Week 27: Mediterranean Garlic Soup

I think it’s a little weird how people are so afraid of garlic. The smell of it makes me think, wow, that person must love to cook. As a kid growing up in Labrador we used a lot of garlic powder, but I never cooked with the real thing until I was a teenager. I was obsessed with “Wok with Yan” and mom had one of his cookbooks. I spent hours looking at the photos, marvelling at how one man could make swans out of apples and a palm tree out of a carrot and a green pepper. I can’t remember what the recipe was, but when I did finally work up the nerve (Yan would totally say “wok up the nerve”) to try one of them, it called for a few cloves of garlic. Mom and I managed to dig out a head at the local Lo-Lo Foods, but when we got it home, we weren’t too sure what to do with it. My mother has since become a curry master and cooks the meanest Thai pork tenderloin you will ever eat, but at the time, we were both young and afraid of this bulb that we were used to seeing in powder form. We persevered, and our lives were changed forever. I’m a little obsessed with the stuff now, roasting heads of it to put in mashed potaoes, hamburger meat, or just to spread on freshly baked bread. I still haven’t learned to make a swan out of an apple, or make a Thai pork tenderloin, but I would like to thank Stephen Yan and my mother, for making me love food as much as I do.

Dear Chicken: Please stop telling food stories from your childhood and get on with the recipe. Right, so I found this one in my “Essential Mediterranean Cookbook”. Like I’ve mentioned before, this book was brought to Cow Head for the summer and it’s been taking a beating, that’s for sure. This recipe, simply titled “Garlic Soup” isn’t even listed as a real recipe, it’s just a sidenote, sandwiched between the fougasse and the walnut bread. After trying it, I feel a letter to the publisher is in order, demanding a reprint and a picture of the soup on the front cover of the book. The simplest, tastiest soup I have ever made. I want a huge pot of this to sit on my stove during the flu season in St. John’s this winter. As it turns out when I made my first batch it was a cold, miserable summer day here in Cow Head and my roommate Karen had the flu, so it worked out in the end.

Garlic Soup

(The Essential Mediterranean Cookbook, Bay Books, 2005)

The after-effects of the garlic in this soup are at a minimum because the garlic is boiled. In the Mediterranean, this soup is considered good for the health. Crush the cloves (about 20) from a whole bulb of garlic, using the side of a knife. Discard the skin and place the garlic in a large pan with 2 sprigs of thyme, 1 litre chicken stock and 1 cup (250 ml/8 fl oz) water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes,

Strain through a fine sieve into a clean pan. Add 1/3 cup (80 ml/2 3/4 fl oz) cream and reheat gently without allowing to boil. Season, to taste.

Preheat the oven to moderate 180 C (350 F/Gas 4). Trim and discard the crusts from 4 thick slices of white bread and cut the bread into bite-sized cubes. Spread on a baking tray and bake for 5-10 minutes, until lightly golden.

Distribute among soup bowls, then pour the soup over the bread. Garnish with extra thyme and serve immediately. Serves 4.

If you try to “serve four” you will fail miserably. I’ve made this soup twice in the past couple of weeks and it will not serve four. It will give four people a taste, and leave them wanting more. I suggest making a double batch for three to four people, which will give everyone second and third helpings. I liked the bread…and I was lucky because it just so happened that my two roommates were on a bread-making kick that week and we had a loaf of white and a loaf of whole wheat kicking around the kitchen that I used for the “croutons”.  Just be sure to toast them well so they don’t get too soggy. Not a huge problem, but some people have issues with that, with textures, blah blah. I wouldn’t hesitate to make this soup for the fanciest of dinner parties. I also wouldn’t hesitate to make a huge batch of it to sit on the stove in January, when Christmas has wiped everyone out and you just need something nourishing that’s not full of booze and cheese.  The bread is a nice touch but I think it could work with no bread, just as a broth.  Curled up on the sofa, to go with an episode of Dexter.   So simple and tasty it will shock you. I can’t believe I just wrote that.  It sounds like a cheesy movie review.  But it’s true! You have to try this soup! Put this recipe in the back of your brain and haul it out when you’re sick or bored or want to impress people with your ninja garlic skills. But whatever the case, your guests and your immune system will thank you for it.

Halfway There: Tandoori Wings with Lime Mint Mayo

26 weeks of new recipes and finally, a barbecue. I was pretty pleased with myself when I bought a lime green portable charcoal grill for twenty bucks at Canadian Tire in Corner Brook. We have a great backyard in Cow Head…no deck but a little green space with a gorgeous view and sun in the evenings, when there’s no horizontal rain. No room for a big fancy propane contraption, which is just as well because a friend told me a story once about lighting one and singeing her eyebrows and ever since then I’ve been a little hesitant.

