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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Basic Potato Soup with Lots of Variations



Part of my family and I were enjoying a pre-Valentine's day simple supper of soup and bread, with the Chocolate Cherry Cookies I had made for the holiday. I mentioned that, if the cookies passed their taste test panel, I'd be putting them on this blog. Misunderstanding which part of the menu would be added, my ten year old grandson enthusiastically said, oh yeah, this soup is awesome, you have to share it.

So, I tried to explain why I haven't included too many soups, that so much of soup making is just a matter of starting with some basics and then continuing to add this and that until the flavor is what you want.

But then I was reminded that The New York Times has recently been emphasizing this kind of approach with their Wednesday Cooking email newsletter, featuring no-recipe meals for the middle of the week. Somewhat coincidentally, the Times also included an article this weekend on the variability of measuring standards over time, "A Measured Approach to Cooking."

Maybe it is time to post a basic "recipe." Potato soup is a great meal to fall back on when the wind is blowing the thermometer down to below zero windchills, so I decided to play test kitchen. I began carefully measuring as I cooked up yet another batch. The result of all that measuring is the recipe below, but you will see lots of notes and variations at the end. What I have attempted to do is provide a guide, a starting point, for soup that will match your own preferences and pantry supplies.

You will note that this makes a large amount of soup, one you may think is totally improbable for you and yours to finish before tiring of it. While that could be true, you may be surprised to discover just how many times everyone will go back to the stove to refill their soup mugs or bowls, and a container of the leftover soup will keep in the refrigerator for almost a week, ready for grabbing a serving to heat in the microwave for a fast late dinner, even midnight snack, or for packing to take to the office for lunch. If, however, you don't have pans big enough or if you are sure you want to make less, the recipe is easily halved.

One last note: While I don't generally worry about keeeping my cooking gluten free, this recipe, and most of the variations, will work for those who definitely need to stay away from gluten. The potatoes provide all the thickening needed to make really creamy soups.



Creamy Potato Soup

(For the various vegetables, I have included several different measures to help you have a guide to amounts. However, feel free to adjust as you like.)

1/4 to 1/3 c canola oil
1 large or 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped (13 oz. or about 2 1/2 c)
4 stalks celery, diced (8 oz or about 1 1/4 c)
3 lb potatoes, cut into about 1 inch cubes (approximately 8 c)--I had a mixture of white, red, and russet potatoes for this batch
1/4 c chicken or vegetable bouillon powder OR 4 to 5 bouillon cubes
approximately 2 1/2 quarts water
12 to 16 oz pureed butternut squash (about 1 1/2 to 2 c)--if frozen, no need to thaw
3 oz chopped fresh spinach (app 2 c after chopping)
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced (I used bottled minced garlic today)
1 t dried basil
1 t dried oregano
1 t black pepper
1 12 oz can evaporated milk, either fat free or "regular"
1 to 1 1/2 c nonfat dried milk powder
4 oz processed cheese (like Velveeta in the rectangular yellow box)

1.  Pour enough canola oil into a large pot to just cover the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and celery and saute over medium high heat until the onions just start browning and the celery is slightly tender.
2.  Meanwhile, scrub the potatoes, cut out any spots and eyes, but do not peel. Dice into approximately one to two inch cubes. Add to the onions along with about 2 quarts of water and bouillon powder. Cover the pan and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes, until the potatoes are very soft.
3.  If desired, use a potato masher to break up most of the chunks of potato. (An immersion blender can also be used for this.) Be sure to do this before adding the spinach, to avoid ending up with a kind of murky green colored soup!
4.  Stir in the squash, spinach, and garlic, along with the basil, oregano, and pepper. Continue to simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes (or until the squash is completely thawed if it is put in frozen).
5.  Mix the dry milk powder with a cup or so of water and add it, along with the evaporated milk, to the soup. Stir well. Cut the cheese into a couple of pieces and add. Stir until the cheese is melted and the entire mixture has returned to a slow simmer.
6.  Taste for seasoning and then serve or allow to simmer together for another 10 to 15 minutes. This is also very good the second day as well.



