Broccoli Cheese Soup

Some years ago I was surprised to learn that I grew up eating food from a gourmet kitchen.  It was not that my mother was a gourmet cook who carefully undercooked everything from carrots to roast beef.  She believed in cooking things until they were “done,” which meant soft for vegetables and gray for meat.

Nor did she bring plates to the table with a slice of chicken breast in the middle and a few green beans artistically placed on one side and an ear of sweet corn with a pat of butter melting over it on the other.  One of us kids brought in a bowl of green beans from the garden, another carried in a platter heaped with ears of sweet corn picked just before supper and Mom carried in the platter of chicken.

By this time Dad was buttering his bread or stirring milk into his coffee.  The table had been set ahead of time and we filled our plates.  Artistic presentations depended on the individual and the meal.  At Thanksgiving, for instance, I tried to keep the cranberries from turning my mashed potatoes pink.

What made Mom’s kitchen gourmet was the fact that she, like the celebrated chefs we read about today, used “locally sourced, organically grown, seasonal ingredients.”  In fact, hers was probably a hyper-gourmet kitchen:  Her locally sourced vegetables came from our gardens which were fertilized with well-composted cow manure from behind Grandpa’s barn.  The chicken had been working as a pest control agent in the garden the day before.

And of course all the fresh vegetables were seasonal.   Dad would check the winter onions daily once the snow was gone from the garden, and soon we would be enjoying fresh green onions.  Three or four weeks later, red and white radishes and leaf lettuce would put in an appearance followed by green peas, beans and little red new potatoes.  By this time the garden would be in or near full production with early cucumbers, carrots, beets, sweet corn and whatever else Mom or Dad had tried that year.

For desserts we had strawberries from Mom’s patch and blueberries and blackberries from the woods around the house picked by eager hands the first time and by sometimes less enthusiastic children on later occasions.

By which circuitous route I come to broccoli.  I don’t remember if we ever grew broccoli.  But if we did and if Mom did not make broccoli cheese soup, I would have tried making it myself.  Enjoying a steaming bowl of fresh broccoli cheese soup on a cool September evening in northern Wisconsin means you probably won’t be using locally-sourced broccoli, but the cheese and half and half can be local, and the result will be delicious and almost a gourmet dish.

Here’s what to do.

INGREDIENTS:

4 cups broccoli florets
2 c. water
2 chicken bouillon cubes
1 small onion (2 to 2 1/2 inch diameter)
4 T butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups Half and Half
A pinch or two of nutmeg
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. hot sauce
1 1/2 cups grated Sharp or Extra Sharp Cheddar cheese
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

PROCEDURE:

Wash the broccoli, cut off and discard the tough lower stems and separate the florets into smaller pieces (up to 1 inch).  Dice the tender upper stems.  Put the broccoli, water and bouillon cubes into a heavy three or four quart saucepan, cover and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes.  Remove from the heat.

While the broccoli is cooking, peel and chop the onion finely.  Melt the butter in a heavy four or five quart pot over medium heat, then add the onions.  Cook the onions for about four minutes, then stir the flour into the onions.  Stirring frequently, cook the onions and flour for another three or four minutes over low to medium heat.  Be careful not to brown the onions or flour.

In a free moment, grate about six ounces of the cheese.

Warm the half and half until it starts to steam.  Pour the half and half over the onions and stir to mix well.  Empty the pan of broccoli and bouillon into half and half mixture.  Add the nutmeg, white pepper, garlic powder and hot sauce and stir well. Stir in the cheese, cover and simmer or two or three minutes.

Taste and grind in a little black pepper if the soup needs more “bite”.  Otherwise, just pass the pepper grinder at the table.  You may want to add a little salt as well.

Serve with a salad and fresh bread.  This soup makes a great lunch and we enjoy it for Sunday supper.

NOTE:  Feel free to adjust the amount of cheese you stir into the soup to produce the color and flavor you prefer.

Gus Gauch’s Macaroni and Cheese

Gus Gauch was a farmer who lived down the road from us in the country. He was also one of the two best fly fishermen on the Namakagon River north of Hayward.

When I was eight years old, Gus talked my mother into letting him teach me how to fly fish for trout.  She was afraid that her firstborn might not make it home from the river, and if she had seen me starting to float away in my brand new plastic waders that first day, my trout fishing career would have ended pretty quickly.  However, Gus was there to catch me as I was about to tip over, and we never told her about it.

I learned a lot of things from Gus, one of which was not to tell your mother everything.  Another was his recipe for macaroni and cheese.  The first time I had it was in late winter when Gus asked me to come over after supper so we could tie some flies.  When I got there he was still eating.  He asked me if I wanted some macaroni and cheese, and since I hadn’t had anything to eat for fifteen minutes I said yes.

It wasn’t like my mother’s macaroni and cheese but I loved it.  Unlike most macaroni and cheese recipes, this one does not use a white sauce into which you melt the cheese.  Instead, you layer the cooked macaroni, shredded cheese and buttered bread crumbs in a casserole and heat it briefly in the oven.  It is extremely simple and easy to make, has no trans fats, is lower in calories than ordinary mac and cheese and is just plain delicious.

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups uncooked macaroni
4 – 5 T butter
8 oz. medium cheddar cheese
3 or 4 slices dry bread or buns to make 1 cup of bread crumbs
Salt and pepper to taste

PROCEDURE:

Bring two quarts of water to boiling.  Preheat the oven to 300º.

While the water is heating, shred the cheese and set it aside.  When the water reaches a full boil, stir in the macaroni and cook nine or ten minutes; I always add salt to the boiling water, but suit yourself. Drain but do not rinse so the pasta will be hot when you assemble the dish.

While the macaroni is cooking, crush three or four slices of dry bread (hot dog or hamburger buns you have dried in the oven work very well also) to make about one cup of bread crumbs.  Do not try to turn the crumbs into a powder.  Leave some quarter inch pieces to provide a little variety in appearance. 

Melt four tablespoons of butter in a small frying pan on low heat.  When the butter is melted, add the bread crumbs and toast them slightly stirring with a fork until the crumbs are mixed with the butter.  Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. I use about a quarter teaspoon each of salt and pepper. If the crumbs seem too dry, add a little more butter.

Butter an ovenproof glass baking dish.  Put a thin layer (about a half inch) of macaroni in the dish, sprinkle about one-third of the cheese evenly over the macaroni.  Repeat with two more layers.  Spread bread crumbs over the top and put the uncovered dish in the hot oven.  Heat about fifteen minutes until the cheese is melted.

And that’s it!

NOTES:  You can use mild or sharp cheddar cheese for a different flavor.  And if you want to be fancy, grate an extra tablespoon of cheese on top of the crumbs.  If you don’t have any dry bread, toast 4 slices and cut them into small cubes.