I have to say “WOW.” I know it is a boring exclamatory word for “this was amazing or wonderful or awesome,” but if you say it really loud, it begins to paint the picture of last night’s dinner.
Two friends, Lori and Tom (and their dogs!) were coming to dinner and I was looking forward to getting into the kitchen to cook something great for them. Having friends over changes the usual evening dramatically….firstly, it is an excuse to clean up a weeks worth of mess in the house. Secondly, it encourages me to cook something that requires a little more effort and imagination, and, lastly, when you have dinner guests you linger over the meal and the whole evening becomes an event, a social occasion, set apart from the hum-drum of the rest of the week.
Unless I am preparing for some grand holiday where lots of people are coming to my house to eat, I don’t plan what I am going to cook in advance. I like to ponder over all sorts of possibilities just for the pleasure of it, but I usually come up with my menu not long before I have to dash to the supermarket for any or all my ingredients.
This time I happen to have lots of vegetables in the fridge and pantry and one of the people coming was vegetarian? I decided on a big pot of vegetable soup. I wanted it to feel peasant-y and hearty. The Italians have no end of variations on their Minestrone soup so, keeping Italy in mind as a guide I chopped no end of vegetables and had a massive pot simmering on the stove just before they arrived. My one confession is that while I totally respect the vegetarian decision Lori has made I did something completely awful and decided to add bacon to the soup! Why? Well, I also wanted this to be good and I just couldn’t compromise on flavor. I knew she would be fine about it “for one night” and anyway I told her if she didn’t eat it on principle she would be gravely insulting the cook. After a few glasses of wine when I told her I might be making goat for Easter it seemed like there wouldn’t be any huge objections!
I should had been content with just the soup, but no, I wanted more! My kids for the past few weeks have been asking for Cornish hens of all things? I think they may have been having little day-dreams of being presented with their very own miniture whole roasted bird on a silver platter? They love the ceremonious look of a whole chicken on a big plate surrounded by syrupy vegetables and they wanted the same, only Lilliputian style!
I did end up roasting some Cornish hens and had planned to put them on the side, but it worked out much better to cut the hen in half after it was cooked and lay it reverently on top of the soup for whomever wanted it (that was where Lori drew the line!).
To end the meal Tom made a very wacky bread topped with ice cream which he got from his latest Saveur magazine. It is popular in Singapore and is called an Ice Cream Loti. It was so festive and a very fitting end to a very lovely evening at the Crappy Kitchen..
For Italian Country Soup: 1 sweet onion, diced, 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped, 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped, 1/2 lb bacon, cut into 1′ pieces, 2 large potatoes, washed & diced, 3 large carrots, peeled and sliced, 3 ribs celery, sliced, including green parts, 2 yellow squash or zucchini, thickly sliced, 4 plum tomatoes, peeled and diced, (I used canned plum tomatoes, did not have to peel), 1 small cabbage, chopped (I used a savoy cabbage), 1 cup basmati rice, 1 14 oz can cannellini beans, 1 vegetable bouillon cube (use a good quality brand), coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper.
1 – Take big soup pot and set on low/medium heat. Add bacon and wait for it to release some of it’s fat (about 2 minutes) before adding the garlic, onion and parsley. Cook for 5 minutes until onion softens.
2 – Add the rest of the ingredients (including the bouillon cube) except the rice, cabbage and zucchini. Add 14 cups of water. Let it come to a boil, after which, turn heat down to low keeping soup at a simmer. Add 2 tsp salt and a few good grinds of pepper. Cover and cook for 30 minutes.
3 – Add zucchini and cook for a further 15 minutes before adding the cabbage. Cook for another 15 minutes then, add the rice. Cover and let it simmer until rice has cooked – about 15 minutes (make sure not to over cook – the rice will continue to cook after you take soup off heat.
4 – Take off heat and taste for further seasoning. Cover and let flavors meld for 10 minutes before serving with bread or with 1/2 a Cornish hen (recipe follows)
Preheat oven 400*
Cornish Hen Recipe: 4 Cornish Hens, washed & dried, 3 sprigs fresh thyme, left whole, 1 shallot, diced, 1 small rib celery, diced, 1 fresh bay leaf, 4 tbs fresh parsley, roughly chopped, 2 tbs unsalted butter, 1 cup white wine, 1/4 cup water, 2 tbs olive oil, coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper for seasoning.
1 – Cut butter into 4 pieces and along with 1 tbs of butter and stuff each bird with parsley and butter mixture.
2 – Put all vegetables into bottom of big pan or roasting dish and place birds on top. Add the liquids and sprinkle olive oil over skin of birds and rub all over with hands. Season birds with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and place in oven.
3 – After 40 minutes take out and baste birds. Return to oven for another 20 minutes or until the hens are cooked (juices should run clear if pierced where the leg is attached to the body)
4 – Remove hens to a plate and cover with foil for 10 minutes (allows juices to settle) Strain broth and freeze for a later use (when it is cold put into plastic bag or freezer proof container).
When soup is ladled into bowls, cut the hens in half and place one in each bowl.
For garnish: I mixed some sour cream with chili garlic sauce to dollop onto soup. Also pass some freshly chopped sweet basil and bread.