Friday, July 27, 2012

Amping Up Chicken Tortilla Soup

In January 2002, I had the best chicken tortilla soup.  Ever.  Yes, that was over ten years ago, but I remember that soup very clearly. 

Will had just finished a 2-year contract working as a consultant for a tech company and was between jobs.  Honestly, the house never looked cleaner nor its inhabitants better fed than the six weeks he was not working.

One day during this period, I came home from a long day of teaching to find that the wood floors had been washed (yes, washed, not just swept!), that a fresh loaf of sweet potato bread had just come out of the oven, and that a pot of made-from-scratch chicken tortilla soup was simmering on the stove.  Making this soup involved poaching and hand-shredding chicken as one of its less involved directions.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if the recipe also directed the cook to hand-press home-made tortillas and fry them up.  (It didn’t, by the way.)  In any case, the labor produced a flavorful chicken broth and a fantastic soup.

Since then, chicken tortilla soup has become so much more ubiquitous, a standard at places like Corner Bakery or Panera.  Perhaps my second favorite—after Will’s—is at Frontera Grill Express.  It’s very different—much more smoky and heavily spiced—but very good, and a bargain to boot compared to some other items in an "Express" menu. 

During the school year, when cooking an elaborate dinner is the last thing on our minds, we sometimes heat up a tub of Kirkland Chicken Tortilla soup from Costco.  We were skeptical because the soup looked too thick, and we were a bit disappointed that the flavor was not sharper, more robust.  But we found a way to make it work.

Here’s a way to make store-bought Chicken Tortilla soup more fancy and special, with more kick and added layers of complex flavors and textures:

1.  Open up your tub of soup (it should be a refrigerated container to ensure that it is relatively fresh—nothing canned) and heat over medium high heat.  For about a quart of soup, pour about 1 cup chicken broth to the container and scrape down any extra bits before adding the broth to the soup in the pan to thin the soup a bit. As you can see, there is a lot of good stuff to dislodge from the sides of the container.  (If you have a pint of soup, add ½ cup of broth, etc.)

2.  While your soup is heating, prepare the sides.  Fill a deep bowl with a small handful of tortilla chips.  Aside from the tortilla chips, an ingredient that you cannot skip is salsa, preferably something from Rick Bayless’s Frontera line (like the smoky Roasted Red Pepper and Garlic, or the bright tasting Jalapeno Cilantro).  After that, add, to your taste, as many of the following accompaniments as you desire: shredded cheese (your choice); scallions sliced thin; slice of avocado, chopped tomatoes, sour cream.  (The picture at the top of this post includes everything.) 

As a sidenote, I should say that I find adding fresh ingredients like avocado elevates the humble soup to the level of a nice meal.

3.  Once your soup has come to a boil, simmer a few minutes to make sure that the extra chicken broth has incorporated well with the store-bought soup.  Then pour the soup over each prepared bowl.  Stir, and enjoy!

You can make the soup from scratch if you want, but this is a way to amp-up a store-bought version to make an eminently respectable home-“prepared” meal.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Refreshing Dish for Summer: Spicy Cold Bi-Bim-Noodles

Just about every (cosmopolitan) eater has heard of Bi Bim Bop.  (Click here for my post on Bi Bim Bop:  Less well known is its counterpart, the bi-bim-nang-myun.  “Nang” refers to something cold, and “myun” is a generic word describing noodles of all sorts (like cha-jang-myun, etc.).  Putting all this together, you can guess that bi-bim-nang-myun is mixed (“bi-bim”) cold noodles.

Now that bi-bim-bop has ensconced itself in the international culinary vocabulary, perhaps its cousin can soon join the ranks.  In fact, more and more, you see in popular cooking magazines and websites recipes for cold spicy Asian noodles.  Bon Appetit’s July issue has instructions for making Cold Sesame Noodles with Summer Vegetables.  (Click here to get that recipe:

What seems a new-fangled dish in American magazines is something that is very tradition-bound in Asian cultures.  I grew up eating my mother’s bi-bim-nang-myun decades ago, and she grew up eating her mother’s dish, and so on.  Regardless of tradition, I agree that there is definite appeal to cold noodles, especially during this Chicago summer with seemingly innumerable days topping 90 degrees.

If you live near an Asian grocery store, get yourself a package of “nang myun”—Korean dried wheat and buckwheat noodles.  The noodles are grayer in color than the Vietnamese dried noodles you might have seen before.  They are also lighter, longer, and more irregular than Japanese soba noodles you might be familiar with as well.  In any case, if you are able to pick up a bag of noodles, it might include packets of dry seasoning and smaller packets of hot mustard oil with directions in both Korean and English for making a cold noodle soup (pictured below).  The cold soup is the most popular way of enjoying these noodles during the summer.

