Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Big Red Envelopes

In the early 1990’s, I was looking for a job in my chosen field of advertising and marketing. It was a different process then than it is today. Instead of job searching on the internet and emailing resumes both near and far, we had to search the old fashioned way – pouring over newspaper classifieds, reviewing the ads in the back of our trade magazines, talking to friends, former clients, colleagues, and pounding the pavement.

My background had given me unique skills and experiences that matched a number of different jobs. In looking through Ad Week, one of the industry’s leading trade publications, I found two jobs that were a perfect match for my qualifications. One position listed was for the Director of Account Service for a full-service ad agency, and the other that intrigued me was for a Public Relations Director position. Neither listed the name or location for the company, and each had a P.O. Box for the response address.

At the time, I knew I wanted my resume and cover letter to stand out from the others. This was after all, advertising, and presentation is as important as substance.

I did not have much money. I owned a home computer, a printer, and that was about it. For the next couple of hours, I cleaned up my resume and created two different versions – each highlighting the experiences that were suited to the specific position.

And, I wrote two completely different cover letters. For the account service position, I highlighted my 5+ years of advertising account management. For the public relations position, I wrote of how in third grade, I began my career by writing and illustrating children’s books, and creating the scripts for our class plays. I printed each resume and cover letter on nice, professional looking paper and then tucked them into two bright red catalog envelopes.

I knew that these giant red envelopes would definitely stand out from the rest of the mail when delivered by the postman. My hope was that these bright envelopes would intrigue someone to at least open them. So I crossed my fingers, handwrote the addresses, stuck on the stamps, and placed them in the post office box.

About a week later, I received a phone call. Turns out both positions were with the same company. The agency’s president called to talk to me about my qualifications and to set up an interview. In the phone call, he asked why I selected the big red envelopes. He also told me that my plan had almost backfired. The envelopes were so unconventional that he almost threw them away without opening them. I told him that the envelopes represented my desire to stand out from the crowd and inspire a little intrigue and mystery.

He was impressed. And I was hired for both positions.

Turns out those red envelopes truly changed my life. I went to work for the agency in Southern California and the man who opened those red envelopes so long ago, is today my husband, Steve.

The red envelope principle continues to guide me in the kitchen as I prepare recipes for friends and family. It has long been said that we enjoy food with our eyes first, our nose second, and our taste buds last. Food that is memorable is not only delicious, but also beautiful and artistic, satisfying and mysterious, exotic and comforting. Standout dishes do not have to be complicated, and often require little more than using the best ingredients to create a symphonic marriage of flavors to entice and enchant. Recipes and foods that provide a little mystery, hint at what’s inside, and then deliver surprising flavor are always on my list of favorites.

Dishes that are bright on color and flavor also seem to have more of an emotional punch, especially during the winter and early spring. After seeing so many grey skies, the colors on our plates help remind us that warmer days are just around the corner. One of my favorite meals this time of year is a hearty bowl of flavorful minestrone with its rich red kidney beans, bright orange carrots, green skinned zucchini, and chunks of stewed tomatoes. The flavors are rich, yet comforting, and by throwing in the rinds of parmesan, or sautéing a little pancetta in the beginning, I can provide a little mystery with a unique earthiness and texture.

Another soup I love to make during this time of year is my Smoky Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup, served with a little crème fraiche and chives on top and cheese toast on the side. It’s simple yet complex, and the addition of a smoky paprika is exotic, providing mystery and intrigue. And its bright red color reminds me of a couple of red envelopes that changed my life more than 15 years ago.

To make the soup even more delicious, be sure and use great ingredients. In the winter, canned San Marzano Tomatoes make this dish a knockout. You can also try smoking the tomatoes and peppers in a stove top smoker or on the grill. Smoking and roasting vegetables is a great way to preserve your summer bounty of extra tomatoes, simply smoke or roast them as indicated in the recipe and freeze them in freezer containers until you’re ready to whip up a batch of soup or pasta sauce.

For the cheese toast, I like to use parmesan, gruyere or a combination. You can also use cheddar, jack, or any cheese that you may like, including crumbled blue cheese.

Hope you enjoy!

