Monday, December 21, 2009

Gifts from the Kitchen—Homemade Minestrone Soup Mix

It's a golden autumn afternoon, and I've just spend a leisurely hour preparing some kitchen gifts for the holidays. It's a good feeling to see my pretty minestrone soup kits sitting there on the porch finished and ready to go. I realized after I took the picture at left that I wasn't the only one enjoying the warm, sunny weather. If you look closely straight back into the center of the woods, you'll see a deer lying down resting there among the trees.

She had probably eaten her fill of the last hostas in my yard and decided she needed to take a nap. I'm feeling contented and a little nappish now, too!

Perhaps making kitchen gifts is so gratifying to me because I grew up in farming country. Gifts from the home kitchen rather than bought items were the main way families remembered one another during the holidays. Many folks liked to drop by friends’ and relatives’ homes every year with a treat they'd put up during the summer preserving season. A family friend, Mrs. Miller, always gave us a jar of big, chunky sour pickles, and Aunt Roberta presented us with her famous allspice- and mustard seed-sparked green tomato slices. (Which I still make on the rare occasion I can get enough green tomatoes.)

Other peeps dispensed baked goods: A lady my parents played bridge with presented us with a loaf of banana bread, which she invariably presented prettily tied up in a red and green plaid bow. We reciprocated with a jar of raspberry jam, or a tin of rolled sugar cookies, or sometimes my mother's fondant-stuffed dates.

The kitchen gifts habit I learned long ago stuck. No matter how many presents I buy, I don’t really feel ready for the holidays till I prepare some kitchen treats to give out. Originally, I made rolled sugar cookies but over the years I’ve updated my repertoire to include candies (lately, peppermint bark), spiced nuts, chutneys, herb vinegars, this layered soup mix, and my chocolate-chip-cranberry bar cookie mix. (I don’t do jam because my sister gives it.)

The soup kit recipe makes a thoughtful and healthful present, especially for those who can't eat or don't care for sweets. (If you scroll down you can see the finished soup.)  The recipe was featured in the Washington Post food section several years ago and was a big hit! If you pack it in an attractive jar or canister as I have here, that can be part of the gift, too.

Minestrone Soup Mix
(Makes 1 jar of mix and yields about 2 quarts soup)

This attractive gift mix enables the recipient to make a very savory and hearty pot of homemade minestrone with minimal effort and supplies. In fact, served along with a bread or salad, it can make a fine, no-fuss supper.

Layer the mix ingredients in a clear glass, acrylic, or plastic jar or canister with a volume of 1-pint (16-ounces) or 1/2-liter or slightly more. If only larger containers are on hand, you can improvise by filling any empty space at the top with a plastic bag full of soup crackers. Or, if the container used is a little too small, attach the package of pasta to the outside of the jar instead of in its top. Don’t forget to provide the recipe instructions along with the mix.

Tip: For a lower sodium soup, I suggest using 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon regular bouillon granules and 1 tablespoon very low sodium bouillon granules.

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon good-quality beef bouillon granules
3 tablespoons minced dried onions
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped dried (not oil-packed) sun-dried tomatoes or chopped freeze-dried tomatoes or dried sweet pepper pieces or dried chives (or a combination)
1 1/4 teaspoons dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves or dried thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried minced garlic or garlic powder (not garlic salt)
Scant 1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes or 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup uncooked pearled barley
1/4 cup uncooked red or brown lentils
1/4 cup uncooked green or yellow split peas
1/4 cup uncooked kidney beans
1/4 cup uncooked cannelloni beans or great northern white beans
1/2 cup uncooked medium-size macaroni, penne, or corkscrew pasta

To make the mix: Combine the bouillon granules, dried onions, dried tomatoes (or sweet peppers), oregano, marjoram, garlic, and pepper on a sheet of heavy duty foil. Using the foil as a funnel, put the mixture into a clean 1 pint or 1/2 liter jar (or similar-size canister or a heavy zip-lock bag). Rap the jar to even the layer. In layers, add the barley, lentils, split peas, kidney beans, then finally, the white beans to the jar, rapping after each addition to even the layers. Pack the pasta separately in a small sturdy plastic bag and close tightly. Tuck it into the top of the jar (or tie around the outside if the jar is full). If the jar or bag will be shipped, pack any headroom with crumpled wax paper. Close tightly.

Ready and include a card or sheet containing the following recipe instructions:

 Minestrone (Makes about 2 quarts soup)

A fragrant, nourishing, fuss-free soup. The diced meat is entirely optional, but makes a heartier, meal-in-a-bowl minestrone. Keep the mix up to 3 months in a cool spot.

