Soup’s on!

Simona of bricole is hosting the fifth edition of Is My Blog Burning’s My Legume Love Affair, which challenges participants to show off how they use beans and legumes in sweet and savory applications. It’s chilly these days, and I had a bag of dried Great Northern beans I’ve been wanting to use in soup. So, I made Tuscan White Bean Soup, which is my riff on a classic Italian dish. Susan of The Well-Seasoned Cook oversees MLLA, which is hosted monthly by a different blogger; check out her site for upcoming legume events. I can’t wait to see what other bloggers have done. In the meantime, here’s my contribution to the November event.


Tuscan White Bean Soup

Tuscan White Bean Soup


Tuscan White Bean Soup

If you don’t have cooked dried beans on hand, you can substitute an equal amount of canned Great Northerns, cannellinis, navy beans, or even chickpeas. Be sure to rinse and drain the canned beans, and you may want to adjust the amount of salt in the recipe. If you happen to have a Parmigiano-Reggiano rind on hand, you can add it to the soup while it simmers (discard before serving). For a light supper, serve with crusty bread and a green salad.

1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups chopped onion (1 large)

4 minced garlic cloves

4 cups cooked dried Great Northern beans

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)

Fresh rosemary sprigs, for garnish (optional)

1. Heat a Dutch oven or large saucepan over medium heat. Add oil. Add onion and garlic. Cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally or until the onion is very tender. Add beans, broth, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and rosemary; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir in the vinegar. Puree, using an immersion blender (or transfer soup to a regular blender or food processor); adjust the seasonings, if needed. Serve topped with grated cheese and a rosemary sprig. Yield: 6 cups (4-6 servings).

Bean fest


Dried heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo

Bean-O: Dried heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo

Tonight I’m cooking up a big-ass pot of beans to use up a package of dried beans that have been languishing in my pantry. Cooking dried beans more often is part of my resolution after visiting the Rancho la Puerta last week.

I adore beans, and the only drawback with dried beans is that you have to plan ahead to soak them. The task doesn’t involve much work–just sort through the beans to remove any small stones or other debris, put them in a large pot, cover with water, cover the pot, and let it stand for eight hours or overnight.*  (Smaller legumes, like split peas or lentils, don’t require soaking.)

Dried beans also can take awhile to cook, which also doesn’t involve much actual effort, but you do have to keep tabs on them.

  • Drain the soaked beans, return them to the pot, and cover them with 1 inch of cold water.
  • Bring the pot to a boil.
  • Immediately reduce the heat to s simmer and cook the beans, anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. Cooking time depends on the size and age of the bean. Be sure to test for doneness. Maintain the water at a simmer, so the beans don’t come out tough, and don’t add salt to the beans while they cook, which also can toughen them. 

I’m cooking Great Northern beans tonight and will use them tomorrow to make a Tuscan Bean Soup. I’ll share the recipe tomorrow.

If you have a bean recipe to share, check out the Is My Blog Burning? My Legume Love Affair recipe event, which yield lots of creative ways with beans. 

* I prefer the overnight method for soaking beans because I think it yields a more tender, uniformly cooked bean. That’s completely unscientific, just my opinion. You could opt for the quick-soak method: place the dried beans in a large pot, cover with triple their volume in water; bring to a boil and cook 2 minutes; remove the pan from the heat, cover, and soak 1 hour. 

Iron chef


Elbow grease and patience restored a rusted-out vintage saucepan to cooking glory.

Elbow grease and patience restored a rusted-out vintage saucepan to glory.

Rascal and I were taking a walk one recent blustery Saturday morning, when my friend Kevin called to us from the driveway of a house where there was an estate sale.

“Hey, come take a look at something I’m thinking of buying,” he said.

So we trotted up driveway and made our way to the back of the garage, where there was a gorgeous wood church pew in the shadows. It was in terrific condition, and the top of the bench lifted to reveal ample storage in the seat. The price was right, so I urged him to buy it. Rascal agreed.

