Monday, May 31, 2010

Hot & Sour Soup -- fast and fresh

Hot and Sour Soup makes or breaks a satisfying Chinese restaurant meal for me. (Kudos to Schuang Cheng in Minneapolis and Szechuan in Rosedale, MN for making my favorites.) Thanks to the late Bethann Thornburgh, I can make wonderful soup at home in 30 minutes.

Between 1969 and 1976, Thornburgh wrote Recipix, a series of cartoon-strip recipes for the Washington Post and she published them as 50 step-by-step recipes-in-pictures from around the world. I copied her Hot and Sour Soup directions (not the adorable drawings) on a 3x5 card that has lived on my refrigerator since 1982. With a stash of dried shitake mushrooms, chicken stock (Penzey’s Chicken Soup Base is great), soy sauce and sesame oil, this is fast, easy, and foolproof. It is delicious with or without tofu, fresh mushrooms, and scallions, and you can add rice or noodles to the broth. You are the boss of this soup.

This makes 4 appetizer portions, but you may double or triple the recipe.

HOT and SOUR SOUP adapted from Recipix

dried shitake mushrooms (5-6), soaked in hot water
1-2 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 block of firm tofu, cut into ¾” cubes or rectangles
2T cornstarch mixed with 3 T water
4 c chicken stock (canned or paste)
1 T soy sauce
½ t white pepper (black will do)
2 T white or rice wine vinegar
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 t sesame oil
1 t hot oil
2 scallions, chopped fine

  1. Put the dried mushrooms and 1-2 cups of water in a microwave safe bowl with the mushroom cap side up. Microwave on high for 3 minutes. Let them soak until soft. Drain the liquid or (adding one more step) strain it through a coffee filter and use it for the soup stock. Cut off the stems and then slice into ¼” strips.
  2. While the mushrooms are soaking, slice the tofu.
  3. Combine the stock, soy, dried and fresh mushrooms. Boil. Cover and simmer for three minutes.
  4. Add the tofu, pepper, and vinegar. Boil again.
  5. Re-mix the cornstarch and water, and add to the stock over medium-high heat. Stir until the soup begins to thicken.
  6. Slowly pour in the beaten egg while stirring the soup.
  7. Remove from the heat and add the sesame and hot chili oil.
  8. Garnish with scallions. Should you be making this in the dead of night with no fresh vegetables in your fridge, know that Penzeys sells a very satisfactory Dried Chive.

  • No tofu? No problem. You will make mushroom soup.
  • Add rice for Hot and Sour Chicken Rice Soup. Add cooked rice at Step 4.
  • Add ramen noodles at step 4. At that point it probably ceases to be Hot and Sour Soup and morphs into Spicy Noodle Soup.
  • If your pantry doesn't distinguish between "hot oil" and "sesame oil," perhaps because you have one or the other or only "Hot Sesame Oil," do not fret.  Go with what you've got.
  • Vegetarian option:  Penzey's makes an excellent Vegetable Soup Base.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

LBJ's Pedernales River Chili

Recently, my pal Nancy McCormick was lamenting the loss of her Mother's chili recipe, which she recalled as belonging to former President Lyndon Johnson.  Between Nancy and her brother, the document was lost years ago.

As a proud owner of a copy of the 6th edition of The Congressional Club Cookbook (1961), complete with a forward from Jacqueline Kennedy, I suspected that if LBJ's chili recipe had been published, that it should be in that book.  Sure enough, I found Pedernales River Chili, attributed to LBJ.

Not surprisingly, it called for that great Texas ingredient, Ro-Tel, originally an enthusiastically spicy tomato and green chili mixture.  Whether leading or following our growing national obsession with spicy food, Ro-Tel is now available in more flavors, including habanero Ro-Tel.

I have adapted this recipe slightly, added some clarifying instructions, and a link to instructions for grinding your own meat. 

Pedernales River Chili  (adapted from The Congressional Club Cookbook)

4 pounds chili meat (course-ground)
1 large onion, course chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tsp ground oregano
1 tsp cumin seed
6 tsp chili powder (more if needed)
2 cans Ro-Tel tomatoes
salt, to taste
2 c. hot water

Put the meat, onion, and garlic in a large saucepan or dutch oven.  Break up the meat, and cook until it is brown and the onion and garlic are soft.  Drain off some of the fat.  Add the oregano, cumin seed, chili powder, Ro-Tel, and hot water.  Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for about an hour.


