Superfluous Matter
Cooking - Thai Red Curry Tomato-Squash Soup

I've settled in enough now in my new home to be cooking regularly once again. I haven't done anything new yet, but I have many "staple" recipes that I regularly make in large batches and freeze for future use. One such recipe is for a squash-based soup which I made this evening. Much of my cooking is cumulative and this soup is a perfect example as many of the ingredients are things that I have prepared in advance.

Shortly after moving into my new apartment I made a slow-cooker full of bone-in chicken thighs (rubbed with my current favourite spice mix of cocoa powder and smoked paprika) and I saved all the bones in the freezer. Then a couple weeks ago I roasted a whole chicken using an awesome recipe from Jamie Oliver. The thigh bones were added to a pot of water with the chicken carcass and a splash of apple cider vinegar and then simmered for four hours to make chicken stock. I froze the stock and use it for rice or for soup.

I regularly buy large quantities of tomatoes and roast them slowly in the oven to make sun-dried tomatoes. Thinly sliced and mixed with olive oil, salt and pepper, these tomatoes become like candy after three or four hours in an oven at 275F. They freeze well and add excellent flavour to many dishes. Lately I've been using "dry-farmed" Early Girl Tomatoes for this recipe with great success.

I also make and freeze my own tomato sauce in big batches from time to time. Rather than deal with blanching and peeling fresh tomatoes (which may or may not be in season locally) I buy four 28oz cans of whole peeled D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. These are generally canned at peak freshness and as such are always delicious. But I get ahead of myself. First I heat a half cup of olive oil in a big pot and then add a bunch of anchovies stirring them until they dissolve. Then I add half an onion, finely chopped, and sauté until tender. Next I add five cloves of garlic, thinly sliced; one and half tablespoons of fennel seed; two tablespoons of oregano; some dried chili flakes and sauté until fragrant. Next a cup of red wine is added which I simmer until the volume is reduced by half. Only then do the tomatoes get added, breaking up the chunks right in the pot. Finally I add a cup and a half of finely chopped fresh basil and a bit of salt and pepper. I bring the whole mixture to a boil and then simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least an hour. At the end I purée the sauce with a hand-blender to achieve a pleasing consistency.

I know, this post is supposed to be about soup. But all of the above happened before I could make my soup today. What's more, I will often use the soup as a starting point for future, more complicated meals. The soup is good on its own but you can also add various meats and vegetables to make it a more complete meal. I will sometimes thaw a pre-made container of the soup and heat it on the stove with leftovers to use them up.

The recipe for the soup is flexible (like most things I make these days) but I consider the following to be the canonical version. First get a big, orange-fleshed squash and roast it in the oven until soft. I've successfully made the soup with butternut, kobacha and red kuri. The roasting method will vary depending on the squash but for butternut you can just cut it in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, rub the cut-side with olive oil and roast on a pan cut-side down. Once roasted it is pretty easy to peel away the skin.

At the same time as roasting the squash you should also roast a whole bulb of garlic. Simply chop off the top, pour olive oil into the bulb and wrap it with tin foil. Leave it in the oven for however long the squash takes. When it's done you can squeeze the delicious roasted garlic right out of the skins. Try not to eat too much of it immediately as it is meant to go in the soup.

Once the squash and garlic are roasted heat a generous amount of coconut oil in a big pot. Add a bunch of chopped onion and sauté until tender. Then add a few inches of minced ginger, the roasted garlic, some chili flakes and two or three tablespoons of concentrated Thai Red Curry Paste (I get the "Thai Kitchen" brand, but you can also make it yourself). Mix until fragrant, then add a bunch of sun-dried tomatoes, some tomato sauce and the roasted squash. Mix well and then add four cups of chicken stock and a can of unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk. Bring to a boil while stirring and then simmer for an hour or so. Turn off the heat, then add a couple tablespoons of freshly squeezed lime juice and purée with a hand-blender until smooth.

