My continuing crush on Thomas Keller's latest cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, has been good for me, because I tend to like extremely simple recipes. Simple, because I have a kitchen the size of an olive, and no mixer or food processor or very much that makes a cook's life very easy. I have some guilt issues apparently, and treat every joy in life like a hairshirt.
In this cookbook, which is simpler than you might imagine (coming from one of the country's greatest chefs), even those recipes that are a (longwinded) breeze are good for the aspirational cook--which is what I am now, for better or for worse--because you learn new tricks to play around with.
You really need to want to learn some new tricks, however.
And let me say right from the get go that some of the recipes require you to have ready have at the ready concoctions made from other recipes in the book, before you can proceed. For instance, if you want to eat Keller's Catalan Beef Stew (with fennel, leeks, fingerlings and olives) on the spur of the moment, you'd better just pop in on Keller himself at home. Unless your refrigerator already contains his Braised Beef Short Ribs. And 1/2 cup of his Soffrito. Both of which are in the list of ingredients. Not that there's anything wrong with that. How sweet a world it would be if everyone did have all those things in their fridges all the time.
I'm obsessed in this case with a technique, employed in the perfectly innocent sounding Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup. Get some lentils throw them in a pot with some sweet potatoes, right?
No. You must make the "parchment paper lid." When I first read the instructions, the words "no way" floated around in my skull, like a feather on the wind. I had to call in an architect, who lives here with me. He seemed to think it was fun following Keller's demands that he make a fan out of a rectangular sheet of paper, then "place the tip over the center of the pot to be covered and mark the edge of the pot the pot with your thumb, the cut the edge off there." I had to really think about what this meant. He did not.
The point is, I ended up loving the lid, which had a hole cut in the middle, fit inside my giant pot and acted as a sort of spa steam treatment that imbued the vegetables beneath it with the aroma and flavor of bacon, but not in an overwhelming way. It was delightful. And I'm planning on folding parchment paper lids for other purposes. And maybe writing some haiku about it.
Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup, adapted from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home
8 ounces applewood-smoked slab bacon (I just used sliced applewood smoked bacon)3 tablespoons canola oil (Keller doesn't believe in cooking with olive oil, because high temperatures effect its flavor)
2 cups thinly sliced carrots
2 cups coarsely chopped leeks
2 cups coarsely chopped onions
3/4 to 1 teaspoon yellow curry powder (he gives a recipe for this in the book) or Madras curry powder (which is what I used; you can buy it at the store, but I've also made it using a recipe from Raghavan Iyer's great book 660 Curries; it's a snap)
1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes
2 sachets (more on this later; you'll need some cheesecloth but I have often used a wire mesh tea ball as a substitute in similar situations)
2 cups French green lentils (they hold their shape and don't turn to mush like your average lentil, so buy some of these definitely)
8 cups chicken stock (Keller gives directions on how to make this; I didn't do it. Canned chicken stock is not very good, obviously, but I used it anyway. I often make lentil soup with water and it is quite good. My goal in life is to make my own chicken stock. I do have frozen vegetable stock, however, and this makes me feel virtuous and discriminating.)
1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (which I also add to my own lentil soup recipe. It does something great to lentils).
Freshly ground black pepper
- Cut the bacon into 1/2 inch pieces. Heat the canola oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the bacon, reduce the heat to low, and render the fat for 20 to 25 minutes. The bacon will color but not crisp. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon, and set it aside (you're going to crisp it up later).
- Add the carrots, leeks, onions, and curry powder to the pot and stir to coat in bacon fat and incorporate the curry powder. Season with salt (I used about 1 1/2 teaspoons), reduce the heat to low, cover with Parchment Paper Lid (! instructions to follow), and cook very slowly for 30 to 35 minutes.
- Meanwhile peel the sweet potatoes; trim and cut into 1/2 inch dice. Put the potatoes, one of the sachets, and 2 teaspoons of salt in a large saucepan, add cold water to cover, bring to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender but not mushy, about 10 minutes. Drain and spread them on a tray to cool. Discard the sachet.
- Add the lentils to the pot of bacon fat and vegetables, along with the second sachet, and stock; bring to a simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the lentils are tender.
- Place the bacon in a small frying pan and crisp over medium high heat.
- Add the vinegar to the soup, then the potatoes. Cook until heated through. Season with salt and pepper. Serve the soup garnished with bacon and cilantro leaves.
Parchment Paper Lid (verbatim) "To make a parchment paper lid, fold a large rectangular piece of parchment paper in half to give you a square bigger than the pot ot be covered. Beginning at the crease, fold over the edge to create a narrow triangle. Continue to fold the triangle over until you have reached the opposite side of the parchment paper. To gauge the size, place the tip over the center of the pot to be covered and mark the edges of the pot with your thumb, then cut the end off there. With a pair of scissors, cut 1/4 inch off the narrow tip of the triangle. Trim the pointed edges of the triangle to form a smooth rounded edge. Unfold the triangle. It will be a circle the size of your pot with a steam hole in the center. Put the paper lid in the pot so that it rests gently on the food you're cooking.