Monday, September 13, 2010

Beef Soup: True Enough

My friend John Reimringer has just published his first novel, Vestments. John has called it his love letter to the city of St. Paul. Indeed, the city’s presence is strong throughout the book, shaping the characters’ daily lives, their choices, their reactions to each other—just as cities do in real life.

After listening to him read from Vestments, I decided John should have some soup and it must be of beef. For this man, a steer should be hewn down in its prime and laid low with long simmering. And so I’d make stock. As an homage, the ingredients would come from the St. Paul Farmers Market.

I got beef shanks from Farm on Wheels. I put them, together with cubed beef chuck, in the oven to roast while I prepared the aromatics. First, the strong leaves of an unblanched celery plant. Yellow onions and sage would bolster John and his wife, poet Katrina Vandenberg, with their pungency. But I added bay and rosemary, black pepper and sweet carrots, too, to soften and round out the flavors; I wanted my friends to be happy. Oh, and a bit of garlic, too. They would get no less than the best.

I put the bones to bed in a crock pot, their vegetable friends tucked in all around them. Then I let slow heat work its magic, easing subtle fingers into the hearts of marrow bones, smoothing out collagen and fat, drawing out essences; leaving the souls of vegetables and meat suspended in cooking liquid.

Finally, when I tasted a bit of meat, there was nothing beefy about it anymore. I strained the broth, defatted it, and cooked it down until it was strong, velvety, and satisfying. In went a half cup of pearled barley along with the beef cubes I roasted earlier. It would take about forty-five minutes for the grain to cook. In that time, I diced some more carrots and sliced shallots, then chopped some green beans for color and fun.

The weird thing about being friends with a novelist and a poet is this: I worry that I know a lot more about them than they can possibly have deduced about me. Their jobs are to make art, and art is emotional truth. A poem, the characters in a novel: they are shards of the author’s self caught and pinned onto the page like an entomological specimen. It’s published and out there, for better or for worse. Little bits of their truths are available on for anyone in the world to buy and read in black and white.

I brought two quarts of my emotional truth, still hot from the stove, to another of John’s readings on a rainy night last week. Soup can’t say everything. I hope it said enough.


What am I supposed to do with all these little peppers that Harmony Valley keeps sending? The neighbors with whom I share the CSA don’t want to deal with them, so I have been inheriting entire paper sacks full of thin-fleshed red, orange, and yellow jewels not much bigger than a thumb.

I’ve been stacking them up like a miser with gold coins. But no more. You can’t hoard food; you have to spend it, however precious and rare it may be. I know just the thing to do with these dear ones. If you want to show a pepper to full advantage, you roast it.

This would be better done over a wood fire or on a charcoal grill, but my stove’s broiler works just fine. I have cookie sheets that are specially designated for roasting peppers. They are blackened with the unctuous pepper juices that ooze out and burn to the pan, never to be scrubbed free. These sheets will not bake cookies again.

Regiment your peppers, rank and file, leaving an inch or two between them so the hot, dry air of the broiler or grill can reach everywhere. Put them on the heat and go do something else until you hear them squeal and pop. Be brave; leave them until their skins are blackened and blistered. Then turn them. For large bell peppers, you may have to char four sides plus top and bottom. For these little dolls, one flip did the trick.

When the peppers are well charred, dump them into a paper bag and close them up. You can also use a bowl and cover them with a dish towel. The idea is to let them sweat their skins off. The hollow center of the pepper is filled with steam that will continue cooking the flesh and make the peppers easier to peel.

Finally, fish the peppers out of their sweat lodge. Pull off their skins, then pull out their caps. Tear them in half, dodging steam and hot liquid. Scoop out the seeds with your thumb, if the heat doesn’t bother you, or with a spoon or the back of a knife. It helps if you keep a small fingerbowl of water while you fillet your peppers. Rinse your fingers if you need to, but avoid rinsing the pepper flesh. You will wash off all the roasty deliciousness.

When you are finished, then perhaps more of the afternoon will have passed than you intended. Maybe your fingers will be pink and tender from the steam. But you will have a bowl of riches that no one can buy any other way.

What to do with your newmade treasure? You can make a mighty fine sandwich from roasted peppers, sprouts, your favorite cheese, and maybe a dab of olive oil and fines herbes. You can purée them into a cream soup that will make people drop their nets on the shore and follow you for the rest of their lives. You can pickle them in white wine vinegar with a little salt and sugar, then get them out some horrible February day to remind yourself that there is such thing as summer.

I put some of mine on top of a focaccia.

Whole Wheat Focaccia with Shallots and Roasted Red Peppers

1 package yeast
¾c lukewarm water
1 T sugar
½ c flour
Another 2 c white flour
And 2c whole wheat flour
1 t salt
1 c water
1 c olive oil
2 or 3 shallots, sliced thin
Another 2-3 T olive oil
1 cup roasted peppers, skinned and seeded
Sea salt to taste

Mix up the yeast, the lukewarm water, and the sugar. Let it stand for 5-10 minutes in a warm place. When you return, the solution should be foaming like gangbusters. This “proves” the yeast, i.e. demonstrates that it is alive and ready to do its job. Congratulate the yeast on its virility and add the ½ cup flour. Go away for about a half hour.

When you return, the yeast will have made a hell of a job with that flour. You will have a bowl of oatmeal-colored gloop shot through with bubbles from the action of the yeast. You may wish to signal your appreciation with a low whistle. This gloop is called the “sponge.”

Mix the flours and the salt in a big bowl. Make a well with your fist or a spoon. Pour in the remaining water, 1c oil, and the sponge. Use a rubber scraper to mix this mess up until all the flour is incorporated and the dough ball is starting to look a bit raggedy. Scrape the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it until it is smooth. Put it in an oiled bowl; the big bowl you were just using will probably work. Put a little oil on your palm and slather it across the dough surface to keep things from drying out. Cover the bowl with foil, plastic wrap, or a cloth and set it in a warm spot. (If your kitchen is drafty, preheat the oven to 200 and turn it off. When you open the door, you’ll lose 100 degrees anyway. Put the bowl in there.) In about an hour to 90 minutes, the dough will have doubled in size.

While that’s happening, put the sliced shallots in a small pan with the last bit of oil. Sweat them in there at low heat until they are golden or until you get sick of it. This should take around 20-30 minutes.

When you’ve finished washing the dishes and calling your friend Betty, then turn the dough out of the bowl and onto a greased cookie sheet. If you prefer, you can divide the dough into two loaves at this time. Spread it out with your hands until it is about an inch thick. Scatter the shallots and oil across the dough, then add the peppers in artful arrangements. Preheat the oven to 350°. Allow the dough to rise again, around 20-30 minutes. Bake the bread for 20-35 minutes, until the crust is browned and makes a hollow sound when you tap it. Sprinkle sea salt on top of the loaf. Make it look pretty.