Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.
~Edward R. Murrow

Clustered around the banks of the Sông Hương (Perfume) River, Huế is a quaint city in the Thừa Thiên–Huế province and the imperial capital of Vietnam held by Nguyễn feudal lords during the 18th to the mid 20th centuries. Well, until the French, then later the Japanese and then the French again and finally the Americans, interceded. No doubt, for typically myopic home politicians, this was way too much dominion for locals but bred sublime cuisine.

Huế, sometimes referred to as the City of Ghosts, is centrally located on the Indochina peninsula, a few miles inland from the South China Sea with verdant mountains nestled behind…and vast palaces, pagodas, colored tiles, rice paddies, tombs. A culture where ancestors never die. Huế was the royal capital until 1945, when then emperor Bảo Đại abdicated, and a government now convened in Hà Nội (Hanoi).

Huế was the site of perhaps the most ruthless battle of the Vietnam (or American) War. At the height of this costly and equivocal conflict, there were some 500,000 American troops in the country. Only a rather small percentage of the US public even knew where Vietnam was located.

In preparation, Vietcong troops launched a series of attacks on isolated garrisons in the highlands of central Vietnam and along the Laotian and Cambodian frontiers. Then, one early morning in late January, 1968, Vietcong forces emerged from their dark tunnels and holes to launch the Tet holiday offensive. In coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam, they assaulted major urban areas and military bases in an attempt to foment rebellion against the Saigon regime and their American backers. Callous fighting ensued for several weeks, some of the most brutal at Hué — much of which was house to house with US Marines facing overwhelming odds, and the North Vietnamese suffering heavy casualties. Eventually, artillery and air support was brought to the forefront, and then nightmarish civilian massacres occurred. No burials, no altars.

But, as a result of the words and images from Saigon, the homeland press and public began to challenge the administration’s increasingly costly war. In the wake of the Tet offensive, the respected journalist Walter Cronkite, who had been a moderate observer of the war’s progress, noted that it seemed “more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.”

Oh, the sublime scents, flavors, sights, sounds of this evocative city. So many ambrosial even balmy and slurpy dishes in the Vietnamese repertoire originated in the Thừa Thiên–Huế region.

BUN BO HUE

2 lbs oxtail, cut into 2″-3″ pieces or pigs’ feet cut into chunks
2 lbs beef shanks, cut into 2″-3″pieces
2 lbs pork necks
2 lbs beef marrow bones, cut into 2″-3″ pieces
1 lb beef brisket

8 lemongrass stalks, leafy tops discarded and fleshy part retained
1 bunch scallions, white parts only, halved lengthwise
2 T paprika
1/2 C fish sauce

1 1/2 t red pepper flakes
1 t annatto seeds and/or saffron, ground

1/4 C+ canola oil
1 C shallots, peeled and sliced
1 t fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 C lemon grass, minced
2 t shrimp paste
2 t sea salt
2 t local honey

1 package dried rice (bún) noodles

Thai basil sprigs, chopped
Cilantro leaves, chopped
Mint leaves, chopped
Green or red cabbage, thinly sliced
Lemon wedges
Lime wedges
Yellow onion, thinly sliced

Bring some water or broth to a rolling boil, and then add the oxtails, beef shank, and pork bones. Return the water to a boil and boil for 5 minutes. Drain the bones into a colander and rinse under cold running water. Rinse the pot and return the rinsed oxtails, neck bones, and shanks to the pot. Add the marrow bones and brisket.

Crush the lemongrass with the end of a heavy chef’s knofe and add it to the pot along with the scallions, paprika and fish sauce. Add 8 quarts fresh water and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat so the liquid is at a simmer and skim off any scum that rises to the surface.

After 45 minutes, ready an ice water bath, then check the brisket for doneness to ascertain whether the juices run clear. When the brisket is done, remove it from the pot (reserving the cooking liquid) and immediately submerge it in the ice water bath to cease the cooking process and give the meat a firmer texture. When the brisket is completely cool, remove from the water and pat dry. Also set aside the oxtails, beef shanks, pork shanks and beef marrow bones.

Continue to simmer the stock for another 2 hours, skimming as needed to remove any scum that forms on the surface. Remove from the heat and remove and discard the large solids. Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a large saucepan. Skim most of the fat from the surface of the stock. Return the stock to a simmer over medium heat.