1.  To thicken, add 1T cornmeal about midway through the cooking.
2.  If 2 cans of Ro-Tel and 6 tsp chili powder blow your gasket, a taming addition to this and any other chili is 1/4 cup dried sweet corn (Cope's is my favorite), which tames the heat and adds a slightly sweet flavor.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Secret to Ginger Chili Jelly: Incendiary Simple Syrup

I love hot pepper jams, but never found them to be hot enough. Why? Traditional recipes call for 4 cups of peppers and 5 cups of sugar. I have kept a detailed Jam Book since 2002, and no matter how much cayenne I have added or what combination of peppers I have used, the sweetness always whomps the heat.

In April 2010, I had a vision of Ginger-Chili Jelly with a golden glow and a fierce bite, and insight into making it work.

Crank up the sugar.
Three Simply Incendiary Simply Syrups solved the sugar problem: (1) sliced whole fresh ginger, (2) sliced fresh haba┼łero and red fresno chilis, and (3) fiercely hot dried chili flakes from Penzey’s. I cooled and strained each one, and then reboiled and strained the ginger syrup because it was cloudy.

Instead of making a long-day project, I made the syrups ahead and refrigerated them overnight. Armed with syrup, I could reduce jelly making to its essence: boiling. (1) Boil the lids, bands and jars for critical sterilization; (2) boil the syrups, cider vinegar, sugar, and pectin according to the pectin package directions; and (3) boil the jelly-filled jars to seal the deal. If you can boil water, you can do this.

It took two tries to get it right.
With the first (red jam on the left), I was a Jelly-Coward, and added hot peppers, making Ginger-Chili Jam. Good flavor, but the peppers were chewy in an unattractive way, and it wasn’t jelly.

On the second try, I focused jelly recipes calling for sugar and fruit juice. I suspected that even Simply Incendiary Simple Syrups would fail me, so I made CHILI LIQUID to take the place of fruit juice and to bump up the heat. Bingo.

This golden jelly has just the right glow and both a slow and after bite, just what I wanted.

NOTE: This is NOT a primer on preserving. Read and heed the directions on the pectin package and consult comprehensive how-to sites or some excellent books on preserving including:

Linda J. Amendt’s Blue Ribbon Preserves (source of Onion Hot Pepper Relish, my MN State Fair Blue Ribbon 2007 winner).

Mary Anne Dragan’s well preserved: pickles, relishes, jams and chutneys for the new cook (source of Gingered Pear Jam, Red Onion Relish, Butterscotch Peach Jam, and Pear & Ginger Jam, my 2004 Blue Ribbon winner.)

Should you have any notion that making jam or jelly is anything but a calming exercise, you need only read "Jam Anxiety" in Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking. Five pages of her jam anxieties that will calm yours.

DAY 1: Make Simply Incendiary Sugar Syrups

1. GINGER SYRUP. Boil for one minute. Cool and strain. This may be cloudy and require reboiling and straining through a coffee filter.
• ½ pound fresh ginger, cut into 1-inch chunks
• 2 c sugar
• ½ cup water

2. DRIED PEPPER SYRUP. Boil for one minute. Cool and strain through a fine-mesh strainer.
• ¼ cup medium hot crush red peppers
• 1 c sugar
• 1/3 cup water

3. FRESH CHILI SYRUP. Boil for one minute. Cool and strain.
• 4 habanero peppers, sliced
• ½ pound red fresno chilis (or other red, spicy pepper)
• 3 c sugar
• 2/3 cup water

DAY 2: Make the Jelly

4. Sterilization: Wash the jars, lids and rings in hot, soapy water. In a large pot or kettle, boil the jars for at least 10 minutes. Note: STERILIZATION is not optional.

5. Reheat the syrups and strain through a coffee filter. You should have 3 cups of GINGER CHILI SYRUP.

6. CHILI LIQUID. Boil for one minute. Pour into a strainer over a bowl and let the liquid infuse while you prepare to make the jellys. You should have 3 cups of CHILI LIQUID.
• ½ cup red chili flakes
• ½ cup sugar
• 3 c. water

7. You are now ready to prepare the Ginger Chili Jelly according to the pectin package directions.
Prepare the jelly with
• 3 cups CHILI LIQUID (#6)
• 1 cup apple cider vinegar
• 4 cups of sugar.

a. In a large and deep pan, mix the CHILI LIQUID, vinegar and pectin. Bring to a full rolling boil (won’t stop when you stir).
b. Add the GINGER CHILI SYRUP and sugar, bring to a boil. At a full rolling boil, BOIL FOR ONE MINUTE. Remove from heat.
c. Pour into hot jars, seal with lids and bands. Boil for 10 minutes.

Ginger Chili Jelly is a friend to cream cheese, a glaze for grilled meat and fish, a wonderful addition to the end of a stir fry, an astonishing addition to vanilla ice cream, and a messy but yummy addition to popped corn. In the spirit of President Richard Nixon, who famously ate cottage cheese with ketchup, you should know that Ginger Chili Jelly is also a friend to cottage cheese.