1 container of Soup mix
1/2 cup diced ham, hard salami, pepperoni, or smoked turkey, optional
1 to 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped mixed fresh or frozen vegetable medley (such celery, bell pepper, zucchini, and onions)
1 14- to 15 ounce can diced tomatoes, including juice

Grated Parmesan cheese, coarsely ground black pepper, or chopped parsley for garnish, optional

Remove the pasta package (and crackers, if included) and set aside for later use. Put all the remaining ingredients in the jar in a large soup pot with 9 1/2 cups of hot water. Bring to a boil, stirring once or twice, then turn off the heat and let the beans hydrate for 10 minutes. Return to a boil, then cook, covered, adjusting the heat so the pot boils very gently until the beans are just barely tender, usually 50 to 55 minutes.

If the minestrone is thick, thin it to a soupy consistency, then reheat it to boiling. Stir in the pasta, vegetables, and meat (if using). Simmer, covered and stirring occasionally, 10 to 15 minutes longer, until the pasta is cooked al dente. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste; reheat to piping hot. If necessary, thin the minestrone with more hot water to the desired consistency. Pass a bowl of Parmesan for garnishing the soup, if desired. The soup usually thickens upon refrigeration; thin it before reheating. Keeps 3-4 days refrigerated or 2 months frozen in an airtight container.
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thumbprints--Swapping Cookie Recipes from Across the Miles

It's truly amazing how the Internet so easily links passionate bakers from all over the nation. I have baking friends I chat with from all around the globe!

Several days ago, Washington State baker, Jeanne Sauvage, posted her gluten-free adaptation of a recipe from my International Cookie Cookbook. The recipe she chose to bake happens to be the thumbprints shown on the cover of  that book (at right). She explained her choice, saying " The Hussar's Kisses are delicious--and they're a personal favorite of mine!"

Jeanne said she is a big fan of both of this cookie book (published back in the 1980s) and my more recent one, The All-American Cookie Book, which is still in print. She adapted the original recipe to a gluten-free version for her daughter. This was exciting to me, because I am always looking for gluten-free baked goods I can serve my daughter-in-law. With her permission, I have reposted Jeanne's gluten-free flour blend adaptation below.

Jeanne's Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour Mix

Jeanne is working on a gluten-free holiday baking book to be published in 2012, and I can't wait. In the meantime, here is her gluten-free flour mix. Thank you, thank you, for sharing!

1 1/4 cups brown rice flour
1 1/4 cups white rice flour
1 cup tapioca flour
1 cup sweet rice flour (also known as Mochiko)
2 scant teaspoons xanthan gum

Mix the ingredients well. Store airtight and refrigerated.
Or use the gluten-free flour mixture of your choice; just be sure it contains xanthan gum. Or, you can add 1/4-1/2 tsp. xanthan gum per cup of gluten-free flour. Note that if you choose to use bean flour, it will add a bean taste to the cookies.

Thumbprint Butter Cookies (Hussar's Kisses)

Remember that you can make the thumbprint cookie recipe using the same amount of "regular" all-purpose flour if you don't want or need to use Jeanne's gluten-free flour mix provided above. Jeanne is right--this is a very tasty cookie! The recipe has been one of my favorites for a long, long time! The cookies are both easy and festive.

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
1 cups granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract, optional
1/4 teaspoons salt
3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or Jeanne's Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour Mix
2/3 cup seedless raspberry jam (or any other jam you like)
1/3 cup slivered blanched almonds, optional garnish

Place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 375 degrees F
Grease several large baking sheets, or line with baking parchment paper.

In a large bowl, with a mixer on medium speed, beat the butter until lightened and smooth. Beat in the sugar until smoothly incorporated. One at a time add the egg yolks, then vanilla and salt, beating after each addition. Working on low speed,beat in half the flour. Stir in the remaining flour just until fully incorporated. If the dough seems a little soft, let stand to firm for 5 minutes.

Pinch off small pieces of dough and roll into balls slightly smaller than ping-pong balls. Space about
2 inches apart on the sheets. Make a deep indentation in the center of each ball with your finger or knuckle.

Bake (middle rack) one sheet at a time for 7 to 9 minutes. Remove the sheet from oven and fill each indentation with a heaping 1/2 teaspoon jam. If using almond slivers, sprinkle a few of these over the center of each cookie. Return the baking sheet to oven and continue to bake for about 7 to 9 minutes longer, until the jam is starting to melt and the cookie bottoms are a golden brown. Remove from oven and transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool.

Makes about 45 to 50 cookies.
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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Passion for Peppermint

I love chocolate and peppermint together, especially this time of year. I make my killer hot fudge sauce, posted here in my recipe archives, and serve it over peppermint ice cream. I give my homemade peppermint-chocolate bark to the (very happy!) folks in my husband's office. The pic show the freshly made bark before and after it was packed up in cellophane gift bags.

I also ready the festive Fudgies cookies to brighten my holiday cookie tray. (All three recipes are from my All-American Dessert Book.) For my yummy, fudgy, very easy Peppermint Fudgies, plus some cookie swap tips, go to my Washington Post story posted here. (For a completely different holiday cookie that's perfect for the holidays, check out my cranberry drops here .)

