Being in a new environment with so many tempting cuisines, I haven’t been cooking quite as much as I used to. I also am sharing a kitchen for the first time in my adult life, and I am still figuring out my culinary stride in that setting. While I do still cook, I tend to go with quick recipes in my repertoire, instead of breaking new ground. However, last week I made a new recipe for dinner, and it served as a delightful reminder of how much I enjoy that process. It was a new recipe (I’ll post about it soon), that was a simple, but unique process; it calmed and grounded me in a way that nothing else does. After that experience I made cooking a priority for the approaching weekend. I keep a running list of recipes that I want to try, but I never truly know what will lure me in until it’s time to shop and cook. Once Sunday rolled around, my charge would become clear. There’s been a certain pork ragu on my radar for some time, but I had carnitas on Saturday night, so the rage was out of the running. For inspiration, I went to Barnes and Noble to sit on the floor, and flip through cookbooks; this is a favorite activity of mine. I quickly found my muse in a “one pot meal” cookbook by Martha Stuart: sweet potato and sausage soup with greens and pasta. Sweet potatoes are not typically enticing me because of their sweetness, but I liked the idea of their creamy texture in soup. So I took this idea, and added every savory, spicy component that I could muster to offset that sweetness. I used a hot Italian sausage, and added some tomatoes for acidity. I also added some earthy oregano and nutmeg. I love the way nutmeg reads in a savory dish: almost like black pepper, it adds spice and zest, but not heat. Nutmeg pairs especially well with greens, which are the finishing touch of this soup.
This soup is made with basic methodology: sweat some onions, and then add the sausage, mashing the it as it browns so it distributes evenly through the soup. I use a potato masher as my mashing vehicle of choice; I find it breaks up ground meats the most efficiently. This soup is made with pork sausage; turkey sausage would be a fine substitute, but the pork fat lends unparalleled silkiness. Once the sausage is brown, add the broth, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes, along with dried oregano. If you want your soup to seethe with umami flavor, add a Parmesan cheese rind at this point. All of that cheesy, salty flavor will seep out of the rind, and into the broth as the soup simmers. Parmesan cheese rinds used to be something that a cook had to slowly accumulate to add salty depth to soups, but now, they can be purchased in neat little packages from Whole Foods, and they can be stored in the freezer.
The next steps are essentially a balancing act of cook times. When the sweet potatoes are almost tender, add the pasta; when the pasta is almost tender, add the greens (your choice, but I like chard – tender like spinach, but a little sturdier and without the tannins). At this point, I like to turn off the heat. The residual heat is sufficient to wilt the chard. I love pasta; it was certainly a selling point on this recipe for me, but I think that barley would be a great substitute for the wheat averse. I can’t believe that I am about to put this in writing, but barley may simply be the better choice. Add a half to three quarters cup of pearl barley, depending on how thick you like your soup. I love pasta in soup because it releases starch into the broth, which acts as a subtle thickener. The problem is that pasta continues to absorb liquid into the broth has all but vanished, and the little pasta shells are waterlogged. Another option is to cook the pasta separately, and add it to each bowl; however, with this method, the pasta always feels like an outsider within the soup; it doesn’t quite fit in. On the other hand, barley would thicken the soup slightly, but will also maintain its structural integrity within the soup, instead of expanding like a sponge. I used the spicy Italian sausage from Whole Foods, which packs a pretty solid spicy punch, but I also added about a teaspoon of sriracha to the pot, for a little extra zing. Top it off with a little parmesan cheese, and dinner is ready.
Spicy Sweet Potato and Sausage Soup (makes 6-8 servings)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 pound spicy Italian pork sausage
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1-14 oz. can of tomatoes (diced or crushed)
8 cups of low sodium chicken stock, divided
2 cups water
1 parmesan cheese rind (optional, but recommended)
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed between your fingers
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Sriracha to taste (optional)
1 cup small shell pasta (or 1/2 to 3/4 cup pearl barley)
1 bunch swiss chard, stems removed and leaves roughly chopped
Parmesan cheese for garnish
- In a large soup pot, saute the onion in the olive oil over medium to medium-high heat. Season with salt and pepper, and saute for 8-10 minutes.
- Add the garlic, and saute for 30 seconds to a minute. Then add the sausage to the pot.
- Break up the sausage as it browns in the pan. A wooden spoon works, but I like to use a potato masher. Saute the sausage for about 8-10 minutes, or until it has browned.
- Add 6 cups broth, 1-2 cups water (the rest of the water and broth can be added as needed, depending on how much liquid the pasta absorbs later), canned tomatoes, sweet potatoes, dried oregano, additional salt and pepper, and the parmesan cheese rind, if using.
- Bring to a boil, and then reduce to simmer, stirring occasionally for 10-12 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes begin to soften (they don’t need to be completely cooked through). Add sriracha to taste, if using.
- Add the pasta, and cook for about 2-3 minutes less than the package indicates, stirring occasionally.
- Add the chard, stir to distribute throughout the soup, and turn off the heat. Let stand for about a few minutes. If the soup is too thick, add a little bit of reserved broth (this can also be done when reheating the soup). Taste for seasoning, and add additional salt and pepper if needed.
- Ladle into a soup bowl, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, freshly ground black pepper, and enjoy.
December 14, 2014