Let's get down to the basics: It's November. Thanksgiving is a mere three weeks and two days away. Inevitably, the blustery winds of winter will make their presence known. With the time change last weekend, it's dark when we sit down to eat dinner.
Time for a hot bowl of soup, some crusty bread and a piece of crispy, roasted chicken.
This trio of recipes is worth the effort, so put aside a little time to enjoy finessing, experimenting and savoring the kitchen experience.
The Caramelized Onion and Squash Bisque is so versatile you'll think you're eating several different soups. Make the basic version and freeze what you don't eat now so you can play with the toppings and add-in's later.
Pretzel Bread is a challenge worth taking, especially if you've made any basic yeast bread before. The secret is the one extra step: a water bath for the dough. The result will have you trying to figure out how to hide the extra loaf so it doesn't disappear before it completely cools.
And The Greatest (No Joke) Roast Chicken, well, it couldn't get much easier while still having amazing flavor. But, please, don't use any shortcuts here: Buy the wine and the fresh herbs; you may never go back to store-bought rotisserie chicken after eating this bird.
CARAMELIZED ONION AND SQUASH BISQUE
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large sweet onions, diced
2 medium shallots, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried Italian herbs or herbes de Provence
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 pounds cubed, peeled butternut squash*
3 to 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream
Ground black pepper
In a large saucepan over medium-high, heat the vegetable oil. Add the onions, shallots, salt and herbs, then saute for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring often, until the onions are soft and brown, about another 20 minutes.
Add the vinegar and deglaze the pan. Add the squash and 3 cups of the broth, then bring to a simmer. Cover and cook until the squash is completely tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Working in batches, transfer the soup to a blender and puree until smooth. Alternatively, puree the soup in the pot using an immersion blender. Either way, take care when blending hot liquids.
Return the bisque to the heat and stir in the cream. If a thinner bisque is desired, thin the soup with the remaining cup of broth. Heat until just hot. Season with salt and pepper.
Servings: 8. Nutrition information per serving of bisque (not including toppings or add-in's): 200 calories, 15 grams fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 16 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 4 grams sugar, 3 grams protein, 280 mg sodium.
To serve, finish with any of the following:
SPICED SHRIMP AND SCALLIONS --Toss 12 ounces of small cooked shrimp with 1 teaspoon five-spice powder. Top with sliced scallions.
ASIAGO AND APPLE -- Stir 2 finely diced apples into the bisque, then bring back to a simmer. Top with shredded Asiago cheese.
BARBECUE PULLED PORK -- Stir together 2 cups of shredded/pulled cooked pork with 1/3 cup barbecue sauce. Top the soup first with the pork, then a dollop of sour cream and chopped fresh cilantro.
TWO CORN AND HERBS-- Cook 1 cup of thawed frozen corn kernels on high in a skillet with 1 tablespoon of oil until lightly browned. Stir the kernels into the bisque along with 2 tablespoons each of chopped fresh tarragon, thyme and chives. Finish by topping the bisque with salted, buttered popcorn.
PEPPERED JACK --Stir in 1 diced red bell pepper and 1/4 cup diced pickled jalapenos. Top with shredded pepper jack cheese.
MAPLE BACON BLUE -- Stir in 1/2 cup crumbled crisped bacon and 1/4 cup maple syrup. Sprinkle with crumbled blue cheese.
*How to cut, peel and cube a butternut squash: Cut a bottom piece off so you can set it upright. Use a sharp vegetable peeler to remove skin. Stand upright and make one long cut, down the middle from the top to bottom, with a heavy chef's knife. Scoop out seeds and stringy pulp. Lay down halves and cube.
I ran this recipe for Pretzel Bread a couple years ago, and continue to make it at home. Whenever I bring it somewhere, it is gone in minutes. If you've never eaten it, it's like eating a big, soft pretzel. The crust is somehow crispy, but not chewy or tough. You decide how salty you want the crust to be.
Like any homemade bread, it takes time to prepare. I try never to complicate my cooking or baking, and this recipe from Mike at blog twobites.wordpress.com is easy to follow. The extra step is the water-bath. Similar to making bagels, you drop the dough for pretzel bread in boiling water that has baking soda in it.