Suggested toppings:

bacon bits, either imitation or real
grated Cheddar cheese
choped parsley or cilantro
diced red or sweet onion

Yield:  Approximately 1 gallon soup, enough for 12 to 16 servings.





  





Substitutions:

Replace 1 quarts chicken or vegetable stock for the water and bouillon.
Omit the dry milk powder and use milk (skim, 2%, or whole) for part or all of the water.
Substitute carrot puree for the squash OR saute about 2 to 3 c sliced carrots with the onions and celery.
OR, just omit the squash entirely. To be honest, while this is more "authentic" basic potato soup,  I still like the added sweetness and color the squash (or carrots) provide--along with the Vitamin A boost too.
Omit the processed cheese, or substitute 2 c coarsely grated Cheddar cheese. The Cheddar should be added just before serving, stirred vigorously to incorporate it throughout the soup. Another approach is to leave all cheese out of the soup and just serve grated cheese as an optional topping for those who want it.

Variations:

Cream of mushroom soup:  Saute 6 to 8 ounces of sliced or chopped mushrooms along with the onions and celery. If you have only canned mushrooms, stir one or two 4 oz cans of chopped mushrooms in after the potatoes have been cooking about 20 minutes or so. (Be aware that canned mushrooms may add a lot of salt unless you use the unsalted variety.)

Corn chowder:  Add 16 to 24 oz corn--either frozen or canned--to the mixture, adjusting the seasonings to taste. (Be aware that canned corn will add a lot of salt unless you use the unsalted variety.)

Mexican style chowder:  Substitute cumin for the basil. Add corn as for the corn chowder and stir in a 4 oz can of diced green chilies and/or about half a cup of finely chopped bell peppers. For added heat, use serranos or jalapenos instead of bell peppers. Serve with chopped cilantro and grated white Mexican cheese.

Clam chowder:  Omit the bouillon and use seafood stock or clam juice for part or all of the water. Stir in 16 oz canned clams, with their juices.

Vegetable soups of many kinds:  Use the potato soup as a base, adding broccoli, cauliflower, or mixed vegetables in place of, or with, the spinach and squash. Finely shredded cabbage (about 2 to 3 cups) can be sauteed with the onions and celery for a surprisingly sweet addition to the soup.

Ham bone and potato soup:  Omit the bouillon (to avoid an overly salty soup). If a ham bone is available, add it to the onions and celery and with 2 quarts of water and simmer for about 30 to 40 minutes, until any meat on the bone begins to come off it easily. Add the potatoes and proceed as in step 2. After the potatoes are softened, but before mashing, remove the ham bone, cut the meat off the bone and return the meat to the soup. Proceed with step 3.

Ham or hot dog soup:  Cut the bouillon amount in half (to avoid having an overly salty soup). Cube some ham (2 cups or as desired) or slice a 12 to 16 oz package of hot dogs and stir in with the spinach and squash.









Chocolate Cherry Cookies










Still trying to think of something sweet you can whip up as a valentine treat for friends or family? While these cookies aren't heart-shaped (which confused one 3 year old briefly when they were introduced as "Valentine cookies"), they do have chocolate and sweet maraschino cherries, two ingredients just right for the holiday.

I first found this recipe over 30 years ago but it called for a third of a cup of sweetened condensed milk. Since that is an ingredient I almost never have on hand, mostly because of the cost, and because the other recipes I have seen for this usually call for a full can of condensed milk, I had never tried it.

Still, the idea of making a cookie that has the "frosting" added before baking was intriguing. When looking for something special this Valentine's day, I pulled out that old recipe card and started experimenting. The result is a cookie that tastes richer than the relatively simple ingredients might indicate, and one that--because it is not heart-shaped--could be made any time of the year.

