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I really, really shouldn't

The other day it occurred to me that I’ve hardly said a peep about the book. Seeing as I spend every day in its (nascent) company, it seems like a funny oversight. It hasn’t been intentional, I swear. We’re just slowly feeling our way, this little book and I. Sometimes I feel so absorbed in it, tweaking recipes and jotting down stories, that it’s hard to know where to start.

To tell you the truth, it was a little disorienting at first to be at home at midday, without the reassuring constraints of a time sheet or colleagues. But it would be awfully rich to mope, I soon realized, about any situation that allows me to stay in my bathrobe until noon. (On occasion, you know, only on occasion.) Most days, I hover between the couch and the kitchen counter, writing or cooking or researching something, and then writing some more. In the past week, I’ve written essays about roasted tomatoes and eggs. I developed a soup and a pasta dish and tested each twice, as well as a cake, which will soon undergo its fourth – and sweet lord, please let it be final – session of test-and-tweak. The other night, our friend Sam came for dinner. Watching me swirl a pan of caramel, he asked teasingly if I’d worked up any sort of plan, exercise-wise, to combat the ill effects of recipe testing and tasting. Sure, I said. The plan is to keep a pack of hungry friends nipping at my heels at all times, and to have plenty of loud, raucous dinner parties. I feel good about the plan.

So far, things are going pretty well, although I did eat the better part of a loaf of banana bread last weekend. What’s worse is that it wasn’t even for the book.

The book will have a banana bread, of course – no work of mine will be without a banana baked something – but Banana Bread Week is long over. It was two weeks ago, not last weekend. It’s done. I was after an improved version of this old favorite, a banana bread with chocolate and crystallized ginger. So I read; I compared; and I baked some loaves. Then I called our friends Olaiya and John, and one night, we held a taste-off. A winner was declared, and the recipe has since moved firmly into the hands of a few kind souls who have offered their services as recipe testers. All told, this means that I should no longer be baking banana bread. Where bananas are concerned, I should strap on a pair of blinders, like those horses that pull carriages in Central Park. I should not do what I did last Friday, which was to bake another one.

I think my belly is exerting some sort of force field for banana bread. Recipes come to me, entirely without my trying. For example, when Brandon and I were in Portland for Valentine’s Day, we stopped into Powell’s – after Pearl Bakery, of course – and came away with a lovely (on sale!) book called HomeBaking, by that food-writing duo of dreams, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Between its covers lie about a million recipes, all sorts of savories and sweet things, loaves and cakes and buns galore. But the recipe that caught my eye was – oh Molly, you are predictable – a banana bread with coconut and a splash of dark rum.

I made it last Friday, cursing myself the whole way. And the long and short of it is this: it’s delicious. I thank my lucky force field. Aside from my own little heartthrob of a recipe – which is, anyway, a wholly different animal from this one – it’s my new standby.

I was initially skeptical. As you will note, this recipe has no eggs, which struck me as odd. But I decided not to second-guess: it might not work, I figured, but that might be for the best. But work it did, and brilliantly, hooo boy, baking up into a pretty little loaf with a moist, compact crumb. As banana breads go, this one is more bread-like and less cakey than some, and that works wondrously to its advantage. It’s subtle – not rich or cloying – and its soft, sturdy crumb gets a bit of toothsome interest from a handful of shredded coconut. This last also lends a faint, nutty flavor that, along with the aforementioned rum, makes for a very complex, sophisticated sweet. Even the crust is special, with a crunchy, nubbly top that crackles with demerara sugar. If banana bread, as a general category, is the ultimate in Americana, this particular loaf sits at the edge of the map, on one of those exotic tropical territories where rum is de rigueur. I think you’ll agree that right about now, that sounds like very good place to be.

But the best part is that a slice or two, along with a cup of tea, makes for one heck of a breakfast. That means there’s good reason to bake another loaf – we have to eat breakfast, people! – even though, by all accounts, I really, really shouldn’t.

Banana-Coconut Bread
Adapted from HomeBaking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition around the World, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

I have one word for you: demerara. This bread is lovely in its own right, but it owes a good deal of its charm to this very special sugar. Demerara has large, golden grains that sparkle in the light, and sprinkled on top of this banana-moistened batter, it yields a crisp, sweetly craggy crust that steals the show - and that stays crunchy on the second day, even! You can buy demerara sugar online from any number of sources, or look for it in your local gourmet store. I found mine at an upscale market nearby, and I think Whole Foods also carries it. Either way, buy it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to sprinkle it all over the place.

