Croutons…when life gives you stale bread

Croutons

I am hopelessly frugal, particularly when it comes to food.  My Berkley, California friend theorizes this impulse originates from my past life experiences.   “Perhaps you lived through the Great Depression or you toiled through several lifetimes as a feudal peasant.”  “Or,” I suggest, “perhaps I was just raised with hard-to-shake, conservative, Midwestern Lutheran values where waste is akin to sin.”  Aren’t California people funny?

My frugal impulse compels me to recycle and reinvent leftover foods.  Croutons are an example of this impulse in action.  About once a week, I make a pot of soup for dinner and serve it with “home baked” (see my note below) whole grain, artisan bread.  I can’t bear to see the half-eaten loaf go moldy.  And truly, no-one wants to eat it after the first day when it has gone stale. When life gives me stale bread, I make croutons, which we occasionally sprinkle on our salads and soups, but more frequently eat straight up—a crunchy, savory, superior snack alternative to potato chips.

Croutons--sliced stale breadMaking croutons couldn’t be easier.  Cut the bread into even cubes. (Cutting is easier when it is slightly stale).   If you only have a bit of bread, allow the cubes of bread to air-dry for a few hours in a wide, shallow container before storing them covered.  (Stale bread rarely molds)  Repeat this process—adding more and more bread cubes to the container and allowing them to dry a bit—until you have enough stale bread to justify making a batch of croutons.

Want to be even more frugal?  Make the croutons when you are already making something else in the oven.  Throw them in at the last 5 minutes, then turn off the oven and allow them to bake with the residual heat.  This isn’t a precise baking recipe after all; we are just crisping them up a bit.

Croutons--Ingredients

The Ingredients;  Here I have some stale loaves of Italian bread leftover from an event.

Croutons--what to do when life gives you stale bread
Author: 
Recipe type: Snack
Cuisine: Italian
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Yield: 6
 
I like to use whole wheat but I will transform any unwanted leftover bread to croutons and do so weekly.
Ingredients
  • 3 cups slightly stale bread sliced into ½ inch cubes
  • ¼ t fine salt
  • 3 - 4 T good olive oil
  • ¼ t good garlic powder
  • ½ t Italian dried herbs,crumbled and rolled)--sage, oregano, basil, rosemary and thyme are all nice
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.
  2. In a large bowl, drizzle olive oil over the croutons and toss.
  3. Sprinkle salt, garlic powder and herbs over croutons and toss again to distribute seasoning evenly.
  4. Place on an even layer on a baking sheet and bake for 10 - 15 minutes--until crisp and lightly golden.
  5. Once cooled, store in a sealed container. It will keep for several weeks.

 

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Toss diced bread with herbs and oil in a large bowl.

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Get every last bit of seasoning.

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Spread evenly on a baking sheet and bake at 350 F for about 10 minutes.

Cooking with Kids:  I cut the larger hunks of bread into thinner manageable slices, which the kids finish off by cutting it into individual cubes. They also measure the oil and spices, and toss them with the bread in giant bowl with a giant spoon or better yet, their little hands.

*How to Make “Homemade Baked” Bread I posted this on Facebook as one of my Tuesday’s Cooking Tip, so you may have read this if you are a follower. Local Global Kitchen Facebook Post 1/21/14:  “If your supermarket has a bakery that sells upscale baked breads, most likely they are buying them from a wholesale bakery. The loaves arrive mostly baked and completely frozen. The supermarket then does the last few minutes of baking in their oven so it seems like hot, fresh baked bread when you buy it.  Instead, buy the frozen loaf yourself (just ask the lady behind the counter) and store it in your own freezer. When you want it, pop it in the oven for 20-30 minutes at 350 F. Viola! You have hot “home-baked” bread which can turn even a lowly soup dinner into a gourmet meal.  Be sure to buy the whole wheat and keep a couple loaves in the freezer at all times.”

