White Bean and Roasted Mushroom Soup

I don't know about you, but winter in Urbana-Champaign has been extremely mild this year. We've maybe (?) had 6-8" of snow total. Which, I don't mind telling you in great candor, I love. The harsh 100"+ snowy winters of Wisconsin from 2008-2009 followed us down here. Not the 100" per se , but residents of the area complained that the last two winters down here were far worse than many in recent memory. My bad, guys. I bring the weather with me. Yes, I hate it too. So, it's been a huge relief to have a warm, snowless winter.

Warm snowless winters don't make me crave the hearty soup staples of a Wisconsin winter any less. And this dish fits the bill. Fresh sage and thyme are the only way to go, since they provide such crucial bursts of flavor. Pureed white beans provide a thick, hearty base, and roasted mushrooms give a sweet, fleshy thank you for going through the trouble of making a soup from scratch and not just popping open a can of Campbell's.

This soup begs to be served with piece of crusty sourdough bread.

And like many soups of the hot and hearty variety, this is much better the 2nd and 3rd day.

White Bean and Roasted Mushroom Soup (from She Wears Many Hats)
-16 oz. mushrooms, halved or quartered
-2 large sweet onions, quartered
-3 garlic cloves, slightly crushed
-1-2 tablespoons olive oil
-1 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
-1 1/2 teaspoon pepper, divided
-8-10 fresh sage leaves
-8-10 stems + 1 tablespoon leaves fresh thyme, divided
-48 oz. chicken broth (vegetable broth can be substituted for a vegetarian version)
-3 15 oz. cans white beans, not drained (I prefer cannellini beans)
-Additional salt and pepper for seasoning

1. Preheat oven to 450°F.

2. Toss mushrooms, garlic and onion in olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. (You may want to keep mushrooms separate on baking sheet for roasting, because you'll have to separate later. So, separate now, or later.) Spread on baking sheet. Add sage leaves and stems of thyme. Roast in 450° F oven for 10 minutes, toss and roast for additional 15 minutes.

3. While vegetables are roasting, add broth, beans, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves to a large stock pot over medium heat and simmer.

4. When vegetables are done roasting, let cool slightly. Separate mushrooms from other roasted vegetables (if not already separated).

5. Retrieve 2 cups of the white beans, and 1 cup of broth from the stock pot, add to a blender along with the roasted onions, garlic and herbs. Cover and blend until smooth.

6. Add pureed bean mixture back to stock pot, whisking in until smooth. Add roasted mushrooms to soup. Salt and pepper to taste.

7. Warm over low heat until ready to serve.

-6-8 hearty servings

Banana Apple Walnut Muffins

So, like, school is hard. And stuff. Between working full time and going to school again, I'm constantly busy (and exhausted). My school-friends and I were talking about our "non-negotiables" to maintain sanity the other day, and one of the things that a few of us had in common was cooking. I've been finding that cooking projects are a good way of breaking up my all-day study/homework sessions on the weekends. Last weekend I made greek yogurt (!) and two batches of bagels. That was ambitious, but well worth it.

Last night, as Greg was driving us home from an outing at a bar, I tipsily mused "I think I'm going to make us apple muffins tomorrow morning." Greg is not one to turn down sweets, and I'm not one to reneg on my promises of baked goods. Upon waking this morning, it turned out that we had only 1 apple, but excessive ripe bananas. Sometimes, things just work out that well.

Banana Apple Walnut Muffins (modified a bit from about.com)
-1/2 cup butter, room temperature
-1 cup granulated sugar
-2 large eggs
-2 large bananas, ripe, mashed
-1 teaspoon vanilla extract
-2 cups all-purpose flour
-1 teaspoon salt
-1 teaspoon baking powder
-1/2 teaspoon baking soda
-1 cup sour milk or buttermilk (alternately, you can put 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice in a 1-cup measuring cup and fill with milk and let it sit 5 minutes)
-1 apple, peeled and diced small
-1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1. Grease 12 muffin cups or line with paper muffin liners. Cream butter and sugar with an electric hand-held mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add bananas and vanilla and beat until smooth.

2. Mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Stir flour mixture into butter mixture, alternating with the sour milk or buttermilk. Stir just until dry ingredients are moistened; gently fold in apple and walnuts.

3. Spoon banana muffin batter into prepared muffin cups or liners, filling about 2/3 full. Bake at 400° for about 15 to 18 minutes, or until tops are lightly browned. Cool banana muffins in pan on rack for a few minutes; turn banana muffins out onto rack to cool longer. Serve warm.

Makes 12 large muffins, plus ~12-16 mini-muffins.

Verdict: Marvelous. These have a crunchy, semi-caramelized outer crust with a soft, flavorful crumb. Plus, your house will smell good all day.

Mushroom Bourguignon with Homemade Creme Fraiche

That title is rife with words I can't pronounce.

Whenever I referenced the meal I was going to make, I said something like "That Mushroom Bore-gwee-gog-ig-non-ish-ness Thing." Over the week, it was shortened to "Mushroom Thing," and then to "You know." Creme Fraiche--is it fray-shh? Fresh? No clue. I am not a linguist.

