Parsnip soup (or any cold weather vegetable, for that matter)

One of my favorite things to cook and eat is soup. In cold months, it’s hot soups made of root vegetables, in the warmer months it’s cold soups with ingredients like tomatoes or peas. A lunch of soup and crusty bread is just about one of the most satisfying meals ever. And I’ve found that the soup actually improves after a day or two in the refrigerator.

Parsnip soup garnished with crispy red onions

Parsnip soup garnished with crispy red onions

Most Saturdays particularly in the fall or winter, after a morning visit to the local farmer’s market, I put a pot on for the day’s lunch. Whether it’s winter squash, sweet potato, or carrot, this basic recipe suits them all and is rife with possibilities for variation and experimentation. Vary the main ingredient with any root vegetable or squash. Vary the herb selection. Thyme is always a good choice, but so aren’t sage and rosemary (but use either sparingly) or bay or chives or parsley. Add heartier herbs at the beginning; softer herbs at the end. The recipe below doesn’t have much in the way of spices, but you can use all sorts of spices from cayenne or paprika to ginger or cinnamon depending on what you want in the end. How about Spicy Sweet Potato with cayenne and cinnamon and coriander?

Use stock. Use water. Or, as I did here, use a combination. Lastly, consider an interesting garnish. Some crunchy contrast to the smooth, blended soup is always nice. Crackers, croutons, or crispy, sauteed vegetables like your main ingredient, or mushrooms, or shallots all provide some contrast in texture.

This time out there were some good looking parsnips at the market, so it seemed like an obvious choice, as it is one of my favorites. My not-so-secret (and completely optional) ingredient here is some serrano ham (courtesy of Cheesetique, by way of a 99¢ “serrano butt”.) You can use bacon or some other smoked pork product in its place, or just leave it out entirely.

Note there’s no cream or dairy in this recipe. That doesn’t mean it isn’t creamy. The potatoes are the key. Their starch helps thicken and smooth out the soup. But, by all means, leave them out and add some cream or milk or yogurt at the end instead.

As with all of my recipes, seasoning throughout the process with salt and pepper is implied.

'Snips and onions sautéing away

'Snips and onions sautéing away

Parsnip soup

  • 1 1/2 # parsnip, diced
  • 2 c. onion, diced
  • 1/2 # potatoes, diced
  • 4-5 sprigs of thyme
  • 2 tbsp. chives, chopped
  • 3 sprigs of tarragon
  • 1/2 tbsp. butter
  • 2-3 c. chicken stock
  • 2-3 c. water
  • 2-3 tbsp. serrano ham, sliced thinly (optional)
  1. Heat a large pot over medium-low heat and add the ham, butter, and onions and cook for a couple of minutes. Then add the diced parsnips, and continue to cook for another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are soft.
  2. Add the water, stock, thyme, and potatoes, and turn the heat to high to bring just to a boil. The liquid should cover all of the vegetables by about 1/4″ – 1/2″ depending on the size of your pot.
  3. Once the soup has reached a boil, turn the heat down to low or medium-low until it is barely simmering.
  4. Simmer the soup for at least an hour, maybe even two. I use a piece of parchment paper cut to the size of the pot to cover, but you can achieve the same effect by partially covering the pot to allow some evaporation, slowly.
  5. After your soup has simmmered for a while, add the chives and tarragon, and blend with a hand-blender.
The parchment lid

The parchment lid

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… with life-changing ramen from Minca Ramen Factory

Ok. Forget everything I said last week about noodle soup. Ok, not everything. The sentiment still holds, I suppose. The places and soups I mentioned still have their merits based mostly in their convenience and comfort. But everything has kind of changed thanks to a revelatory bowl of ramen (and thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Kitchen Monkey for finding this joint) I had the other day in Alphabet City, New York, New York.

First, disregard the image that first popped in your mind when you read the word “ramen.” While I’ve had my share of revelations while enjoying a bowl of 10/$1 Top Ramen, this bears no resemblance to the college dorm-room staple. No, this is what I have to imagine is a fairly traditional Japanese ramen.

the tiny kitchen with pots of broth simmering in the background at Minca Ramen Factory

the tiny kitchen with pots of broth simmering in the background at Minca Ramen Factory

Let me try to set the scene. I’ve been in the car for 4 hours, on a drive up to New York from DC. I’m still reeling from the head cold that’s plagued me for several days now. It’s closing in on 2:30, and the only thing I’ve eaten since an early breakfast of cold spaghetti is a sack of peanut m&m’s. My fellow weary travelers and I park the car near the corner of 5th St and Avenue B and make our way to Minca Ramen Factory — a tiny hole-in-the-wall specializing in ramen. They’ve got 4 tables, a bar around the exposed kitchen, and 3-4 chefs/servers. After a first round of pork gyoza, I’m ready to approach the fairly simple menu. Pick a broth and a noodle and you’re done. I settle in on pork broth, shoyu flavor with thin noodles. Minutes later I am presented with anodyne in a bowl.