Do I need to make my own chicken stock, tomato sauce and sun-dried tomatoes to make this soup? No, not really. But I feel that the end result is much better. Plus, all the precursor ingredients are easy to make, keep well in the freezer, and have a ton of other uses. In fact, when I don't have a freezer full of such precursors I find day-to-day cooking to be much more challenging. I really should make my own red curry paste at some point and freeze a bunch of that too.

I've made a few variations of this recipe in the past. Obviously you can add veggies like spinach, kale, broccoli or cauliflower, or meats like crumbled sausage or shredded chicken. But I prefer to keep the soup pure and plain. Then I freeze it and add extra stuff later in order to increase the variety of meals achieved by a single batch. However, for the base soup you can use leeks instead of onions or you can swap the tomatoes for chopped, peeled apples. You can also substitute beef bone broth for chicken broth to get a heartier result.

More so than chicken, beef broth should definitely be home-made. Gather a bunch of bones (ideally from pastured cows) and put them in a big crock pot with a splash of apple cider vinegar and enough water to cover everything. Cook on low for at least 24 hours (I normally do 36). My mix of bones generally includes an oxtail, some marrow bones, some knuckle bones and some neck bones. You can roast the bones for an hour before making the broth to get a darker more savoury result but it's not strictly necessary (but if you have marrow bones be sure to eat the marrow on its own after roasting...delicious!). Strain the result with cheesecloth and freeze. If you've got good bones and simmered them long enough the broth will be very gelatinous even at room temperature. This is exactly what you want. I often drink the broth plain when I'm feeling less than 100%.

Many of the precursor ingredients I've discussed here are also used in my chili, but as this post is long enough I shall leave that recipe for another day.

Books - The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton

This is the second book I've read by the esteemed Mr. Berton. While "Prisoners of the North" is a biography of five individuals connected to the Arctic, "The Arctic Grail" is a history of the quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole (both geographic and magnetic) from 1818 to 1909. But it is not just a recitation of events. Berton exercises his considerable skill at exposing the personalities of the characters involved and really brings the history to life.

At almost 700 pages "The Arctic Grail" is a hefty tome and despite Berton's skill as a story-teller it does drag on in places. Not every story connected to the exploration of Canada's Arctic is exciting. But the book is not meant to be pure entertainment. His goal was to provide a single narrative for the entire period of exploration. Countless books and articles exist on each of the events and people he covers but there is little in existence that attempts to tie it all together.

As expected much of the book focuses on the doomed expedition of Sir John Franklin and the subsequent attempts to discover the fate of his ships and men. This topic was covered in "Prisoners of the North" from the perspective of Franklin's tenacious wife Jane, but here a much more comprehensive account of the events is provided. This section of the book was made all the more interesting because the government of Canada recently announced it had discovered the location of the wreck of one of the ships from the Franklin expedition, over 150 years after it was lost. Reading about the vast sums of money, the endless human suffering and the tragic loss of life that all happened as a result of the search for this ship in the 19th century truly underscores the significance of this discovery.

Although the exploits of Franklin and other British explorers is interesting I also found the stories unceasingly frustrating. The British Navy of the time stubbornly refused to learn from the mistakes of its previous expeditions. And at no time did it acknowledge that there might be something to be learned from the Inuit about Arctic living. These failures led to so much avoidable suffering and death that even the stories of miraculous survival and escape are marred by the fact that most of the hardship need never have occurred in the first place.

For me, the stories of the Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen were much more interesting because those men took the time to properly prepare for their expeditions. They adapted their tactics to the conditions of the Arctic rather than using standard naval practices like the British. As a result their respective missions succeeded with relative ease. This makes their stories less exciting, but, to me at least, also much more satisfying.

If you're interested in the history of Arctic exploration, particularly by sea, this book is a good overview of many of the key events and can help lead you to topics to explore in a deeper manner. I intend to seek out further material on the Norwegians and will attempt to avoid further reading about the failures of the British.

2014-08 | 2014-10