amounts.
  • Canning serrano sauce. Pungent and delicious aromas and months
    of tangy summer-tasting goodness.
  • Chiptole peppers: These dried and smoked jalapenos are available at stores that have well-stocked Mexican food departments. 
  • Jalapenos: I seed and slice jalapenos to freeze as we have multitudes in the garden. I wish we had more! Grocery store jalapenos are green and available year round. They're ok, but red are way better. Remove the seeds, unless you're after big heat. They're usually not very hot sans seeds, but even then, they add deep peppery flavor.

This is a terrific soup, which with quesadillas or another Mexican-themed side dish and a green salad, could easily make a company-worthy vegetarian meal. Go for it!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Time is .... too short.

My mother, LaVone Strube, in late 1916.
In response to Facebook birthday greetings on the occasion of my 67th freaking birthday,  I posted something like "another year down the drain" in addition to acknowledging that I had an outstanding year. Well wishers shot back au contraire comments such as:
  • Down the Drain?? I prefer to look at it as "Another EPIC year filled with amazing times with family and friends, music and art, great food and wine, in the most beautiful part of the world.
  • Not down the drain; in the treasure chest of memories!
  • We only have now. Live, love, and grow.
I can't argue with any of these sentiments. It WAS an epic year. I DO have a treasure chest of memories. I AM acutely aware that we only have NOW and not to waste a moment—to live, love, and grow.

But I'm not retracting the "down the drain" comment. Where does time go? Well, it doesn't go anywhere. The present just IS, and the past just ISN'T. It hurts my head and my heart to think about Time—with a capital T, which is something I've been doing since I turned 17 and saw my sweet 16th year vanish like the stupid tears I cried over my lost youth.

I continue to work through this issue, which is to be present in every moment, to enjoy the gift of life. I can't believe I've waded into this subject and keep getting dragged further into my own doubts, fears, internal conflicts, and cosmic questions. It's pathetic, really, to continue to grapple with the mystery of time. What's the point? The truth is I can't help myself.

Here's what I know. When I'm living in the present, time doesn't exist. I think that's true for most people. When I'm writing, gardening, dancing, doing yoga, and am engaged in life, the hours evaporate. Where have those seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, centuries gone? I get the sense that they converge into a whirlpool that circles somewhere in the universe and evaporate without ceremony. One thing I believe is true: the universe is cold and uncaring about us poor little people clinging to our moments.
My parents, Floyd and LaVone Strube, when they were young and beautiful newlyweds in 1936. He died at age 93. 

This morning I was with my mother, LaVone, who was 96 on January 1st. I followed her with a wheelchair as she used her walker to navigate the hallways at her assisted living home. She can shuffle along for 50 steps or so before she has to rest in her chair. Then we talk as she gathers strength for the next 50 steps. She shook her head and said with a wry smile, "I am still your perky mother, but I can't  believe I'm so old. I can't believe I'm in a wheelchair." She pointed to her ears, which have failed her, and her eyes, which are going fast. "I never thought I'd be like this," she tells me.

But she doesn't complain. LaVone and I don't discuss time in any way other than personal linear measurements. Her life, my life, the lives of our loved ones. We're born, move forward in time, then we die. In the scope of the universe, and with all those colliding protons driving physicists to distraction, our individual lives mean little or nothing .
As we grow older, we realize, gut level, that life won't last forever, but we cling to it anyway, grasping at seconds.

My toddler grandson has no concept of Time, and is the perfect model for Be Here Now. The Moment is all he knows, and all he needs to know. Too bad he'll forget it before he rediscovers, like my mother, that the present is all we have.  

LaVone and great-grandson Noah in late 2011. She's almost 96. He'll be two in June. 
I did a little research into time. Turns out that, surprise!, it's been a hot topic  throughout the ages, debated and dissected by religious practitioners, philosophers, scientists, and everyday people. Basically, it boils down to the linear view or the circular view. Christians, Jews, and Muslims tend toward the linear. (Can you believe we all seem to agree on something!?) Time has a beginning and an end. Eastern religions tend toward the circular. Time repeats.