Then we spied the real treasure on a table catty-corner from the pew: a number of pieces of old cast-iron cookware. There were a couple of Dutch ovens, deep skillets, a saucepan, and even a large casserole dish, all deep red with rust. It had been many years since these pots had taken a turn on the stove.

“Wow,” we said.


A deep fryer before we start work

The rust belt: A deep fryer before we start work

“That one could be a Christmas present,” I said, pointing to a deep skillet. Of course, I wasn’t suggesting Kevin put a bow on a rusted-out pan and hand it out. But I knew he could restore the pan to culinary glory, and that effort would be the real gift.

Kevin has a particular appreciation for cast iron and often reaches for his well-seasoned skillet (a hand-me-down from his mom) to whip up cornbread. He ended up buying the whole lot of estate-sale cookware, with plans to restore all of it. His wife assumed he was going to dole the stuff out to family and friends. But he was so beguiled by the stuff that he decided to start a collection. 

Cooks prize cast iron because it heats slowly, but evenly and retains heat better than just about any other material. It’s great for high-heat cooking, to sear a steak or scallops, for instance. A deep skillet is ideal for frying chicken. A well-seasoned pot has a lovely, stick-resistant patina (made of carbon, really). These days, manufacturers like Lodge sell preseasoned pots, but traditionally, pots have been seasoned by years of cooking. (Note: You could opt for enameled cast-iron cookware, which offers the benefits of cast iron but is rust-resistant and doesn’t require seasoning, thanks to the enamel coating. But it costs a lot more. Lodge’s 5-quart cast-iron Dutch oven is $50 vs. $168 for their enameled cast-iron version.) Kevin’s cache of cast-iron cookware would need serious cleaning and reseasoning.

How to season the pots was a conundrum, since Kevin discovered that there are nearly as many ways to season cast-iron cookware as there are cooks, and everyone swears their way is the One True Method. The Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion, for instance, suggests heating a pan on the stove over high heat until it’s hot enough for a drop of water to sizzle. Then coat the pan with vegetable oil, rubbing vigorously and blotting up any extra oil; for a new pot, repeat the process several times until the surface blackens. Some cooks swear by animal fat (i.e., lard) for seasoning; others say you should never use animal fat. Some sources say you must bake the oiled pot in a high oven; others advocate a low oven. After some research, Kevin settled on a method that works well, and he gladly shared with me and another friend…as long as we came over and did the work. A hands-on lesson, so to speak. Here’s what we did, beginning with two very rusted pans.


Scrubbing with a steel wool pad removes much of the rust.

Scrubbing with a steel wool pad to remove rust.

Cleaning Cast-Iron with Kevin

1. Thoroughly wet the pan.

2. Scrub with a steel-wool pad. This will remove much of the rust. Use a stiff-bristled steel-wool brush to remove stubborn rust spots, especially in crevices. Rinse every so often so you can check your progress. If the rust is really intractable, you may need to resort to an electric sander. Whatever tool you use, take care to remove the rust without scrubbing away the dark patina.

3. Dry the pan completely and check it again for any lingering rust. The rust will become apparent as the pan dries.

Kevin is satisfied with my cleaning efforts.

Spot check: Kevin deems my cleaning efforts satisfactory.


4. Scrub the pot with hot water, a dish brush, and mild dish soap. Dry the pot thoroughly and do one last check for any lingering signs of rust. Scour the pan as needed to remove remaining rust.


Coating a pot with oil to season it

Coating a pot with oil to season it

5. Generously coat the clean pot with fat (Kevin uses canola oil, which has a neutral flavor). 


6. Bake the pot in a 325- to 450-degree oven (people use a wide range of temperatures) for about an hour. 

7. Remove the pot from the oven. Let it cool until it’s safe to handle. Reapply oil and bake again. You can repeat the oiling/baking process several times, if you like.

