Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


Tomato Bisque

Elizabeth, this recipe is for you. Not because cans of Campbell’s tomato soup aren’t delicious. To say that their smooth, salty simplicity isn’t its own kind of wonderful would undermine my credibility. It would be like saying that chewy-crisp thick-cut bacon doesn’t hit every biological pleasure center. It would be like denying that milk chocolate melts in your mouth. It would be wrong.

And I don’t proffer this recipe because I think canned soup will gather somewhere, like storm clouds on the horizon of your children’s cells, threatening to erupt into a colossal storm in the not-so-distant future. We’ve all eaten our fair share of Campbell’s tomato soup, diluted with water and/or milk, which our moms measured out inside the cans themselves, to whish away all the little globs of tomato concentrate from the rippled insides. And even with canned soup residue coursing through us, we seem to be doing just fine. We’ve even managed to be fruitful and multiply ourselves. So, as far as I can tell, regular doses of canned soup didn’t give us anything except some inexpensive happiness on snowy days.

In spite of its undeniable yumminess and its happy spot in our childhood memories, I’ve given up the Campbell’s version…And I’ve given it up for this soup. This soup, my friend, is its own thing. It’s not silky smooth, and I don’t want it to be, although you can control the degree of smooth by just controlling your immersion blender. (You did go buy an immersion blender, right?) It’s a salty sweet blend of wholesomeness (a little like Campbell’s) but with considerably more complexity: a dash of smokiness, and a pinch of something sharp and warming, a secret ingredient. I’ll give you a hint:

magic nutmeg

Still don’t know? Well, I guess you’ll just have to keep reading.

I didn’t invent this recipe whole cloth, so I’ll refer you to the original:  Of course, as its author wrote in its intro, even it isn’t an original, having been adapted from a recipe in Food and Wine.  Such is the plight of all recipes in our postmodern, Pinterest-y world. My version, below, is a little less sweet and a little less buttery but a little creamier. Sugar, butter, and cream? Yes, gosh, yes! Isn’t that Campbell’s can sounding a little less enticing already?

In preparation for snowy days and dark evenings, Elizabeth, here’s my tomato soup recipe. Give it the kiddo-test and let me know how it goes!

Tomato Bisque

3 tablespoons butter

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 celery stalk, peeled and chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed through a press

3 tablespoons flour

4 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons sugar

4 cups broth (chicken or vegetable)

2 cans fire-roasted tomatoes, with juices

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, or nutmeg from a tin, if that’s what you’ve got (That picture above: it’s half a nutmeg.)

1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy cream or half-and-half

salt and pepper to taste

1. In a big soup pot, melt your butter and saute your chopped veggies until they get soft.


2. Stir in your tomato paste, sugar, and flour, and cook for a few minutes until the mixture begins to bubble/sizzle a little in the bottom of the pot.


3. Add your broth, tomatoes, and nutmeg and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Then use your immersion blender to blend it all up, as smooth as you like.


4. Stir in your heavy cream or half-and-half and then adjust for seasoning.


5. Serve with a nice loaf of bread that can stand up to dipping. Maybe some no-knead sourdough?  Oh, and I almost forgot, I often add some cooked ravioletti (your favorite and mine, Elizabeth!) to the kids’ bowls so that this soup inches ever so slightly in the direction of Spaghettios or some other Chef Boyardee creation. But the adults in my house love ours straight up.

tomato bisque

When it’s homemade like this, soup really is good better food.


Vegetable Curry

One day last week, while dinner simmered on the stovetop, while, upstairs, my younger two played at a confrontation between construction equipment and Schleich animals, while my husband (in an anomalous moment of peace) sat beneath the lamplight in the living room and finished reading the last few pages of a book, while the November rain fell and the early darkness deepened, I dashed out to collect my older son from a friend’s house.

As I let myself in through the front door, I called to my friend, “Mmm…Dinner smells good!” And it did. Faintly garlicky and warm with a hint of something round and sweet baking below. She shrugged off the compliment:  “Just spaghetti. Nothing exotic. What’s cooking at your house?”

“Curry,” I answered.

And she looked obligingly amazed. “Wow! Thai? Indian? Pakistani?” she asked.

“Oh, gosh, I said. Who knows? Hoosier curry, I guess.  But I’m not entertaining the Indian Prime Minister or anything, so that’s okay with me.”

When it comes to this curry, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Is it a curry? Absolutely. Is it an “authentic” curry? I have no idea. I’m a very provincial person, utterly clueless when it comes to the traditional ways of global cuisine. Do I know Indian curry from Thai or Pakistani? No. But, in my defense, I know what tastes good.  And I know what’s easy.  This recipe is both.

