Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Pot that Became the Soup

The quintessential October day: every kind of rain, blustery and grey, crisp with the smell of dry leaves and wood stoves. A day like this craves a hearty stew and the company of good friends.
The menu: spinach and mushroom empanadas, baby green salad with heirloom tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette, whole wheat sourdough with bright yellow Amish butter, Argentinian beef stew in a pumpkin shell and apple crisp.
I accidentally left my trusty kitchen scale in Annapolis, and I might as well have left my right arm. That chrome beauty helped me survive two months – and countless sourdough experiments – without a single measuring cup.
On Friday, I prepared the sourdough sponge (1/2 cup whole wheat starter at 100% hydration, 1 ¼ cups water and 1 2/3 cups grains (about 2 ½ cups flour) and the empanada dough, which needs some tweaking. They both sat on the counter overnight to ferment while the beef stock simmered away in the crock pot.
Saturday morning, I got the sourdough going again with 1/3 cup grains (about ½ cup flour), two tablespoons each melted butter and honey, 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt, half a teaspoon baking soda and two teaspoons cumin. While it was rising, I chopped a pound each of spinach and crimini mushrooms for the empanada filling. I sauteed the mushrooms with butter, a shredded garlic clove and a pinch of salt, then transferred them to cold storage with the raw spinach and two ounces of shredded cave-aged Gruyere. Before the morning was out, I assembled the apple crisp and baked the sourdough.
In the afternoon I shaped and baked the empanadas, finished the stew and the salad while Stephen set the table.
Argentinian Beef Stew in a Pumpkin Shell
1 lb. organic beef bones
1 gallon filtered water
1 onion
3 ribs celery
2 carrots
Roughly chop vegetables and simmer together with the bones in crock pot on low heat for 12 to 24 hours. Stop here for a phenomenal homemade beef stock. Or strain, pick the meat from the bones and return it to the stew, and keep everything in the crock pot ready for the following additions.
5 onions, chopped
8 oz. dried Turkish apricots, finely diced
2 tsp. cumin
3 cloves garlic, shredded
Rest of celery bunch, diced
Rest of carrots (from 1-lb bag), diced
1 lb. nitrate-free sausage, shaped into marble-sized meatballs
28 oz. can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
1 lb. frozen corn
1 acorn squash, roasted and mashed
1 quart homemade chicken stock
Salt to taste
1 large pumpkin, seeded
About three hours before serving, chop the onions and saute with butter, apricots, garlic and cumin. Add to the crock pot with the celery and carrots and turn the setting to high. When they’re tender, add the sausage. In a separate bowl, combine the tomatoes, corn, squash and chicken stock. Add half of the tomato mixture to the stew and let it return to a simmer for about twenty minutes. Save the rest for the last step.
Having never made a pumpkin-shell soup before and seeing visions of a mushy shell spewing soup everywhere, I wanted to keep my pumpkin as firm as possible. Rub the outside of the pumpkin with olive oil and place it empty on a serving plate in a 325 F oven for about twenty minutes to warm up. Gently ladle the hot soup into the pumpkin shell, replace the lid, and keep it in the oven at 200 F while the guests enjoy the empanadas. This made a lot more stew than would fit in the pumpkin shell. Leftovers, of course, are a cook’s best friend.
The pumpkin stew had a complex sweetness from the apricots, tomatoes and corn that complemented the richness of the stock, sausage and vegetables. I was hoping that the cumin in the sourdough would accent the flavor of the pumpkin stew, but it wasn’t noticeable. Next time I’ll double the cumin in the bread and see if the flavor shows up.
After dinner, I peeled and chopped the pumpkin shell and returned it to the crock pot with about two cups of white wine, the other half of the tomato-corn-squash-stock mixture, water to cover, and left it to simmer overnight. In the morning I seasoned it with one grated dried chipotle pepper (divine!), curry powder and salt. Since we already had plenty of leftovers, I popped all three quarts of this pumpkin soup into the freezer for a rainy day.

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