Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cooking soothing, happy food for ailing people


Tomorrow at 6am, barring too much snow in NYC, I fly home to NY to help my Mom when she gets her shoulder operated on.  I was thinking of what to make and freeze for my parents during the time in the next few weeks while Mom Hennessey  is recuperating.  Suddenly I remembered that last time my mom was operated on, probably 20 years ago, and all she craved before and after the operation was swiss chard, which was in season at the time.  I was going through a trendy cooking phase and chards of all kind were "de rigeur" if you had any credentials in trend cooking.  So, I made her a bit pot of chard and white bean soup, complete with anchovy paste.  My mother hates anchovies, but she never knew it was in there until I told her.  She promptly got ill, thinking that she had eaten those "little hairy fish"!  But, I made it several times and she never questioned the ingredients again.  I also made a swiss chard streudel that was wonderful which I have posted previously on this blog!

Over the years, I have found myself coming back to that basic recipe when people are ailing and their appetites need a little coaxing.  Recently my very good friend and her husband lost their baby during a pregnancy and they were devastated.  I did all I could, the mamma in me wanted to take the hurt away, but all I did was listen, hold hands, be there and nourish her through this devastating time.  Once they were home from the hospital, I immediately ran to grab the ingredients for this soup, with a few tweaks.  They loved it, and in their grief, they didn't have to think about what to eat.  That to me is the real joy of being able to cook, and even more importantly cook for people you love.  You nourish and care for them, through good times and bad, and you make sure they will be ok, with even a simple dish of soup!

The version I am giving you below can be tweaked in many ways, but the basis is still delicious, filling and so soothing.  I call this a Swiss chard soup, but cavolo negro (a dark, beefy Italian kale) or any good dark bitter kale or green would work.  I can not be too pushy about this one, the chard must be washed very, very well.  It is very sandy and it will really ruin the soup.  I don't recommend spinach, because after a while the leaves fall apart and turn to mush, not good for a soup of this type.  The chard is great because the leaves really stand up to cooking, but become soft and easy to slurp, and the stems get lovely and tender after you cook them, but still retain some bite.  Another important note is that you use good quality chicken stock, or vegetable stock.  It's one of the main flavors of the soup so good quality makes a huge difference.  Now, the basic recipe only calls for chard and white beans, but below I am adding in tortellini.  You can add cooked rice, brown rice would be yummy, couscous, barley, pastina, lots of other tiny pasta's or starches, or none at all.  This one is all about a classic Tuscan recipe that you can make your own!

Swiss Chard, White Bean and Tortellini  soup

3 tbsp. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly or use a garlic press
1 large bunch of Swiss chard, washed well, stems chopped and set aside, leaves cut into strips

6 - 8 cups of good quality low sodium chicken broth (or vegetable stock or water)
2 12 oz cans of cooked white beans, drained and rinsed well
1 package of fresh cheese tortellini

Optional: Parmesan rinds 1/2 cup grated Parmesan

Saute the olive oil, garlic and chopped stems from the chard in a thick bottomed soup pot on low to medium heat.  Optionally, you can add in some dried chili flakes, if you like it spicy.  Add salt and pepper to taste, go easy on the salt, the broth tends to be salty, even the low sodium ones.  Cover and cook the mixture for 5 - 7 min or until the stems are softened.  Add in the shredded Swiss chard and saute until wilted.  Taste a strand to see if seasoning needs to be corrected.  Add the shredded chard and saute until wilted.

Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil and let it simmer for 7 - 8 min.  Add in the beans and let the soup simmer for 20 min, covered.

I usually serve this with some toasted sourdough bread rubbed with olive oil and a garlic clove, but you don't have to do that.  The optional Parmesan rinds can be added once you add the broth.  If you do add them, add about 20 more minutes to the cooking time, then remove and discard the husks when you are ready to serve.

Another optional item is a good grating of Parmesan over the bowl and a drizzle of good olive oil.

Enjoy! I hope you will show someone your love with this dish!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Hello New Year!

I am ashamed that I haven't written here in several months, but I do have some very good excuses.  A bout of diverticulitis, a broken bone in my foot that I didn't know I had, a huge Thanksgiving at our house, and a wonderful drive out, but fraught with snow drive back from New York for Christmas.  In summary, things have been BUSY!

I did however, do quite a bit of cooking over the holidays and the few months before.  I found and modified a great recipe for shortbread that includes rosemary, which was delicious.  I made a family recipe for Irish Christmas cake, which I will not give away, but I was quite impressed with my modifications.  No raisins, so I ended up using all the dried fruit I had in the house, I had no whiskey so I used bourbon, and, I can not believe I am saying this, Tim didn't have any stout in the house, so I used a delicious and very dark beer he had in the back of the fridge.  It turned out wonderful, and I even had time to age it and bring it to our Christmas at my parents house in NY. 

I have been thinking and thinking about what the heck I was going to share with the blogosphere.  What I suddenly remembered was the brunch we had the weekend before Christmas at our house.  My friend David was in town from California, and staying at our friends Melinda and Keith's house.  So, they came to us for brunch.  I made a feta dip, and had a lovely cheese platter, but what saved the day was the mini crustless quiches that I made.  David, as it turns out has celiac disease, so pretty much everything I made had gluten, except the quiches.  Thank goodness, he loved them, and could eat them!  As always, you can substitute just about any cheese or filling.  I also made them in jumbo, non-stick muffin tins.  However, buttering them well is essential, so don't skip that step.

Brunchtime Mini-quiches

6 jumbo (room temperature) eggs
1 cup half and half, or milk, or cream or any combination of the above (I used half and half and creme fraiche)
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 cup cheese (I used shredded Jarlsberg, but cheddar or goat or any other are fine)
1.5 cups sauteed spinach

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees
Evenly divide the cheese and spinach between the muffin tins.  Some people put the cheese in the bottom of the cup so it forms a sort of crust.  I didn't worry about the order.  People also have used ham and lined the cup with that... also a little too much prinking for me.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, dairy and salt, pepper and cayenne until they are well combined and you can't see any more eggwhites.  With a ladle, fill the muffin tins to just below the rim.  You should have just enough eggs to fill 6 jumbo tins.  I wouldn't recommend a smaller size, they will cook and dry out too quickly.  You can also use individual ramekins, I think the capacity is 1.5 cups.  Put the tin on a baking sheet, and bake in the oven for 20 - 25 minutes.  You will know when they are done when the tops are very puffed up and browning.  They may have some jiggle in the middle, but they should not be liquid in the middle.

Now, these will loose their puffiness fairly quickly after coming out of the oven, a bit like little souffles.  The key to unmolding them is running a flexible spatula around the sides of the tins, so they won't stick.  Place them on a plate and enjoy!

Let me know how they come out!