Wings! You can get them here, frozen, but pretty good and pretty cheap. Our friend Nell from England had been over for a visit and brought gifts of spices. Indian spices from specialty shops and not the Bulk Barn in Corner Brook. Nothing against Bulk Barn, it’s saved me more than once, but they say the best place to eat Indian food outside India is England, so I accepted the spices from the “Motherland” (as Nell likes to call it) with glee. Yes, that’s right. With glee. Didi broke out her homemade yogurt maker (yep) and the little red chicken and friends decided to christen the little green grill with tandoori wings.

I’d never made tandoori in my life, so I was sort of flying by the seat of my pants. I let the wings thaw out for a couple of hours and poked around in the fridge to see what I could come up with. Didi had made four little pots of yogurt, not quite enough for the marinade, but I found some sour cream to fill in for the missing yogurt. The instructions on the packet of tandoori spice said “Concentrated product. Dilute with 19 parts of natural yogurt to 1 part barbecue ground spice.” Easy enough. Turns out there were about sixteen heaping tablespoons of yogurt, so after adding three more tablespoons of sour cream and one tablespoon of the spice, I was good to go. The list of ingredients on the spice packet was a long one…I probably could have made a homemade tandoori mix, but between the spices being rationed for the rest of the summer and the lack of fenugreek and cardamoms down at the liquor store, I tore open the package and felt no guilt about it. I wondered about the inclusion of “permitted colour E124 and E102” and the warning that the packet was “to be used as a cooking ingredient only” but forged ahead anyways. I sprinkled the wings with the juice from a lime, threw in the yogurt/sour cream and spices, mixed everything to let it marinate, and left for work.

Home a few hours later, time to set up the barbecue. My sister and brother-in-law were in town and I had invited them up, breezily saying “I’m going to throw some tandoori wings on the grill, no big deal.” The lime green barbecue had been sitting in a box in the living room for a couple of weeks. I was confident that it was one of those things you could take out and light on fire, no questions asked. I poured myself a beer, and opened the box. I wasn’t alarmed when the box itself took ten minutes to open, but panic did set in when a five page instruction booklet fell on my lap, along with a pack of nuts and bolts with labels like A, B, E, E1, F2. Shit. Now, I have learned to open the hood of my car and put in power steering fluid every three days whether Lucy needs it or not, but this was too much. I made a few lame monkey attempts at assembling the thing, but luckily Jade and Trevor showed up ten minutes later. I greeted Trevor with a “Hey, you’re a handy guy. Put this together. I’ll get you a beer.” Two minutes later it was done. I thanked the gods of matchmaking that Jade had married a guy who could put together twenty dollar barbecues, and went outside to set it on fire.

No one really uses charcoal anymore. A bit of a shame really, because there’s really nothing like it. As convenient as propane is, everything just tastes better over hot coals. That was the thought going through my head as Didi and I tried to light our pile of “no lighter fluid needed” charcoal. It was windy and it took a few tries, but up she went and we waited for everything to turn ashy white and hot. And then for some reason, we put the cover on, thinking maybe that we’d protect the little fire from the wind, not noticing that the vent on the cover was closed. I remembered something vaguely about “fire needing oxygen” and when I went out with the plate of wings, the coals were close to dead. I swore, cursed my caveman smugness, and wished for a deck and a big propane barbecue.

I thought I was pretty great for buying my first barbecue, not thinking I would need the rest of the cooking gear and cursed again as I tried to stick a fork through the metal grill to poke the coals back to life. Put the wings on, and the cover on (with the vent open this time), hoped for the best and went inside to make the mayo.

I’d like to say that I made my own homemade mayonnaise, but I didn’t have it in me after the barbecue fiasco. I say that like I do it all the time. I’ve never done it, but it’s on the list. Right up there with homemade croissants. For wing night it was a couple of tablespoons of Hellman’s, the juice from half a lime, and some chopped fresh wild mint from Didi’s garden. At least we think it’s mint. It tastes like mint and it hasn’t killed us yet. If it’s a weed that tastes like mint, fine. It beats a two hour drive to the Corner Brook Dominion every time you want a mojito.

Mayo done, time to check the wings. Coals dead again, threw the cover in the grass and yelled “What’s the frigging POINT?!” Another poke at the coals, turned the wings over and waited. An hour or so later I convinced myself that they had to be done, what with a nice, slow burning coal heat and all. I brought the plate inside, warning everyone to check first, I wasn’t sure if they were done. I told Didi to take the biggest wing to see if it was cooked all the way through. She’s brave like that, whereas I’m the person who has to smell three day old ham in the fridge.

PInk! A lovely colour for birthday cake icing, not so much for chicken. Oven on 425, wings thrown in. Including a half eaten one from Jade who made it clear that she’d be pretty pissed if I ruined her vacation with a case of salmonella. I told her to shut up and drink her wine, that it would kill any germs. I stayed in the kitchen, staring at the wings in the oven until they were ready. I wondered if I’d have to change the name of my blog to “the little red salmonella chicken.”

The wings were gone in five minutes and no one seemed too worried about the underdone chicken episode. Tandoori wings, yes. Love. Lime mint mayo, love love. I think I might try sour cream next time, might be a better match. Perhaps hot coals will help as well. Or a propane barbecue.