Try the croutons with these other recipes:

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Potato Leek Soup

If you have never made potato leek soup, you are missing out on the culinary equivalent to a warm and fuzzy pair of slippers. The unpretentious leek and the lowly potato combined, create a soup whose flavor is greater than the sum of its parts.  Serve it with warm, whole wheat bread and a simple green salad and you have a great weeknight meal. Your only regret will be that you did not make this sooner.  If you didn’t stock up before the end of regular market season, locally grown potatoes and leeks can be found now through early spring at the Winter Farmers Market.


Potato Leek Soup
Author: 
Recipe type: Soup
Cuisine: American
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Yield: 5 servings
 
This recipe is very flexible and easy to double or half. In general, just use a 2:1 ratio of leeks to potatoes. Add more or less cream as desired.
Ingredients
  • 3 T unsalted butter
  • 3 medium all purpose potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped (1.5 lbs)
  • 5 - 6 large leeks (about 6 cups chopped)
  • 1½ t kosher salt
  • 5 cups chicken stock
  • ½ t white pepper
  • 1 cup half and half (optional)
  • Chives for garnish (optional)
Instructions
  1. Cut off the root-ends and green stems of the leeks. Slice the white portion vertically and separate the layers. Swish the layers in a cold-water bath so that grit falls to the bottom. Roughly chop the cleaned leeks into ¼ inch bits.
  2. In a large pot, melt butter on medium heat.
  3. Add the leeks with salt to the pot and sweat them until they become soft--about 6-8 minutes. Be careful not to brown the leeks.
  4. Next add stock, chopped potatoes, and white pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Simmer covered for 15 minutes or more until the potatoes are soft.
  5. Turn off heat and add half & half if desired. Blend to desired texture with an immersion blender. Season to taste. Serve warm in bowls and garnish with chopped chives.

Cooking with Kids:

If you have a fussy eater on your hands, just call it potato soup.  Potatoes are an easy sell, even to the most vegetable adverse child.   My purely anecdotal data suggests that you have an 85% chance of them loving this soup at first slurp even if they fall into the category of extreme food neophobe.  Have them eat it a few times before you subtly introduce the whole name and the show them the leek.

If you want them to cook with you, have them do the prep work.  I don’t know about you, but that’s why I had kids. (Well, not really, but it’s a perk).  Kids can peel the potatoes and cut them it into chunks. This isn’t precision work; give them a steak knife and directions for keeping the knife away from fingers.  My children also enjoy washing the leeks.  Once clean, they use scissors instead of a knife to cut the leeks into ¼ inch bits.

Cauliflower Soup

Warm meal in one bowl

What could be better than soup

                                                   On cold autumn nights

I wrote a haiku about soup.  Need I say more about my affection for the dish?  And really, can anyone dispute the perfection of a soup meal—satisfying, simple, flavorful, full-o-veggies, and cheap to boot.  Each year from November to April, I unilaterally declare Wednesdays “Soup Night” but no-one here complains about this particular dictatorial edict.  They love soup too.

I suspect some of you are thinking that you too love soup, but are not the biggest fan of cauliflower. To confess, I never feel enthusiastic about cauliflower either. That is, until I cook it, taste it, and remember that the bland, white color belies its actual sweet and nutty flavor which is sweeter yet as we have experienced a few light frosts. This recipe showcases that subtle sweetness if you are careful not to over-cook it.  Remember, cauliflower belongs to the cabbage family and will smell unappetizingly sulfurous if cooked to mush.  Past experiences with stinky cauliflower may be the origin of your hesitation.  Hestitate no more and try it.  You can thank me later.