About 3 large, overripe bananas
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/8 tsp distilled white vinegar
1 ½ Tbsp. dark rum
½ cup dried shredded unsweetened coconut
1 Tbsp. demerara or dark brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a standard-size loaf pan.

In a blender or food processor, purée the bananas. Measure out 1 ½ cups of purée. [If you have more than that, try stirring the excess into some plain yogurt. It’s delicious.] Set the purée aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, nutmeg, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vinegar and rum, and beat to mix well. Add the banana purée and the flour mixture alternately, about 1 cup at a time, beginning with the banana and beating to just incorporate. Use a spatula to fold in any flour that has not been absorbed, and stir in the coconut. Do not overmix.

Scrape the batter – it will be thick – into the prepared pan. Smooth the top, and sprinkle evenly with the demerara sugar. Bake for 50-65 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool on a wire rack for about 20 minutes; then turn the loaf out of the pan and allow it to cool completely.

This loaf will keep, sealed airtight, for three to four days, although it is best, I think, on the second day.

Note: You can use frozen bananas here too, and with beautiful results. Whenever I have overripe bananas sitting on my counter, I throw them – skin and all – into the freezer for safekeeping. When I want to bake with them, I pull them out a few hours before, put them in a wide, shallow bowl, and let them thaw. When they have softened fully, I tear open the skin and let the soft, slippery flesh spill out. Be sure to save any juices that come out with it; they’re very flavorful and can be puréed along with the flesh.

Yield: 1 loaf


What the salad bowl has joined together

Many years ago, long before I was old enough to care about such things, my mother told me that she didn’t like escarole. It didn’t mean much at the time. I didn’t even know what esca­whatever was, nor, for that matter, why anyone would have an opinion about it. It was one of those wisps of information that blow through a childhood like tumbleweeds – quiet, aimless, a part of the background – those errant bits that, though we hardly know why, we sometimes hold onto. Like, say, the fact that my uncle Chris took his eggs with Tabasco sauce. Or the story of that horse who bit my uncle Jerry, and whom my uncle Jerry bit right back. That’s what escarole was like. My mom didn’t care for it, and that’s what I knew. I never thought to ask or wonder. And until pretty recently, I also never thought to actually try the stuff.

To her credit, my mother has since told me that back in those days, she didn’t really know what escarole was, either. She thought it was a funny sort of lettuce, bitter and unpleasant, though she’s not sure why. Maybe my grandmother didn’t like it. Go figure. At this point, it doesn’t much matter, because I’ve broken rank. This winter, I’ve fallen head-over-snow-boots for escarole. Never mind that it took me some twenty-odd years to try it: what the salad bowl has joined together, let no man put asunder.

Now, it didn’t happen overnight, mind you. It was a process, and I credit my friend Kate with getting it started. One night a year or so ago, she invited me over for what she called “crazy fiery Chinese fish,” also known as filets of salmon, lightly steamed and then doused in soy sauce with scallions and fresh ginger, with a slug of sputtering, near-boiling oil poured over the top. [A family specialty and quite delicious, if dangerous.] She served it with steamed white rice to soak up the juices and, as it would happen, a head of escarole that she had tossed quickly in a hot skillet and plated with wedges of lemon. I was stunned to find it such a likable thing: a spectrum of whites and pale greens, silky in spots, crisp in others, with a faintly edgy chicory flavor. It was a very good start. It got me at least looking every now and then in the direction of escarole, even if I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

But then, oh then, enter the salad bowl. Brandon had once told me that his old friend Steve often made salads with escarole, so a couple of months ago, faced with a very poor selection of greens at the market, we picked up a head and brought it home. Just like that. We’ve been eating escarole salads ever since. After all that fuss, I feel kind of pathetic. There’s hardly even a story to tell. As it turns out, escarole is easy to love. Especially its pale heart, which, when served raw, is actually a little sweeter than standard lettuce and barely bitter at all. It’s the only salad green I know to be leafy and crisp in the same bite, soft and resilient and springy under the fork. I don’t like escarole. I flat-out love it.

