Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: Vegetable Soup and Quick Huevos Rancheros

Another of those postings about meals that are easily accomplished by busy people who want to eat decently while safeguarding the earth's resources. As with previous postings in this vein, this is not so much a set of detailed recipes as an assortment of ideas and suggestions that, I hope, others may apply to their own situations and needs, as they think about quick, good meals to make at the end of a work day.

Today was a day of meetings, so I didn't have time or energy to do a lot of cooking. I built the evening meal around a pot of delicious vegetable soup I made yesterday. That soup grew, in traditional Southern fashion, from fresh vegetables cooked several days ago.

I had made a pot of purple hull peas with okra steamed on top, along with cornbread, towards the end of last week. Steve and I had eaten several meals of this, enough to begin thinking of some other way to eat the peas in a reasonable period of time.

Vegetable soup was a fixture of my grandparents' and my family's house as I was growing up, particularly in summertime. There really was not a recipe for it, because it grew out of whatever fresh vegetables had been cooked recently, and not eaten up in a day or so. Because it depended on local fresh vegetables, it did feature certain standards of the Southern kitchen, more because they were there to be used than because a recipe dictated their use.

We did not know the term pot au feu. But we did practice the concept. In my grandparents' houses, in particular, a pot of vegetable soup usually sat on the back of the stove in summer, just barely heating from the heat of the gas pilots, always ready to heat again, and receiving the bits and pieces of vegetable dishes--suitable dishes, ones that translated easily into soup--from dinner, the noon meal. The soup was the main feature of supper in summertime, along with cornbread baked for dinner.

Not just anything went into the pot for vegetable soup. There were unwritten rules about which vegetables combined well with others in vegetable soup. Those unwritten rules had much to do, I realize as an adult thinking back about the "rules," with balances of sweet and sour.

So every summer vegetable soup had a base of tomatoes, usually fresh ones stewed for dinner. To balance the tartness of the fresh vegetables, there was almost always corn, cut fresh from the cob, and onions chopped. Added to these might be sliced carrots, sliced okra, chopped celery, and, almost always, some cooked beans or field peas, some cubed, boiled potatoes, and some shredded cabbage.

That was it, really. One of my aunts (who did most of the cooking in her mother's house) tended to like a bit of cooked macaroni added at the end, right before the soup was served. My other grandparents preferred to add cornbread to their individual bowl of soup, crumbled in at the table.

And that's what I did tonight. My soup was pretty much the version I've just described, with leftover cornbread crumbled into it.

Though that dish could easily be a meal in itself, I decided to have along with the soup a quick version of huevos rancheros I make frequently when the weather is hot--and usually for supper rather than breakfast. To make it, I quickly brown two fresh tortillas (corn; I don't eat or like the abominable flour ones) in a bit of olive oil in a skillet, remove them, and break into the skillet two eggs.

As the tortillas fry, I put a can of tomatoes and chili on to heat in a separate pot. The brand name for these in our area is Rotel, though there are now other brands offering what is essentially the same item: cooked tomatoes with cooked jalapeno peppers. I understand that canned tomatoes with peppers aren't sold everywhere in the U.S., though I've also been told that the taste for them is expanding outside the western edges of the South and Southwest. In Arkansas, they're pretty much a standard item in most people's pantry, to be used in sauces and soups, or with cooked beans.

Since I was tired and didn't want to fiddle this evening, I just opened the can and heated the tomatoes and chilis. I usually make this quick ranchero sauce, however, by sauteeing some chopped onion and garlic in olive oil in the pan first, then adding the tomato-chili mix. To that, I often add, too, some powdered chilis with a more complex flavor than jalapeno. We have some dried smoked chipotles from a family friend of Steve's in Arizona, which are wonderful in sauces. If you add dried chili, you'll want to be sure it cooks into the sauce for a minute or two, so its flavor doesn't dominate everything else.

When my eggs have begun to fry and set, remaining uncooked on top, I spoon the hot tomato-chili mix on top of them and let them fry a moment or two longer, until they are cooked through but the yolks remain soft. The hot tomatoes and chili cook the tops of the eggs. To serve, I put each egg on one of the tortillas and add a bit of chopped cilantro.

Admittedly, I'm using some canned goods here. The same dish could easily be made with fresh tomatoes, peeled, chopped, and cooked with jalapenos. For my vegetable soup, I did use several fresh tomatoes as a base, since I had a number of them quickly reaching maximum ripeness in the hot, humid weather we've had lately.

And the tortillas are from the store, though we do have local panaderias that make fresh tortillas right on the spot, and they're wonderful. The part of the city in which the Latino population is concentrated is, unfortunately, not really close to me, so I plan my trips there carefully, bringing a long shopping list rather than driving over to that area daily for just one or two items.

The eggs are free-range from our food co-op. And I can think of few summer suppers simpler or more soul-satisfying than the one I just had, cooked as I've just described. Especially with a bowl of tangy fresh peaches sliced with sweet cantaloupe as dessert . . . . And a glass of sweet cold iced tea to wash everything down.

Quick Huevos Rancheros on FoodistaQuick Huevos Rancheros