What I DO know is that both things are delicious and worth your time.

Boeuf Bourgignon, if you're unfamiliar, is traditionally made with braised beef and consumes many hours. This is the dish so popularized by Julia Child and then Julie & Julia. I'm sure Julia Child is turning over in her grave at the mention of mushrooms instead of beef. And, as I recently read "My Life in France," I can tell you with 100% certainty that her co-author, Simone Beck, a stickler for what constitutes traditional French cuisine, is not only rolling over, but screaming obscenities.

Tune her out and embrace the portbellos.

Mushroom Bourguignon (from the Smitten Kitchen)
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-2 tablespoons butter, softened
-2 pounds portobello mushrooms, in 1/4-inch slices (save the stems for another use) (you can use cremini instead, as well)
-1/2 carrot, finely diced (**I didn't bother to buy a whole bag of carrots for 1/2 of a carrot. Omit if you want.**)
-1 small yellow onion, finely diced
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-1 cup full-bodied red wine
-2 cups beef or vegetable broth (beef broth is traditional but vegetable to make it vegetarian; it works with either)
-2 tablespoons tomato paste
-1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (1/2 teaspoon dried)
-1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
-1 cup pearl onions, peeled (thawed if frozen)
-Egg noodles, for serving
-Creme Fraiche (or sour cream) and chopped chives or parsley, for garnish (optional)

1. Heat the one tablespoon of the olive oil and one tablespoon of butter in a medium Dutch oven or heavy sauce pan over high heat. Sear the mushrooms until they begin to darken, but not yet release any liquid — about three or four minutes. Remove them from pan.

2. Lower the flame to medium and add the second tablespoon of olive oil. Toss the carrots, onions, thyme, a few good pinches of salt and a several grinds of black pepper into the pan and cook for 10, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook for just one more minute.

3. Add the wine to the pot, scraping any stuck bits off the bottom, then turn the heat all the way up and reduce it by half. Stir in the tomato paste and the broth. Add back the mushrooms with any juices that have collected and once the liquid has boiled, reduce the temperature so it simmers for 20 minutes, or until mushrooms are very tender. Add the pearl onions and simmer for five minutes more.

4. Combine remaining butter and the flour with a fork until combined; stir it into the stew. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 more minutes. If the sauce is too thin, boil it down to reduce to the right consistency. Season to taste.

5. To serve, spoon the stew over a bowl of egg noodles, dollop with creme fraiche (optional) and sprinkle with chives or parsley.

-Serves 4

Now. I know you've been hyperventilating at the idea of making Creme Fraiche. But let me ask you a few questions:
1. Do you feel good about spending $8.00 on a tub of Creme Fraiche? No, I didn't think so.
2. Do you have a container with a lid?
3. Do you have a mixing apparatus, such as a spoon?
4. Do you have a plastic bag and twist tie?
5. Got 24 hours to let something sit on the counter while you do absolutely nothing?

If you answered yes to questions 2-5, then I am confident that you can make Creme Fraiche. It is stupidly easy. If you have the ability to mix two things together, there is no reason why you should ever buy Creme Fraiche--or sour cream, for that matter.

Creme Fraiche (from Serious Eats, with a little method change)
-2 cups heavy cream (preferably pasteurized and not ultra-pasteurized)
-2 tablespoons buttermilk or plain yogurt

*Note: People say to not use ultra-pasteurized, because it won't work. All I had to experiment with was the ultra-pasteurized variety of both cream and buttermilk. Also, my house is both cold and drafty. All odds were against me, according to traditional wisdom. It still turned out. So...nuts to traditional wisdom.

1. In a plastic container large enough to hold the liquid, mix both ingredients together.

2. Put a lid half-on the container (or leave it off if you prefer).

3. Using a food-grade plastic bag, place the container inside the bag. Gather up the ends of the bag, making a small opening. Take a deep breath and blow all your hot air in there, inflating the bag. Close it up, trapping the air, and twist-tie it shut. This will give an initial kick of warmth and will keep it free from drafts. If you have tuberculosis, a cold, or any other air-borne disease, please skip this step for the safety of all involved.

4. Let it sit out on the counter for 24 hours. Halfway through-ish, stir it and give it another kick of hot air.

5. Your creme fraiche is ready when it's thick like sour cream. It may take longer than 24 hours (some say 36), but mine was ready in 20 hours. Take it out of the bag, put the lid on entirely and store in the fridge, where it will continue to mature. It should keep for 7-10 days (though, honestly, I think my creme fraiche was good for at least 2-2.5 weeks...we play fast and loose with the laws of microbiology in my house).

-Makes 2 cups. That is a LOT of creme fraiche for very little money, because don't forget--you can make buttermilk by combining milk and vinegar or lemon juice and letting it sit for a few minutes. You and I both know you have those things in your house. Don't buy buttermilk for this purpose--only use up leftover buttermilk you bought for another reason.