Cream soup with sweet red pepper

After spending so many of my vacations (basically all of them the past several years) with my friend and almost sister Catherine, I have picked up not a little of her cooking. This simple yet filling and delicious soup is one she often made for dinner and it was easy to see why - not only is it not too heavy to eat in the evening; it is also very easy to make and for someone always working or studying and the mother of two kids, a quick nutritious meal is a godsend. 

I've changed very little from her soup, except for the substitution of crème fraîche for whatever local variant I have - smetana in Russia and sour cream in the U.S. - speaking of which, not long ago I wrote a whole newspaper column about this dairy product. I've also sprinkled some cheese on top instead of an extra dollop of sour cream - but that is optional.

Here is (some of, since I forgot a few) the cast of characters:

2 extra large sweet red peppers - or 3 large ones
2 medium onions
4 cloves of garlic
1 medium large potato (or in my case, several extremely small ones)
1 cup sour cream (more if you want to top your soup with it) - choose whatever fat content you wish!
1 cube vegetable bouillon (try to find vegetable or mushroom bouillon - the flavor of chicken or beef gives the soup a not only boring but unappetizing generic saltiness)
2 tablespoons olive oil (not shown because I am forgetful)
some shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for topping - optional (not shown)
salt and pepper to taste (also not shown)

Optional: half a packet of Boursin cheese with garlic and fine herbs for an especially rich velvety soup. 
Roughly chop up the garlic and onions, and saute in olive oil over medium heat until translucent.

Add the roughly chopped potato(es) and roughly chopped peppers and stir well. After a minute or so, put on the lid and continue cooking over medium heat - there should be enough moisture from the vegetables to keep them from burning or sticking to the pot (if not, lower the heat).

You want everything to sweat nicely - stir once every two three minutes, but otherwise keep the lid on and cook until the peppers start to wilt. 

Add a cup of water and the cube of vegetable stock and cook for ten more minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked. 

Lower the heat and add the sour cream or  crème fraîche (or smetana). If using Boursin cheese, add it now. Stick an immersion blender in the pot and puree until smooth. 

If you are using crème fraîche, it will not curdle, but if you are using anything else, it is best to keep things at a very low simmer after this point. Add salt and pepper to taste - I usually add at least half a teaspoon of salt, but it depends on how salty your bouillon cube is. Also, if you add Boursin cheese, that is very salty, so add salt only at the very end. 

Top with the shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and sprinkle with freshly ground pepper. 

This recipe serves two for a filling meal, or three if no one takes seconds! But better make more than less, because it is delicious and you will want seconds for sure. Serve with a crusty baguette and some cheese and a light green salad. 

You can also replace the red peppers in this soup with some other kind of vegetables - I've tried it with zucchini, pumpkin, green peppers, broccoli, or a mixture of several vegetables. You can also replace the onions with the white parts of leek, or use both the white and green parts for a leek soup. It will doubtlessly be a very fancy and beautiful soup made with asparagus. If using red pepper or pumpkin, you can also add some sun-dried tomatoes for a deeper flavor. 

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Artichoke with vinaigrette

Per person:

1 large artichoke

1/2 lemon (juice of half a lemon; 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon mustard - I like the grainy kind, but you can use whatever you like
1 medium garlic clove
a sprinkle of salt, to taste

Rinse your artichoke(s) under cold water, and put in a steamer to cook.

If you don't have a steamer, do as I did - place them in a pot with a lid and pour water so that it will be about half an inch deep.

Steam away on high heat (make sure the water does not evaporate away; check every five minutes!) and turn the artichokes over once or twice.

Undercooked artichoke is highly, highly, inedible. Your artichoke is cooked if you stick a fork in the base of the artichoke (close to the stem but not the stem) towards the center of the artichoke and it goes in. If it feels like you're trying to stick your fork in wood, steam away for 10 more minutes.

I think the total should take about 30 minutes, give or take 10 minutes.

 There, that's done.

By the way, buy artichokes that are green, not brown, and tightly closed - and don't be like me and leave them in the fridge for a week and let them turn brown.

While that was steaming, I made the vinaigrette. Some people like salt and butter, mayonnaise or other dips, but I like a simple vinaigrette with a punch.

Peel your clove of garlic and put through a garlic press, or mince as finely as you can. Add mustard, olive oil and lemon juice, and stir with a spoon or a fork. After about half a minute or so, the oil should stop separating from the vinegar and form a creamy emulsion. Salt to taste, and add more oil or lemon juice as you like.

