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Cauliflower Soup with Leeks, Carrots and Cheddar

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I grew up in Portland, OR, at a time when it wasn’t quite as cool or slick as it is now. Back in those days, Balony Joe’s still fed the homeless off the Burnside Bridge, thrift stores weren’t particularly hip and the best place in town for a quick lunchtime cup of soup was Winchell’s Donuts (sadly, most of the old Winchell’s locations have been turned into Starbucks in recent years).

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As an occasional treat on those drizzly Portland Saturdays, my mom would take my sister and me to the Winchell’s that used to be on 82nd Avenue in SE Portland. It was located between the now-defunct Bargain Station thrift store (razed to make way for a Walmart) and Value Village (happily, still there). We’d each order the $2.49 lunch special, which consisted of a cup of soup, a drink and a donut for dessert (a rare indulgence).

It’s such a cozy memory, sitting on battered stools along the counter, spooning cream of potato soup out of a thick, contoured china cup and watching the rain pattern down the side windows of the restaurant. Since then, I’ve associated sturdy, creamy soups with rainy days and deep comfort.

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Monday, feeling the need for a little homey-ness, I made a huge batch of cauliflower soup that was inspired by those Winchell’s lunches (I couldn’t, however, justify a full-on homage, as the soups we ate back in those days were heart-stoppingly heavy). Mine was full of vegetables (cauliflower, leeks and carrot) simmered in home canned chicken stock (learning to can homemade chicken stock in the pressure canner has revolutionized my pantry) and enriched with a quick, cheddar-y white sauce.

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We’ve been eating this soup all week, garnishing the bowls with some browned ham cubes or just a handful of pretzel twists. As I write this, there’s just enough left for one final bowl. I’ve got my sights set on having it tomorrow for lunch, unless Scott gets to it before I do.

Think of this as more of a soup method than a recipe and play around with it. Swap broccoli in for the cauliflower. No leeks? Use onions instead. Want a pure white soup? Skip the carrots (although they do lend a nice sweetness). Want to make it vegetarian? By all means, use veggie stock in place of the chicken. Have a spicy-loving palate? Add a dash of cayenne pepper. You get the picture.

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Pressure Canned Ham Stock

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This year, for my 30th birthday, my fiancé gave me a pressure canner. Some might look at this gift as decidedly unromantic, but it was actually exactly what I wanted. In fact, I started telling him it was what I wanted sometime back in February, more than three months ahead of time, just in case he got it into his head to get me jewelry or some other impractical bauble.

However, since my birthday back in May, the only thing the canner (a 16-quart aluminum Presto) has been doing is look pretty while sitting quietly under one of my dining room chairs. You see, while I understood the basics of pressure canning intellectually, the reality of it still scared me a bit. So I let the canner sit, satisfying my canning needs by making batch after batch of preserves and pickles, that needed nothing more than a good, hot water bath to set to shelf stable rights.

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But then, a couple of weeks ago, Joy Manning and Tara Matazara Desmond, co-authors of the cookbook Almost Meatless invited me to participate in their blog potluck (Joy is blogging about all the potluck dishes over at her blog What I Weigh Today if you want to check out some of the other recipes). As we talked back and forth about which recipe of theirs I’d tackle, it became clear that this blog and I were best suited to try out a stock recipe, as stock is cannable. In a pressure canner. It was finally time to conquer my pressure canner nerves once and for all.

I decided to make the recipe for Ham Stock that’s found on page 136 of the book. While it’s not a main event on its own, it’s an incredibly useful cooking cast member to have on hand, as it gives you the ability to boost the flavor of many a meal while still keeping them light on meat. Not having the remnants of a ham laying around, I got my hands on a couple of nice, meaty ham hocks with which to make the stock.

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As soon as I fired up the stock pot, a wonderfully smoky/porky scent began to fill the apartment. Scott and I sat around, enjoying the aroma and becoming increasing hungry as the broth bubbled away. After it had cooked for two hours, I fished the hocks out of the pot with a pair of tongs, removed the meat to a plate and returned the bones to the pot for another hour+ of simmer for “maximum gelatin extraction” (a tip offered by Tara that isn’t included in the book).

By the time the stock was done, it was late Sunday evening (and I’d had a stomach ache all day, I’m a trouper I tells ya!). Had I had a spare bit of room in my fridge, I would have put the stock away for the night and returned to pressure can another day (this is actually the recommended technique, as it allows you to completely defat the stock prior to canning). However, being me, my fridge was full to bursting and so I needed to push on. I strained the stock through several layers of cheesecloth to get out the finest of particulate matter and returned it to the pot in order to bring to a boil.

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While all this stock processing was going on, my quart jars were in the pressure canner heating up. Once the stock had return to a boil, I began the process of removing a jar, filling it, wiping the rim, applying the lid/ring and returning it to the pot. Instead of creating an assembly line, I processed each jar one at a time, in order to keep the jars and stock as hot as possible (part of pressure canning best practices). I’d been told by Doris of Doris and Jilly Cook that it’s important to really get those rings on there tight when pressure canning stock, as otherwise your stock will “siphon” (the official canning word for when the liquid in your jars bubbles out from underneath the lid), so before I returned each filled jar to the pot, I used a dish towel to hold it in place as I muscled the ring into place.

Once all the jars were full, I locked the pressure canner lid into place and began the process of venting the air out of the canner. After ten minutes of venting, I popped the weight onto the vent stem and watched as the pressure began to rise. Quarts of stock need to process for 25 minutes at 11 pounds of pressure (that is, if you have a gauged canner like mine. If you have a weighted canner, you process at 10 pounds of pressure).

