April 8, 2015

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Dear friends,

I planted a bunch of sugar snap peas last week, and I’ve been craving pea soup ever since. Not the hearty winter soup made with a ham bone, but the suave chilled soup a friend served last summer. It was pureed until silky smooth, with a deep richness that spoke of cream and butter. We couldn’t get enough of it.

Even though my peas haven’t had time to even sprout, and half of them have probably been dug up and carried off by chipmunks anyway, I had to have that soup. So I did what my friend did – bought a bag of frozen peas and made it anyway. It was as good as I remembered – velvety and rich-tasting, with just a dab of butter and no hint of cream.

That’s right, no cream. When my friend handed over the recipe, I was surprised the ingredients were so austere. The deep flavor comes from leeks, peas, broth and just 2 tablespoons of butter. You could lose weight on the stuff.

The soup was the opener for Easter dinner with Tony, which was pretty good considering there was no chocolate. The soup was followed by rack of lamb cooked on the grill and Apricot Pilaf, a Moroccan-spiced rice dish I came up with years ago and resurrect regularly.

I felt bad that I didn’t have an Easter hat, a concept I had to explain to my Japanese husband. I felt worse that I didn’t have a chocolate bunny to gnaw on, although that spectacular rack of lamb did help ease the pain.

SPRING PEA SOUP WITH MINT

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• 2 tbsp. butter
• 2 or 3 medium leeks, about 2 cups sliced
• 1 to 2 tsp. salt (to taste)
• 2 cups chicken broth
• 1/2 cup water
• 1/8 tsp. fresh-ground pepper
• 3 cups shelled fresh peas or 1 package (16 oz.) frozen peas, thawed
• 1/4 cup loosely packed mint leaves
• 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
• Mint leaves for garnish

Melt butter in a medium saucepan. Trim off root end of leeks. Slice leeks lengthwise and wash thoroughly under running water, removing any grit from between the layers. Thinly slice the white and very light green parts only, discarding dark green leaves.

Measure out 2 cups. Add the sliced leeks and 1/2 tsp. salt to the butter in the pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring once or twice, until leeks are very limp.
Add the broth, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Add peas and bring to a boil again. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in mint leaves. Cover and let stand 10 minutes.

Puree soup in batches in a blender or food processor until very smooth. Transfer to a bowl or pitcher and stir in lemon juice. Add more salt if necessary. Cool to room temperature, then cover and chill. To serve, pour into bowls and garnish each portion with a mint leaf. Makes 6 servings.

GRILLED RACK OF LAMB
• 2 lamb loin racks, 8 chops each
• Salt, pepper
• 1 handful of soaked hickory chips

Prepare a charcoal fire of about 30  briquettes on one side of  a lidded grill. Trim excess fat from the lamb racks, leaving just a thin layer where the fat is present. Heavily salt the racks on both sides with about 2 teaspoons per rack. Sprinkle all over with fresh-ground pepper. Liberal seasoning is crucial. Soak the wood chips in hot water.

When the coals are ashed over, spread to an area large enough to accommodate both lamb racks, keeping on one half of the grill. Scatter wood chips over the coals. Place the lamb racks on an oiled grill directly over the coals. Lightly brown the lamb on both sides with the grill lid off. With tongs, move lamb to the side of the grill opposite the coals. Cover with lid, leaving vents wide open. Cook for 15 minutes without removing lid.

Uncover and test temperature of racks with an instant-read thermometer. When done, the internal temperature of the meat should be 145 degrees for rare and 160 degrees for medium. The meat probably won’t be done at this point, however. Move the racks directly over the hot coals and continue to cook, turning once, until desired temperature is reached – probably 10 more minutes or so. The final cooking over the coals with crisp the exterior.

Remove meat to a platter and let rest at least 5 minutes before carving into individual chops. Two racks should feed 4 adults although in my case, I ate two thick chops, Tony ate an entire rack and we split the leftovers the next day for lunch.

TIDBITS

Cookbooks are so expensive and the array so extensive that choosing carefully is imperative. But how?

One way I narrow down the choices is by studying the list of books nominated for a James Beard Award. This year’s book  awards will be handed out in 12 categories on April 24 in Chicago. The list of nominees – three in each category – is available for perusing at http://www.jamesbeard.org/awards/books-broadcast-journalism .

Books I want to check out soon: Dorie Greenspan’s Baking Chez Moi: Recipes from My Paris Home to Your Home Anywhere, a finalist in the Baking category; Cooking Light Mad Delicious: The Science of Making Healthy Food Taste Amazing by Keith Schroeder, in Focus on Health category; and The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History by Ana Sofía Peláez and Ellen Silverman, and My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories by David Lebovitz, both in the International category.

I can’t resist the new sandwich and salad menu at West Point Market’s Beside the Point Café. Specifically, I can’t resist the idea of a pork belly sandwich. It’s one of seven new sandwiches, all of which sound enticing except maybe the Quinoa Griller. But knowing the chefs at West Point, they probably make even grilled quinoa tasty. The menu also includes two new salads, the Fiesta Bowl and the Pilgrim. I’m betting on turkey and cranberries in the latter.

THE MAILBAG

From Arlene, Keizer, Ore.:
I have recently moved to the West Coast after spending 15 years in Akron. Unfortunately for me, I have not landed in a great food spot. I miss many things about the Akron dining scene. One of my true simple pleasures was the chips and salsa served at El Rincon on Arlington. I’ve never had any salsa quite like it and I miss it dearly. The smooth texture is difficult to find and nothing I’ve had since tastes nearly as good. Do you or any of your readers have a copycat recipe worth trying? Thank you!

Dear Arlene: No Dungeness crabs? No giant blackberries? No fresh salmon? Sorry you didn’t land along the coast or in Oregon’s wine or berry regions, but hopefully the good stuff isn’t too far away.

The salsa you describe sounds like picante sauce – the smooth version of chunkier salsa.  While I don’t have El Rincon’s recipe – assuming it’s made and not purchased – I did find a yummy-sounding picante sauce recipe on Chow.com. For a true picante sauce, blend it until smooth. And although the recipe calls for broiling the ingredients and finishing in a slow cooker, I would simply roast the vegetables on a baking sheet at 400 degrees until they are thoroughly cooked and beginning to char, removing each as it reaches that point. Then blend with the salt and vinegar. Here’s the recipe as it was written:

SLOW COOKER PICANTE SALSA
• 3 ½ lbs. tomatoes, cored
• 1 large red onion, peeled and cut in half
• 4 to 10 jalapeños (choose your heat), stems removed
• 4 garlic cloves, smashed
• 1 to 2 tsp. kosher salt
• 3 tbsp. white vinegar

Broil the tomatoes, onion, jalapeños, and garlic in the oven until the peppers get blackened, about 5 to 10 minutes depending on your oven. Using tongs, transfer the broiled ingredients to the slow cooker and cook on high for 2 to 3 hours. Use tongs to transfer the ingredients to a blender. Add the salt and vinegar. Pulse until the salsa reaches your desired consistency. Be careful not to blend it into sauce — you want there to be little chunks. (No chunks if you’re going for a true picante sauce).
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