Split Pea Soup

I think split pea soup tends to get a bad wrap.  It tends to be used in the same sentance as ‘wallpaper paste’.   Split pea soup deserves a second chance.  Why?  Because my husband makes an amazing (but simple) split pea soup.

Great seasonings for split pea soup are mint, herbs d’provence and lavender.  Hopefully in the future we will share recipes involving these seasonings. In the meantime, feel free to play around with them yourself because today we seasoned our soup with the Greater Minnesota Northern Lights spice blend from Wayzatta Bay Spice Co.  I bet you never thought you’d see the words ‘greater Minnesota’ and ‘spice blend’ in the same sentence.  Me neither.  Afterall, we Minnesotans are not exactly known for our spicy foods.  But this blend is really very good.

I’ll give you a list of the spice blend ingredients so you have some idea what we’re talking about:
hickory-smoked kosher salt
orange peel
lemon peel
other herbs and spices.  Ahh, the secret ingredients.
A very exotic list of ingredients for Minnesota.  I think if I were trying to compare this spice blend to other, more commonly available ones I would actually say it’s closest to what you’d find in a Jamaican seasoning blend, but without the spicy heat.   No heat in greater Minnesota.  Ever.  For any reason.  Not in the weather or the food.

This soup is great on it’s own or with some diced up ham added to it just before serving.  I can’t help it, often I will have a perfectly good vegetarian recipe and then I think to myself, ‘This is good, but it would be so much better with _(insert pork product here)_ .’

Split Pea Soup Serves ~ 6.
In a pot over medium heat, saute until they have started to turn golden brown:
1-2 onions, roughly chopped

As the onions are sauteing, pot another small pan over low heat and use it to toast 1 tsp. fennel seed (optional).  This should take about 10 minutes and they are done when the seeds are aromatic.  Swish the seeds around regularly so they don’t burn.

When the onions are nearly done, add the garlic for the last couple minutes:
1 1/2 T. garlic, roughly chopped

Add the following to your onions and garlic, along with the fennel seed:
2 c. dried split peas
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. thyme
1 1/2 tsp. Greater Minnesota Northern Lights spice blend, or Jamaican seasoning blend
12 c. water

Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer.  Let this simmer, uncovered, at least until the peas have become soft, about 30 minutes, but preferably longer to allow the flavors to meld a little more, about an hour.

When your soup is done simmering, add:
1 lb. frozen peas

Now puree it all up in a blender–you may have to do this in a couple batches.  If you’d like it perfectly creamy, pass it through a fine-mesh strainer.  Now, your soup is basically done!  Add a little more water if it’s too thick or throw it back on the stove for a bit to reduce down, depending on how you like your soup.

Finish it off with a little freshly ground pepper!

Posted in Americana, Beans & Legumes, Fall & Winter Recipes, Soups & stews, Vegetarian | Tagged , , | 6 Comments


I think of Cassoulet as a gussied up version of pork and beans.  If you are French, you may not agree with this.  Sorry.  Cassoulet is beans slow cooked with at least a couple types of pork and duck confit.  The details are flexible.  For the recipe presented here, this is the first time I’ve actually used duck confit.  Usually I just substitute chicken or turkey drumsticks for the traditional confit–there’s typically plenty of fat from the many pork products.  But if you’ve actually got duck confit, by all means, use it.

While I did use duck confit, this recipe does differ in a couple ways from a traditional cassoulet.  First, I cooked it on the stovetop instead of in the oven–this is quicker but if you’ve got the time to cook it in the oven, nothing compares.  Secondly, this recipe actually uses less meat overall than other recipes I’ve seen.  I like to emphasize the contribution of beans and vegetables to the dish.  By the way–and I’ve made chefs laugh by making this next statement–but you can make a nice vegetarian version using mock duck and fake sausage.