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Cauliflower Soup
Author: 
Recipe type: Soup
Cuisine: American
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Yield: 10 cups
 
Potatoes and a roux give this soup a thich rich texture without the fat. No need to bother with cream or cheese.
Ingredients
  • 3 T butter
  • 1 medium onion, chopped (1 cup chopped)
  • 1 medium carrot, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
  • 1 stalk of celery with leaves, finely chopped (1/3 cup)
  • 1 t kosher salt
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • 2 T all-purpose flour
  • ¼ t white pepper
  • 3 cups stock
  • 3 cups milk
  • 2 T sake or dry white wine
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 medium potato, peeled and finely diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 small head of cauliflower cut into small florets (about 8 cups or 2.5 lbs)
  • 1 T mince fresh parsely
  • ¼ t mince fresh thyme or tarragon
Instructions
  1. In a large sauce pan, melt the butter slowly over medium heat.
  2. Add onions, carrot, celery and salt; sweat the veggies slowly (about 5 minutes)stirring occassionally until they are soft and transparent. Reduce the heat if the veggies begin to brown.
  3. When veggies are nearly done, add the minced garlic and cook another minute until fragrant.
  4. Next, add 2 T of flour; stir continuously for another minute creating a roux--a flour-butter paste coating the veggies.
  5. Next add the stock, milk, and all remaining ingredients except the parsely and thyme. Bring to a boil and reduce heat.
  6. Simmer for 15 minutes or until florets are cooked but firm.
  7. Turn off heat, stir in herbs, and partially purree with a masher of immersion blender.
  8. Serve with warm, buttered bread.

In our house, soup night comes with a side of rustic, whole grain bread bought from the bakery and warmed in the oven. (This is a weeknight meal and I am certainly not about to start baking bread.) Spread with butter, warm bread completes the meal and serves as the perfect medium for sopping up every last drop of soupy goodness.

Preserve it:  Cauliflower is in season. Buy a few extra heads and freeze it for soup. Cut it into florets, soak in salted water to clean and remove insects, then blanch in a large pot of boiling water a pound at a time for 3 minutes—place florets in the boiling water, return the lid to the pot, and start timing immediately.  If you add more than a pound at a time, the temperature will drop too low.  After 3 minutes, promptly remove and place in ice water. Drain and arrange florets on cookie sheets and place in the freezer. Once frozen, place florets in freezer-safe bags and date. I prefer this method so that the florets are individually frozen, and I can take from the bag the quantity I need.

Cooking with Kids: This recipe lends itself to all sorts of activities for kids, but then it won’t be a quick meal. Never include your kids in the cooking process if you are pressed for time–everyone will become angry and frustrated. I know this from experience. So if you have ample time, have the kids do the weighing and measuring—an excellent, hands-on math application. I always have my girls harvest the herbs and mince them with their tiny kid-scissors. I also have them peal the garlic clove with their nimble little fingers and then pushing it through a garlic press. My little assistants jump at the chance to use any gadgetry.

Gazpacho—Salad Gone to Soup

A certain ambiguity takes over when tomato season comes bursting in. Vine ripened, locally-grown tomatoes are hands-down the best veggie in the world. Not only are they delicious sliced and eaten on their own, but they also lend themselves to so many cooking applications. Just image what Italian or Indian food looked like before Columbus brought back this versatile fruit to the Old World—a dull culinary landscape for sure!

But as much as I love tomatoes, the short season can transform me into a galley slave as my inner ant kicks in, and I begin to work feverishy to squirrel them away in anticipation of the winter months to come. While I am passionate about preserving, canning 22 pounds of tomatoes could steal anyone’s joy.

That is why gazpacho is such a blessing. Not only is it a refreshing, easy-to-make, ready-to-eat, delicious cold soup, but it also freezes very nicely.   I know what you’re thinking–more processing?!  But relax. Gazpacho doesn’t require the hullabaloo of removing skins, and you get a preserved product at the same time you made dinner.