Whatever. I'll go with the It's a Beautiful Day lyrics to their great song, Time Is, which starts like this:
Time is too slow for those who wait
And time is too swift for those who fear
Time is too long for those who grieve
And time is too short for those that laugh.
I have so many memories about that song. But the dominant one is the last: My father died in November 2006, and in March 2007, I took my mother on a Princess cruise, a first for us both. I loved being on a ship that was plunging through deep troughs. One sunny but windy afternoon I plugged into my iPod and walked/trotted around the deck. Time Is came on and I began to run and leap with ocean spray in my face and the ship bucking and diving. Time is too short for those that laugh.
Keep on laughing, and don't think too much about those fleeting but precious moments between when you exist and when you don't.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Dark Season

A typical scene the past couple months. The fog is dense in the morning but gives way to sunny skies.
This winter, so far, has not been too oppressive—except for the usual dim light and more cold. Less light is the biggest problem. We're on the countdown to the winter solstice, and then we'll be on the upswing, which has an amazingly positive effect. The days keep getting longer!
It doesn't seem right that dark arrives by 5 p.m. or that live plants languish for several months awaiting longer days to begin their comebacks. People too must stage comebacks from winter, and some folks have a hard time figuring out how to do that. Me?
Not that I don't suffer, but here's my list of fixes for winter's mental/emotional doldrums:

  • Cook comfort food, and eat a lot of it. This is easy for me, except for the 5-pound gain over the typical winter.
  • Sleep more, 
  • Take long walks. Don't worry about the weather, just dress for it.
  • Do yoga two or three times a week.
  • If you have time, volunteer to help those whose lives you can't even imagine. If you can't volunteer, give money. If you can't give money, be grateful. And forgive.
  • Listen to your favorite music and dance, dance, dance all by yourself, if necessary.
  • Have weekly "dates" with your partner. Use your imagination.

We've had just a couple rainy episodes so far this winter and a few weeks thus far of what passes for cold in this part of the world, which is well above zero. This "cold" is shirtsleeve weather in Minot, ND, where I grew up. But still, it is not conducive to growing veggies or knocking about outdoors in scanty attire.
Although I do notice, since I've developed a fishing frame of mind, that fishing goes on regardless, and fishing people seem to wear stupid stuff like jeans when they're in drift boats or on river banks. I'm buying my first year-round fishing license in early 2012 and I'm sure I'll develop a suitable wardrobe for dragging aboard salmon, steelhead. No doubt there'll be a lot of interest in my fishing outfit suggestions. (!)
Sheet composting garden refuse in the pasture.
Life isn't entirely dull. The bird life is diminished, but we still see lots of avian activity. A pair of handsome red shouldered hawks have taken up residence,  and we see them skimming the pasture and hunting from atop irrigation stand pipes. The crows are huge and industrious, scrounging beneath bird feeders and apple trees. I covered newly planted leeks with wire mesh to keep the birds from digging up the bulbs, but the towhees are relentless and have actually lifted the wire screen to get at the bulbs. We'll see what comes up in the spring. Also, the finches continue to decimate the unprotected chard. More power to them. Gotta love a bird that enjoys salad, even when it's frozen.

The greens-loving finches have laid waste to the unprotected chard.
I was saddened today to see a finch dead on top of the cold frame. Birds fly into our windows and self destruct year round, but casualties seem more common during winter.  Perhaps they're tempted by all the houseplant greenery and flowers inside.

