October 18, 2013

Cooking the Books: Pistachio Soup from "Jerusalem"



Today I'd like to introduce a new series of posts called "Cooking the Books", where I'll share three recipes from a single cookbook over the course of each month. It's inspired in part by one of the first food blogs I started reading - Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks. Much like Heidi, I found myself with a bookshelf full of cookbooks that I cooked from all too rarely. Browsed for inspiration? Sure. Actually cooked from? Embarrassingly little. So I've decided to start cooking, one book at a time, and share those meals with you.

My cookbook collection includes a broad range of culinary perspectives -  meaning a fair amount of my cookbooks aren't vegan. That said, I'll only be featuring recipes that are naturally vegan or those I've "veganized" with a simple change or two. You might be surprised at how many vegan recipes sneak their way into a "traditional" cookbook!

The first book on my list is the much-acclaimed Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. The book is stunning, with beautiful photos and prose that introduce you to the complex culture, history, and people of Jerusalem via the region's ethnically diverse cuisine. It’s as much an anthropological study of the city as it is a cookbook, which only makes me love it more. Jerusalem features 120 recipes, many of which place vegetables, grains, and beans front and center. My first time through, I earmarked 42 recipes that caught my eye.

The first recipe I made ended up being served to a group of twenty-odd strangers at a dinner party! Just as I was beginning to plan this series, I discovered that The Pantry, a local cooking school/community kitchen, was hosting a series of cookbook club potluck dinners. What cookbook was featured in September? Why, Jerusalem, of course! I scoured the cookbook for a unique vegan (or veganizable) recipe to share with the group and landed on page 138 - Pistachio Soup.

The recipe's introduction describes the soup as a traditional Iranian Jewish dish that "reveals its true glory" with the simple addition of fresh orange juice. It's a dish easily made vegan by replacing chicken stock with a light vegetarian stock, so I pulled out my favorite vegan bouillon and got to work. Here are my thoughts:

1.  This recipe is GOLD. It is, without a doubt, one of the most delicious and interesting things I've ever eaten. Pureed pistachios give the soup a decadent, creamy texture that's accented by succulent little ribbons of leek and bits of soft shallot. The pure pistachio flavor - delicate, vaguely floral, nutty - becomes other-worldly when joined by smoky cumin, spicy ginger, and a bright citrus punch from orange and lemon juice. The resulting soup is comforting but exotic - a stand out dish, perfect for a special occasion. 

2.  This recipe is not inexpensive - but that's easily fixed. The original recipe calls for saffron and a half pound of pistachios, which can add up quickly if you don't already have them in your pantry. For the potluck, I made the recipe to spec and included the saffron. While I do think it pumps up the color of the soup, I felt the saffron flavor was lost in the magical combination of pistachio-cumin-ginger-citrus. When I made the soup again, I left out the saffron entirely to no ill effects. Let's save that insanely expensive spice for recipes where it really shines.

3.  The recipe as written is a bit time intensive - but there's a shortcut! The original calls for blanching shelled raw pistachios, removing the papery skins, and then roasting them in the oven. I did all this the first time around, and it's more than a little tedious. The next time I bought pre-shelled, roasted, unsalted pistachios, making life a million times easier. Trader Joe's sells an 8 ounce bag for $4.99, which measures out just a tad shy of the 1 2/3 cups called for (close enough). If you don't have a TJ's nearby, the widely-available Wonderful Pistachios brand sells bags of shelled, roasted pistachios that are salted, so you'll want to give those a thorough rinsing to remove some of the salt and keep a close eye on the sodium levels in your broth to avoid an over-salted soup.

4.  Pistachio soup is RICH. Really, really rich, in fact - making it better enjoyed in smaller servings. If you're serving it as a meal in and of itself, the recipe yields 4 "large" (1 cup) servings. As an appetizer or part of a light lunch, a "small" (2/3 cup) serving is plenty. My adapted recipe reduces the butter called for by half and I didn't notice a difference in richness - the pistachios do the heavy lifting.

Pistachio Soup
adapted from Jerusalem
makes 4 large (1 cup) servings or 6 small (2/3 cup) servings

1 tablespoon nondairy butter or olive oil
4 shallots, finely chopped
1 large leek, halved lengthwise, rinsed well, and finely sliced (1 1/4 cups total)
1 ounce fresh ginger, grated on a microplane or peeled and minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
3 cups "chicken"-style vegetable stock (I used 3 cups water plus 2 teaspoons bouillon paste)
1 2/3 cups shelled roasted & unsalted pistachios (about 8 ounces)
1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (1 very large or 2 small oranges should do)
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large saucepan or dutch oven over medium heat and melt butter. Add the shallots, leek, ginger, and cumin, along with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Saute for 5-10 minutes, keeping the heat low enough to soften the vegetables without turning them golden. Add the stock, reduce heat to low, and simmer covered for 15 minutes.

When the soup is done simmering, grab your blender and a clean dishcloth. Add the pistachios and half of the soup (a scant 2 cups) to the blender. Remove the center piece of the blender's lid, cover hole with the dishcloth, and puree for a good minute or so, until the pistachio mixture is extremely smooth. Add the mixture back to the remaining soup, followed by the orange and lemon juice. Stir to combine and reheat. Adjust seasoning as necessary - I've found that some additional grinds of pepper are a nice finishing touch. You can serve the soup immediately, but it will keep nicely in the fridge for about 5 days. The soup tends to thicken up a bit with time, but adding a teaspoon or so of water when reheating will loosen things up.

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