Now, there is one thing I will change about this recipe the next time I make it.  I added the duck legs early on and mixed them in with everything else.  I would recommend just placing a helping of duck confit on top of each dish as it is served.  That way the confit is sure to stand out.

Cassoulet ~ 8 servings.

In a large pot, start simmering:
3 c. dried white beans, such as flageolet, Great Northern or baby Lima, pre-soaked
2 qts. low-sodium chicken broth

Meanwhile, sweat off over medium heat:
2 large onions, chopped
2 large carrots, sliced
3 medium parsnips, sliced

When the vegetables have browned slightly, add:
2 T. garlic

Saute a few minutes more, then add the vegetables to the simmering beans.  Along with:
1 T. thyme

Simmer until the beans are tender, then add:
1 1/2 lb. smoked ham shank, or 1 lb. high-quality ham
1/2 lb. cooked sausage
3 T. tomato paste
Wait until the beans are tender to add these ingredients because salt and acidity slow the rehydration of the beans.  That’s also why I used low-sodium chicken broth.  As it warms, the ham shank will fall off the bone.

Simmer a while longer, until all the flavors have melded together.  Salt & pepper to taste.  Serve with duck confit.

Posted in Beans & Legumes, Ethnic, Fall & Winter Recipes, Meat, Slow Cookin', Soups & stews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Duck Confit

A good friend of ours once described bacon as a “transcendental experience of deliciousness.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Duck confit is the closest you can get to that without using a pig.  Fatty duck legs and thighs packed in a sweet/salty cure overnight then slow cooked for hours in more duck fat, it makes the mouth water just thinking about it.  The meat falls off the bone and dissolves on your tongue.  To anyone (mainly hunters oddly enough) who says they don’t like duck, you have never had duck confit!

As with almost all truly sublime dishes, this isn’t something you can just do overnight.  You need to take your time, don’t worry it will be worth it!

This recipe is enough for two Duck Legs.


Dry Rub

1/4 C. packed Brown Sugar

2 T. Salt

1 tsp. Cayenne

1 tsp. toasted Fennel Seeds

1/2 tsp. Cinnamon

1/2 tsp. Gumbo File

Mix thoroughly in bowl then pack onto Duck Legs.  Cover and refrigerate AT LEAST 24 but up to 48 hours.  What you’re doing is curing the duck, this is imparting all those flavors into the meat slowly, subtly.  It gives the confit an aromatic quality that will whet the appetite and have you ravenous almost immediately.


In a small baking dish combine:

1/4 C. Onion, chopped.

1 T. Garlic, minced

2 T. Herbs d’Provence

Rinse off the duck legs then place them in the baking dish on top of the onions, etc.  Add fat to cover.  Traditionally, you would use all Duck Fat, this is really expensive.  We used all the fat we could render off a duck carcass, then supplemented it with Lard and Olive Oil.  Suet, Clarified Butter or Canola Oil would also work.

Put in a 200 oven for 10-12 hours, until the meat is falling off the bone.

Gently remove the Duck Legs and strain the fat for future use.  You can generally use this fat 3-4 times as long as you keep it in the freezer and strain it really well through a fine mesh strainer, cheese cloth or even a coffee filter.

There you have it, simple yet elegant.  A dish that can be made in virtually any kitchen and will impress almost any eater.  Try it and I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s the poultry version of bacon!

Posted in Cooking Tips & Techniques, Meat, Slow Cookin' | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Hearty Meatballs

Beef heart is one of the greatest, most digestible sources of iron you can find, the trick is getting a one year old to eat it.  Enter the Meatball!!  We took heart and combined it with beef and pork to create tasty meatballs your whole family will enjoy.  Here’s how.