This recipe has adapted a bit and also has added notes to aid breadmakers.
Mike's Signature Pretzel Bread
2 1/4 teaspoons yeast (one packet)
1 cup water (110-120 degrees)
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon brown sugar (dark or light)
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
2 1/2 to 3 cups bread flour
4 quarts water
1/2 cup baking soda
Kosher or sea salt to taste
2 tablespoons melted butter
Combine water and milk and heat to required temperature. Melt butter and allow to cool slightly. Combine in a large bowl.
Add yeast and brown sugar; whisk all ingredients until combined. Let mixture rest for 10 minutes for yeast to activate. Mix in kosher salt.
Start by adding 2 cups flour to the bowl, combining it with other ingredients. Add about another 1/2 to 3/4 cup flour as needed: The dough should form a slightly tacky, but firm ball. (Editor's note: My dough needed a total of 2 1/2 cups flour.)
Oil or spray with nonstick cooking spray a second smaller bowl that will fit the dough but not crowd it. Place the dough ball in the bowl and cover with a damp towel for 30 minutes.
Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it by hand on a lightly floured surface or in a bread machine for at least 5-10 minutes, until the dough is elastic and satiny. (I set my bread machine for the dough cycle and let it knead the bread for about 7 minutes.)
Place dough back in the bowl and re-cover for 1 hour.
About 20 minutes before the hour is up, start the 4 quarts of water on high heat. (On my gas stove, it took about this long to bring the water to a boil.)
Oil or spray with nonstick cooking spray a baking sheet.
Find the biggest or widest spatula or turner you've got. (I used a palm-sized round one with holes in it from my stir-fry utensils set.) Get out your colander. Put paper towel underneath it. Put everything next to the stove.
About 10 minutes before the hour is up, preheat oven to 400 degrees.
When the water is boiling, slowly add the baking soda. Warning: Do not put all the baking soda in at one time or you'll have an overflowing cauldron!
Remove the dough from the bowl and gently de-gas it, if necessary, by gently rolling it on a lightly floured surface. (My dough didn't quite double in size and did not have any air bubbles in it, so I skipped this step.)
Form two balls of dough by cutting in half with a sharp knife. You can form them into the shape you want.
Using the turner, carefully lower one of the balls into the baking-soda bath for no longer than 30 seconds, turning it once to guarantee both sides are covered. Use the turner to remove the dough and place in the colander.
Drain the excess water and place the dough ball on the baking sheet. Repeat water-bath steps with second ball of dough.
Sprinkle salt over the bread to your specific tastes, and make sure to use a sharp knife to cut a small incision on the top of the bread so the dough has somewhere to expand.
Bake the bread 22 minutes, rotating the baking sheet once. Makes 2 small loaves.
Once removed from the oven, immediately brush the melted butter over the loaves to guarantee a soft crust.
This recipe is adapted from "The River Cottage Meat Book" by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. If you like, put an extra cut-up lemon in the bird's cavity before roasting.
"Get some crusty bread and dip it (in moderation) into the buttery, chickeny pan juices," the author writes.
THE GREATEST (NO JOKE) ROAST CHICKEN
1 chicken, 3 to 4 pounds
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, at room temperature
1 clove garlic
2 teaspoons salt
Coarsely chopped fresh herbs such as sage, thyme and rosemary
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup white wine
1 lemon, cut into wedges
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Pat the chicken dry. Mix the butter, garlic, salt, herbs and pepper to taste in a bowl using your hands. Smear it all over the chicken, inside and out, stuffing some of the butter mixture beneath the skin.
2. Place chicken in a roasting pan; roast 20 minutes. Spoon some of the pan drippings over the chicken. Add the wine to the roasting pan. Reduce heat to 375 degrees; roast 22-30 minutes, depending on the size of the bird. Turn off the oven; open the door slightly. Let chicken finish cooking, about 15 minutes. Pierce where the thigh and breast meet; the juices should run clear.
3. Cut up chicken; place on serving platter. Spoon pan juices over chicken. Add lemon wedges.
Makes: 4 servings, each with 591 calories, 45 grams fat, 203 mg cholesterol, 44 grams protein, 1,299 mg sodium.