In a spice grinder, grind the red pepper flakes and annatto seeds into a coarse powder. In a frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the ground red pepper flakes and annatto seeds and cook, stirring, for 10 seconds. Add the shallots, garlic, lemon grass, and shrimp paste and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes more, until the mixture is aromatic and the shallots are just beginning to soften.

Add the contents of the frying pan to the simmering stock along with the salt and honey and simmer for 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and more honey, if necessary.

Arrange the basil, cilantro, mint, cabbage, lemon and lime wedges, and onion slices on a platter and place on the table. Thinly slice the brisket against the grain. Divide the cooked noodles among warmed soup bowls, then divide the brisket slices evenly among the bowls, placing them on top of the noodles. Ladle the hot stock over the noodles and beef and serve promptly, accompanied with the platter of garnishes.

Clowns & Chickpea Soup

January 20, 2012

The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.
~Mark Twain

While on the folly of moral high grounders, just imagine that during one 24-hour spell: (1) a dropout governor and loser vice presidential candidate, who was woefully under scrutinized by her own party before “they” recklessly placing her on the ticket, ironically excoriated the country for electing the current president without properly vetting him; (2) in an embarrassing vote recount, a bigoted, right wing former senator was now declared the winner of a recent state caucus, reversing the previous results and defeating the party’s front running, perfectly coiffed mannequin candidate after all; (3) that same flip-flopping, scantily taxed, front running sycophant who has been warbling patriotic–even misinterpreting America The Beautiful–and touting good old fashioned homeland work values, has been surreptitiously shifting his funds to offshore tax havens; (4) a current governor with decidedly conservative, homophobic values has dropped out of the race and now endorsed another candidate, a former House Speaker who has repeatedly heralded the sanctity of established monogamous marriages; (5) while the second wife of this same pontificating Speaker gave a tell all interview where she revealed that this self-annointed high browed historian sought an “open marriage” with her all the while having a sordid affair with his now third wife; (6) then later that evening, the remaining pretenders suit and tied up to spew their pious demagogy onstage before raucous partisans at a national “debate.”

The stuff of statesmen and diplomats? Not even Twain or the esteemed dramatist Molière could have concocted such inane political satire. Makes me want to take a long shower, slip into some jammies, pop some popcorn, and tune into Fox “News” or CNN while humming And where are the clowns?…Send in the clowns.

Given yesterday’s lunacy and in honor of the ancient Roman orator, linguist and philosopher Cicero (from which ceci was derived), some velvety, soulful chickpea soup seemed in order. Often, solace can be found in legumes.

PASSATO DI CECI (TUSCAN CHICKPEA SOUP)

Extra virgin olive oil
1/4 lb pancetta, cut into 1/2″ lardons

1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes
Sea salt

1 lb (2 C) dried chickpeas, washed, then soaked in water overnight
2 qts chicken stock
4 sprigs fresh thyme, tied in twine
2 bay leaves
1 qt water

Extra virgin olive oil
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 sprigs rosemary, stemmed with leaves finely chopped
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 1/2 C artisanal bread, crust on, cut into 1/2″ cubes

Extra virgin olive oil
Mint leaves, chopped

Lightly coat the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven with olive oil, add the pancetta and bring to medium heat. When the pancetta starts to become crispy, add the onion, celery, carrots, garlic, crushed red pepper and season lightly with salt. Cook the vegetables until they become aromatic and begin to soften, about 6-7 minutes. Do not brown.

Drain and discard the water from the soaked chickpeas, rinse them in a colander and add to the pot. Add the chicken stock, thyme, bay leaves and 1 quart of water. Bring the liquid just to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer until the chickpeas are very soft and nearly falling apart, about 1 1/2-2 hours. Turn off the heat, season with salt and allow to rest for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, deeply coat a large skillet with olive oil, add garlic cloves, rosemary leaves, and crushed red pepper and bring to medium heat. Remove the garlic once it is golden and before it burns. Then add the cubed bread and cook until just crispy and golden. Season with salt and remove the croutons to a bowl for use later, reserving the garlic-rosemary oil.

Add the garlic-rosemary oil to the soup. Purée (in batches if necessary) the soup by pulsing in a food processor or blender. Correct the consistency, if necessary–if too thin, cook some more to reduce, or if too thick carefully add more stock. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls, drizzle very lightly with olive oil, then top with croutons and mint.

Beet, Leek & Fennel Soup

March 19, 2011

A cool, rainy weekend, and our NCAA basketball tourney brackets are freely bleeding with early round exits. So, seems an ideal day for an earthy, crimson soup.