Smoky Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup
Makes 4 to 6 servings.

4 Red Bell Peppers, quartered and seeded (or 1 can roasted red peppers, drained)
2 lbs. Roma Tomatoes, cut in half
(or two 28 oz. cans whole San Marzano tomatoes, drained, juice reserved)
2 Medium Yellow Onions, cut in half root to tip, peeled, cut into ½” thick slices
4 Large Cloves Garlic, smashed
3 Tbs. Olive Oil
½ tsp. Ground Coriander
1 tsp. Dried Thyme
1 Cup Chicken or Vegetable Stock (or tomato reserved tomato juice)
1 Whole Carrot, peeled, ends removed, cut into 2” lengths
¾ tsp. Smoky Paprika
¼ Cup Heavy Cream (optional)
2 tsp. Fresh Lemon Juice (to taste)
Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to taste

Minced Chives and Crème Fraîche, for garnish

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place peppers, tomatoes and onions in large bowl, drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat lightly. Turn vegetables into large roasting pan or rimmed cookie sheet and roast for about 20 minutes, or until edges of tomatoes and peppers begin to char. Stir vegetables, turn pan and roast for 15 minutes more. Add in garlic, sprinkle with coriander and thyme and continue to roast for about 15 minutes more. Remove pan from oven and let cool until vegetables are cool enough to handle. Remove as much of the charred skins from bell pepper and tomatoes if possible and discard skins.

Turn vegetables and any of the accumulated juices into a medium sauce pan or stockpot. Add in carrot pieces and stock or tomato juice. Bring mixture up to a simmer and add in smoky paprika. Simmer vegetables until very tender and when the carrot is soft enough to be pierced by a fork.

Remove pan from heat and use a fork to remove the carrot pieces from the soup. Using an immersion blender, food processor, or traditional blender, purée mixture until desired chunkiness (sometime I leave this fairly chunky and other times, I will puree longer for a smoother texture). Taste for acidity. If the tomatoes and carrot were very sweet, you can add as much of the lemon juice as you would like to balance out the flavors. You can also add additional smoky paprika, or cayenne pepper to adjust the flavors and heat to your liking. Just remember to add only a little as the flavors will concentrate over time.

I also like to punch up the flavor with a special salt, such as a Smoked Sea Salt, or Truffle Salt.

Return pan to the stove and bring mixture just up to a simmer. Add in cream if desired and stir until combined. Taste for seasoning again. Remove from heat, ladle into serving bowls and top with a dollop of crème faîche and some minced chives. Soup is even better the next day.

To smoke tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic:
Smoking tomatoes and peppers can be done using a stovetop smoker and smoking chips on your stove. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions and soak wood chips in water at least 20 minutes before smoking. Follow directions above and coat vegetables with olive oil. Place tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic on stovetop smoker food rack and cover with lid. Smoke over medium heat until smoke is released from pan, reduce heat slightly and smoke for about 10 to 14 minutes, or until tomato and bell pepper skins begin to split. Remove pan from heat and let vegetables remain in covered pan for at least 10 more minutes or until vegetables are cool enough to handle. Remove and discard skins from tomatoes and bell peppers. Place in sauce pan or stock pot as directed above and continue with remaining recipe instructions.

You can also smoke vegetables using your outdoor grill. You will need a vegetable grate, aluminum foil and smoking chips. Soak chips again in water for at least 20 minutes before turning on your grill. Prepare grill and let preheat until medium hot. Follow directions above and coat vegetables with olive oil. Place tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic on vegetable rack placed over grill, but not over direct flame. Place soaked wood chips in foil creating a small pouch with the foil and leaving the top open to release smoke. Place foil packet in bottom of grill, away from direct heat as well. Close grill lid and smoke vegetables for about 10 to 14 minutes, or until tomato and bell pepper skins begin to split. Turn off gas grill or remove vegetables to upper or side rack on wood burning grill. Keep lid closed for 10 more minutes. Remove vegetables and allow to rest until cool enough to handle. Remove and discard skins from tomatoes and bell peppers. Place in sauce pan or stock pot as directed above and continue with remaining recipe instructions.