Pork gyoza

Pork gyoza

For me, the resulting bowl was on the surface pretty simple — some broth, some braised pork, some noodles, an egg, and some mushrooms. But from the moment I put spoon and chopsticks to mouth, any sense that this was a simple dish vanished. Each component of this is prepared with such care and thought, resulting in unbelievable complexity and deliciousness. When I think about each, I inevitably think, “yeah, this was the best part of it.” Then pause and think, “oh, but what about…”

Happiness is pork broth

Happiness is pork broth

The broth. Pork broth with soy sauce. The best way I can think to describe this broth is chewy. This was a substantial broth, thick and comforting and meaty tasting, but certainly still a soupy consistency. It tasted pretty clearly of pork and soy sauce. If I had only gotten a cup of this and nothing else, I probably would’ve been satisfied. At one point, I was getting towards the bottom of the bowl, and just about went face-first trying to get at the last drops of it. I have to assume this was the result of the long braising process for…

The pork. Oh lord. I guess in a pinch, I’d say this was my favorite part; but, again still debatable. On the menu it’s described as “Pork Charsu.” Some research reveals this is either belly, shoulder, or cheek (I’m guessing belly, or maybe loin, in this case) that’s slow braised in a variety of Asian flavorings. I also saw the chefs take a blow-torch to the pieces to get some char on them. To call the resulting slices (and a tip to the wise, one serving comes with just 2 slices, I’d suggest ordering extra) fall apart tender is an understatement. Upon contact with a chop stick, the slices splintered into smaller pieces that became distributed throughout the bowl, providing endless enjoyment. Again, the flavor was predominantly meaty and porky. Kind of a solid form of the broth.

Porky egg

Porky egg

And then the egg. Each bowl comes with half of a hard-boiled egg. From what I can tell, they boil and half the eggs, and then leave them to soak in soy sauce and probably some other stuff. Then submerged in the broth for as long as it was, the egg, too, was, well, porky. A couple of folks at the table ordered vegetarian, but also got the egg, so I asked if it was as porky as mine, and, alas, it was not.

Also topping the bowl were three or four varieties of fungi (“wild vegetables” reads the menu.) I would be hard-pressed to actually identify any of these, but their different flavors and textures were ideal accompaniments to the whole situation. Chewy and full of umami.

Lastly, the noodles. The menu provides a variety of choices, though with each broth selection, they recommend one or two particular choices. The options are thin, thick (not that much thicker than the thin,) wavy wheat, whole wheat, and bean. (By the way, the menu also allows you to substitute chicken for pork.) I opted for thin (one of the recommendations with the pork shoyu broth.) The noodles are just perfect. Just chewy enough. Soaking up the broth and other flavors in the bowl, but also having a distinct wheat flavor of their own. I didn’t actually see them making an noodles in the kitchen, but with the name of the place, I have to assume they are made in house.

As is often the case with me, it’s more than the food itself that factors into my enjoyment of any meal. It’s about context and circumstance, too. In this case, though, I’m pretty sure no matter what the circumstances, this bowl of ramen was one of those all-time great food experiences that I hope to recreate over and over.

… with Bibiana for lunch

Love Bibiana.
It’s quickly become my favorite lunch place, and is high on the list of places, period. I first heard about Bibiana at 12th & H NW from Metrocurean, thanks to her frequent postings of good deals around town. The usual deal at the bar during lunch is order one of five or six homemade pastas, a sorbet, and a drink (wine or italian soda) for $15. The couple of times I’ve been the portions were perfect and the pasta and sorbet were incredibly good. Each time I leave perfectly satisfied. I decided to spend the extra $5 and eat like a big boy in the dining room during their extended restaurant week.
Seated in the bright, airy dining room, I noticed one item missing from the menu that I had seen online (penne with confitted tuna) so making my choices were a little harder. I went with the polpette to start — a big veal meatball in a tomato sauce on white polenta. This was just plain awesome. The meatball was light in texture, the sauce was rich in flavor, and the polenta was soft and creamy.
Veal meatball floating in creamy white polenta

Veal meatball floating in creamy white polenta

Next up was the Agnolotti – sheep’s milk ricotta-filled agnolotti with spinach and lemon. Visually, this was a beautiful dish. The agnolotti looked like bright yellow half-ravioli sitting in a slightly lemony sweet sauce with leaves of perfectly sautéed spinach strewn about. The agnolotti were delicious and the pasta was so thin, that it lacked the usual “bite” (which I do love) of the other pastas I’ve had. This was a great, light pasta dish that I could certainly see trying to recreate at home. And, as usual, the portion was spot on.
Agnolotti

Agnolotti

For dessert, I went for the chocolate mousse which had some sort of crunchy tuille and whipped cream. Like the courses before it, this was the perfect combination of richness and lightness.
Yet again, I left Bibiana feeling perfectly satisfied.
Chocolate Mousse

Chocolate Mousse

And, given the title of this blog, it was all I could do to resist the urge to grab a lobster roll from the truck right around the corner.