Roasting the beets teases out their natural sugars, and the wispy green fennel fronds lightly strewn over a dollop of crème fraîche or sour cream breaks the frank red monotony.

BEET, LEEK & FENNEL SOUP

6 medium red beets
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Water

3 medium leeks, rinsed, dried and thinly sliced
1/4 t fennel seeds
2 T extra virgin olive oil
3 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, reserving fronds for garnish
1/4 C water
3 C chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 thyme sprig
1 T freshly squeezed orange juice
1 T red wine vinegar

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Fennel fronds
Crème fraîche or sour cream

Preheat oven to 400 F

Trim ends off beets and rinse. Arrange them in a baking dish, lightly drizzle the beets with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Pour a small amount of water in the dish and cover tightly with foil. Roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes to one hour, depending on the size of the beets. They are done when easily pierced with a fork. Cool, then peel beets. Cut a single beet into 1″ matchsticks for garnish and chop the remaining beets.

In a large heavy saucepan heat oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking and cook leeks with fennel seeds, stirring, until softened, about 15 minutes. Add sliced fennel and water and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until fennel is very soft, about 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in chopped beets, broth, bay leaf, thyme sprig, orange juice and red wine vinegar. Simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaf and thyme sprig. In a food processor or blender purée soup in batches, transferring it as puréed to another saucepan. Gently heat in saucepan and salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with beet matchsticks, crème fraîche or sour cream and fennel fronds.

White Bean & Sausage Soup

December 6, 2010

We’re having a heat wave,
A tropical heat wave,
The temperature’s rising,
It isn’t surprising,…

~Irving Berlin

The longest night and shortest day of the year, winter solstice, nears. It occurs when the Earth’s axial tilt is furtherest from the sun, signalling a reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days.

In Norse mythology, winter solstice was sacred to Frigga, goddess of marriage, childbirth and motherhood. (Ironically, rumors swirled that she was unfaithful to her husband, the chief deity Odin.) This night, Frigga toiled at her spinning wheel, weaving clouds and the world’s fates. So, the winter solstice is often called “Mother Night” for it was in darkness of night that Frigga tirelessly labored at her loom to bring exalted light to birth once again.

From the solstice, a celebration ensued which was dubbed Yule, from the Norse word Jul, meaning wheel. The ubiquitous christmas wreath, a symbol adapted from Frigga’s spinning wheel, reminds us of the cycle of the seasons and the continuity of life.

Here, it goes from chilly to the teens when the southerly, low-angled sun prematurely spills over the edge. I have yet to acclimate. So, time to bring on the winter comfort, and bean soup always fits the bill. These white beans are small, round, ivory legumes with a nutty, earthy flavor and chocked full of fiber and protein. A medley of vegetables, fresh herbs and mellow Italian sausages with distinctive scents of pork and anise make beloved pot, then bowl mates.

WHITE BEAN & SAUSAGE SOUP

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 lbs Italian sausage, sliced diagonally about 3/4″ thick

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 turnip, peeled and diced
1 parsnip, peeled and diced
1 onion, peeled and diced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 T tomato paste
1 t ground dried cumin
1 t dried oregano

1 1/2 lbs dried Great Northern or Cannellini beans, picked over and rinsed
6 C chicken stock
4 C cold water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 fresh thyme sprigs
2 fresh rosemary sprigs
2 fresh sage sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 T balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy stockpot or Dutch oven over medium high. Add the sausage and brown, about 5-7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel. Set aside.

Return stockpot to medium high heat and add the carrots, celery, turnip, parsnip, onion, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste, cumin and oregano and cook another 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the beans, stock, water, salt, pepper, thyme, rosemary, sage, bay leaf and balsamic vinegar. Turn the heat to high and bring to just a boil and then reduce heat to low or medium low and simmer gently until the beans are tender, about 2 hours. If necessary, add more stock and water to assure the beans remain submerged.

When the beans are al dente, return the sausage to the pot and simmer for another 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking. Ladle into bowls and serve lightly drizzled with additional balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

Potato-Leek Soup

October 15, 2009

I appreciate the potato only as a protection against famine, except for that, I know of nothing more eminently tasteless.
~Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste (1825)

Potatoes abound in food lore. These subterranean tubers were even the partial cause of a significant global migration, a diaspora of sorts. In the early 19th century, potatoes were grown extensively in northern Europe and certainly in Ireland. It was almost solely relied upon as the Emerald Isle staple owing to low production costs coupled with the country’s then undeveloped economy. In hindsight, this inflexible reliance on a somewhat singular foodstuff turned out to be a calamitous gamble.