Though the recipe may seem a little fussy, the overall prep time isn't long...and there is a likely bonus: I found that the recipe for the "frosting" was overly generous. Rather than cut it back and discover that I didn't have enough to top all the cookies, I kept these amounts and have some leftovers that will warm easily in the microwave for a few seconds--voila, hot fudge sundae topping. How can you argue with that!

Ingredient Notes

While I don't keep condensed milk on hand, I do stock nonfat dry milk powder on the shelf and maraschino cherries in the refrigerator, alongside other condiments like mustards and ketchup.

The advantage of dried milk here is that the amount used is more than the milk solids you would get from a third cup of skim milk (the kind I buy), adding body and richness to the topping. If you don't have dry milk powder, it will be best to substitute whole milk or even half and half. Evaporated milk could probably also be used, but, once again, you would be using only part of a can. (Of course, you could use the rest for a nice creamy soup, like some I have posted and will be adding later this week.)

Maraschino cherries are another "staple" food for me. I buy a jar or two whenever they are on special (usually in the Thanksgiving to Christmas baking season) and keep them on the shelf. Given the high sugar content, the pull dates are usually quite long and, after they are opened, they will keep for a very long time in the refrigerator. If you don't have any of these, you might try substituting frozen (thawed and drained) sweet cherries. While I haven't tried it, my guess is that a miniature marshmallow in place of each cherry could also be very good. In a pinch, just try making these without any cherries, marshmallows, or other substitutes; the baked frosting will still be special.

Hidden Cherry Chocolate Cookies

Topping
1/3 c water
1/3 c nonfat dry milk powder
1/3 c sugar
1/2 c semi-sweet chocolate chips

 Cookie Dough
1/2 c butter, softened but not melted
1 c sugar
1/3 c cocoa
1 egg
1 t vanilla (OR 1/2 t vanilla, 1/2 t almond extract)
1 1/2 c flour
1/4 t baking soda

approximately 15 to 20 maraschino cherries, including syrup

Cherries
1.  Prepare the cherries by putting them in a small strainer. Reserve the juices that drain from them. Cut each cherry into two or three pieces, depending on how large they are.

Topping
2.  Stir the water, dry milk powder, and sugar together in a large saucepan. (The mixture may foam up, so don't choose too small a pan.) Cook over medium to medium low heat, stirring often, until the mixture is bubbly and begins to thicken. This can take 10 to 15 minutes.
3.  When the mixture is about the consistency of a light gravy, stir in the chocolate chips and continue cooking and stirring until the chips are completely melted and the topping is smooth and silky. Set aside.

Cookie Dough
4.  Beat the butter, sugar, and cocoa together until well blended. Stir in the egg and vanilla and continue to beat until smoth.
5.  Sift together the flour and soda and stir in, mixing just until all the dry ingredients are incorporated. If the dough seems a little sticky, you may want to chill it for a short time.
 
Assembly
6.  Roll the dough into 1 inch balls and place on a well-greased cookie sheet about an inch or two apart. (I find it easiest to make uniformly sized cookies by making them all into balls before proceeding to the next step.) If the batter seems very sticky, you could also just drop the batter on to the cookie sheets, forming drop cookies about an inch around.
7.  Using your thumb OR the end of a wood spoon OR the bottom of a quarter teaspoon measure, make a depression in the center of each cookie. Place a cherry piece into each cookie.
8.  Using a small spoon, spread a small amount of the topping over the cookies, just enough to cover the cherry pieces. While you want to be sure you have enough to cover the cherries, spreading too much on each cookie will just cause the topping to sag off the cookie and melt on to the cookie sheet.
9.  Bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes, until the cookies are just done. (While it will be hard to do the "until the cookie springs back when pressed lightly" test, you can judge by the outer part of the cookies starting to be less dry and shiny. If you underbake them, they will just be more chewy/gooey...but also more prone to breaking.)
10.  Allow the cookies to cool on the pans for about 3 to 4 minutes and then slide them on to a cooling rack. The cookies should be cooled completely before stacking in a cookie tin or on a tray.

Yield: about 3 to 3 1/2 dozen cookies.