The Undertones

My heart is full. After almost a two year absence, you are out there! Hi! Thank you so much for the immediate response and your willingness to test the soup recipes. On the Sunday after the last blog posted, I filtered phone calls and texts from two folks on the East Coast while Kate was testing the recipe here in our kitchen. I was elated – three cities; two coasts and every one was making their own variation of the red lentil & butternut squash soup. Sweet! And the best thing about the process was what I learned.

First off, everybody had the same questions which allowed me to not only see what information was missing and/or unclear but to taste the finish product without my input. Excellent!

Secondly, the hard question: “Why doesn’t my soup taste like yours?” And with the finished product sitting in front of me, beautiful in color and presentation, smelling amazing and being offered by a satisfied, not frustrated cook (all of the things Stories From the Kitchen hopes to create), I couldn’t deny the fact that the soup was thin. It tasted great. The textures were perfect. It had the right balance of spice and salinity but it was thin. Damn it!

I was so annoyed with myself. What had I forgotten? Why was this happening? I walked around for days pondering and stewing. What ingredient had I forgotten. I had my notes and my friend’s notes and comments but I didn’t have any answers. Reportedly, however, the soup was better on day two and even better if you blended it a bit to make it creamier. I was grateful for the feedback, although still puzzled, I moved on. I had to get to work on the current project in front of me: making a BBQ sauce with fresh figs and pears (to be discussed later), and while fun and quite rewarding, it took two days.

Now, for those of you who don’t know,  let me catch you up. One of my absolute favorite things in the world to do is to barbeque. And I strongly believe that there is a fundamental difference between barbequing and grilling. But I will spare you the sermon, for now. However, after spending two days working on the sauce there was no way I could spend any more time on this project. Plus I couldn’t even pretend that I had the energy or dexterity to stay up half the night slow cooking pork shoulders and chickens over a skillfully maintained 200° wood burning fire, so I took the shortcut and roasted them in the oven overnight.

And the next day, I couldn’t have been more heartbroken. The finished product was thin. It was totally missing an undertone – a major undertone. Of course no one knew but me. But still, I was so upset with myself and disappointed in the finished product, that I didn’t eat it. And yes you heard me correctly: I didn’t eat the pork. But fortunately for me, I learned a couple of new things and cleared up a few others.

When it comes to cooking, I rarely, if ever, take shortcuts.  I love to cook.  In some way, shape or form, my entire life revolves around food.  And while I often have the luxury of taking the ‘slow cooking road,’ I recognize that it is a luxury and that it is the road least traveled by the average American adult. So when I stopped giving myself a hard time I realized that this isn’t about me making a soup, or what eating soup would taste like in my home. Stories From the Kitchen is about making food that is delicious, healthy, affordable, simple to make and that fits into your schedule. So to that end, I am thrill that we are off to such a great start.

However in terms of addressing the actual question and what I considered to be a thinness in the soup, we need to look at some basic cooking methods and techniques.

Some of the world’s best dishes happen accidently. As a sixteen year rookie in the industry, I can tell you firsthand that substitution happens all the time.  But the one thing great cooks, from the novice to the celebrated, would all agree on, is that flavor is something you build. I love that feeling of eating something and experiencing layers of enjoyment as various flavors travel through my mouth. But how do we get from the simple to the amazing? I call it “the undertones.”

The undertones are the stocks, the sofritos, the brines, the chutneys, the cured, the smoked and dried aromatic that hide in your pantry, the pimentos and vinegars. It’s the results of roasting, caramelizing, braising and simmering.

Excerpt from, “Ooh, she put mayonnaise in the cake.”

                                                       Stories from the Kitchen: There’s Healing at the Table, Ya’ll


When I cook, I often mix fresh garlic with roasted garlic.  I use a lot of caramelized onions. I roast vegetables before adding them into their final dish. I use fresh herbs on finished products and I store things like stock and sofrito in my freezer.

Some basic undertones…


– making sofrito is a method more than a recipe. And what I’ve learned from my Puerto Rican grandmothers is that you have to personalize it. And the beauty about sofritos is that there is no real way to mess it up and it is a great way to clean out the fridge – that half pepper or random piece of onion, old garlic, the over ripe tomato, etc.


1/3 cup cooking oil

1 tablespoon vinegar

3 cups of any combination of the following (tomatoes, onion, garlic, scallion, shallots, peppers, olives, cilantro, parsley, thyme, pumpkin seeds)

Salt and pepper to taste



Rough chop all ingredients. Heat a heavy bottom skillet, once hot add everything and stir. Bring to a simmer and turn off heat. Let cool and blend (in blender) until smooth. If too thick, add in warm water until desired consistency – it should be ‘apple sauce’ thick.


I pour completely cooled sofrito into a standard ice tray and freezer overnight. I then remove the cubes and store them in an airtight container or freezer bag in the freezer. And I put them in a dish whenever I think it needs a little boost!


How to Caramelize Onions

Caramelized onions are great in scrambled eggs, omelets and quiche, mashed potatoes, tossed with pasta or mixed in with grains or on pizza, grilled cheese, and in pasta sauces.

•          Prep time: 10 minutes

•          Cook time: 45 minutes

•          Yields:  2 cups



•          6 medium to large onions (yellow or white as red tends to discolor more –  or  2-1 blend of yellow/white  to red works )

•          ¼ Olive oil

•          Salt



Peel the onions and cut them in half.

Lay onions cut side down and slice them lengthwise 1/4in thick slices (the slice should look like a half moon)

Heat a large heavy bottomed skillet (big enough to hold the onions in a single layer).

Add olive oil and heat to a simmer; add onions and salt and stir.

Arrange the onions evenly in the pan and let cook, stirring occasionally.  Reduce heat to medium and cook for about 10 minutes. Then stir.

This will take about another 30 minutes from this point and requires that you stir often.. You want them to brown but not burn – and it’s a slow and steady dance.


You want to rest long enough to brown (if you stir them too often, they won’t brown), but not so long so that they burn. After the first 20 to 30 minutes you may want to add a little water or wine (2 Tablespoons), cover and simmer for t5 to 10 minutes.

Store refrigerated, in an air-tight container, for up to five days or freezer for up to 3 months. And use often.


How to Roast Garlic

–           Using pre-peeled garlic makes this a breeze. Roast a lot at one time and keep in the fridge in an airtight container.


•          Prep time:  5 minutes

•          Cook time: 20 minutes



•          10 Cloves of Peeled Garlic

•          2 Tablespoons Olive oil



Preheat oven to 400°. Arrange garlic on a single layer in a small baking dish and drizzle with olive oil. Bake for 15 -25 minutes, until garlic is desired softness. You are looking for a caramel color on the finish.

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