Today was Charlie Day in my daughter's fourth grade classroom, a day to experience a small taste of the life of the main character in Roald Dahl's story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The children all dressed up as various characters from the book, which was very fun to observe, as some of the costumes were particularly creative and most were quite fun and silly. Two young men did credible jobs of assuming the demeanor of Willy Wonka, complete with top hat. One little girl was charming as an oompa-loompa with red hair and purple polkadot tights. My daughter chose to adopt the character Veruca Salt - otherwise known as spoiled brat. Veruca demands anything she wants and throws tantrums until her parents meet her demands. She is mean and completely self-involved, and her parents always acquiesce to her wishes. Veruca’s impetuousness causes her trouble at the factory. She demands to own one of Wonka’s trained squirrels, but when she marches in to claim it, it deems her a “bad nut” and sends her down the garbage chute. Mingled with garbage, she comes out changed at the end of the story. She is redeemed. My daughter began the day with a lot of attitude, hoping to be fully into the part she was playing, but I noticed at lunch that the privations of the day had not yet had the desired impact on Veruca's character, and she had not yet lived up to her family name, and become salt of the earth. My daughter was enjoying her part.
As I have described in a blog earlier in the week (A Theology of Soup--Cuisine de Misere), my daughter volunteered me to cook cabbage soup, which was the main staple of Charlie's meagre diet. After only a piece of toast allowed for breakfast, the children were quite famished, and I am sure a soup of cabbage was not exactly what they had in mind as a way of breaking what must have seemed to them to be a fast. Their wonderful teacher, whose idea this was that they might experience Charlie's reality, allowed as how they might have a roll as well to go with the soup, and so I purchased some beautiful, soft potato rolls to bring along. The soup was well received by the children, who I think expected something quite different (water and cabbage) than they received, and for the most part, it was eaten with enthusiasm as well as surprise as the ingredients were very simple, but the resulting taste was delicious. I hoped it might be an object lesson in more than simply the appreciation of how comparatively rich we are in the west today, even in these difficult times. I hoped the children might also see that to cook something delicious and nutritious does not require expensive ingredients.
The soup will make a wonderful Saturday lunch, or Sunday night supper. My children adore it. Put into a wide mouth thermos, it could be packed into a child's lunch for a lovely treat. Or it might make splendid picnic fare, packed into the thermos, and accompanied by some bread or rolls, some cheese and fruit. I have a penchant for those lovely British picnic hampers, and I like nothing better than to ask one of my friends to accompany me to one of the lovely parks we have here in my town for an autumn picnic. Stay tuned. This soup is really very easy to make, and is a variation on a French soup, called potage parmentier. You can easily leave out the cabbage, and retain a delicious soup, but either way it is very good. This soup is as elegant as it is simple, and I have varied the approach a little to extract more flavor from the ingredients. As with most famous dishes in France there is a little story that accompanies it. France was beset with famine following the Seven Year War (1756-1763). Native son Antoine Auguste Parmentier, who had been fed the so-called poisonous potato root in a German prison-of-war camp, returned to France to find his country men starving. He set up potato soup kitchens throughout Paris to assist the poor. Ultimately, Louis XVI recognized his work by saying, "France will thank you some day for having found bread for the poor." In fact, he is best honored by the pleasure his country take in digesting Potage Parmentier. I thought it was a fitting soup for Charlie Day, albeit with the addition of cabbage and some homemade chicken stock from soup bones I received free of charge from my butcher.