I only have six heat options on my stove (and that includes ‘off’) so I was never able to get the canner at exactly 11 pounds, it hovered around 13 pounds for most of the canning session. However, I knew from what I’ve read that it’s okay for the pressure to be a bit over (it can lead to overcooking, which isn’t a concern with stock, but could be a problem if you were working with fruits or veggies), as long as the pressure doesn’t drop below 11 pounds during the 25 minute processing time.

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I’ve never been so delighted as I was when the timer beeped to announce that the 25 minutes were up. I danced to the kitchen to turn off the stove and wait until the pressure had dropped enough for me to remove the lid. Nearly every jar pinged  the moment I lifted it out of the water, and I’ve never had lids that have so vigorously sealed. Those things are seriously concave.

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So now I have seven quarts of homemade, shelf stable stock (in my insanity, I also made a batch of chicken stock – from chicken feet! – the same day I made the ham stock. In for a penny…) in my pantry. I’m particularly in love with the ham stock though, and am already dreaming of making a big pot of rice with it that I will then turn into a vege-ful fried rice. Such flavor!

The Ham Stock recipe from Almost Meatless can be found after the jump and is reprinted with permission from Ten Speed Press and the authors. Make it!

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Cucumber and Red Onion Salad

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It’s been a quiet week in my kitchen. Between a marathon day of cooking last Sunday, the hit on the head I took Monday and a Wednesday night dinner of sushi with two of my favorite girls, I just haven’t been making even the very basics. In fact, Tuesday was the only night I made dinner at home and, in keeping with the harried nature of the week, it was a meal straight out of my childhood. Baked chicken, steamed broccoli and a small salad of marinated cucumber and red onion.

When I was growing up, my mom cooked dinner nearly every night. She served up an easy to prepare and family-pleasing rotation of hamburger scrambles, baked chicken legs and broiled salmon, accompanied by at least one green vegetable and the occasional starch (brown rice was often a supporting player). We ate a lot of steamed broccoli (dipped in a little pool of mayonnaise), string beans (with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of garlic powder) and cauliflower (mashed with a few spoonfuls of cream cheese).

One side salad we had often was a quick little thing, made from sliced cucumber and dressed with red wine vinegar, olive oil, dried dill, a pinch of sugar, garlic powder, salt and pepper. She’d make it (always in the same, square stainless steel bowl) at least half an hour before dinner was on the table, to give the cucumbers a chance to soften and mellow in the vinaigrette. As the years progressed, this was the first of her recipes that I co-opted and turned into something of my own, adding slivered red onion and, during the season, hunks of ripe tomato (shaved radish is also wonderful in here).

Despite the changes I’ve made, this salad never fails to give me a satisfying sense of culinary continuity. A favorite thrift store even offered up a mate to my mother’s shallow square bowl, allowing me to match my presentation to that of memory.

The reason I include this recipe here is that is can be classified as a quick pickle and would be quite at home tucked away in a jar (leftovers are delightful). It’s best made with English cucumbers, but does work nicely with your basic garden cucumber, as long as you peel and seed it.

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Cumin Cabbage Slaw

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Yes, I realize there isn’t a jar in sight in the picture above. But I’ll have you know that the leftovers of that cabbage slaw are currently tucked away in a wide-mouth quart jar in my fridge, so at the very least, the recipe has come in contact with a jar. Also, the dressing is made by pouring everything into a pint jar and shaking vigorously. And, I’ve found that it continues to get more flavorful and delicious over time in cold storage, so it makes for an excellent keep-on-hand-in-a-jar salad.

I made this to go along with the turkey tacos I keep raving about (really, they are best), but it could go alongside any number of dishes. If you wanted to transform it from side dish to the main event, you could toss in some shredded chicken and chopped peanuts for a Mexican/Vietnamese flavor mash-up.

However you serve it, I’m certain it will taste good. And isn’t that the whole point? More specific recipe after the jump.

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Beet and Onion Salad

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A two summers ago, I went through a major beet phase. I bought them constantly, and always had a jar of simply cooked beets marinating in a basic vinaigrette in the fridge. I used them to top salads and would toss them with pasta and shaved parmesan cheese for a quick dinner. Often, when there wasn’t much else around, I’d just eat them straight out of the jar.

When the season came around last summer, I wasn’t quite as hot for beets. I don’t know if I overdid it the year before or if I was just more enamored of other vegetables (I did go awfully crazy for string beans and artichokes). A number of beets did come my way through a CSA share Scott and I split with a friend and while I tried valiantly, I was never quite able to keep up with the flood. So sometime last November, I popped several beets into a gallon-sized storage bag and tucked them into the rear of the produce drawer, planning to get to them another day.

Well, that other day turned into last night. Recently, I’ve been focusing my mealtime energy into using what I have as opposed to buying ingredients on my walk home from work. Digging through the produce drawer, I came upon the beets. They were still firm, so I boiled a small pot of water and dropped them in. I know that lots of people prefer roasting beets, but when it comes to this preparation, I find that simmering them until they are fork tender is the most convenient, and I don’t notice any loss of flavor. Additionally, I like that they become so easy to peel when cooked like. All you have to do is let them cool to the point where you’re able to handle them and then briskly rub them until the skins loosen. A quick rinse and they are good to go.

While this isn’t a canning recipe exactly, beets that are prepped like this will last for about a week in the fridge (that is, if they last that long). And a nice, big canning jar is the perfect storage container.

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