Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Nooner: Adventures in Cholesterol: Jeff's Beer Cheddar Soup and Grace’s Bacon Braise

The Origin of the Nooner

My colleague Jeff and I have desks next to each other and we talk about food all day long. Jeff's dad is a caterer in Texas and a pretty amazing one at that judging from what his son--and I assume his disciple--has cooked for me in the past (A recent fave is Jeff's dad's Chicken Tortilla Soup featuring homemade chicken stock and meat pulled right from the bones and spiced up with jalepenos, Tony Chachere's seasoning, plenty of garlic, and a ton o' cheese.) So when Jeff said he would be trying a new recipe for Beer Cheddar Soup late in the afternoon this Tuesday for dinner, I immediately revealed that I would be experimenting with a new recipe of my own and that if he brought me some of his, I'd bring him some of mine. Hence, the birth of "The Nooner"—a weekly lunchtime swap of delicious dinner leftovers the morning after.

Here's Jeff on what he made and what he thought of mine (A Swiss Apple, Pear, Potato, and Bacon Braise):

When Grace and I first proposed the food swap nooner, I didn’t get excited about it until after I finished making my soup last night.

At work, Grace and I share a passion for cooking and food in general and we bounce off ideas about what to cook and where to eat all day. The first couple of times we talked about food together, we found an instant kinship in technique, experimentation and styles. So after finishing my Cheddar Beer soup, I called her to make sure she knew it was amazing.

“Hey Jeff”
“Grace, I kicked ass…on the soup.”
“Oh yeah? How was it?"
"The Irish cheddar was perfect, and the crostini I made…amazing.”
Mmm…I can’t wait to try some tomorrow.”
“Oh, I’m bringing you some. Talk to you later.”

The Cheddar Beer soup was a late afternoon idea at work, spurred further on by the original recipe I saw posted on Epicurious. Grace walked with me to Grand Central Market after work and I picked up some Irish Cheddar from the Murray’s Cheese counter and cibatta rosemary bread from Zora’s. I always like pulling something different for the meals I make and plus I felt inspired by the Jamie Oliver’s ‘Jamie at Home’ episode I watched a couple of nights ago. The bread was going to be my secret weapon.

After watching Jamie Oliver prepare an amazing parmesan-sage-infused crostini, I was instantly salivating and itchy to make it myself. The crostini would be my dirty bomb and I laid a piece of it in the bowl with the end sticking out, ladling the soup on top of it. I also added the crumbled bacon and the pan-fried sage and I was done.

This soup has so much going for it. My spoon made its journey from bowl to mouth and brought about an earthy sweetness from the root vegetables that were slightly crunchy, along with the creamy cheese (a freaking pound of it) that had a great, hoppy bite (I used Magic Hat #9 instead of the maltier Bass ale). The soup tasted a bit like a rarebit fondue, (as Grace pointed out to me later) but the veggies definitely proclaimed it a soup.

Recipes to me are like guardrails on the highway, they help keep a basic form and if you need to follow them closely, they’ll keep you from crashing. I decided to cook my veggies for about ten minutes as opposed to the five minutes the recipe describes. Alone, the colors of the carrots, leeks and celery that were sautéeing in the bottom of my stock pot were gorgeous; I should have taken a picture. All in all, it took me about 40 minutes to make this including prep time. One bowl of this hearty stuff was all I needed along with a Magic Hat #9 for myself. Taste-bud perfection on a rainy day.

Grace’s little Tupperware surprise was quite heavy when she handed it over to me and I eagerly peeked inside. A caramel coating of goodness along with bacon drifted towards my nose. Yes.

I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally braised something, but I was impressed with the results, plus she got the recipe from The Bacon Cookbook What’s not to like about that?

