Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cold Beet Soup--Nothing Cooler than That!

It has been unbelievably hot since May. Temperatures often exceed 100F. On such days there is nothing more desirable than a cold soup.

Almost each hot climate cuisine has its own cold soup for hot days. The most famous come from the countries where summer dominates any other season. We all know Spanish Gazpacho, Greek lemon chicken soup, French Vichyssoise. But not everyone would believe that there are also cold soups in a traditional Polish cookbook, although summers in Poland can often be rainy and cold.

We have our own list of cold sweet soups made from our summer fruits starting with strawberries and cherries to apples. But my favorite has always been the cold beet soup although it is more labor intensive and not sweet at all. In Polish it is called "Chlodnik" which could be translated as something like a chiller or a cooler, and it is based on beetroots, but should not be confused with another famous soup called Barszcz, which is served hot and mainly during during winter months.

Everything in this soup is about summer. All the ingredients are fresh, crispy and aromatic.

During my deck dinner parties I have served cautiously this soup to the most culinary cosmopolitan guests about three times already and, to my happy surprise, whenever the summer heat comes back to DC, my friends ask for my Chlodnik again.

The recipe is simple, but it involves a lot of chopping and two special ingredients--young beets and cucumbers is brine. Exactly for that reason I wrote about cucumbers in brine in one of my previous posts.

Beets have become very popular and many cooks experiment with them, so now they are also widely available. You just need to cut them-from roots up to leaves, into small pieces and cook. This can be messy, but some shortcuts can be made to skip these steps, which I admit I did sometimes myself.

Instead of making your own cucumbers in brine you can use Kosher Dill Pickles, which you can buy at most food stores. You can also replace the fresh beets with the canned ones.

Cold Beet Soup
1 bunch fresh beets,or 2 cans,
1 English cucumber,
4-6 small kirby cucumbers in brine,
1 bunch of radish,
1 bunch of dill,
1 bunch of spring onion,
32 oz European, or Greek yogurt,
salt, pepper.

1. If using raw beets wash them and cut off above the roots.
2. Cut the stalks up to the leaves in small pieces,about 1/4 of inch.
3. Cut beet roots in slices, then in pillars and finally into small cubes.
4. Cook all chopped parts in 4 cups of salted water. If you use canned sliced beets just cut them into small cubes (please see the photos), saving all the juice.
5. Similarly, cut radish, salted cucumbers, and fresh ones in small cubes.
6. Chop dill and spring onion.
7. In a large pot combine all the vegetables and cooked or canned beets and mix gently.
8. Add yogurt and mix again, seasoning with salt and pepper as needed.
9. Chill the soup for minimum 2 hours, but leave preferably over night in the refrigerator.
10. Serve cold with a dollop of fresh or sour cream.

Useful tip:
We serve this soup with cooked young potatoes garnished with fried onion and bacon, or simply alone. Some people also put a hard-boild egg in Chlodnik.

Peach and Ice Cream Dessert--Never Criticize Your Friends

In Switzerland I had an American friend. She was one of the most uninitiated people when it comes to cooking. Luckily, she had a Swiss boyfriend who was quite a good cook.

Although absolutely untalented in the kitchen my friend was always claiming that desserts were her domain. This was also supposed to absolve her from the aversion she felt for ordinary cooking. I had always been anxious to try her famous desserts, imagining what an extraordinary creation my palate would be honored to try.

Finally, the moment came. I got invited over to their place for dinner. The whole event was very memorable. I ate for the first time in my life spaghetti with pesto made of fresh basil. It was excellent and it has instantly become a permanent fixture in my cooking repertoire. It is now also one of my kids' favourite pasta dishes.

It was after midnight and several glasses of wine later, when my friend disappeared in the kitchen to crown that simple but a very nice dinner with a dessert of her production. She came back shortly afterwards carrying a box of Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream and a box of fresh raspberries. With all due ceremony she put two scoops of ice creams in each bowl, topped them with a few raspberries and served with pride and joy on her face. All her creativity went into deciding which ice cream flavor and what fruits to chose.

It is absolutely fine to serve something so simple and easy, especially if we prepare the whole dinner, but I hope you agree with me that ice cream with fruits is not really something that an aspiring master of desserts would be particularly proud of. Having said that, I will now offer something that includes ice cream and fruits, but is disctinctly more sophisticated in apperance and taste. It is perfect for a July barbecue, especially that peaches are right now at their peak.