Not normally in the package directions but still made by Asians, is Bi-Bim-Nang-Myun:

1.  Noodles.
Cooking the noodles requires nothing more than a pot of boiling water and 3-4 minutes of cooking time.  Rinse several times with cold water, and let drain completely.

2.  Sauce.
This gets trickier since everything is “to taste” when it comes to this spicy sauce.  You need something called go-chu-jang (Korean fiery spicy red pepper paste).  Some recipes call for Sriracha (hot chili sauce) since that might be more accessible than go-chu-jang, but the two are quite different.  Sriracha is a bright red versus go-chu-jang’s dark brick red; and sriracha is thin and squirtable while go-chu-jang is definitely a much thicker, pasty substance, like miso.

If you are able to get your hands on some go-chu-jang, you need to mix that with minced garlic, chopped scallions, rice vinegar, sesame oil, a bit of sugar and salt until the seasoning is to your taste.  It should taste much more heavily spiced than you could possibly imagine eating on its own since you are about to mix a lot of ingredients with the sauce.

Mix the sauce and the noodles and correct for seasoning.

3.  Toppings.
Two items are indispensable: cooled, chopped bul-go-gi and sliced omelets.  You can get pre-marinated bul-go-gi in many Asian stores to cook at home, or you can follow a very basic recipe here:  As for the egg, all you need to do is scramble two eggs with a little bit of salt, pour the mixture into a hot and oiled pan, and let it brown on both sides.  Cool and then slice.

Aside from these two indispensable ingredients, I like julienned cucumber (pickling or Persian cucumbers are best for this), carrots, red or orange pepper, scallion.  Once you lay out your toppings on top of the sauced noodles, you can mix the whole concoction together.

Although the noodles will be spicy, the coolness of the noodles and the toppings will keep things under control…

Thursday, July 12, 2012

An Easy and Impressive Dessert: The New York Cheesecake

I like baking cheesecakes, and I love eating them.  But I noticed a discrepancy between the types I bake and those I order.  When I bake, I tend to choose chocolate-y cheesecakes—Chocolate Marble Cheesecake, Chocolate Brownie Cheesecake, etc.—but I often like to order a basic plain cheesecake, sometimes with strawberries. 

It occurred to me that perhaps the limitation in my cheesecake repertoire might owe something to the fact that many cookbooks, especially newer ones, feel they have to offer more “unique” recipes.  So I went in search of a basic cheesecake recipe.  Since Will is a huge fan of sour cream topped cheesecakes, I decided to try Ruth Reichl’s New York Cheesecake.  Here’s a link to a website with her recipe:

Having baked this cheesecake, I want to offer a few thoughts:


I liked the fact that Ruth Reichl’s recipe is quite minimalist.  Often I’ve thought that recipes wanted to make cooking appear as mysterious as possible by including all sorts of steps that were not really necessary.  Ever the engineer, Will likes to follow the recipe closely the first time we attempt a particular recipe, just to see what was so special about those obscure methods; I tend to skip over those steps both out of laziness and an intolerance for making things more difficult.  So I was quite happy to see that Reichl’s recipe had very few steps—including mixing everything together.  Here though, another step or two might have helped. 

I know that many cake recipes call for blending in each egg separately.  You don’t have to include that step, but I might suggest that you mix everything together and then fold in the lemon zest separately with a spatula.  Lemon zest, when blended along with all the other ingredients, tended to clump onto the beaters.  Dislodging the clumps from the beater often resulted in lumps of zest in the cheesecake batter—which I had to manually separate and smooth out.


It’s possible that your cooked cheesecake might not look perfectly smooth and “golden in spots” like the directions say.  In fact, it’s quite likely that you will have higher edges or cracked centers and, overall, a more “cratered” cheesecake than the ones you have seen at the Cheesecake Factory or imagined in your dreams.  That’s ok.  Don’t fuss with it.  Just follow the next step: the topping.

When I first saw the recipe, I thought the “2 cups sour cream” was a misprint.  After all, the cheesecake itself only contained 1½ pounds of cream cheese.  When I saw my cracked cheesecake come out of the oven, I realized where all the excess sour cream would go.  Really, the 2 cups of sour cream topping (made much more ice cream-like by the addition of sugar and vanilla) performed wonders in covering up imperfections in the cheesecake by filling in cracks and craters and smoothing out uneven sides and center.  It also produced a lovely uniform hue for the top of the cheesecake.  (You can see in the picture below how thick that layer of sour cream topping is.)

But if your cheesecake was picture-perfect coming out of the oven, you might spare yourself some extra calories and reduce the topping to 1 cup of sour cream, 2 T sugar, and ½ t vanilla—and reduce the cooking time to 8-10 minutes.

Finishing Touch

Ruth Reichl mentioned that she didn’t care for the gooey cherry topping often found on top of cheesecakes.  I heartily agree.  In fact, I could do without the artificially-thickened “pie filling” in most desserts.  But, while I like plain cheesecakes as well, I enjoy cheesecake most with fruit.  If you have it, some fresh berries like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries are the best accompaniments (like in the photo at the top of this post).