On the first bite I was reminded of my dad’s German potatoes minus the tang of the vinegar in his potato concoction. A second bite yielded yet another layer. The sweetness of the apples and pears appeared out of nowhere supporting the salty hominess of the double-smoked bacon. This is an excellent side dish and can handily stand by itself with a light salad. I wouldn’t recommend eating more than two or three spoonfuls of this at a time though; Grace was quite generous in her portioning, and like a horse with a feedbag, I didn’t hold back. I wanted to say something like ‘rainbow of flavors’ here, but I remembered that’s a Skittles commercial. This dish is more impressive than a catchy phrase because the ingredients do an amazing job of complimenting each other, rather than canceling out.

Now, as I set my chair to recline and loosen a belt-notch, I will bask in the delight of taste and try not to get into too much of a food coma. Hopefully, this is the start of a good nooner relationship.

Here's me on what I made and what I thought of his:
I love good side dishes and the Swiss Apple, Pear, Potato, and Bacon Braise that I saw posted on Leite's Culinaria seemed like a winner as soon as I saw it. Anything that claims to serve 4 and includes nearly a whole package of bacon couldn't possibly go wrong. It also looked like it could become a great last-minute dinner party stand by as it called for relatively few and and easy-to-come-by ingredients that I often have on hand and seemed to have flavors that would pair well with a variety of meat dishes.

I did make a few modifications to the recipe: I couldn't find speck (a mellow, beech-wood-smoked bacon common in Germany) , so I substituted regular ol' Boar's Head bacon from the grocery store, which I had on hand previously from making a delicious Salmon Chowder last week. The recipe had double-smoked slab bacon as a preferable substitute, but a cook's gotta work with what she's got. Perhaps somewhat shocked by how much fat came from the bacon,

I also reduced the amount of fat called for in the original recipe from 2 tablespoons of butter to one tablespoon, and reduced the bacon fat from 2 tablespoons to one tablespoon as well. But then I saw the error of my ways and decided that the dish could use some added richness after all, so I upped the amount of cream from 2 tablespoons to 4 tablespoons. And then, just because I thought it could use more depth, I added some herbs. I also let the fruit caramelize longer than the recipe suggested, because I love the deep flavor and rich brown color that good caramelization lends to a braise.

The resulting dish was delicious: The fruit lent sweetness and acidity to the mellow starchiness of the potatoes and the bacon gave a subtle, meaty smokiness to every bite. I could imagine chowing it down alongside a juicy brown pork chop.
And even better, I packed the leftovers into a tupperware the next day and traded it for a whole new meal:
Jeff's beer and cheddar soup had an assertive bite from the Irish cheddar, which was balanced out by the sweetness of the leeks and carrots. I also loved that I could taste the beer's hoppiness and enjoyed the crunchiness of the vegetables. (Good call on Jeff's part for not succumbing to the lure of his new immersion blender!) I enjoyed the first few spoonfuls of soup so much that I almost forgot to taste the giant ciabatta crouton—another winner, with a pronounced rosemary-sage flavor and a sharp and nutty toasted topping of parmesan. Cheesy melted heaven in a Tupperware.
Swiss Apple, Pear, Potato, and Bacon Braise
Adapted from The Bacon Cookbook, by James Villas

10 ounces of speck or bacon cut into small chunks—preferably double-smoked slab bacon, but regular supermarket bacon works in a pinch.
1 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 cooking apple, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 firm Bosc or Seckel pear, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pound potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon rosemary

In a large, heavy saucepan, fry the bacon over moderate heat till almost crisp and pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the fat. (I cut up my onions during this time)

Add the butter to the fat, add the onion, and stir till softened, about 5 minutes. (I cut up my apples and pears during this time)

Add the apple and pear, sprinkle the sugar over the top and stir, allow to caramelize for 5 minutes. (I cut up my potatoes during this time)

Add the potatoes plus enough water to barely cover, bring to a low boil, reduce the heat to moderate, and simmer till most of the liquid has evaporated, about 30 minutes.

Add the salt and pepper and cream, and herbs, stir well, and let simmer about 5 minutes longer. Serve hot.

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