I myself had never tasted an artichoke (not counting the ones in salads from a can or jar) until a couple of years ago, when I was in Provence. A great many of my friends, especially in Japan and Russia, have no idea what an artichoke is - and I'm afraid I just can't explain the taste. It's very slightly starchy, rather creamy and complex in flavor. It has a spring-like, green fragrance to it, like asparagus, but doesn't feel like a crisp leafy green vegetable. 

It's a flower, actually, and those green things like tulip petals are the petals. Peel away the bottom few; they contain very little edible parts. Peel away perhaps ten of the small ones close to the stem. 

As you peel more, the base of the petal becomes fleshier. That's the edible part. Dip into the vinaigrette and put the bottom half in your mouth, and scrape away the flesh with your teeth. 

And yes, when you eat artichokes, you'll end up with a garbage pile far bigger than the artichoke itself. 

Keep eating until you run out of green petals.
Now you see pale white petals. The tips may be pink or purple. These are much softer, but the tips are quite sharp, so don't go around poking your finger in there. 

You can just grab the tops and remove these parts easily. They're quite tender so the bottom half can be eaten - not that there's a whole lot to eat there. 

When you finish peeling that, your artichoke will now look like yet another exotic specimen. 

You're close to the artichoke's heart! 

This part is feathery, fluffy and quite inedible. You'll have to remove this silky mass to get at the heart - I use a spoon to scoop it out, but here I used a knife just to show you what it looks like:

Looks like a field of wheat to me. 

The base is the heart - and the stem is edible too; it tastes just like the heart. 

After all this steaming and peeling and pricking your fingers and dipping, you will probably eat the heart in three quick bites. 

Yum yum yum. 


By the way, that's an uncooked artichoke, split in half. It's a gorgeous flower, isn't it?

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New York cheesecake

After days of deliberation, I arrived at a serious decision: This would be The Cake for my birthday party.

The Cake is a New York cheesecake, adapted from Smitten Kitchen's New York Cheesecake. I'd bookmarked this recipe at least a couple of years ago, but buying five bricks of Philadelphia cream cheese in Moscow would have been prohibitively expensive, not to mention, who was going to eat a cheesecake weighing 5 pounds or so?

I eventually made a few adjustments to the recipe, substituting a fifth of the cream cheese with ricotta for a bit more lightness. I love cream cheese but I didn't want a cake weighing like a ton of bricks. But if you prefer a denser cheesecake, go ahead an use all cream cheese!

4 bricks cream cheese (32 oz.)
8 oz. ricotta cheese
5 large eggs
3 egg yolks
1 1/4 cup brown sugar (you can use white sugar here)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 lemons (the zest of 3 lemons and the juice of 1 1/2 lemons)
4 tablespoons flour

8 oz. graham crackers
4 oz. (1 stick) butter
1/4 cup brown sugar (I highly recommend brown sugar here, to get a caramelly crust)

Preheat your oven to 550F - but if you have a pan with Teflon coating or something that says safe up to 475F or something, then, obviously, follow those directions. And you cannot use silicone for this recipe. Nope.

Basically, you will be baking it at very high temperature at first until the top of the cake cooks, then at a much lower temperature until the whole cake is baked. This supposedly prevents cracks. I got a crack anyway, but I don't mind cracks, really.

Let's do the crust first. In a food processor, reduce the graham crackers to a sandy texture. You can also put the crackers in a sturdy plastic bag (a large ziplock, let's say,) and beat it with a stick. But my mother assures me this is extremely tiresome to do. I'll take her word for it.

Pour the cracker crumbs into a bowl, add the sugar (make sure there are no lumps) and mix with a spoon. Melt the butter (in a microwave if you like) and pour it over the dry ingredients. Mix quickly with a spoon until the crumbs are sort of moist.

Dump the whole contents into your pan. Smitten Kitchen uses a 9 inch springform pan (at least 3 inches high, please) but I didn't have one, and I used a large gratin dish (about 9 by 12 inches), which worked out fine.

One important, important thing: Don 't be like me (see picture above) and make the crust go all the way to the top. Leave some space the width of your finger, because when you bake this, the cheesecake will expand considerably and carry the crust up with it - and the crust will crumble and fall out over the sides of the pan.

Push the crust into place - using the bottom and sides of a glass could help; I also used a triangle shaped measuring spoon to get the corners. When everything is more or less in place, put it in the freezer while you make the batter - or, the fridge for an hour.