Beginning in 1845, a pervasive blight occurred thanks to a wind born fungus, Phytophthora infestans, spawning the infamous Irish Potato Famine which destroyed most of the crop. The consequences were dire, causing widespread devastation, hunger, death and social upheaval—rancid, rotting fields in all directions. In Celtic, this disaster is referred to as an Gorta Mór meaning “the great hunger.” Some estimates have placed the numbers at 750,000 Irish dead, while hundreds of thousands emigrated to other countries, many to the United States, in search of new beginnings.

And before I forget, M. Brillat-Savarin, pillorying potatoes? Since your passing chef B-S, French cuisine has been brimming with captivating potato dishes in almost endless (and eminently tasteful) preparations: anna, dauphinois, galette, gaufrette, purée, etc. As for your assertion that potatoes serve merely as a protection against famine, well…supra? An esteemed cook you were, but you missed this call.

We have had a recent spate of November-like damp and chill which provokes yearnings for comfort soups. My youngest is a potato soup addict, which makes the stars truly aligned for bowls of this rich, creamy starch.

Make sure to clean and rinse the leeks thoroughly to rid them of sand and dirt, then slice only the white and light green parts of the stalks. Should you choose to go rustic, do not peel the potatoes, cut them in larger chunks, and do not purée the soup entirely—perhaps just loosely mash them—all of which underscores earth and texture. Should the soup be a tad thick in the later stages, simply add small amounts of stock to your liking.

POTATO-LEEK SOUP

3 thick strips bacon, sliced into 1/2″ pieces for lardons (optional)

3 T unsalted butter
3 leeks, sliced in half lengthwise, then thinly sliced crosswise
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

2 bay leaves
20 black peppercorns
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 C dry white wine
7 russet potatoes, peeled and diced
3 1/2 C chicken broth

1 C heavy cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper (white or black) to taste

2 T chopped chives

Create a bouquet garni by wrapping bay leaves, peppercorns and thyme together in a piece of cheesecloth tied with twine.

Cook bacon pieces until crisp, then drain on paper towels.

Melt butter in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat then add onions, leeks and garlic. Cook, stirring, until they are limp and just slightly brown. Discard garlic cloves before they brown.

Add the wine and bouquet garni to the pot and bring to a gentle boil. Add potatoes to pot then pour in enough chicken broth to just barely cover the potatoes. Bring to a simmer and cook until potatoes are very tender, about 30 minutes or so.

Remove the bouquet garni and, working in batches, purée the soup in a food processor or blender. Alternately, use an immersion blender, and purée the soup directly in the pot.

Add cream and lardons, stirring, and salt and black pepper to taste. Cook 5 minutes more over low heat, stirring frequently. Pour into bowls, garnish with chives and serve.

Bon appetit, Carter!

Curried Sweet Potato Soup

September 29, 2009

Softer than a lullabye
Deeper than the midnight sky
Soulful as a baby’s cry
My Sweet Potato Pie

~James Taylor

Are sweet potatoes and yams birds of a feather? The short answer is no, and a still brief answer follows.

Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) belong to the Convolvulaceae or morning glory family. This fleshy, orange root vegetable is often mislabelled as a “yam,” a name adopted from nyami, a West African word for the root of a completely different genus of plants (Dioscoreae). So, sweet potatoes and true yams are not botanically synonymous. The confusion began in the antebellum era when enslaved Africans called the softer sweet potatoes “yams” because they resembled their beloved nyami from home. By word of mouth, the vernaculars of these vegs became one. Even today, the USDA requires producers to always stencil the label “yam” with the words “sweet potato” on cartons when referring to sweet potatoes.

A sweet potato’s thin skin may be white, yellow, orange, red, or purple, and its shape may be like a potato, or more tubular with long tapered ends. There are about 400 varieties, which are grouped into two categories.

Native to Central or South America, sweet potatoes are one of the oldest vegetables known to civilization. They have been enjoyed since prehistoric times as evidenced by archaelogical digs in Peruvian caves that have uncovered sweet potato relics dating back 10,000 years.

Christopher Columbus bestowed sweet potatoes upon Europe after his first voyage to the New World in 1492. By the 16th century, they were brought to the Philippines by Spanish explorers and to Africa, India, Indonesia and southern Asia by the Portuguese. During colonial times, sweet potatoes began to be cultivated in the southern United States where they have become a culinary tradition.