Classic Gazpacho
Author: 
Recipe type: Soup
Prep time: 
Total time: 
Yield: 8 servings
 
This is my launching point recipe, but you can tweak it with different spices to blend with many different cuisines.
Ingredients
  • 1 small clove garlic
  • ¼ cup fresh chopped herbs (any combination of basil, tarragon, parsley, dill, oregano or chives)
  • 2 or 3 slices stale bread
  • 1 small red onion, quartered
  • 1 lbs. cucumber, peeled and de-seeded
  • 2 lbs. tomatoes, cored and de-seeded
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 T red wine vinegar
  • salt and black pepper to taste
Instructions
  1. Add ingredients one by one to a food processor or blender and puree. If you don't have a food processor, finely chop ingredients and mix. Serve with bread, cheese or summer sausage for a light quick meal.
Notes
You can create other versions based on different cuisines by changing ingredients. Think of gazpacho as a finely chopped or puréed salad and then let your imagination go. MEXICAN: Tomatillos or tomatoes, red onion, jalapeno pepper, cucumber, bread, garlic, olive oil, and lime. Garnish with cubed avocado. INDIAN: Tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, red pepper, radishes, green chili, cumin, tomato paste, vegetable stock, garlic, bread, olive oil, and lemon. FRENCH: Tomatoes alone with lemon, tarragon and parsley garlic, bread, olive oil. GREEK: Follow the recipe for Classic Gazpacho above using oregano and parsley as the herbs. Also add a sweet red bell pepper and kalamata olives. Garnish with cubed feta.

Preserve It: Place gazpacho in freezer-safe bags or plastic containers in desired proportions, then label and freeze.  I like to put the gazpacho in 1 – 2 cup plastic containers leaving 1-inch headspace for expansion in the freezer.  I use these later in packed lunches.  They keep the lunch cool while defrosting.

Squash Blossom Soup

My favorite thing about growing veggies or shopping at a farmers market is getting that legitimate thrill of the once-a-year-treat.  Once a year events fill us with nostalgia giving us a way to mark the seasons and measure our life’s journey.

Shopping at a grocery store does not give you this feeling.  One trip is much like the next, and the store, even the produce department, rarely reflect seasonal changes. Like the agricultural equivalent to Jimmy Buffet’s excuse, “It’s 5:00 o’clock somewhere,” everything is available all the time. “It’s grapefruit season somewhere.”

But some veggies because of their delicacy or perhaps limited demand, have escaped this industrialized fate.  Squash blossoms are one such item. When I see them at the market, their cheerful yellow petals call to me, and I buy them even if they weren’t on the list.

The first time I did this, I brought them home and began researching how to cook them.  Mexican and Latin American dishes often call for stuffing and/or batter dipping and frying.  Not my style–too labor intensive, too time-consuming, to messy, and just too much hullaballoo for a single meal.

Enter squash blossom soup. A few ingredients, a few minutes and you have a simple but decidedly delectable soup the color of sunshine.


Squash Blossom Soup
Author: 
Recipe type: Soup
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Yield: 4 - 6 servings
 
Ingredients
  • 3 T butter
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 small clove garlic, crushed
  • 8 - 10 oz. squash blossoms, cleaned with stamens removed*
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • ½ t white pepper
  • ½ cup half and half (optional)
  • Garnish: chopped chives or a grated hard cheese like Mexican cotija or Italian Parmesan.
Instructions
  1. In a large sauce pan, melt butter over medium heat.
  2. Add chopped onion and salt and sweat the onions being careful not to brown them—about 5 minutes.
  3. Once transparent, add garlic and cook for 30 more seconds.
  4. Add stock, pepper and blossoms. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Simmer for about 5 minutes covered.
  5. Add half and half and cook another 1 minute. Remove from heat. Blend thoroughly with an immersion blender. Garnish and serve hot.
Notes
Squash plants are monoecius, meaning they bear both male and female flowers. The female flowers will develop into a squash, the male will not. Squash often bear only male blossoms at the beginning of the season and farmers will harvest them to sell at market. The pollen and stamen are extremely bitter so remove them completely and rinse each blossom thoroughly before cooking. I just use my fingers to tear the stamen off. Even one stamen left behind will result in an unpalatable soup.

Preserve It: Impossible to store.  Eat it now.

Cooking with Kids: Have the kids do the prep work.  My kids always want to fuss with flowers, and they also like to take things apart out of curiousity.  Let them go to town on the blossoms.  Make sure that you share the information about the bitter stamens.  Even have them taste them raw comparing the bitter stamen to the mild, pleasant flavor of the petal.