Start with:

2 lbs. Beef Heart

1 large onions

2 T Garlic, minced

Large dice the heart and the onion and grind it all together with the garlic using a coarse grinder plate on the meat grinder.  Then mix in:

1 lb. Ground Beef

1.5 lb. Ground Pork

5 eggs

2 sleeves Ritz Crackers smashed into crumbs

Salt and Pepper to taste

Here’s the messy part.  The best way to get wonderfull, juicy meatballs that have the perfect texture lies not in the grinding, not in the seasoning, but in the kneading!  What?  Kneading?!  This isn’t bread!  Have you ever had a bratwurst that was the perfect blend of juicy and chewy with just a touch of snap to it when you first bite in?  That’s what happens when you knead the meat.  Think of it this way.  Why do you knead bread dough?  Flour contains a large amount of a protein called gluten.  You knead the dough in order to form the gluten into long strands that give the bread body and strength that allows it to rise up instead of just oozing flat across the baking pan.  Meat also has protein.  You can develop the protein strands in meat much the same as you can in bread, by the exact same technique.

Roll up your sleeves, take off your rings and wash your hands, it’s time to get meaty!  Knead the meat for about five minutes or so, or until when you lightly press on the meat it springs back.  Don’t over mix or you’ll melt too much of the fat and your meatballs will turn out tough and gamey.  Take a small amount of the meat and fry it off to check the seasoning, then start forming the meat into balls.

Bake at 350 for 30-40 min until done.  Makes 60-70 meatballs.

Now that you have all these meat balls, what to do with them?  We froze most of them.  When we want to give our one year old’s meal an iron boost, we just mashed one up and mix it into his favorite food.  One meatball makes a pretty good portion size.  For Pretty Bird and myself, however, we made one of my favorite things in the whole wide world, Meat Ball Sandwiches!

Take 3-4 meatballs (depending on size) heat them up in your favorite tomato sauce.  Put them on hoagies with Mozzarella Cheese and toast them in a 350 degree oven until the cheese starts to brown.  Wash it down with beer.  If there happens to be football on, even better, I find it really adds to the overall flavor of the sandwich.

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A winter soup for dreaming of spring

I must confess, I made this soup several weeks ago when it was still February and cold and dreary.  Now we are a couple of days into spring so I thought I’d better hurry up and post this before its out of season.

Usually I do quite fine eating seasonal vegetables for most of the winter.  It’s certainly easier to eat in season when the only tomatoes available are mealy and the only peppers available cost five dollars a pound (or some ridiculous amount).  However, towards the end of winter I get a sudden and overwhelming urge for something that tastes fresh and green.  What’s a girl to do?  Well, this year, I made this soup, which is still based on seasonal vegetables but has a kick of fresh herbs and lemony harissa added at the end to perk it up.

By the way, this recipe makes a BIG pot of soup–great for freezing some in small amounts for future lunches.  If you don’t want quite so much, make only half.

In a large pot, start by sweating off:
2 onions, chopped
6 carrots, medium dice
2 rutabagas, medium dice

Once your sauteing vegetables become aromatic, add in:
4 T. garlic, minced
and saute a few more minutes.

2 c. dried pre-soaked beans
2 qts. water
Alternatively, you could use 4 c. precooked beans, in which case I would use about half the water.  Let simmer until the beans are tender, 1-2 hours.

Once the beans are tender, add:
1/2 a head of cauliflower, cut into pieces
1/2 a head of broccoli, cut into pieces
1 1/2 qts. tomato sauce
1 qt. vegetable or chicken stock
I wait to add the tomato sauce and stock until this point because the acid and salt will prevent the beans from plumping up nicely.  For more on this, see here.  Let simmer about 45 minutes, or until the cauliflower and broccoli is tender but not mushy (unless that’s how you prefer your vegetables).

1/2 a Napa cabbage, finely shredded
4 T. Mustapha’s Moroccan harissa
I specified the brand of harissa because, while this harissa is spicy, it is more lemony than anything else.  In my experience, other harissas are spicier.  If you are using another brand of harissa, you might want to use less and add a couple tablespoons of lemon juice.

Salt & pepper to taste.