In recent weeks, we’ve tried a few variations on the escarole salad theme, including one at Zuni Café in San Francisco, with persimmons and pomegranate seeds and a fancy local olive oil. But the version I keep returning to is one of the simplest, a study in yellow and green. We chop the escarole into coarse shreds, chuck into a bowl with some shavings from a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano, and coat it with a variation on my usual vinaigrette. Then, at the table, it gets a few lashings of creamy avocado and some more shavings of cheese. All told, it’s our new house salad, and one that I’m happy to share with you. It was our Friday dinner. It was our Sunday lunch. And if the avocados on the counter continue to ripen as planned, for a little while at least, it may be our every meal.

Escarole Salad with Avocado and Parmesan

Now is the time for escarole. It’s in season from December to April, before summer’s greens shove it aside. When choosing your escarole, look for heads with large, pale yellow hearts. That’s the best and most valuable part. For our purposes, the darker outer leaves exist mainly to protect the inner ones and, in the process, can tend to get tough and slightly bitter. Once you’ve bought your escarole, wash it thoroughly: it’s dirty business. Brandon once saw Mario Batali – back in the beautiful early years of Molto Mario – soak his in multiple changes of cold water, so that’s what we do, as you’ll see in the instructions that follow.

The quantities below make a light Sunday lunch for two, along with some crusty bread and fruit to finish, but this salad could also serve three or four as a starter or side dish. You’ll likely have dressing left over, but since it works with nearly any salad, it shouldn’t cause too much trouble. Should you happen to be a fancy-vinegar fiend, you might try this salad with cognac vinegar. We had a Williams-Sonoma gift certificate to burn, so we picked up a bottle one day last fall, and it’s pretty wonderful here. Lastly, for other escarole salad ideas, hop over and read Tea’s take on the theme.

1 head escarole (for reference, ours have generally weighed about 9 ounces each)
½ firm-ripe avocado
A hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano
Crunchy sea salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel

For the dressing:
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard, preferably Grey Poupon
3 Tbsp. champagne vinegar
½ tsp. fine sea salt
5 Tbsp. olive oil

First, prepare the escarole. Pull off the outer layer of leaves, as well as any other tough, raggedy-looking ones, and set them aside for another use. [I like to sauté them over high heat and finish them with lemon, sort of like this.] Cut the head in half from stem to tip, and then cut each half crosswise into coarse strips about 1 inch wide. Pile the escarole into the basket of a salad spinner, place the basket inside its bowl, and fill with cold water. Swish the leaves around and let them soak for a minute or two; then pull the basket out of the bowl to drain them. Dump the water from the bowl and rinse it well to remove any dirt. Place the basket in the bowl again, fill with cold water once more, and soak the leaves again. Pull the basket from the bowl, and shake off any excess water. Dump the water from the bowl, place the basket inside, and spin the leaves until they are well dried. Turn them out into a salad bowl.

While the escarole is soaking, make the dressing. In a small bowl, combine the mustard, vinegar, and salt, and whisk well to combine. Add the oil a tablespoon at a time, whisking continuously to emulsify. Taste, and adjust vinegar-oil balance, if necessary.

Cut the avocado into thin slices. Place them in a bowl or on a plate, and set them on the table.

Using a vegetable peeler, shave a small palmful of Parmigiano Reggiano over the escarole in the bowl. Add a good splash of dressing, and toss to combine. Taste, and add dressing until the salad is dressed to your liking. Serve, with avocado, additional shavings of Parmigiano, and crunchy sea salt to taste.

Yield: 2 Sunday-lunch-size servings


Something heartfelt

Before I begin, I have to assure you that it’s not really as bad as it may seem. I’m not a curmudgeon, I swear. I’m not one of those bitter types who while away February by spitting on the displays of pink-and-red heart garlands in the grocery store. (Although, come to think of it, now that I’ve written that sentence, if I were a curmudgeon, I’d know exactly what to do.) It’s just that Valentine’s Day doesn’t really excite me. It’s not like Thanksgiving or Christmas, those holidays that come with catchy tunes to hum under your breath, the holidays that invite all sorts of baking and splurging and beautiful, endless buffet tables. Valentine’s Day feels a little stilted, that’s all. Too often, it’s like an obstacle course or a big end-of-term exam, a test to prove how good you are, or how impossibly romantic you can be. I like my romance under less fraught circumstances. It just feels more romantic that way.