The results of our efforts were glorious, as you can see below. Of course, I borrowed the deep fryer yesterday to fry up some chicken for our Thanksgiving feast. It did the job beautifully. Hmmm, perhaps I can “forget” to return it?


restored cast-iron cookware

Vintage beauties: restored cast-iron cookware

Thanksgiving cookin’


Traditional Sweet Potato Casserole (Cooking Light)

Traditional Sweet Potato Casserole (Cooking Light)

One of the benefits of hosting a smaller Thanksgiving feast is feeling that you can depart from tradition. I’ve got four folks coming over today. And since at least a couple of us aren’t particularly fond of turkey, and the gathering is small, I’m making fried chicken. Here’s the menu for this afternoon:


Appetizers (Marcona almonds, olives, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, apples)

Bruno Paillard Champagne

Green Goddess Salad (from The New York Times)

Fried Chicken Masala (from Suvir Saran’s American Masala)

Traditional Sweet Potato Casserole (from Cooking Light)

Grits (from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table)

Snowflake rolls (bought from Whole Foods)

Gysler 2006 Weinheimer Mandelberg Riesling 

Apple pie, provided by Aimee

Mayan Chocolate Sorbet (from Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta)


It’s time for me to get back to the preparations. Have a wonderful, healthy holiday, and enjoy the company of good friends and family!

Pantry treasures


A can of tomatoes provides the base for versatile sauce.

A can of tomatoes provides the base for versatile sauce.

One way I’m preparing for an upcoming cross-country move is to eat through my pantry staples. Sure, I can donate unopened cans of broth or boxes of pasta to food banks, which really need them this year. But they won’t be too interested in my half-consumed sack of Great Northern beans or Carnoli rice or artisinal cornmeal. Can you say soup? Risotto? Grits?

I’ve been eating popcorn like a fiend, yet the level of kernels in the jar appears to remain constant–a magic jar of popcorn that seems to insist on migrating with me! Any thoughts on what to do with popped corn (other than slather it with butter and salt) will be much appreciated.

Pasta is high on my list of pantry favorites. So, in an effort to dress up the stuff, I pulled a can of whole peeled tomatoes out of the cupboard and whipped up a pot of tomato sauce. It’s a low-effort recipe that yields lots of flavor and possibilities.

Pantry Pasta Sauce

The flavors are intentionally simple; add rosemary or oregano, if you like. You can use this, of course, on pasta, or as the base for lasagna. Last night, I combined some with cooked penne, Monterey Jack cheese, and Parmigiano-Reggiano in a little gratin dish and baked at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. It’s also good on pizza, or spooned over sauteed chicken.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Pantry Pasta Sauce

Pantry Pasta Sauce

1 cup chopped onion

2 minced garlic cloves

1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes (use kitchen shears to roughly cut up the tomatoes in the can)

1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1. Heat a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add oil. Add onion; saute 4 minutes or until onion is softened. Add garlic; saute 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and remaining ingredients; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Puree in the pot using an immersion blender or transfer sauce to a blender or food processor. Yield: 2 1/2 cups.

Wing it


Guests of Rancho la Puerta prepare a lavish dinner at La Cocina que Canta.

Will work for food: Guests of Rancho la Puerta prepare a lavish dinner at La Cocina que Canta.

Because food is so central to the experience at Rancho la Puerta, and guests often want to learn how to make all that great food at home, The Ranch opened an on-site cooking school and culinary center: La Cocina que Canta on the grounds of Tres Estrellas organic garden last year. Of course, I was eager to check it out.

Located on the grounds of The Ranch’s expansive Tres Estrellas organic garden, La Cocina features a

Students check out the garden before cooking

Students check out the garden before cooking

 large demonstration kitchen that also offers ample space for students to cook hands-on. I’ll take a hands-on class over a demonstration any day, and, it appeared, so did about a dozen of my fellow guests, who also signed up for the 3 1/2-hour class. We gathered in the kitchen under the tutelage of Deborah Schneider, a San Diego-based chef who specializes in Baja California cuisine and is the co-author of Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho la Puerta. After watching a brief demonstration of basic knife skills, we divided up to prepare the eight recipes (some folks worked in teams on the more involved dishes) that would comprise our supper. There was a salad, of course, a Mexican-style lasagna (with tortillas and ancho-chile salsa standing in for pasta and tomato sauce), chiles rellenos, pinto beans, a quinoa salaed, chocolate sorbet, and almond cookies. 


