Archive for April, 2009

One of the nice things about being an improvisational cook is that I can adapt very easily to whatever interesting produce is on sale. For example, my grocery store had a sale on greens (turnip, kale, collard, and mustard). I said to myself, “Wow! A sale on greens (turnip, kale, collard and mustard)!” and went and bought a bunch of the latter sort. I washed them and tore them to bits and put them in a pot.


There were a lot of them, but greens cook down a lot. I added a couple inches of water and some salt and turned the heat on. Then I turned my attention to what was lounging about in my fridge.


It’s your friendly neighborhood block of firm tofu! I chopped it into neat cubes and heated a frying pan with some olive oil in it and set them about the business of sizzling.


With spices. Of course. I used ground mustard seed (to go with my mustard greens, of course), salt and pepper, some ground celery seed, some onion powder, and some garlic powder. I wasn’t feeling very creative on this day.

Meanwhile, my greens were boiling merrily away. I planned to fry them, of course, but I like my food very cooked, so I let them soften up a little and then drained them:


They are sad and lonely and wilted. (You would be too, if you had just been boiled and dumped into a colander and photographed without your explicit written consent.) They need some tofu love.

Delicious. I stirred it around for a bit, to let the spices mix through the whole dish and to cook off some of the residual water from the ingredients. When it was about done, I sprinkled a little soy sauce on it, and served. It came out very salty (I obviously sprinkled with too heavy a hand), but otherwise delicious.


Modifications: Swap out the mustard greens for any other leafy green vegetable, or use a combination: try the above mentioned greens or spinach. Use a different tofu texture, or swap out the tofu for tempeh. Use a different oil. Play with the spices. Leave out the soy sauce; substitute a citrus juice or nothing at all. Skip the boiling of the greens for crispier ones. Throw in extra ingredients: noodles, rice, scrambled egg, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, baby corn, chopped onion, mushrooms… After soup, stirfries are the easiest thing to improvise.


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I learned how to make stovetop applesauce by accident, while I was trying to make these apple jelly candies. (They didn’t turn out very well and I found myself wishing I’d quit when I just had applesauce.) You can make any amount of applesauce you want. I normally just buy a three-pound bag of Granny Smiths on sale and make that much, but in theory, there’s no reason you couldn’t make one apple’s worth. This time, I wanted a great big batch of applesauce because I was tired of running out and then wanting more the next day, so I bought two bags of apples.


I don’t peel my apples before I cook them, because the repetitive motion of peeling makes my hand hurt. The peels will separate when the apples cook and you can pick them out later. Whether you find this more tedious than peeling the apples in the first place depends on your own preferences. At any rate, cut all of your apples into quarters and carve out the cores. Dump in some water – you don’t need a lot; I usually use a cup or a cup and a half per three-pound bag of apples. Put a lid on the pot. And turn up the heat. Don’t forget to take off the lid and give it a stir occasionally: apples can and will burn, and this doesn’t taste terribly pleasant.

Applesauce with peels

After a while – how long will depend on how many apples you’re dealing with and how frequently you stir – you will get a pot full of goop like this. Turn off the heat. It will still be piping hot, so if you didn’t peel your apples, you have two choices: let it sit around and cool enough for you to wash your hands and pick them out manually, or get whatever utensils work best for you and fish out your peels carefully that way. I’ve tried just pressing the applesauce through a colander and it didn’t work very well. Since I like my applesauce served hot, I usually go for the utensils route.


The peels often have some perfectly good apple stuck to them. You can coax this off pretty easily with a spoon – I usually have a plate next to my pot on which I rest peels to scrape them free of their desireable contents.

After you have gotten all of the peels out of your applesauce, or decided that peels aren’t that horrible to eat and you can really put up with them or just eat around them if only it meant you wouldn’t ever need to sift through any more goop to find them to remove, it’s time to finish up. If your applesauce has lumps in it, turn the heat back on and cook it for a while longer, stirring frequently; this will sort of melt the lumps. (I find that they add character and make it taste deliciously homemade, but that’s me.) Add as much or as little sugar as you like. I find one cup per three-pound bag of apples quite sufficient, but then, I like my applesauce awfully sweet; you probably want to start with less. Add cinnamon to taste – you could add other sweet spices, like ground cloves, if they strike your fancy. Stir it all up until it’s uniform. Serve hot, or chill and serve cold.