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I don’t even remember what Brandon and I did last Valentine’s Day. I have no idea. I don’t even know if we were in the same city. I’m sure it was nice, whatever it was, but to tell you the truth, it has nothing on any number of other, more ordinary days. Like, for example, one Saturday last July. I think of that day a lot. It was overcast, and we left at midday and drove north to Bellingham. We had a bag of spicy peanuts in the console, and I was wearing a new pair of shoes. We stopped at a Goodwill near Mount Vernon and bought a Pyrex dish that I love, and then we ate spaghetti with pesto for dinner. Our canopy bed at the Best Western was nearly four feet high – it had stairs, people – and the next morning, when I tried to climb down, I banged my hip on the bedside table and got a whopper of a bruise. We laughed about it for a long time. I loved that trip.

Or then there was September 15, the day after my birthday, the day that Brandon spent sitting on the floor of my family’s kitchen in Oklahoma City, wrestling contentedly with a rusty bolt in my father’s old espresso machine. He spent hours sitting there, watching us come and go, rigging and wrenching and wielding a can of WD-40. When he finally pried the bugger loose, the machine shuddered to life with a squeal and a roar, a sound none of us had heard since my father died. Brandon worked the knobs with a sort of sweet, fearful reverence, and my mother fawned over her cappuccino for hours.

Or there’s that time a few weeks ago, when we decided that dinner at home was too much trouble and drove instead to Malena’s, as we sometimes do. The cilantro on my beans was a little wilted, but the guacamole was good, and so were the tortillas. We sat next to the heating vent, under the fluorescent tubes, and I tickled my foot along his calf, and all of it cost under nine dollars. I’d take any of these for a Valentine’s Day. They’re good enough for me. A special holiday for lovers is a very nice idea, but I’d much rather a little daily something heartfelt – a touch, a look, a table for two at a tacqueria – instead.

So I’m not a big Valentine’s buff. I don’t need any fancy celebrations or fanfare. (Never mind that Brandon has apparently planned some sort of huge, secret to-do for this Wednesday, nor that he is so impatient to share it with me that he asks at least once a day, “Do you want me to tell you what it is? No? Are you sure?” I know I will love it, whatever it is – but mainly because he’s so unbearably cute when he’s scheming and planning and itching to tell a secret, not so much because it’s Valentine’s Day.) For me, a quiet dinner is just fine. Or better than fine, even, especially when it concludes on the couch, with sleek, squidgy wedges cut from a chocolate tart.

I know, because that was our Saturday. I didn’t want to interfere with Brandon’s secret scheme for Wednesday, so this weekend I made us an early Valentine’s dinner. We started with a favorite salad, a purply jumble of slivered red cabbage and lemon, and then moved on to panade, which is pretty plush and sexy as winter dishes go. (It is also quite filling; be warned.) It was a good meal, minus the part where I got painfully hungry before supper was ready and Brandon had to step in to make the salad while I, in a panic, set the table. But the best part was undoubtedly the tart.

I had seen it in the most recent issue of Gourmet – (I know, I know, I’m starting to get redundant) – and it looked too good to ignore. Brandon agreed, and so I made it. The process was astoundingly easy: a press-in chocolate cookie crust filled with a spiffed-up, five-minute ganache, baked and chilled and dusted with cocoa. Moreover, it was delicious. Dense and silky, heartstoppingly rich, it was like eating the centers out of a half-dozen truffles, only without the mess. Its crust had just the right amount of crisp and shatter and, we noticed, the faintest caramelly flavor at its edges, where the butter had begun to brown against the hot pan. And, need I repeat, it was easy, which meant less time for cleanup and more for Brandon, and for our latest Netflix borrow. He even covered my eyes during the gory parts, and that, more than any grocery store garland, is love.

Chocolate Truffle Tart
Adapted from Gourmet, February 2007

In my humble opinion, the most important thing to know about this tart is that it improves with age. It was good on the first day, yes, but it was tremendous on the second. TREMENDOUS! So if you plan to serve it on Wednesday, try to make it tomorrow, or even tonight. Hop to it!