Bring your ingredients to room temperature (cold cream cheese is a tough one to mix!) In a large bowl, measure in the sugar, ricotta cheese and cream cheese. Blend well with a mixer (making sure to wipe down the sides) and add the eggs one by one, then the yolks. After all that is very well blended, add the lemon zest, lemon juice and vanilla extract. Mix well (and make sure there are no streaks of cream cheese stuck to the sides or anything).

Sift in the flour and mix until incorporated.

Pour in the batter..... it goes almost all the way to the top! I would put the whole thing on another pan or something, because some of it might spill over - mine didn't, but better safe than sorry.

Pop it in the oven - blast away at 550F at first, for about 12 to 15 minutes or until puffy.

Reduce heat to 200F and continue baking for 45 minutes to an hour - it depends on how tall your cake is - the deeper the batter, the more time you need. When you shake the cake, the middle should appear a little jiggly. Don't worry.

Now, leave your cake in the oven for half an hour more, with the heat turned off and the oven door open an inch or so.

And no, that is not a picture of a pillow, that's my cheesecake.

Take it out and let it cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.

Smitten kitchen says this cake can keep up to 2 weeks, well covered. I don't know - who would let a cheesecake like this alone for two weeks?! I made mine two days in advance of the party, and everyone was very, very, happy.

I would say this cheesecake will feed 12 to 16 people comfortably - less if some people want seconds, more if you also feed them tons of cauliflower and egg pilaf and fill them up with wine and cheese beforehand.

One last tip: if you are afraid of the graham cracker crust sticking to your pan, leave it out for half an hour before serving. The colder it is, the more likely it will be stuck to the bottom and sides.


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Tapenade with black olives and figs

Tapenade is one of those things I always gazed at longingly - in fancy cafes and grocery stores in small expensive jars, it seems to promise a wealth of complex flavors and an addictive saltiness. The other day I nearly bought a jar at Trader Joe's - but as I was checking out the ingredient list, it occurred to me that I could very well make this myself.

So I came home and googled around; I quickly found a recipe posted by David Lebovitz that made me sit up. Fig and olive tapenade. I mean, figs? You know how I feel about figs. The texture of those tiny seeds. Irresistible.

I had everything I needed on hand:

1/2 cup (about 3 ounces, 90 grams) dried black figs (use dried Black Mission figs, if available)
3/4 cups (180 ml) water
1 cup (about 150 grams) black olives; Niçoise, Kalamata or any kind you like - I even used a few dried Moroccan ones.
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard
1 large garlic clove, peeled
1/2 tablespoon capers, rinsed, drained and squeezed dry
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary (or thyme)
1/3 cup (150 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
black pepper  to taste

It's super easy. Just remove the stems from the figs, chop up roughly and simmer in water until softened, about 15 minutes or so. If the water seems to be drying out, just put the lid on. 

Rinse the capers and squeeze dry. Rinse the olives and pit them and drain well. Finely mince the fresh herb (I used rosemary.)

I'm not a mortar and pestle kind of cook. I like appliances. 

Let the figs cool a little bit and drain, keeping the liquid. You might want to add that later if the tapenade is too dry - but I didn't need to. 

Put in all your ingredients in the food processor except the olive oil and pulse a few times. S crape down the sides once or twice to merge that stray slice of garlic or two. 

Add the olive oil and puree until a rough paste forms. Add black pepper if you wish. 

It's recommended to make this at least a day ahead to let the flavors merge. That sounds about right - when I tried it last night, the figs were a bit strong, I tasted the olives separately and ocassionally felt the mustard. Today, they seem much more seamlessly blended. 

I love tapenade on anything - baguette slices, pita, boiled eggs (recommended! I like a boiled egg and tapenade sandwich) veggies, anything. If I'd known it was so easy to make (and that I could put figs in it), I would have made this long ago, instead of standing irresolute in speciality grocery stores, taking up and putting down fancy jars of the stuff. 

And.... because I just bought, instead of a DSLR, yet another app for my phone:

It's called picfx. Cool for artsy stuff. I wouldn't rely on this for food photography - I use the Loftus combination on Hipstamatic and Camera+ - but it's cool to play around with this app.

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Fig challah

Because the wind is howling and it's raining... because it feels like autumn in Russia... because there's nothing as cheerful as the smell of freshly baking bread - you should make this today.

You see from the name of this blog that I wasn't going to leave a recipe like this alone. I've been pretty faithful to her recipe (not something that can be said of me often) but I would leave out the sea salt on the top from next time. I'm not against the mixture of sweet/salty flavors, but this fig-rich bread is one I'd personally like on the sweeter side.

