Ad Hoc Soup

Soup So since I was a jerk last week and posted a recipe for insanely easy, insanely delicious chocolate pie, right at the beginning of January when everyone’s resolving to eat healthier and lose weight, I thought I’d make up for it, and post this recipe for insanely easy, insanely delicious, insanely healthy soup.

Although it’s not a recipe, exactly. It’s more of a concept. A philosophy even, one might say.

Eat me kenny shopsin We got this idea from Kenny Shopsin, of the famed Shopsin’s in New York, out of his wonderful and entertaining cookbook, Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin. The philosophy is this: With traditional soup, you make a big pot of it, and cook everything together, so the flavors of the vegetables/ beans/ meat/ whatnot all get blended into the broth. But with this soup, it’s exactly the opposite. You don’t make a big pot of it at once; instead, you make just a bowl or two of it at a time, ad hoc. You cook your protein, you sautee your veggies… and then, at the very last minute right before you’re ready to eat, you put all the stuff in a bowl, and pour the hot broth/ stock over it. (Or you can set some of the stuff on top, if you feel like making your soup all Japanese and pretty.)

It’s a very different philosophy of soup, and it’s one that I had to be persuaded about. With this method, the vegetables/ beans/ meat/ whatnot all keep their own flavors instead of blending together. But once I tried it, I was completely sold. The biggest upside is that the veggies don’t get mushy: they stay nicely crisp, and their flavors stay vivid and distinct. It’s also very fast: a quick sauteeing of veggies and/or meat, a quick nuking of some stock or broth, and you’re done. Plus you can use whatever veggies are in season, and whatever you happen to have on hand on your fridge. And you make exactly as much soup as you want: no more, no less.

The downside is that the flavors don’t have time to blend into the broth. But if you use a flavorful broth or stock to start with, that’s not a problem.

Here’s how it goes.

INGREDIENTS:

Vegetables Vegetables that are in season and that you like in soup. Carrots, celery, peppers, green beans, spinach, peas… whatever. You can also use frozen veggies if you like; frozen corn is especially good. For the most part, though, I like to stick with fresh.

A good stock or broth: chicken, vegetable, beef, whatever you like. I make my own stock and freeze it in little Tupperwares, it’s easy and yummy. But you can also use store-bought broth, if you have one you like. I use about two cups per serving if I’m eating the soup as a main course.

A little olive oil, enough for sauteeing veggies.

Some sort of protein that you like in soup. (You can skip the protein if you’re serving this soup as a side dish — I had the soup last week with bread and cheese, which was plenty protein-y. But if it’s your main course, you’ll want a protein.)

Salt and pepper.

PREPARATION:

Cook your protein however you like it cooked. Broil a chicken breast, poach an egg, cut up and sautee a sausage, nuke a can of beans.

Heat up your stock/ broth to just boiling.

Sautee pan Slice your veggies thin and sautee them lightly, in a little bit of olive oil. Start with veggies that take longer to cook, like carrots; finish with ones that take less time, like peppers. Or don’t sautee them at all, depending. Spinach, for instance, I just put in the soup bowl, since being in the hot stock for a couple/ few minutes will cook it plenty. Green onions I sprinkle on top.

Put your veggies and protein in a soup bowl, and pour the hot broth/ stock over it. If you like, you can reserve some of the veggies or protein, and arrange them prettily on top. I do this with green onions and slices of broiled chicken.

Salt and pepper to taste. Fresh herbs wouldn’t suck, either; but if you have a really flavorful stock with a lot of herbs in it, they’re not necessary.

Empty soup bowl And that’s it. Eat it up. Serve it with rice if you have some leftover, or some good bread, or some artisanal saltines (seriously, I am not kidding, I saw these at Rainbow Grocery). Or whatever. It can be a side dish or the main course. Eat huddled in front of your heater, or cuddled together under the blanket with a heat-seeking cat trying to wedge in between you. Serves however many you made enough for.

Why Are Believers So Hostile Toward Atheists?

The Atheist Atheists get labeled as offensive and bitter… when we express anger, and when we express hope and morality and meaning. Why is it important for believers to frame atheism as inherently joyless and hostile?

Is there anything atheists can say about our atheism — or even just about our lives — that won’t make people look at us with revulsion?

Two recent stories in the news/ blogs/ opinionosphere have made me vividly aware — not for the first time — of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position of non-believers in our culture. In one piece, atheists were called out for being negative and confrontational, and readers were informed that we’re angry and bitter all the time because we have no hope of life after death. In the other piece, non-believers were called out for sharing the positive, joyful aspects of our lives and the ways we find meaning and hope even in the face of death… and for failing to mention God when we do.

I know. It makes my head spin, too.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why Are Believers So Hostile Toward Atheists? To find out how atheists get accused of being hopeless, bitter nihilists, regardless of whether we’re expressing anger or joy — and why it’s so important for so many believers to frame atheism as inherently joyless and hostile — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Greta’s Amazing Chocolate Pie

Pi_plate It’s been a while since I’ve done a food post here that wasn’t about weight management, and I just made this pie for my birthday, so I thought I’d share the recipe.

This is a ridiculously easy, unbelievably delicious recipe for chocolate pie. And it’s not just me saying so: friends have been known to demand it for celebratory events, and will shed hot tears of bitter disappointment if it doesn’t appear at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. It’s very distinctive — most people who try it say they haven’t had anything else quite like it — and it’s one of those rare recipes that seems really elegant and like it would be really complicated, but in fact is insanely simple. The pie crust is 9/10th of the work.

The recipe came from my mother, but I don’t know where she got it from. I’ve been making it for many years now, and have refined the recipe a bit over the years, mostly in the direction of using better ingredients. I did an experimental version for my birthday this year (in addition to a classic version), which was a big hit, so I’m including that variation here as well.