As for types of chocolate, I have to admit that I took the pitiful, what’s-in-the-pantry route. I used Ghirardelli 60% bittersweet chips. With any other brand, I wouldn’t even consider using chips – they just don’t melt like baking chocolate – but Ghirardelli works beautifully. And although it is kind of a plain-tasting chocolate, it was perfect here, yielding a wonderfully complex, fruity flavor. I imagine that Valrhona could also be good, although I wouldn’t use Scharffen Berger, which is already incredibly fruity to start with. It would be too much.

As for the pan, I only had a 9-inch springform, not the 8-inch version called for by Gourmet. The tart turned out just fine, but as you might expect, it was a little on the thin side, with the filling maxing out around a half-inch thick. So if you have an 8-inch springform pan, use it. And if you only have a 9-inch, know that your tart might look a little skinny. Pretty, but skinny.

Lastly – whew! – Gourmet calls for this tart to be served chilled, straight from the fridge, but we greatly preferred it after an hour or two at room temperature. When chilled, the filling is sort of chewy and squeaky, but after a little rest on the countertop, it softens a little and gets pleasantly silky. Much better.

For the crust:
28 chocolate wafers such as Nabisco Famous, finely ground in a food processor (1 ½ cups)
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For the filling:
½ lb. good-quality bittersweet chocolate (no more than 60% cacao), coarsely chopped
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 large eggs
1/3 cup heavy cream
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Unsweetened cocoa, for dusting the finished tart

To prepare the crust:
Put an oven rack in the middle position, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Wrap a sheet of foil around the outside of an 8-inch round springform pan, to catch any possible leaks. Lightly butter the sides of the pan.

In a medium bowl, stir together the ground wafers and melted butter until well combined. Turn the mixture into the pan and, using your hands, pat it evenly onto the bottom and 1 ½ inches up the side. Slide the pan into the oven, and bake until the crust is slightly puffed, about 10 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack, about 15 minutes. Leave the oven on.

To prepare the filling:
While the crust cools, melt the chocolate and butter, stirring occasionally until smooth, in a double boiler or a metal bowl set over – but not touching – barely simmering water. Remove the mixture from the heat and set aside to cool for 5 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs lightly. Add the cream, sugar, salt, and vanilla, and whisk to combine well. Add the chocolate mixture, and whisk to combine well.

To assemble the tart:
Pour the filling into the cooled crust, smooth it gently with the back of a spoon or a rubber spatula, and rap the pan once on the counter to eliminate any air bubbles. Slide the pan carefully into the oven, and bake until the filling 1 inch from the edge is set and slightly puffed but the center still trembles a little when the pan is gently shaken, 20-25 minutes. The center will continue to set as it cools.

Cool the tart completely in the pan on a wire rack, about 2 hours. Chill, uncovered, until the center is firm, about 4 hours. About 1 to 2 hours before serving, remove the tart from the fridge and carefully pull away the side of the pan. Put a teaspoon or two of cocoa in a small sieve, and dust it over the cake. Allow to sit at room temperature for an hour or two; then serve.

Note: If you’re short on time – which you may be, since Valentine’s Day falls on a Wednesday – you can make the crust and filling and bake the tart a day or two ahead. When the tart is completely chilled, cover it loosely with foil. (Covering it before it is fully chilled can cause condensation.) The finished tart will keep, according to Gourmet, in the fridge for three days.

Yield: 8-12 servings


The soupiest month

February always feels to me like a funny limbo period. Winter has gone sort of tired and stale, but still, short sleeves are a little way away. Over most of the northern globe, it’s nippy, damp, and grim. February is the shortest month, the Valentine’s month, the scant sum of four weeks of frost and fog and those funky, crumbly candy hearts. It isn’t much to speak of, quite honestly, except for all the soup.

The way I see it, February is the soupiest month. The giddy hubbub of holiday cooking is behind us, and summer barbeques feel like pure fantasy. So here in the middle, in Limbo Land, it’s high time for soup. All I want these days is a bowl and spoon – and soup at noon, stew for supper, stock in the fridge, broth on the stove, soup soup soup! What with all the spoonable meals around here, you’d think I’d had some sort of major oral surgery. But nah, it’s just Old February, sticking its fingers in the stockpot again.