Peach and Ice Cream Dessert with Red Pepper

6 peaches, or one per person, ripe but not too soft,
2 tbsps butter,
2 tbsp sugar,
2 tbsps of rose water, which can be replaced with sweet wine, port, or any liqueur.
12 scoops of vanilla ice creams,
10 grains of red pepper, roughly ground,
fresh mint to decorate.

1. Preheat oven to 375F.
2. Cut peaches in halves and remove stones.
3. Place them in a baking pan "face down".
4. Add butter, sugar, and rose water.
5. Bake for 20 minutes.
6. Take the peaches from the oven, let them cool down somewhat.
7. Arrange peaches on dessert plates "face up" with their own sauce.
8. Put a scoop of ice cream on top of each half peach.
9. Finish with a pinch of red pepper on top of ice cream, decorate with mint and serve immediately. Add biscuits if you wish so.

The same peaches can be made on a grill. I would then marinate them in all the ingredients and serve following the same recipe with ice cream, pepper, and mint. This dessert is delicious in taste and mouth wetting in its look.

A Refrigerator Disaster and a Bell Pepper Tart that Came Out of It

My spare refrigerator broke down and it was full. After I came back from vacation I went for an enormous food shopping and stuffed the refrigerator for a long weekend and a hot week ahead.

When I went down to the basement on Monday, to take out some vegetables from the refrigerator, I noticed that, instead of a cooling draft, it was producing a warm breeze. Exactly opposite of what it was designed for.

I tried to save whatever I could. I transfered all the perishables into my kitchen refrigerator. But I still had a lot of leftovers from the night before when our neighbors came for dinner plus a lot of vegetables I bought for the upcoming week.

There was only one solution to save as much food as possible--throw another dinner party.

I made two salads, served the leftover eggplants from the previous night, made a bell pepper tart, pork tenderloins with herb stuffing, and baby potatoes with green beans. I also made two desserts to use all the heavy whipping cream I had.

I got excellent reviews for the eggplants again. Our guests also liked the bell pepper tart and the vegetables which I prepared at the last moment to save two bags of frozen French green beans.

I will share all these recipes in the coming posts, since they have already been tested and approved. Today, I begin by posting my bell pepper tart recipe.

Bell Pepper Tart

Pastry crust
One large crust (about 11 inches) or 6-8 small ones

2 1/2 cup unbleached flour,
1 stick of chilled unsalted butter (1/2 cup),
1 stick (or 1/2 cup) of vegetable shortening--look for the one without trans fats,
1/2 tsp sugar,
1/2 tsp salt,
3-5 tbsps iced water,
1 tbsp roasted sesame seeds, optional.

1. Cut butter and shortening into smaller pieces and put them in a food processor.
2. Add flour, salt, sugar, and sesame seeds if used.
3. Using the "on/off" turns process all the ingredients until the mixture resembles chunky breadcrumbs.
4. Add 3-5 tbsps of chilled water and process the mix to the point when crumbs turn into a smooth dough.
5. Chill the dough in a refrigerator for at least an hour.
6. Take the dough from the refrigerator, roll out with a pin to an appropriate size, and put on a buttered tart form.

Tart filling

3 bell peppers, different colors--red, yellow, and orange together look best,
1 large yellow onion,
3 eggs,
1 1/2 cup ricotta cheese,
1 tbsp fresh thyme,
1/4 tsp salt and pepper to taste,
3 tbsps olive oil.

1. Peel onion, cut in half, slice.
2. Cut peppers in halves, remove seeds, slice.
3. Heat the oil and fry onion with pepper until onion becomes transparent and pepper softens.
4. Cool down the vegetables a little bit.
5. Mix ricotta cheese with eggs, season with thyme, add salt and pepper and fold in the fried peppers and onions.
6. Preheat oven to 375F.
7. Poke the bottom of the crust with a fork (to prevent bubbles forming) and bake until hard, but still not gold, for about 15-20 minutes.
8. Take out from the oven, put in the filling and continue baking until the crust turns gold and cheese is set, for about 30 minutes.
9. Cool down slightly, cut, and serve with green salad.

Useful tips:

This crust can also be made with fingers. First, chop butter, shortening, and flour with a knife into small pieces, then make dough with hands by adding iced water.

Longer chilling helps crust to become shorter--crust can be made even a couple of days ahead.
I usually chill it for at least half an hour, then put it on a tart shell, as this makes it is easier to work with it, and chill it again until I need it or freeze for a later use.

Arugula salad with lemon and walnut oil compliments this dish perfectly. But you could also serve it with any mixed salad with balsamic vinegar and mustard dressing.