Here's the list of ingredients, with my slight adjustments:

2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup (85 grams) plus 1 teaspoon honey
1/3 cup (80 ml) olive oil, plus more for the bowl
2 large eggs + 1 egg for the egg wash
1 teaspoons flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, or 3/4 teaspoon table salt
4 cups (500 grams) all-purpose flour (yes, that's bread flour in my picture - I made a mistake)

Fig Filling
1 cup (5 1/2 ounces or 155 grams) stemmed and roughly chopped dried figs
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest, or more as desired
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Few grinds black pepper

In a small bowl, warm up 2/3 cup warm water (slightly above body temperature but not too hot to the touch) and stir in the active dry yeast and a teaspoon of honey to get the yeast going. Let stand a few minutes until a froth starts forming on the surface.

In a large bowl pour in the olive oil, honey and egg, then the yeast mixture.

 Measure in the dry ingredients and start mixing with a spoon.

The dough shouldn't be too hard to mix, as it is rather wet. However, it's not sticky because there's plenty of oil in it. When the mass is more or less in one piece, roll up your sleeves and start kneading. Work up a good sweat - some 10 minutes will do. Or you can do it by machine.

Coat the bowl and dough with a few drops of olive oil and let rest covered in a warm place for an hour, or until doubled in size.

While that's going on, remove the stems from the dried figs. Go and find them - they may be half buried in the flesh, but they're hard, so you don't want to leave them.

Roughly chop them up and put into a small pan with the water, lemon zest and lemon juice.

Simmer, covered, for 10 or 15 minutes, or until the figs are completely softened. Take off the heat, let cool for a bit, and puree in the food processor. You should have about a cup of the stuff.

And, by the way, this stuff is so good, I'm going to make this separately and have as jam. It might not keep long since it has no added sugar, but that's not going to be an issue - I started sneaking increasingly large spoonfuls "just to taste." But you know I have this thing about figs.

Take your doubled-in-size dough and cut in half. Roll out each piece thinly into a rectangle, more or less. It doesn't really matter if it's not a clean shape - but mine was roughly about 12 inches by 18. Don't worry, this isn't pizza dough; it's easy to roll out and won't spring back.

Slather half of the fig paste all over the dough. Roll it up tightly so that no air is trapped inside, but not so tightly that you push the fig paste out.

Now comes the fun part - stretch that long log of dough as long as it will go. It's not as delicate an operation as you may fear - I found that it stretches easily if I lift the dough up in one place - its own weight will start stretching the rolled dough.
I think mine turned out to be about 3 feet long - then I cut it into half. You will have four ropes about a foot and a half long.

Now you're going to weave this into a round. It's easier than a braid, and prettier, I think. (And it's easier than it looks or reads.)

Take the four ropes and lay them out so that each rope goes over another and goes under another. That's a clumsy explanation, but I hope the photo helps.
Then, take a rope that comes out from under another one, and put it over the one to the right (the one it's coming under from.) This means you will be crossing the ropes four times at this step.  It will look like the picture below.

Take another rope from underneath and cross it over the one to its right.  Repeat until all the strands are used up.

Don't worry if the dough stretches too much and reveals the figs paste in some places. In my experience, it won't burn in the oven or look ugly. 

When you have woven all the ropes, just tuck the loose ends underneath the challah and make a nice round shape.

Put it on a gratin dish or two layers of baking sheets with a piece of parchment paper. You want a thick bottom to bake it on, because this bread contains a lot of sugar and browns easily. 

In a small bowl, beat an egg with a fork. Give your challah a good egg wash.

And psst, if you don't have a brush, you can just smear with your hands. It won't make a difference to the bread, and it will make you feel delighted as if you're five years old.

Preheat your oven to 375F.

Cover and leave in a warm place for an hour - it will nearly double in volume again.

Just before baking, give it another good egg wash. It's the egg that gives challah its lovely dark and shiny color. 

I didn't have any on hand, but if you do, you could also sprinkle a little pearl sugar on top. That would be pretty and delicious!

Bake in the middle of the oven for about 40 minutes. If it starts coloring too quickly on the top, just put a sheet of aluminum foil over it and that should stop it from getting any browner. As smitten kitchen says, the very best way to check a bread for doneness is to insert an instant-read thermometer - the center of the loaf should be 195F.

Enjoy. I had thick slabs for breakfast for several days, and now that it's gotten dry, I'm going to make French toast. It will be lovely.

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©2009Figs in the Sun | by TNB