Potato-Berry Clouds

So here’s something that has changed the way I’ll make potatoes for the rest of my life. I’m a little ashamed to say that I’ve been eating these things here in Cow Head since 1999 and have never attempted them myself. Now it’s like I’ve wasted twelve years of crispy, buttery, fluffy potato goodness, so you know, I have some catching up to do. I owe it all to my dear friend and university roommate Sandy, who’s from Cow Head and, lucky for me, home for the summer with her brand new baby. I went to her place for Sunday dinner a while back and there was a pile of potato cakes on the table…an addition to Jiggs dinner I’d never seen until I started working in Cow Head years ago. I’ve asked both my nans (one from three hours south of here in Robinsons and one from Pound Cove in Bonavista North) about potato cakes and they both say they’ve never heard of them. Sandy says her mom (from forty minutes down the road in Rocky Harbour) never made them until she came to Cow Head and learned how from her mother-in-law. So I can only conclude they are a Cow Head specialty. There must be a Jiggs dinner potato equivalent somewhere in Newfoundland or Labrador, but for now I’ll just cross my fingers that no one in Cow Head is mortally offended but what I did to my first batch.

Before I go any further (because I know you’re reading this thinking, little red chicken, how did the common potato change your life that day?), I have to put this out there now. Mashed potatoes with flour. Sounds simple enough, but pat it down in a greased pan and bake it with few dollops of butter (or margarine, or bacon, or fatback) and then see what happens. Potato magic. That’s what happens.

Sandy’s potato cakes are excellent…she bakes them in a muffin tin (another Cow Head first for me) so what you end up with are little fluffy potato Yorkshire pudding cupcake-type things. Potatoes, Yorkshire puddings and cupcakes being a few of my favourite things, I knew I needed to have a crack at these, and it needed to happen soon. Like, the next day. I borrowed Sandy’s muffin tin, picked up a frozen chicken and a sack of spuds on the way home and thought about the best batch of mashed potatoes I’ve ever made. And now I knew how to make cupcakes out of them. Life would never be the same.

Monday. A sunny day getting ready to turn into a disaster. A crowd coming for a late supper with the warning that they were in for a pretty big experiment so an open mind and a bottle of wine were the prerequisites. I was roasting a chicken with garlic and vermouth gravy again, but the mashed potatoes this time around were getting a makeover.

I was going to go with roasted garlic and sour cream in the mash until Didi suggested berries. I looked at her like she’d had one too many Monday beers. “They do it at the Norseman. Put blueberries in their mashed potatoes.” The Norseman is in L’Anse aux Meadows and supposedly the best restaurant on the coast…I’ve never been but I’ve heard nothing but fantastic things about it. I’d had just enough Monday beers to try anything and we had a bag of last year’s marshberries in the freezer so in that instant, the potato cake experiment got a little more dangerous. These things were going to be amazing. Or taste like shit. There would be no in between.

Our friend Adrian had given us the marshberries a couple of days earlier and Didi had used most of them to make a cottage pudding. They’re like partridgeberries Adrian says, but different. And harder to find. But their colour is similar, like little pink-red jewels, and they’re just as tart. I didn’t know how they would go over in the potato cakes without sugar to mellow them out a bit. I hoped the roasted garlic would do the job. Fingers crossed, dumped them in.

Here’s where we are so far. A dozen potatoes. Medium to largish size. Boiled and mashed with salt and pepper, butter, sour cream, and a head of roasted garlic. Butter, a good heaping tablespoon or more and the same for the sour cream. Maybe two tablespoons of sour cream. A couple of handfuls of frozen marshberries. However you make your regular mashed potatoes, go for it. Sandy had told me to put in enough flour to make it a little doughy, but not too doughy…I put in a third of a cup, maybe a little more. I knew the potatoes would bake on their own nicely so I figured less was more in this case. The berries went in at the last minute and still frozen, so their colour wouldn’t run into the potatoes. That wouldn’t have been a big deal, but I was really going for the aesthetic here. I figured if I told my guests I was putting berries in their potatoes, they had better look good. Greased the muffin tin, carefully put in the potato “batter”, shaped them into the cups with a little dollop of butter on each. They sure looked pretty so far.

The rest is a blur. Chicken, gravy, company, nothing ready, chicken overcooked, garlic burnt, gravy too vermouthy, would it actually get people maybe a little drunk? Was that a terribly bad thing to do? Potato cakes baking at 375 or so, maybe ten minutes, maybe fifteen. It may have been more like twenty.

Golden, crispy, marshberry-speckled fluffy potato clouds. Potato-berry clouds. With roast chicken and garlicky vermouth gravy.

Week 25…perfect. The berries in my freezer now have a loving home forever. Berries or no, take your favourite mashed potato recipe, throw in some flour, grease up a pan or a muffin tin and make these cakes. No one will be disappointed. Unless you don’t make a double batch. There’s a potato promise.