If you don’t have fresh fruit around—or if you want your fruit topping to be juicier, saucier—here’s a simple method of making a topping with frozen fruits:

Place ½ cup of frozen berries in a microwave safe bowl and stir in 1 T powdered sugar.  Microwave for about 15 seconds, remove, and stir in another 1 T powdered sugar.  Microwave for another 20 seconds until the sugar is incorporated and the juice is slightly thickened.  You want to make sure that the fruit is defrosted but not hot.  You can add a little lemon juice if you wish, but that’s not even necessary.  

This topping is also great for sponge cakes, for berry short cakes, and for plain Greek yogurt.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Technology, Modern Car Travel, and Food

Though I am still holding out on getting a Facebook account, I know that staying connected (online) has been a great boon to most people.  In fact, technological advancements are, on the whole, quite welcome to a society not able to survive without penicillin—or, in this summer of 100 degree days, even air conditioning.

This month, we are reaping the benefits of all sorts of modern conveniences brought about by technology as we—somewhat crazily, and not entirely willingly—drive between Chicago and Park City, Utah, and then from there to Portland, Oregon, and back to Park City and then back to Chicago.  While we are not looking forward to logging 5000 miles on our car, we’d be even more apprehensive about our ability to withstand the 75 hours of driving had it not been for technology.

Of course, we wouldn’t contemplate this trip in the summer if we didn’t have air conditioning nor could we even fathom a trip this long in the days of horse-and-buggy.  And "romance of the open road aside," we desperately need entertainment through our ipod/itunes.  For long stretches of Nebraska, I know that we will also rely heavily on our books on CDs—no matter how badly written or inexpertly read these books might be.  (Last year, at the end of a long road trip to Keystone, CO, we found ourselves driving an extra 10 minutes, at the parking lot of our destination 1100 miles away from our starting point, because our John Grisham novel—the worst we’d heard—was not quite completed.  So strong is the command that we “finish what we start”…)

In addition to all the obvious attractions of technology, there is one more that not everyone might be thinking of: Food.

Searching for Starbucks…

Staying with our dog on our travels through Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho, we are not staying at the fanciest city hotels or vacation resorts.  Yes, we are looking forward to stretching out in our beds at the end of the day—and even consuming make-it-yourself-waffles for breakfast—at La Quinta or Comfort Inn or Best Western, but we are not necessarily hankering for their institutional-tasting coffees.  Will, in particular, gets withdrawal from a good cup of coffee so badly that our smartphones are in a constant search for the nearest Starbucks.

Where to eat?

When you know that you are driving for 12 hours in one day, aside from the question of which book on CD is going to be chosen, the big question revolves around where to eat lunch and dinner.  It seems only yesterday—though more likely yesterday plus 10-15 years—that I eagerly scanned the New York State Thruway Toll ticket for eateries.  They very helpfully told you whether the next “Travel Plaza” in 39 miles had a McDonald’s and a Roy Rogers.  Perhaps you’d rather wait 72 miles for the chance at Arby’s and Brown’s Chicken.  Invariably, I found myself holding out for Burger King and Tim Horton’s—yes, it’s the doughnuts that I was after, not burgers.

Well, that was neat and helpful for 1998, but not for 2012.  As we neared our destination at Omaha last year, I did a search for Five Guys Burgers.  I had seen a sign for Five Guys and figured that there must be more around.  On our way back to Chicago, I looked up Tripadvisor reviews for food and found a highly-rated (though somewhat tired looking) Salvadorian restaurant.  You are no longer tied to the same old chain restaurants with the aid of your smartphone—though you can still use your phone to search for the nearest chain restaurant of your choice if that is what you desire.

Get food to go.

Especially on such grueling road trips, you cannot waste too much time waiting for food service.  That’s probably why so many of us frequent fast food chains when traveling.  Not only do you know exactly what to expect (a filet-o-fish tasted the same in Lugano, Switzerland as it does in Niles, Il) but you can also expect that you can purchase and consume your food in a relatively short period of time—so that you can hurry up and get back in the car and just wait until the next turbo stop.

But now that we can access a well-reviewed restaurant’s menu online and call them to order your food for take out, you are no longer limited (by your sense of urgency) to the same chain restaurants.  Not being able to find a Five Guys Burgers close enough to our Omaha Comfort Inn, I called ahead to a non-fast food restaurant and ordered spicy chicken wings and a grilled Italian sausage sandwich to go.  We drove by, picked up the order, and went to the hotel without wasting any time.  After checking in, we were able to have our food in the relative serenity of our hotel room, with our shoes off and our dog at our feet.  Ah, the small comforts that modern technology buys us.

But, finally, once we get to our final destinations and are able to get out of our cars, all that traveling seems to have been worth it after all...