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We all need a little black dress, or its equivalent. It's versatile, can be adorned every which way and carries us through all kinds of events in a fetching manner. A perfect little black dress buoys our confidence, puts a bit of sass in our stride and makes us smile a tad more easily.

Lately, I've been thinking of certain dishes as the kitchen equivalent of that little black dress.

Other people might call these dishes specialties or favorites, but I think of it a tad differently. Yes, you can call such dishes personal specialties but there must be other elements in order to qualify for this category. The dish must be versatile and you must be able to adapt it quickly and easily based not only on what is in season but also on what is at hand at the moment. And it really should be something that you cook intuitively, as well, without the training wheels of a recipe.

I have several little black dresses in my kitchen repertoire. An obvious one is risotto, which can even be made successfully when the pantry is almost bare.

Another is skirt steak, which is so versatile and so delicious no matter how you prepare it. I always cook it in the same way: I sear it for 90 seconds (2 minutes if it's particularly thick) on both sides, let it rest, covered, for 5 minutes and cut it into into thin slices. Then I serve it atop salad greens, braised greens, farro, barley, creamy polenta, pasta, rice or quinoa and dress it with a soy-based sauce, an herb sauce or a creamy sauce. Sometimes I top it with salsa and it never fails to draw sighs of praise. Indeed, a friend recently called skirt steak I marinated in Morcoccan Chermoula sauce and serve over farro and white beans one of the best things she's ever tasted.

Basic potato soup, which can be dressed up in countless ways to please almost anyone, qualifies, too. Add grated cheddar cheese and sliced fried sausages for a great picnic dish or chill the soup, add shelled Dungeness crab or poached oysters and serve it at a candlelight dinner on New Year's Eve.

The possibilities are endless, as potatoes cooked with aromatics and stock and water are about as close to an artist's palette as cooking ever gets. Even though potatoes always retain some of their own earthy flavor, they blend beautifully with everything from peas, artichokes, sorrel, spinach, chard and kale to tomatoes, peppers and chiles, winter squash, cabbage, mustard greens and a huge array of cheeses.

Do you have a little black dress in your pantry, a favorite dish that you've never thought about in this way before? If so, maybe you can take a minute to tell us about it "Eat This Now" at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.


I've been making this soup for decades and here's how I do it at home: I saute whatever aromatics I have in olive oil, butter or bacon fat and then add whatever tomatoes I have. In the summer, that usually means fresh. When tomatoes are not in season, I use canned tomatoes — whole, diced, pureed, whatever is in the pantry — and I use whatever broth or stock I have in the freezer, unless I've just made a new batch. I don't measure anything. After the flavors come together — usually in a about 10 to 15 minutes — I let the soup cool slightly, puree it with an immersion blender and serve it with whatever accompaniments or, to continue the analogy, accessories, I happen to have on hand. If I'm alone, the soup lasts through four or five meals.

<strong>Little Black Dress Tomato Soup, with Variations</strong>

<i>Makes 6 servings</i>

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

2 shallots or 1 white or yellow onion, diced

4 to 5 garlic cloves, minced

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

4 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped and drained (see Note below) or 2 large cans Muir Glen brand tomatoes

1 to 2 cups, vegetable, chicken, duck or beef stock or broth

3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley or cilantro leaves

Pour the olive oil into a medium saucepan or soup pot — you need enough to cover the bottom of the pan — and set over medium-low heat. Add the shallots or onion and saute until soft and fragrant, from 10 to 20 minutes, depending on your patience. Add the garlic and saute 1 minute more.

Season with salt and pepper.

Add the tomatoes and the stock or broth, increase the heat to high and, when the mixture boils, lower the heat and simmer very gently until flavors come together, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.

Puree with an immersion blender, taste, correct for salt and pepper and stir in the parsley or cilantro.

Ladle into soup bowls and plates and serve.


Add a generous spoonful of burrata or mozzarella fresca to the soup.

Stir a little lime juice and salt into creme fraiche and drizzle over the soup.

Heat leftover polenta and when it is hot, add a generous wedge or large spoonful to each soup bowl or soup plate. Top with the soup and add a little grated cheese before serving.

Top soup with several fried Padrons or Shishito peppers, which guests should eat with their fingers, swirling a pepper in the soup before biting into it.

Add 1 or 2 minced serranos to the onions or shallots. Top the finished soup with spicy cilantro sauce. To make the sauce, mince 3 or 4 garlic cloves and one serrano and combine in a small bowl with 1 cup chopped cilantro leaves. Stir in 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, season with salt and about 4 tablespoons olive oil. Taste and correct for salt and acid balance.

Make the soup with mushroom broth and top each serving with a generous mound of sauteed mushrooms; garnish with creme fraiche.

Make the soup with fish fumet (a simple stock of fish bones and aromatics simmered in water and wine for 30 minutes). After the soup is pureed, stir in 1 pound of rock shrimp that have been quickly sauteed in butter or olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. This can also be done with quickly seared scallops or sauteed Gulf shrimp.

Form leftover risotto into cakes about 2? inches across. Fry the cakes in butter or olive oil, set into soup plates and top with soup. Choose a sauce or garnish that resonates with the risotto; for example, if you have olive risotto top the soup with a bit of olive tapenade.

For tomato rice soup, stir 2 cups cooked rice of choice into the soup.

<i>Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</i>

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