It’s a kid-friendly curry with a rounded, creamy flavor (thanks to a whole can of coconut milk) and no ingredients you can’t locate in your average small-town grocery store. Actually, with the possible exception of said coconut milk, it’s likely that you already have everything you need hanging out in your fridge and your pantry.  Skeptical? Watch this:


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, peeled and diced

2 medium red potatoes, scrubbed and diced to match the onions

2-3 tablespoons of mild (a.k.a. “sweet”) curry powder

4 cloves garlic, minced through a press

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated (optional)

1 hot pepper, chopped (optional)

1 1/2 cups chickpeas

1/2 medium head of cauliflower, washed and separated into smallish florets

1 can tomatoes

1 1/2-2 cups water

1 lb. frozen spinach

1 can coconut milk (I think it’s better with full-fat coconut milk–not “lite”)

salt (lots)

fresh lime wedges and cooked rice, for serving


1. Begin by heating your olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Then add your chopped onions and potatoes. Cook them for several minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are softened and the potatoes are al dente. Then stir in the curry powder, the garlic, and the ginger and chopped chili pepper, if you’re using them. Stir to toast up the spices. Then salt the mixture liberally.


2. Next, add to the pan the whole can of tomatoes (juice and all), the water, and the chickpeas. Bring to a boil and then cover and simmer for about 10 minutes.


3.Then add the cauliflower and spinach and return the pan to a simmer. The goal is to soften the potatoes and the cauliflower without turning it all to mush. This should take about another 10 minutes.


4. Once it’s all tender, turn the heat off and then add the coconut milk. You will also probably need to salt it a good bit. This dish always takes more salt than I expect it to take. If it’s tasting flat or unimpressive, don’t be afraid of the salt. That’s probably what’s missing. Don’t boil it once you add the coconut milk: boiling destroys the silkiness, and you don’t want to lose that.


5. Serve over rice with a little lime juice spritzed over the top. If you have kids who aren’t used to dishes with lots of spice, you might also offer a bit of plain yogurt to help them tone it down to suit their tastes.  After all, an extra dose of dairy fat, calcium, and beneficial bacteria can’t hurt ’em!

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Pink-and-Purple Cupcakes

My daughter is not a princess…except on Halloween, when she seems always to demand a princess costume of one stripe or another. And, okay, yes, she plays with Barbie dolls. And, it’s true her walls are pink (a pale, tasteful, powder-pink, and that doesn’t count, right?) And, if pressed, I’d have to admit that her favorite movies all involve princesses. But, I guess what I mean to say is this: we don’t “princessify” her. She doesn’t wear shirts proclaiming her princess status. I keep her hair cut to chin-length because she hates to have it fixed…or even combed, to be honest. She can rip off five chin-ups without breaking a sweat.  And at least one time out of five, she beats her big brother at arm-wrestling.

The child is a force, half-twist-tie, half-jumping-bean. All sinew and brown eyes.


My Indian princess; Halloween 2014

So why she insists upon requesting berry flavored cakes for her birthday, I just don’t know. I mean, I do know: it’s because they’re pink. And pink is too powerful a force for even her to resist. If it were a physical thing, something she could out-arm-wrestle or lift and toss, she’d have beaten it by now. But pink…pink is sneaky.

A couple of years ago, in response to her request, I made a very mediocre strawberry cake which included, against my better judgment, strawberry Jell-O. (My older son recently declared that he hates Jell-O because “it’s like liquid you have to chew!” The other two kids didn’t know what it was–a fact about which I silently but heartily congratulated myself.)

This year, I decided to take it up a notch in girliness and down a notch in artificiality. These pink-and-purple beauties involve real berries, no Jell-O, and no food coloring. They’re pretty enough for kids and tasty enough for grown-ups.

The recipe I have here makes cupcakes that are muffin-y in their texture and appearance. If you want them less muffin-y and more cupcakey, blend your berries and then strain them before adding them to your batter.


Pink-and-Purple Cupcakes

(makes 1 dozen, with a little bit of frosting to spare)

1 stick unsalted butter, melted

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2/3 cup sour cream

1/3 cup milk

1 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups blueberries

1. Place your blueberries in a bowl and mash them up. (If you want cupcakes that are un-muffiny, see my note, just before the recipe. I wanted to see the berries in these.)


2. Use your electric mixer to cream–and I do mean cream–the melted butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla.

3. In a separate, smaller bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Add them to the batter and mix just until combined. The batter will be quite stiff at this point.

4.  In a small glass measuring cup or bowl, whisk together the sour cream and the milk. Then add it, all at once, to the batter, mixing until just incorporated.

5. Now, stir in your berries. Mix the batter until it turns a gorgeous shade of pale purple.


6. Scoop into your muffin cups and bake at 350 degrees until they are lightly golden on top and until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean (except for bubbly berry goo).

Now that your purple cupcakes are baking, whip up some pink cream cheese frosting!

Pink Cream Cheese Frosting

8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature

1/2 stick butter, room temperature

1/3 cup sour cream

1 cup powdered sugar

2 tablespoons or so mixed berry (or strawberry or raspberry) jam

1. Mix your cream cheese, butter, and sour cream until it’s smooth. I always use a stand mixer cranked up to turbo speed and a the whisk attachment to accomplish this.

2. Add your sugar, slowly increasing the speed on your mixer, so you avoid powdered-sugaring your entire kitchen. Mix until very fluffy and smooth.

3. Add your jam and mix again.


Isn’t this a pretty pink? And look: no food coloring was required!

Top your cooled cupcakes with the pink frosting. I added an M&M to make them look like little flowers…sort of. Decorating is not my strong suit, but when they taste this good, who cares?