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At the Kitchen Table: 04/01/2011

DIY - Do it Yourself

In this time of belt tightening, the Bay Area seems to be on fire with DIY (Do it Yourself; a new acronym for an old idea) cookbooks, craft books, home improvement projects and more. The DIY idea has caught on big time, so much so that more and more people are canning, pickling, and preserving than possibly in our grandmother’s day (depending on how old you are.) It’s about time this full-circle moment occurred. As the cooking gene mostly skipped a generation in my family (my mother was a decent cook, but with eight children, who could blame her for the occasional tuna and peas on toast for dinner?), I am more aligned with my grandparent’s generation of saving, preserving, and DIY determination. Now, living in Glen Ellen, I am committed to making things from the bounty around me, a good thing for everyone who knows me.

One of my favorite things to make is soup. It is one of the more healthy and soulful dishes you can create with very little expense and great results. It fills you up in more ways than one and is a great use of little pieces of discarded vegetables lying around in your crisper. I am never happier than when I am in the kitchen puttering, while chopping and stirring an amalgam of ingredients that never looked so good in a pot of swirling stock. Sometimes, when making stock, I don’t even bother to peel the garlic and onions. I might cut an onion in half and toss it in; it’s faster and easier, especially if I’m just boiling it for the flavor.

Making soup is more of an intuitive way to cook, something of which I am the Queen. A little of this, a little of that, a taste here, a taste there – it’s finished. After taste, I look for texture and color. All three are important. There is nothing worse than eating a mushy, brown, overcooked asparagus. It should be bright green with still a slight snap to its texture, but not raw. Ditto for broccoli.

Here is my fool-proof start to a soup: I almost always start with a saut of onions or leeks, fennel, carrot, and celery, sometimes garlic. Any combination of these ingredients is a great beginning. Then, add your desired mix of either veggies, chicken or meat pieces, brown a little, then add stock. Simmer. Hearty, ingredient-filled, chunky, flavorful soups are probably my specialty, but I like them all. Who doesn’t love a bowl of steaming hot Pho with floating shitake mushrooms, shredded chicken and daikon and rice noodles hovering just below the surface, or a creamy pureed vegetable soup with a crusty piece of baguette sidling the edge of the bowl?

Whichever soup style you prefer, there are many ways to make it delicious. There is something so essential, so basic, about making soup that I look forward to a day off when I can either do little DIY projects, like jams, dressings, and pickles, or a Sunday spent cooking a more elaborate meal for friends – something my busy schedule might not allow for during the week. Do it yourself on a Sunday, when you can linger, lavishing your attention on the stockpot and then sit down to enjoy your masterpiece.

Kabocha squash soup with coconut milk and lemongrass

I just made this brightly colored orange soup last weekend for a Sunday supper gathering with friends. Use cilantro if you cannot find Kaffir lime leaves, but the lemongrass is a wonderful addition.

5 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 medium Kabocha squash, seeds removed
1 TBS vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
salt and pepper
1 TBS minced garlic
3 stalks lemongrass, tough tops and outer leaves removed, finely chopped, about a cup
cup grated fresh ginger
1 or 2 Kaffir lime leaves, or cilantro
One 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
10-15 Thai basil leaves, bundled and cut into thin ribbons, about 2 TBS
1 lime or lime juice (optional)

Preheat oven 400 degrees.

Warm stock over low heat.

Place the squash, cut side down, in baking dish with a little water. Cover and roast until tender, 30-35 minutes. When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop it out of the skin. You should have about 4 cups.

Heat the oil in a soup pot and add the onions, 1/2 tsp. salt, and a pinch of pepper and cook until they begin to soften, about three minutes. Add the garlic, lemongrass, and ginger and cook for two minutes. Add the squash, the stock and the lime leaf and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, about 30 minutes.

Remove the lime leaf and puree the squash mixture in a blender or immersion blender until smooth. Add the coconut milk and cook for 5-10 minutes. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste or a squeeze of lime juice. Garnish each serving with Thai basil.

Recipe inspired by Annie Sommerville, Everyday Greens.

Tricia O’Brien writes the Vegetable of the Month column for the Oak Hill Farm newsletter and lives in Glen Ellen. You can visit and follow her blog at
Email: tobcaters@gmailcom

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