CLASSIC CHOCOLATE PIE

INGREDIENTS

1 single pie crust (this is an open-faced pie). More on pie crust in a tic.
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 Tbsp. evaporated milk
2 squares/ ounces baking chocolate (unsweetened)
Whipped cream (optional in theory, mandatory in my opinion)

ScharffenBerger A quick note on the baking chocolate: For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, use Scharffen Berger’s if you possibly can, or some other seriously good baking chocolate. I made this pie for years using just regular baking chocolate from the supermarket, and it was perfectly yummy… but once I started using Scharffen Berger’s, it amped up from delicious to transcendent. I frankly don’t much care for Scharffen Berger’s eating chocolate, I think the mouth- feel is insufficiently creamy… but for cooking, their baking chocolate is beyond compare.

Bake the unfilled pie shell for 5-10 minutes, until it’s starting to firm up a little but isn’t cooked through. Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan. Add the other ingredients (minus the whipped cream) and mix; you can do this in the saucepan. (I add the eggs last, so the melted butter and chocolate have a chance to cool and the eggs don’t scramble.) Pour the filling into the pie shell. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the filling is set. (I usually test it at 30 minutes, but it usually still needs another 5-10 minutes. When it’s no longer jiggling in the middle, it’s done.)

That’s it.

No, really.

I told you. Ridiculously easy. Not counting the pie crust, the actual work you put into this pie takes about five minutes.

I always serve this with whipped cream, as the pie is intensely rich and dense, and I think the whipped cream gives it balance. But many people prefer it with the richness and denseness unadulterated, and scoff at the whipped cream as an unnecessary frill for lightweights. My advice: Make whipped cream available, and let your guests decide. (Don’t add too much sugar to the whipped cream; this pie is plenty sweet.)

EXPERIMENTAL CHOCOLATE PIE

Make the exact same recipe above, but when mixing the filling, add:

White pepper1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

This year was the first time I tried this experiment, and I think it was a big success. It gives the pie a nice, exotic, spicy bite that I think enhances the chocolate and gives it complexity and depth. But it also makes it less purely chocolatey. A lot of what makes this pie so yummy is its “pure essence of chocolate straight to the hindbrain” quality, and you do lose that with the spices. You be the judge. You can always make two — one classic, one experimental — and switch back and forth between the two until you explode.

BTW, if you wind up making this pie and come up with your own experimental variations — let me know! I’m toying with the idea of adding liquor, like rum or Kahlua or madeira. Cayenne might also be good — I love me some chocolate with cayenne — or maybe rosemary and almond. And I’m considering using vanilla vodka for the crust instead of regular vodka.

Speaking of which:

NOTES ON PIE CRUST

For years, I made this pie with store-bought pie crusts, mostly because one of the things I liked best about it was how easy and fast it was, and making my own pie crust would defeat that purpose. Also, pie crust was one of those cooking tasks that for some reason I found scary and daunting. And it’s true that if you get a decent quality store-bought pie crust made with butter, it will make a perfectly fine pie.

Rolling_pin_and_dough But I was recently taught how to make pie crust by my upstairs neighbor, Laura the Pie Queen… and it is one of the refinements that has elevated this pie from Perfectly Good to Ambrosially Exquisite. I have now become a complete convert — a snob, one might even say — and will have no further truck with store- bought pie crust. And while homemade pie crust is definitely both more time- consuming and more difficult (it reduced me to near- hysterics the first couple of times), like most things it gets easier and faster with practice.

Here’s the recipe Laura gave me. Some of the reasoning behind it: Crisco makes pie crust flakier, butter makes it more flavorful… which is why I like this recipe, which uses both. And using vodka to moisten the dough makes for a flakier crust, as it evaporates during baking. (You want to use as little liquid as you can to make the dough hold together, since more liquid makes the crust tougher: the vodka facilitates this.) This is a recipe for an entire two-crusted pie; since the chocolate pie is open-faced, halve this recipe if you’re making just one pie, or make it all if you’re making two pies. Which I usually do. We will never get leftovers if I don’t make two pies.

2 – 1/2 cups (12 – 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
1 tsp. table salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
12 Tbsp. (1 – 1/2 sticks) cold butter (frozen is good)
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening (Crisco or equivalent)
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup cold vodka

Pie-crust_in_dish Sift dry ingredients together. Cut butter and shortening into smallish pieces, add to flour. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, break butter and shortening into smaller and smaller pieces covered with flour, until the little floury fat-balls are roughly pea-sized. Sprinkle in the water and vodka, enough to make the dough hold together and roll out, without making it too sticky. (You may wind up using slightly more or less liquid than the recipe calls for, depending. Don’t ask me “depending on what.” Just depending.) Sprinkle more flour on your rolling surface and your rolling pin, and roll the dough out. Place it gently in the pie plate, flatten the edges over the lip of the pie plate, and prick the bottom and sides with a fork. Proceed.

In general, you want to work the pie dough as little as humanly possible while still making it a coherent whole. Don’t overwork the dough while breaking up the butter and shortening; use as few strokes as possible to roll it out. And everything that can be cold, should be cold.

Like I said: The pie crust is 9/10th of the work. It’s totally worth it, though. If you can’t bear it, go ahead and buy a crust from the store. Better yet, get your upstairs neighbor to make it for you. (Thanks again, Laura!)

If you make this pie, let me know how it turns out. If you make an experimental variation that you like, let me know what it is. And yes, I realize I am a bad, bad person for running this recipe in January, right when lots of people are making New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier or lose weight. What can I say. I’m an atheist, and therefore have no moral foundation and no reason to have compassion for others. Happy eating, and happy New Year!