I first sauteed in a stock pot some onions (one large) and leeks (two, white and pale green part only, cut lengthwise and then in half moons) in a mixture of bacon fat (which I had saved from another meal) and a little duck fat (which I had saved from another meal) until they were melted and slightly carmelized, after which I added two peeled carrots, also cut up and some seasalt. Then I began to cut up a small head of cabbage, shredding the cabbage and then chopping it into small pieces and adding it to the onion and leek mixture. I sauteed this as well until the cabbage was well wilted. At this point the aroma coming from the kitchen was so enticing, that my son, who was feeling poorly from a flu bug and has not eaten in a few days, came downstairs to see if he might sample the soup. He asked me if this was really cabbage soup I was cooking as it smelled wonderful. Then I added a big stockpot of chicken stock, which I had made that morning from bones, and about three pounds of peeled and cut up potatoes. I simmered (Not Boiled) the soup until the potatoes were tender and then used my immersion blender to puree the soup. It was rich and creamy in appearance, without the addition of any dairy product. This soup could be enhanced even more by the addition of some sauteed bacon lardons, cooked with the leeks, but it is more than flavorful on its own. My son ate two bowls and had eyes on more but I quickly made an exit to school with the cauldron so as to insure there would be enough for the children (there was) and the teachers, and the passers by. I think he is feeling better. It must have been the soup.
As promised, I offer today another very simple and delicious fall dinner idea you can make for your family. In fact, taken together, these two recipes would make a lovely meal with the addition of a green salad and some fruit and cheese for dessert. Read through the directions a couple of times before beginning. It is not expensive, and the fun part is that you can engage your children (as I do) in the making of the fresh pasta. You can make the pasta dough in a food processor or a Kitchen Aid mixer with a dough hook, which I usually use. If you don't have either, you can take two cups of 00 flour, or all purpose or bread flour, and make a little well in the center of the flour, to which you add three eggs, slightly beaten and a tablespoon of olive oil. Gradually draw the flour into the liquid mixture with a fork, little by little, until you can form a dough. Then knead the dough for ten minutes. You will know it is done because, as the Italians say, it will be as soft as a baby's bottom. Let the dough rest for at least 10 minutes, covered, on your kitchen counter. Then you can either use your pasta machine to roll out the dough, or a french rolling pin if you have one, and if not, your ball bearing rolling pin. Divide the dough in half, and each half into thirds with a pastry cutter. Then roll each piece until very thin. I ususally do this on my marble kitchen table, but a large cutting board will work, too. If you don't have a pasta machine, you can use a little fluted pastry cutter to cut the rolled dough into ribbons about 1/2 inch wide for pappardelle. If you do, lightly dust the sheets of pasta in between the settings on your machine, folding your sheets into thirds like a business letter before each roll, and gradually decreasing the size of the opening of the two rollers until the dough is very thin. Toss the ribbons with a little more flour on a baking sheets so they don't stick together. Put a pan of salted water on the range to boil so you can cook your pasta.
Now, for the simple sauce. I have been making variations of this sauce for nearly thirty years, and it is as easy as it is delicious. Clean some mushrooms, whatever kind you have and slice them. You can use domesticated mushrooms, or a mixture of these and wild, or reconstituted dried mushrooms. (If you use dried wild mushrooms, reduce the stock by half and add the same amount of reconsituted mushroom liquor in its place). Heat some canola oil in a heated skilled over medium heat until very hot but not smoking. Add the mushrooms, but not so many that they are overlapping (you want to sear them not steam them), and sear them on one side, not touching them for a couple of minutes, but don't let them burn. Then turn them and stir occasionally. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a warm bowl, and repeat until all the mushrooms are cooked. I usually add a little thyme to the mushrooms once I turn them. When you have cooked all the mushrooms, turn down the heat and saute some findly minced shallots until soft and then add three tablespoons of butter to the pan and add back the mushrooms, cooking until they are glazed. Add 1/2 cup of chicken stock and bring to a simmer, and then, one at a time, whisk in three more tablespoons of butter until the sauce is just slightly emulsified. Stir in two teaspoons of sherry vinegar. Cook your pasta in the boiling water, and add the pasta into the pan with the heat off and toss. Taste and adjust the seasoning. With a vegetable peeler, shave on some parmigiano reggiano cheese and serve. This dish will surprise you. It is far better than what you will imagine it to be.
Let me know how you get along, yes? Happy Cooking, mes amis, and a blessed weekend to you. A Bientot.