Many years ago, when I was just starting out as someone who “likes to cook”, Pookie suggested I buy “The Daily Soup Cookbook” while we were browsing at a Barnes & Noble. She explained that Daily Soup was one of her favorite places to eat in the City, and she wanted me to make their chicken pot pie soup for her. So I bought the book, and was quickly overwhelmed by all the ingredients in it that I’d never heard of, the intimidating meatstuffs, the homemade stock, the long cooking times and dried beans. I was still on training wheels as a home cook, and most of these recipes seemed totally out of reach for me. I was intimidated by most fresh ingredients, and the only meat I ever cooked with was boneless, skinless chicken breasts, so I settled on their Chicken Barley Soup recipe and basically never looked at anything else in the book again.
Fast forward about ten years, and here I am, a bit more confident as a cook, and looking forward to a long winter making soups in my new kitchen. However, the only two soups I ever make are the aforementioned Chicken Barley one and Cook’s Illustrated’s Pasta e Fagioli, which is a soup that takes about 15 minutes to whip up. Frankly, I’m bored. So last weekend I found myself digging out my Daily Soup book… and what a revelation! None of it seemed scary at all, there were no ingredients I was afraid I couldn’t find, and if there were elements in interesting recipes that I wasn’t necessarily interested in eating, I knew how to work around them. As I raced through the pages I found myself marking nearly every recipe as one I wanted to make immediately. After a few weeks of listlessly casting about through my ever-narrowing repertoire of meals I think I’m willing to make on worknights, I was suddenly rejuvenated, and the first two soups to get the call were a Sausage, Cranberry Bean and Polenta number, and a Braised Pork Chili.
The Sausage, Cranberry Bean and Polenta soup turned out like this:
First off, yes, I had a nicer picture of this soup all plated up and garnished with sage leaves, but frankly, I love how this picture turned out. It looks like a big pot of lumpy brown goo, sort of like whatever it is the ship’s crew gets to eat in Master and Commander. All appearances aside, this soup was just insanely comfort-food delicious. I couldn’t find cranberry beans at my bobo grocery store, so I went with pinto beans, and because my bobo store is, well, bobo, I also had to buy massive amounts of sweet Italian sausage, all of which I used here (what can I say? I’m too lazy to only use one third of the coil of sausage and save the rest for a later meal). The recipe was pretty straightforward: brown up sweet and hot Italian sausage (half a pound of each, or in my case, half a pound of hot, and 1 1/2 pounds of sweet) in some olive oil, remove the sausage from the pot and then sweat up some chopped onion, celery and garlic. Then you add 8 cups of stock (I added closer to 10 or 11 because my stock is frozen in units of something between 3 and 4 cups; cooking is an exact science at IPB Manor, no?), the dried beans, some thyme and some salt and pepper, and then simmer the bejeesus out of it until the beans are soft. Then you pour in a quarter-cup of instant polenta in a stream, stir it up until it thickens, then add a bunch of chopped broccoli rabe and some fresh chopped sage. Wait, wait, you say, where’s the broccoli rabe in that picture? Heh. Right. Well, I’d left the last of our farm produce waaaaay too long in the fridge, and after we noticed the funky smell of their rottingness, Boomer took it upon herself to clean out the produce drawer. And with it went all my fresh produce for this week. I’d been waffling about adding the rabe in the first place, because I knew Pookie wasn’t going to want it, so in the end it was all for the best that the decision was made for me. (I think the soup would have been significantly better for the rabe, though. It was scrumptious, but in a very simple “Hey! It’s sausage and beans!” way. I think the greens would have given this an added complexity that would have greatly improved it as a solid meal.)
Next up was the Braised Pork Chili:
There was a bit of a delay in making this, because Boomer tossed the peppers in the Great Produce Purge. So after restocking the fridge, I was able to give this a go. I’ve never braised anything before, but after my experiences making pulled pork, at least the science of how a pork butt gets turned into tender, succulent deliciousness was not intimidating to me. This one starts out quick-soaking a pound of black beans, while simmering 3 lbs of cubed pork butt in 6 cups (or 8-ish in my case) of chicken stock (I think I was using my Thanksgiving-leftover turkey stock, but I didn’t bother really checking). Then you dump the beans into the pork and stock, along with the following chopped items: 3 onions, 2 cloves of garlic, 2 habaneros, 2 ribs of celery, 2 pickled jalapenos, 2 green bell peppers and 1 28-oz can of whole tomatoes (drained). Toss in 3 tablespoons of chili powder, 2 tablespoons of Mexican oregano, 2 tablespoons of kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground black pepper. Then cover the pot and put it in a 325-degree (F) oven for an hour. After the hour is up, remove the pot from the oven, slap it back on the stove, put in 1/4 cup (I used 1/2 cup) of bulgur, simmer for 20 minutes, then add 2 cups of corn kernels and let everything get up to a nice heat.
I opted to serve this, despite the bulgur, over brown rice, in part because I love any excuse to eat brown rice and in part because it stretches one pot to make leftover lunches for the entire week. I didn’t have any of my own chili powder on hand, but thank heavens for those freebies Penzey’s Spices includes with every order — I used some Penzey’s chili powder instead. Either the Penzey’s blend is crazy hot, or the habaneros I used, which were the size of apples and were fire-engine red, were rocket-hot, because this turned out to be a four-alarm chili. It was also insanely delicious. I was so pleased with how the pork was melt-in-your-mouth perfect, and I also loved how the addition of celery made this a tiny bit smoother than I’m used to with my regular chili recipe. There was just a bit of vegetal sweetness from it that was a nice little anchor in the flavors.
So that was my excitement from the last little stretch of cooking. I have to say, I’m a little embarrassed now to look back at myself as a 20-year-old, being too afraid to soak some dried beans or use hot peppers. This has been a good exercise for me to see really clearly how much more competent I am now after a decade of puttering around making rinky-dink dinners for Pookie and Boomer. I’ve learned quite a bit in that time, despite my belief to the contrary. In short, these soups were good for both keeping body and soul together, and for my self-esteem!