Garnish with a generous amount of:
Parsley and cilantro, freshly chopped


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Ginger Pumpkin Strudel

I love the modern usage of the word ‘strudel’.  It can mean basically anything you can get away with rolling up in filo dough and baking until golden brown and delicious.  I recently served this strudel as part of our Valentine’s Day dinner.  I picked ginger and pumpkin because pumpkin is one of the few vegetables that can still be considered seasonal in February, and ginger acted as a good go-between to bridge the sweetness of the cherry sauce and the musty/earthiness of the pumpkin.  The cream cheese adds richness and helps bind the mixture together for ease in rolling.

The Filling:

3 cups Pumpkin Puree

1/4 cup Fresh Ginger, grated

4 oz. Cream Cheese

1/4 cup Sorghum (or 3 T. Honey + 1 T. Molasses)

1/2 tsp. Cinnamon

Salt and Pepper to taste.

Place all in a food processor and puree it until it’s smooth and evenly mixed.  Take a package of Fully Thawed Filo Dough.  Note: Filo can be a bit of a pain to work with as it is thin, delicate and tears easily.  The two steps you can take to circumvent these problems are #1 keep a very damp towel over the filo while you’re working with it and #2 make sure it’s fully thawed in the fridge before you begin.  If you think you can speed thaw it by putting the box on the oven or sitting it on the counter, you’ll find yourself stuck with a roll of dough that sticks together on one side, rips when you try to separate it, and causes you to teach your children curse words.

Back to the strudel.  Take a sheet of filo dough and place it on a clean counter.  Gently brush it with oil or butter and lightly season it with salt and pepper.  Add another sheet and repeat until you have 6 sheets stacked on top of each other.

Now take your filling and scoop it out onto one of the long ends.  Gently roll the strudel into a tube keeping it as tight and even as you can without breaking it.  Place the roll seam side down on a baking sheet and put it in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 minutes or until it’s golden brown and hot all the way through.

Remove from the oven and let it cool for about five minutes.  Then cut it into four equal bias cut pieces (or whatever shape tickles your fancy) and serve!

Posted in Dessert, Fall & Winter Recipes, Holidays, Slow Cookin', Vegetarian | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Seared Duck Breast with Red Wine Cherry Duck Demi-Glace

I know this post is horribly late, but I want to show what I made for Pretty Bird this past Valentine’s Day.

What you are looking at is Seared Duck Breast with Roasted Beets, a Ginger Pumpkin Strudel and a Red Wine Cherry Duck Demi-Glace.  I had to work on Valentine’s Day, so I had everything ready to go before I left for work that evening, then I rushed home, threw it together and we had a lovely late supper!

The secret to a nice duck breast is two-fold.  Number one, a good sear on the fat side for 75% of the cooking time crisps up that skin and infuses the duck with fatty goodness.  Secondly, Duck Is Not Chicken!!!  You should never serve duck breast cooked more than medium.  Medium Well is OK at best, and well done is dried out, chewy crap.  I prefer Medium Rare, as you can see.  It’s completely safe to eat at this temp, and most importantly, delicious.

Roasted Beets are pretty self-explanatory, so here’s the recipes for the remaining two components of the plate.

First, the sauce!  This is a sauce that takes time, but is also pretty hands off and easy to have on the back burner as you do other things.  Start off with:

1 T Garlic, minced

2 T Onion, minced

Sweat these over medium heat until the onion is translucent and the garlic aromatic.  Then add:

2 cups Whole Frozen Cherries

Cook all these together until most of the cherry juice has been extracted from the fruit and reduced by about half.  Then add:

2 cups Red Wine

Reduce this by 1/2 to 2/3 depending on how concentrated you like it.  The more concentrated the wine reduction, the more the sugars caramelize and the sweeter your end product.  When it comes to reducing sauces/stocks, remember this helpful phrase:  Slow and Low is the way to Go.  Take your time, don’t be in a hurry.  Sauces are there to be a delicious, decadent, divine finishing stroke to a dish.  Add the liquids one at a time and let them reduce.  Adjust your heat so that the liquid hovers just at boiling–slow small bubbles.  Yes, you can just throw everything in a pot and walk away.  Yes, you can crank the flame and get this done in a hurry, you can also make pot roast in a microwave.  The end result isn’t nearly as satisfying.  Any-hoo, once your wine is reduced, add:

2 cups Duck Stock

Once again, reduce by 1/2 to 2/3.  Once the sauce is reduced, add it to a blender and puree the hell out of it.  Pass it through a fine mesh strainer and finish it with Salt and Pepper to taste.  What you’re left with is a highly concentrated, rich, delicious sauce that will make your whole house smell amazing, and guarantees a clean plate once it’s served.

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Cooking Dried Beans

Apparently, there is a lot of confusion over how to cook dried beans.  In honor of the fact that we all need a little more fiber in our diets, here are simple tips for cooking dried beans.  Dried beans are about the cheapest thing you can eat, besides maybe rice.  And they are healthier than canned beans.  To me, it’s worth the extra time to cook dried beans–sometimes it just requires a little extra planning ahead.

How are they healthier than canned beans?
1.  They don’t have all that salt in them.
2.  The inside of cans of all canned foods, including canned beans, is lined with BPA.  BPA in my beans?!  Yuck.  The canning industry has promised to get rid of the BPA… as soon as they can figure out what to replace it with.

Okay, here’s our tips for cooking dried beans:
1.  Pre-soaking the beans in water over night will help them cook faster.

2.  Do NOT add salt to the beans until they are fully cooked.  Salt is a dessicant (ie. it dries things out) and it will prevent your beans from fully absorbing liquid.  Yum, crunchy beans.  I guess it’s a good way to make sure you get plenty of fiber.  …Cook beans in water or low-sodium stock.

3.  The same thing goes for vinegar–do not add it to your beans until they are done cooking.

4.  Once your beans have cooked to the desired tenderness, then add salt and it will prevent the beans from over-cooking and turning to mush.

5.  Try not to buy dried beans in massive amounts.  I know, sometimes you open that pour spout on the bulk food container and the beans just shoot out.  You meant to get a few cups of beans and now you’ve got twenty.  Oops.  Well, anyway, dried beans do get stale, ie. they get even drier, and if they are very stale they will never cook up nicely.  That being said, try to only buy dried beans from a place that sells them regularly–like the bulk foods section of a co-op or natural foods store.  If you do buy a package of dried beans and it’s covered with a layer of dust, as I recently made the mistake of doing, then rest assured, you will be stuck with crunchy beans.

6.  Crock pots are a great way to cook beans.  I have found there is usually a lot of leeway between when dried beans have cooked to a nice texture and before they turn to mush so you don’t need to keep a close eye on them.

7.  Cooked beans freeze well.  You can always cook up a big batch and freeze them in small amounts.  In fact, freezing seem to help break down the fiber a little more.

8. Avoid mixed beans!  Much like packages of mixed rice, mixed beans are a terrible idea.  Beans cook at different rates, so the mixed bean packs always wind up with some crunchy and some mushy.  Cook the different beans separately THEN combine them.

With these simple steps in mind, you can now go out and fully enjoy the wonderful cost effectiveness (not to mention health benefits) of a truly Magical Fruit!!

Posted in Beans & Legumes, Cooking Tips & Techniques | Tagged | 5 Comments

Beans for Allergies

This post is a little different from my usual posts.  It’s still about food, but it’s also about new research showing that what you eat affects your immune response.  I regularly browse through the scientific journals (for work, I swear) and this article caught my eye.