While other students gravitated to the recipes, I decided to take up the No-Recipe Soup from the Garden. A bowl of vegetables plucked from the garden  and a few scribbled suggestions were offered as inspiration. I enjoy improvising, and the ingredients were good, so I couldn’t go too far wrong. I set about chopping onions, garlic, and celery; peeling, seeding, and cubing butternut squash; and chopping up a couple of apples. Healthy cooking requires getting well-acquainted with your chef’s knife. Chef Schneider stopped by my station as I sliced, and diced, and chopped.


Chef Schneider at the stove

Chef Schneider at the stove

“What do you think you’ll do?” she asked.


I had some ideas. “I think I’ll roast the squash in the oven, saute the aromatics in a pot, then add the squash and apples and some broth and let it cook.”

“I don’t think we’ll have enough time to do that,” she replied. “How about if we layer the ingredients in a pot and cook it that way?”

I’m all for simplicity, and a chance to learn something new. So, here’s the recipe, although, it’s not really a recipe, since the amounts aren’t precise, and you can use whatever is on hand. This is what we made (I’d halve the amounts when I make this at home), and it would be a terrific addition to any holiday spread:

You don't always need a recipe to make a great soup.

No-Recipe Soup from the Garden

1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Layer 2 chopped onions, 3 minced garlic cloves, 4 chopped celery stalks, and about 1 tablespoons of peeled and chopped ginger in the bottom of the pan. Top with 2 peeled, seeded, and chopped butternut squash. Cut out a circle of parchment paper large enough to cover the vegetables; lay the parchment paper directly over the vegetables. This allows them to steam and sweat and soften. Cover the pot and cook 15 minutes or until the squash begins to get tender.

2. Uncover the pot; discard the parchment paper. Add 2 peeled and chopped apples. Add enough vegetable broth (homemade is ideal) or water to cover by 1 to 2 inches. Reduce heat, cover, and cook 30 minutes or until squash is tender. Puree in batches in a blender or food processor (or use an immersion blender to puree it in the pot). Add and additional 1 tablespoon peeled, chopped ginger; puree. Add salt and black pepper to taste, along with any other spices you like–fresh nutmeg, perhaps, or ground cumin. You also could stir in a little Sriracha or sambal oelek. Whatever suits your mood works here.

Yield: A hell of a lot (we didn’t measure it, but I’d guess this made about 12 cups).

Back from the Ranch


Lunchtime offerings at Rancho la Puerta typically include a stellar salad, like this one made with roasted beets and medallions of goat cheese. Yum!

Lunchtime offerings at Rancho la Puerta typically include a stellar salad, like this one made with roasted beets and medallions of goat cheese. Yum!

I’ve just returned from a week’s stay at Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. It was a nice little item I’d bid on and won at a charity auction last year because I’d always dreamed of going. So my pal Hillari and I made the long journey, arriving under cover of darkness (she found the trip winding along San Diego County’s quiet backcountry roads toward the border crossing in Tecate a tad unnerving, or at least carsick-inducing).

The week was all I’d hoped for–relaxing, with lots of opportunities for early morning hikes on

When you start the day with a brisk hike up a desert mountain, you feel fine about eating as much as you want.

When you start the day with a brisk hike up a desert mountain, you feel fine about eating as much as you want.

desert mountain trails, plenty of yoga, and other classes to sample. The special poetry workshop was a pleasant surprise, as were the qi gong sessions. The chance to learn about healing touch and colors, and to craft my very own prayer arrow (basically yarn wrapped around a stick with some feathers and a crystal) was fun, but I’m still a skeptic.