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I’m not going to get into the technical definitions of what exactly constitutes a chowder and what does not. Here on Improvisational Soup, a chowder is a thick cream soup with potato chunks in it. Our guest today is broccoli corn chowder.

chowder ingredients


Peel and hack to bits some potatoes, and whatever else you’re putting in the chowder. (Shown: one broccoli crown and a bowl of frozen corn kernels, and an onion, sliced into smallish bits.) Arranging these items into photogenic piles is optional. I like the solid contents of my soups to have deeply dubious identification with their solidity, so I just dumped these things into a pot together, added a great big spoonful of garlic and some Better Than Bouillon, just covered it with salted water, and set it all to boiling together, stirring occasionally.

solids in broth

If you want some things more cooked than others, you can wait to add the things that you want less cooked. For instance, if you wanted your potatoes fully cooked but for your broccoli to have some crunch to it, you’d want to add the broccoli after the potatoes had been boiling for five or ten minutes. Remember to taste a chunk of food before declaring it done. In the case of these ingredients, the potatoes are the thing that takes the longest to get adequately done, so I cooked everything until a potato I tasted met with my approval. Then I turned the heat down and added roux.

chowder with roux

Keep adding roux until you discover you haven’t made as much as you need, or until the soup is just a little thicker than you want it to be. When you manage that, start thinning it with cream. You can use light or heavy cream; I don’t find it makes a great deal of difference and usually just pour in whichever kind I have in the fridge. In theory, you could also use milk for a less creamy chowder. I bet half-and-half would work too.

Chowder with cream

Isn’t it pretty? Don’t you want to taste it? Go ahead and taste it and see what it needs. My go-to spices for chowder are salt, white pepper, ground thyme, ground celery seed, onion or garlic powder if I underestimated how much of those I wanted in fresh form, and parsley flakes, and that’s just what I put in this batch:

chowder with spices

You can make chowder out of all kinds of things. Clam chowder is basically the same as the above, except you’d use cans of clams with their juice instead of broccoli and a couple ribs of celery instead of corn, for example.

Chowders thicken a lot when you put them in the fridge. They liquefy again readily when they get reheated, but you can also mix in a little milk or water to thin them out first.

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In preparation for a post I’m going to make later about chowders, here is a post about roux. Roux is one of several ways to thicken a soup or sauce, and it’s very simple. If you’ve ever tried to thicken something by just dumping a spoonful of flour into it, you know this is not ideal: it makes it taste floury, and the flour often fails to diffuse through the liquid and therefore leaves nasty little lumps. The easy way to get around both of these problems is to fry the flour first. You can use either oil or butter.


I made this particular batch of roux for a chowder, and since those are dairy based, I chose butter. Mmmm. My rule of thumb is one great big spoonful of flour for every serving of food my roux is going to be distributed over – given my preferences, this works equally well for soups and sauces, but your mileage will almost certainly vary. If you are new to roux, make twice as much as you think you need in a separate pot and add it to whatever it’s thickening a little at a time.


Goop of the evening, beautiful goop.

You may need to add more oil or butter to get a nice, goopy consistency for the amount of flour you use. I haven’t found that it matters very much how long you cook it (it has to sizzle, but not for any particular length of time), but you do have to stir it around pretty much constantly or it gets icky. Ickier. Let’s face it, this isn’t pretty stuff, but you won’t be able to see it once it goes in the rest of your food.

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Roasted Broccoli

Behold, a humble crown of broccoli.

Broccoli crown

But it is raw and boring. That will never do. Preheat the oven to 425ยบ. Butcher your vegetable. If you must wash it (which, probably, you must) then dry it very thoroughly first. Putting wet broccoli in the oven isn’t that different from steaming it.

My weapons of choice. Your arsenal may vary. The salt is essential. One of the containers labeled white pepper is actually onion powder. (The onion powder container broke, and what was not spilled onto the floor was transferred into a saved white pepper container.) Add also an oil with a high smoke point. I used olive oil; canola would be another good choice.

Hacked up and arranged broccoli…

And after, tossed with spices and oil.

Into the oven with it for fifteen to twenty minutes, or until the tips have gotten brown and crispy.

Add some shredded parmesan or similar cheese like so, if desired. A squirt of lemon juice, a sprinkle of citrus zest, any spices you were too easy on, any fresh herbs you did not care to subject to the heat, more salt if you taste it and deem it necessary, maybe a little butter just to make the entire thing even more decadent. Enjoy.

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