And take it from me: when it does that, it’s best not to resist. If I were you, I’d fire up the stove, throw a few potatoes its way, and call it locro de papas.

Mine looks nothing like the photograph in this month’s Gourmet, but I don’t care one bit, because this Andean potato stew is a deep-winter dream. It’s warming, rustic, and immeasurably soothing, the sort of soup that makes you want to dock your spoon at the bottom of the bowl and hang out, right there, for a little while. I can think of many worse ways to spend February – can’t you? – than in the company of potatoes like these, stewed into a mellow, cumin-scented broth and smoothed with milk and crumbly Mexican cheese. Creamy and subtle, topped with crescents of avocado, it’s a little homey, a little homely, and quietly delicious – in other words, just the kind of food for February.

Now, that said, I should warn you, however, that this is not Saint Valentine’s fare. That’s not what it’s for. There are plenty of other, sexier dishes to spoon delicately into someone else’s mouth. (Ding, ding! Hello, chocolate!) This one is just for you. It’s for a gray day, to be eaten in a cool room, and with a wool blanket across your lap. I’ve been doing just that since late last week, and I’m not the least bit sick of it yet. In fact, I’d be happy to drop anchor here indefinitely – (Can you tell we watched both Pirates of the Caribbean movies this weekend? Argh, matey.) – so long as the supply of avocado holds up. Or until the end of the month, whichever comes first.

Locro de papas
Adapted from Gourmet, February 2007

Fancy it ain’t, but pay no mind, because this potato stew is a keeper. The only tricky thing about this recipe is the annatto – also known as achiote – seeds. They’re small, triangular, rust-colored pellets that bring a red color and earthy, resinous flavor to many Latin American, Caribbean, and Filipino dishes. That means, unfortunately, that they’re a little tough to find in the typical American grocery store. I bought mine at World Spice, but you could probably find them at your local Latin American or Mexican grocery, or at Penzey’s.

And while we’re on the topic of annatto, a word to the wise: when you make your annatto oil, below, use a stainless (or other light-colored) saucepan or skillet. I made the mistake of reaching for our well-seasoned omelet pan, which is black as tar and therefore made it damn near impossible for me to gauge the color of the oil as it steeped. And judging by the fact that my soup looks nothing like the sweetly burnished red-orange business in Gourmet, I think it’s safe to assume that I didn’t let my oil get red enough. Or that Gourmet did some sort of tricky retouching. Either way, don’t use a dark pan, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

2 tsp. annatto (achiote) seeds
2 Tbsp. olive oil
3 ½ lb. russet (baking) potatoes
1 cup chopped yellow onion (about 1 medium)
Rounded ½ tsp. ground cumin
2 ¼ tsp. salt
A few grinds black pepper
7 cups water
1 cup whole milk
1 ¼ cups coarsely grated queso fresco or queso blanco
2 firm-ripe avocados

In a small saucepan or skillet, heat the annatto seeds and oil over low heat, swirling the pan often, until the oil is bright red-orange and barely simmering, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and set aside to rest for 10 minutes.

While the annatto oil is resting, fill a large bowl with cold water. Peel the potatoes and cut them into ¾-inch chunks, dropping them into the bowl of water as you go. The water will help to prevent discoloration.

Pour the annatto oil through a fine-mesh sieve into a large (7-8 quart) pot, discarding the seeds. Warm the oil over medium-high heat, and add the onions and half of the potatoes. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is softened, about 4-5 minutes. Add the cumin, salt, and pepper, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute more. Add the water, stir to scrape up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pot, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the potatoes are very tender, about 25-30 minutes; then mash the potatoes into the broth. (You could do this with a potato masher, I assume, but I couldn’t find ours – the kitchen utensils drawer is a madhouse – so I used my immersion blender instead.) Remove the remaining potatoes from their bowl of water, drain them well, and add them to the pot. Simmer, partially covered, until they are tender, about 20 minutes more. Stir in the milk and the cheese, and increase the heat to bring the pot to a simmer again, stirring. Remove from the heat.

Cut the avocados into small cubes or slices. Ladle the soup into bowls, top with avocado, and serve.

Yield: About 6 servings