Here’s what the research says in a nutshell:
Less fiber = Fewer of the good bacteria in your intestines = Greater risk of allergies and asthma

Here’s what the research says in a little more detail:
Lower fiber intake, as in, the amount of fiber that is now typical in American diets, affects the types of microbes in your intestines.  Less fiber means less of an important group of bacteria that eat the fiber and then produce molecules called short-chain fatty acids, or SCFAs.  These SCFAs appear to help regulate your immune system–that’s the system that fights off illnesses, but also the part responsible for allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases.  As we are all probably aware, the typical Western diet today is composed of a lot of processed foods.  We eat much less fiber than we did 40 years ago and less than people in developing countries eat today.  A group of bacteria called Bacteroidetes appear to be responsible for producing SCFAs.

On a related note, the Lactobacillus bacteria, well-known for their role in yogurt, may also help reduce allergies.  In regions of the world that regularly eat fermented foods and do not use antibiotics,  allergies and asthma are much less common.  And if that’s not enough for you, changes in gut microbiota are also associated with rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

If it seems strange to you that the bacteria in our gut would have such a critical role in our body’s function, it’s not.  Over millenia, as we have evolved, we have done so in the company of our friendly gut bacteria.  We require these bacteria to produce essential vitamins from our food and to digest fiber for us.

Lastly, the fiber hypothesis is compared with the hygiene hypothesis, which states that the extreme cleanliness of modern society is to blame for the rise in allergies.  Anecdotal evidence for the hygiene hypothesis includes the fact that people raised on farms, in large families, or developing countries–basically, environments that tend to be less clean–have lower rates of allergies than their Western, urban counterparts.  However these urbanized groups also tend to have lower fiber intake.

Interestingly, Japanese people do not have high rates of allergies, despite being quite urbanized and clean.  However, the Japanese regularly eat beans and pickled and fermented foods, which leads to lots of SCFAs when they are broken down during digestion.  This is compelling but I’m not ready to throw out the hygiene hypothesis in favor of the fiber hypothesis.  I think there is probably a degree of truth to both of them.

Fiber–it’s not just for your colon.

This is my summary of a recent journal article.  If you would like to read it, here’s the reference: Maslowski, K. M. & Mackay, C. R., Nature Immunology, v. 12, no. 1, p. 5, Jan 2011.

Posted in Beans & Legumes | Tagged | 1 Comment


Until recently, the borscht recipes I’ve found in American cookbooks have been forgettable, one-dimensional soups.  But the couple of times I have been fortunate enough to have borscht made by someone’s Russian grandmother it has been an entirely different experience–delicious and hearty.  For a long time I was stumped on how to re-create the memorable Russian borscht I’d had because main ingredient, beets, turns everything magenta and its just hard to see what else is in there.

Enter my weakness for old cookbooks.  I was browsing through a 1961 New York Times cookbook by Craig Claiborne when I found a couple borscht recipes–one Ukranian and one Russian.  They were similar and accompanied by the note “the only ingredient that is constant in borscht is beets”.

Here is my recipe, adapted from the New York Times cookbook.  You could easily remove the meat for a satisfying vegetarian dish.  One more note about this stew, more than any other dish I’ve had, this one is better the next day.  Its good the day its made but memorable the next.

Borscht Serves 6-8.
In a pot combine the following and start them simmering while you prepare the rest of the ingredients:
1/2 lb. beef, cut into small pieces
1 qt. stock of any kind
1 1/2 c. cooked beans
2 bay leaves

Chop up and start cooking over medium heat in a large pan:
1 large onion
1 fennel bulb, cored (optional)

While the onion and fennel are cooking, use a box grater or food processor with the shredder attachment to shred the following:
2 c. beets
1 c. carrots
1 1/4 c. turnips
Add these to the onions and fennel, along with:
1 1/4 c. cabbage, thinly sliced
1 1/2 T. tomato paste

Saute the vegetables, stirring occasionally, until aromatic.   Add the vegetables to the beef, along with:
1/4 c. cider vinegar
2 tsp. sugar

Simmer until the beef is tender, 1 – 1 1/2 hours.

Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve with fresh dill and sour cream if you have it.

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