This is beta-carotene in a bowl. An intensely orange soup brimming with complex flavors and chocked with nutrition—vitamin A, vitamin C and antioxidant rich.

CURRIED SWEET POTATO SOUP

2 T unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 T fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/4 C dried apricots, coarsely chopped
2-3 T curry powder

4 C vegetable or chicken stock
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed

2 T honey
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
Plain yogurt

Melt butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium high heat. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, apricots and curry powder, and sauté until soft but not browned. Add the stock and sweet potatoes, and bring to a gentle boil. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes.

Add the honey, and then purée the potato mixture in a food processor or blender in batches or use a hand immersion blender.

Return the soup to the saucepan over very low heat and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the soup into bowls, top with a scattering of cilantro and serve each with a dollop of yogurt.

Soupe Au Pistou

June 13, 2009

So, how do you grant shrift to spellbinding Provence? Note to Will: brevity is not always the soul of wit (whit).

Simply identify it as Provençal: Provença in classical norm or Prouvènço in Mistralian norm, a region of southeastern France? In a droning museum voice name it as a host to Paleolithic sites dating to 900,000 B.C? Call it home to a permanent Greek settlement called Massalia, established at modern day Marseilles in about 600 B.C. by colonists coming from Phocaea (now Foça, on the Aegean coast in modern Turkey)? Christen it the first Roman province outside of Italy? Baptize it as the “annex” of the formerly Italian Roman Catholic papacy which moved to Avignon in the 14th Century? Title it an abode to the souls of Cézanne, van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, Chagall, and Picasso? Or just not so blandly classify it as a region that comprises the départements of Var, Vaucluse, and Bouches-du-Rhône and parts of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Alpes-Maritimes?

So many missteps, so much left out. Such is the construct of a blog. But, beyond cavil or retort, Provence and Italy are viscerally intermingled. Consider something as simple as pizzas or the subtle difference between pesto vs. pistou. Sans pine nuts, they are still divinely intertwined.

Soupe au pistou is a more than memorable Provençal soup that is brimming with summer garden bounty…gifts from friends at the market. Thanks, John, et al.

Footnote:
see I am Sam, Sam I am, infra for pesto.

SOUPE AU PISTOU

1/2 C dried lima or white beans
Bouquet garni I: bay leaves, fresh sprigs of parsley, thyme, and basil twined together
3 T extra virgin olive oil
3 plump, fresh garlics, peeled and minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Pistou:
6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
Pinch of sea salt
3 C fresh basil leaves, washed
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

1/3 C extra virgin olive oil
3 medium leeks, white part only, cut lengthwise, then into thin half rings
2 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
8 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and very thinly sliced (almost shaven)

2 medium carrots, trimmed, peeled and cut into half discs
1/2 fennel bulb, finely chopped
4 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
Bouquet garni II: bay leaves, fresh sprigs of parsley, thyme, and basil twined together

2 medium zucchini, trimmed and chopped
2 tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 C diminutive pasta such as ditalini, conchigliette or acini di pepe

1 C freshly grated parmiggiano reggiano
1 C freshly grated gruyère

Rinse beans and remove any imperfections. Place the beans in a large bowl and add boiling water to cover. Set aside for 1 hour. Drain the beans.

In a large, heavy saucepan, stir together the olive oil, garlic and bouquet garni. Cook over medium heat until garlic is soft, about 2 minutes. Add the beans and stir to coat with oil and garlic. Cook an additional minute, then add 1 quart of water. Stir, then cover, bring to a simmer and cook approximately 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove and discard bouquet garni I. Set beans aside.

Meanwhile, combine garlic, salt and basil in a food processor or blender or a mortar and process in bursts to a paste. Drizzle in olive oil in a thin, continuous stream while processing. Stir to blend well. Set the pistou aside.

In a large heavy stockpot or Dutch oven, combine the leeks, onions, and garlic over low heat and cook until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally. Do not brown or burn. Add the carrots, fennel, potatoes, and bouquet garni II to the pot, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Remove and discard bouquet garni II. Now, add the beans and their cooking liquid, the zucchini and tomatoes, along with 2 quarts of water to the pot. Simmer gently, uncovered, about 20 minutes.

Add the pasta and simmer, uncovered, until the pasta is cooked, about 10 minutes. Remove and discard bouquet garni II. Stir in half of the pistou and half of the cheese.

Serve soup, passing remaining pistou and cheeses at the table.