We've gone to considerable trouble to repel deer from our garden and orchard in all seasons. They're maddeningly destructive. Before we installed a massive deer fence, I was prepared to sleep outside with a glinting blade to stab the ones that gouged tomatoes and trampled entire corn plants. But now I kinda like seeing deer, from afar, of course.  I didn't like seeing this specimen, however.
Despite the fact that he would have gleefully destroyed our garden, given the chance, I'm sorry for this young buck. He was probably hit on the highway, then somehow managed to drag his mutilated self 60 yards or so  to die in the drainage ditch on our property. The ditch was then full of water, and there his body stayed until the water receded and we had to deal with grim reality. There's nobody to pick up road kill on a private road. A neighbor with a road grader solicits an annual fee and maintains the road, but scraping up dead animals is not part of his deal. PK enlisted my aid (mostly unnecessary, as luck would have it) to relocate the carcass. He's way more equipped than I am physically and psychically to deal with blood and guts and decay. 
There goes the buck for  burial in the back of our property.
We'll wait until a neighbor with a backhoe can dig the sizable hole required. 
In the meantime, to keep our spirits from flagging, spinach and lettuce seedlings are inching upwards  in the cold frame, as are a couple of leftover-from-summer chard plants. December and January are super slow-growth months,
but we should be back to using our own greens by February.
The winter solstice approaches, and after that, the days grow longer and maybe we'll have enough snow to get into the mountains with our sliding devices. One day PK and I may join the snowbirds who flee northern winters. For now we're hanging in, looking at spring gardening catalogs and preparing for forays into the mountains with skis, boards, friends, pent-up energy and plenty of southern Oregon vino.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Southwest Turkey Stew

Southwest turkey stew topped with a drizzle of serrano sauce and a chiptole pepper on the side. 
I'm not sure the difference between soup and stew. I think because this dish requires boiling a turkey carcass with onions, garlic, and celery, it qualifies as "stew." Also, it is more substantial than I think of soup as being. Whatever. It is fabulous. As always in my menu suggestions, improvise with what you have on hand. Let's start with a turkey carcass,

Making turkey stock—the base for any great turkey soup, stew, or gravy.
Plunk that carcass and leftover drumsticks, wings, or whatever into a large stock pot. Do NOT cover with water, but add about 3 or 4 inches of water, one large cut-into-eights onion, several stocks of rinsed and quartered celery, four large cloves of quartered garlic. (If you're making a turkey soup NOT leaning toward the southwest, add rosemary and thyme to the stock pot.)
Cover the pot and boil. Turn the bones a few times. After about an hour, turn off the heat and remove the solids to a colander over a pan to catch the drippings. When the carcass is cool enough to handle, strip the meat from the bones and discard stuff you wouldn't want to eat: gristle, fat, bones, slime, etc. Drain all the juices back into the stock pot. Set the meat aside. Discard the large chunks of celery and onion. Mash the garlic cloves.

SW turkey soup ingredients - serves four to six
One to one-half carton chicken broth
2-3 cans diced green chilies (I have the luxury of chilies (frozen) from the garden. )
1 can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 can corn, drained
1 can green enchilada sauce (larger size)
1 cup brown basmati rice, added about 45 minutes before you want to eat (or other rice)
1 qt. pkg. frozen green beans, cut into 1/2 inch lengths (great way to use your frozen produce)
1 can (about 8 ounces) El Pato salsa de chili fresco. (Or use leftover prepared salsa or pepper sauce)
3-4 whole dried chipotle peppers (available at markets catering to Hispanic palates, or upscale markets in cities, or maybe you're lucky enough to have your own.)
serrano (or other moderate pepper sauce) to taste
smoked salt to taste

Cook until rice is done and beans are tender. Add turkey to heat through. Taste and add smoked salt if needed. Serve with chipotle sauce or sour cream mixed with salsa or serrano sauce on the side. The chipotles cooked with this dish are meant as flavoring. They lend a great smoky peppery taste, not necessarily hot. But eating one is another story. Consume at your own risk!

The BEST quesadillas
One tortilla per person:
1 hand-made style corn tortilla from La Tortilla Factory
grated cheddar or other cheese
cut-up jalapeno or sweet pepper
cut-up sweet onion
good quality salsa or pepper sauce
cilantro for garnish

Pre heat oven to 350
Use a pizza pan, one with holes, if possible. Smear tortillas with salsa or pepper sauce. Sprinkle tortillas with cut up onions, peppers, and cheese.
Heat in oven for 10-12 minutes or until cheese is melted and onions are fragrant.
Top with cilantro, if using.
Cut into quarters. Don't fight over them!