Certainly, a standout highlight was the food. The overriding philosophy at The Ranch is to enjoy lots of fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal. Ideally, in every dish. Butternut squash was the veggie of the week. It seemed the gardeners at the Ranch’s Tres Estrellas organic garden had a bumper crop this fall and the chefs found ways to include it in almost every meal. I even had a Mayan Chocolate Sorbet that incorporated the stuff, and it was delicious. Whatever was served, guests were welcome to enjoy as much or as little as they wished. I didn’t hesitate to ask for an extra fish taco (awesome!) and always pushed away from the table contentedly full. In general, The Ranch’s chefs hit a home run when they prepared Mexican and Mediterranean fare; their one foray into Asian wasn’t so successful.

Of course, I couldn’t resist picking up a copy of the new book Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho la Puerta by The Ranch’s founder, Deborah Szekely, and Chef Deborah M. Schneider, who often teaches at The Ranch’s new cooking school, La Cocina que Canta. Can’t wait to try the sorbet (for Thanksgiving, I think) and the fish tacos.


Marmalade rejects my handcrafted prayer arrow as a cat toy. Bitch.

Marmalade rejects my handcrafted prayer arrow as a cat toy. Bitch.

It’s all about the chow.

the culinary school at Rancho La Puerta.

La Cocina que Canta: the culinary school at Rancho La Puerta.

Am at Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. RLP is the legendary spa started in the 1940s by the couple who later went on to found the ultra-luxurious Golden Door. It’s my first visit here (the first of many to come, I hope, assuming I win the lottery–good thing I’m moving from no-lottery Alabama to back to lottery-fevered California).

I’ll go into more detail when I return, but suffice to say it’s like an upscale camp for grown-ups. Lots of activities to choose from, do nothing at all, if you please.

One of the many highlights is the food, which is healthy, but tasty and filling. When the staff rings the mealtime bell, I come runnin’, just like Pavlov’s dog. The produce comes from the Ranch’s extensive organic garden (overseen by the delightful and enthusiastic Salvador, ) and the occasional seafood dish features fresh catch from nearby Ensenada.

So, this afternoon, it’s lunch, of course, followed by making prayer arrows this afternoon. I have no clue what that entails, but it’s bound to be crafty and spritual. In any case, Hillari wants one. Why, is a mystery.



Rancho la Puerta (photo courtesy of Rancho la Puerta.)

Rancho la Puerta (photo courtesy of Rancho la Puerta)

I’m at Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, this week, eating well, hiking, and yoga’ing it up. I’m especially eager to explore their new culinary center, La Cocina que Canta, where Chef Jesus Gonzalez shares the legendary spa’s epicurean secrets with guests.

Spuds for Thanksgiving


If potatoes are on your Thanksgiving menus, cook the spuds with their skin on.

If potatoes are on your Thanksgiving menus, cook the spuds whole to maximize their nutritional punch. (Photo courtesy of USDA.)

Thanksgiving may be a couple weeks away, but if you’re cooking the feast, you’re probably deep into planning the feast. No doubt, spuds of some type–russets in a mash, perhaps, or sweet potatoes in a casserole–will be part of the menu.

As you prepare your potatoes, keep some news from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in mind: How you cook the spuds affects their nutritional value. ARS researchers found that cubed and boiled potatoes may cook faster, but they also lose up to 75% of their mineral content. To preserve the spuds’ nutritional value, the ARS folks suggest boiling them whole with their skin on.

Clearly, our friends at the ARS don’t cook, because boiling whole potatoes would take forever. A better strategy would be to bake (about 45 to 60 minutes in a 400 degree oven) or microwave (about 10 minutes on HIGH; turn ’em halfway through) the spuds. (Don’t forget to pierce their skin with a fork so they don’t explode in the oven.) The baked potatoes will have a drier texture, so you may need to add a bit more liquid to the mash. 

It’s worth cooking tubers with care. Potatoes may have gotten a bad rap from the anti-carb crowd in recent years, but they are an excellent source of the mineral potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure and kidney function, and may prevent strokes. The recommended daily allowance for potassium is 3,500 milligrams. A medium baked russet potato has 610 milligrams; a baked sweet potato has even more, at 694.