During the holiday season, some chocolate manufacturers also sell mint-flavored chocolate morsels, so you can easily give any favorite chocolate chip recipe a festive twist. I've found that the morsels work best in chcocolate-chocolate chip doughs. It never hurts to stir in a about a 1/2 teaspoon of peppermint extract, or, if you have it, a couple drops of peppermint oil.

These days we automatically associate peppermint candy canes with Christmas, but it wasn't always this way. I went back and looked through some 19th century holiday greeting card collections. Lots of holly, pine boughs, bells and St. Nicks, but not a candy cane in sight! The image here is very typical.

One of the first places I know peppermint canes showed up was in a 1919 American professional candy maker’s recipe. He mentioned that peppermint and lemon were popular flavors. Then he explained how to cut the candy ropes into sticks and to “crook” one end while they were still warm enough to bend.

With or without chocolate, candy canes still don’t seem to be linked with Christmas in Europe. I think they're really missing out!

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Five Fine Foodie Gifts

Have you ever noticed that people often give gifts they’d secretly like to receive? I do this myself, though I didn’t realize it for many years. I haven’t tried to break the habit because it seems to work fine to give other foodies items I either want or already have and like.

That said, I do try to consider the recipients’ tastes and needs: No cheese boards for the lactose intolerant. No nut crackers for those allergic to nuts. No copper bowl and wire whisk for the harried or those already sold on the power and convenience of their Kitchenaid mixers.

Here are five foodie gifts I’m either giving or have give in the past, from inexpensive stocking stuffers to major presents. If you're shopping for guys in particular, you'll find additional gift ideas here.

Gourmet Sea Salts and Artisan Flavored Salts—These currently trendy seasonings (shown above) come in a myriad of earthy colors and surprising flavors, from smoked (using all kinds of wood), herbal, spice, citrus, hot pepper and even black truffle-scented. (Save this last very exotic, pricey one for the really serious gourmet on your list.) Except for recipients with unusually refined and sensitive palates, the smoked, herbed and spiced salts may be the best bets. Some of the “mild” varieties are appealing primarily for their look and texture—less discriminating gourmets may find that they basically taste, well, like salt!

Fancy bottles usually cost around $10 each; more modestly packaged choices run less. Sampler “sets” cost from around $30 for three or four different salts to over $100 for several dozen varieties. I’ve been happier with small sets or picking out individual choices and creating my own sets. The larger collections tend to include some samples that just aren’t that interesting. There are many vendors, but you can start with SaltTraders here or The Salt Works here.

Pepper Grinder
—Anybody with even a single gourmet bone in his or her body will be pleased with a sturdy, attractive, functional pepper grinder. Fresh ground pepper is such a good way to zip up dishes, most foodies like to have several—at least one for the stove, one on the dining table, plus a couple more for special peppercorn blends. (Speaking of which, consider supplying several interesting blends along with the grinder.) Quality pepper mills, including a battery-operated version, can be had for well under $50. Check out the following Chow story for a reader discussion of models.

Microplane Graters & Rock Salt Shavers
—A microplane grater is an ideal stocking stuffer for any foodie who doesn’t already have one. These rasp-shaped graters can zest citrus and grate chocolate and cheese much more efficiently than old-fashioned box graters and zesters. The gourmet interested in trying out gourmet rock salts will appreciate a microplane salt shaver, too. The graters come with or without easy-grip handles and are in the $15 to $20 range at many cookware departments and shops. I find the models with handles easier to use.

Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven
—A quality enamel-coated, cast-iron Dutch oven makes a great gift for so many reasons: It goes from stove-top to oven or table readily. It’s perfect for making soups, stews, pot roasts, cobblers, and, the latest rage, no-knead breads. (If you know the cook wants to use it for breads, click here and here to choose the right size and other important features. And consider including a copy of Kneadlessly Simple, my new book. It enables even beginners to make crusty, artisan-quality breads, like mine shown in the pic, with ease.)

Some enameled Dutch ovens can run $150-$200, but there are other much more economical options. Both the very heavy Tramontina 3 1/2-quart Cast Iron Dutch Oven (sold on-line by WalMart
here) and the Lodge Enameled 3-quart (sold by Amazon here) are attractive and well made and come in under $50. Note that for baking at temps above about 400 degrees F, the phenolic knobs on these will have to be unscrewed and replaced with an inexpensive metal knob from a hardware store.

Decorative Glass or Acrylic Canister Sets
—While these are nice to give as is, I like to fill them with all kinds of homemade mixes: bars-in-jars here, my minstrone soup mix here; homemade bread kits; spiced cocoa and mulled wine mixes, etc. The contents can be used right away and, afterwards, the containers can serve as attractive countertop storage jars. Canisters are available in boxed sets in the kitchenware sections at numerous department and discount stores, but can also sometimes be purchased individually in craft and kitchen shops, plus, of course on-line.
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