Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Family Minestrone

With many people still buried in winter weather, it’s fitting to get just one last soup recipe in before, hopefully, the weather turns around and warms up - just in time for the start of Spring! 

As you know, I love soup, and this is one of my favorites. I can hardly believe I haven’t posted it yet!

Image result for minestroneMinestrone is a thick soup of Italian origin made with vegetables, often with the addition of rice or pasta. It wasn’t until much later when tomatoes and potatoes were brought to Europe from the Americas that those ingredients were added and became staple ingredients in the soup. However, common ingredients such as beans, onions, celery, and carrots have always been part of Minestrone. The soup can be vegetarian, contain meat, or contain a meat-based broth (such as chicken stock).

It’s a soup with a thousand versions. Perhaps it’s like anything else, depending on where you go, regional influences determine what goes into it. And often what goes into minestrone is as simple as what’s on hand or in season. There are winter minestrones and summer minestrones. 

For those dishes for which there is no one set recipe, we tend to like that to which we are accustomed, and for me that would be the Minestrone of my mother. I’d have to ask her where she got her recipe, but I know I wrote her version down on a little 3x5 card back in my 20’s as she dictated it to me in her kitchen one day, and I’ve still got it!  Who even uses 3x5 recipe cards anymore?

Despite the fact that I love the recipe just the way it is, sometimes I add chopped greens to the soup, like chard or kale, if I have some and it needs to be used up.  No matter which version you use, one thing we can all agree on is this: minestrone is often better the day after you make it. This is so simple to make and tastes so wonderful.

Here’s my family's version of Minestrone:

1/2 cup olive oil
2-3 garlic cloves, minced (really, add as many as you can handle)
2 cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
4 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1 can organic tomato paste
approximately 10 cups broth (vegetable, chicken or beef) or water or a combination thereof
Image result for minestrone1 cup chopped cabbage
2 carrots, sliced
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1/8 tsp. ground sage
1 can kidney beans
1 zucchini, chopped
1 cup green beans (frozen will work)
1 cup elbow macaroni
Parmesan cheese

Heat oil in a large pot. Add garlic, onion, celery, parsley. Cook until soft. Stir in the tomato paste and the next 6 ingredients. Mix well. Bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover, simmer one hour. Add remaining ingredients except for the cheese. Cook 10-15 minutes more until macaroni is tender. 

Sprinkle Parmesan over the top. 

Serve along with the soup a nice slice of toasted Italian bread like chiabatta or focaccia, something you can dip into some olive oil. Or maybe some Parmesan crisps. For wine, I would recommend Chianti or a lighter Zinfandel - nothing too heavy. Maybe start dinner off with a simple salad of mixed greens tossed in a light vinaigrette and you’ve got yourself a wonderfully hearty, veggie-rich dinner.

If you should feel adventurous, other ingredients to consider adding or substituting:
leeks
potatoes (maybe instead of the pasta, but add them earlier on so they cook all the way)
1 can tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 tsp fresh chopped oregano or thyme, or a little of both
1 bay leaf
fava beans
fresh peas
Tuscan kale, chopped
pancetta
summer squash

Tips: the longer something takes to cook, the longer you’ll want it in the pot cooking. For instance, if the pancetta gives off some fat, I’d use that in lieu of the olive oil at the start. Leeks and potatoes should go in early; beans, peas and squash later towards the end.

Monday, February 23, 2015

What's in Season? Try Leeks!

Image result for california agricultureWe are rather spoiled here in California. Not only all this glorious weather, but the state provides nearly half of the country's fruits, vegetables, nuts, wine and dairy. We have just about everything! 

Indeed, agriculture in California is a nearly $40 billion industry that generates $100 billion in related economic activity! It's a big deal. But while we have a plethora of food grown here, let's face it: food grows everywhere. And eating the foods that grow where you live, instead of having them shipped to you from afar, is important.

Why?

There are a number of good reasons to eat more local, seasonal food:
  • to reduce the energy (and associated CO2 emissions) needed to grow and transport the food we eat
  • to avoid paying a premium for food that is scarcer or has travelled a long way 
  • to support the local economy
  • to reconnect with nature's cycles and the passing of time
But most importantly, because seasonal food is fresh, and so tends to be tastier and more nutritious.

While it's important to consider the environmental impact of our food choices - such as food miles (the distance food travels, or rather the energy consumed, getting it from place of production to our table) - it's hard to deny ourselves the pleasures of imports not widely grown in North America, such as pineapples and bananas. Plus, buying imported food can help make a much needed contribution to developing countries' economies.

But it's silly, really, to buy grapes from Chile, or lamb from New Zealand, when for many weeks or months of the year you can feast on far superior native versions, often at a lower cost financially as well as environmentally. Whenever an ingredient goes out of season, another delicious food has come back into season. It keeps things interesting, I think. Why do we really need to eat tomatoes year round? They are horribly tasteless at any time of year other than summer. This is why people used to can and preserve: they would take the bounty of summer and squirrel away their stash for the winter when less was available. The food retained its freshness and ripe taste.
Image result for leeks
Ok, so it's winter and we haven't squirreled anything away. We're city folk who don't can or preserve. What is there to eat at this time of year that we can feel good about? 

Leeks. If you haven't tried them, grab yourself a bunch next time you see them at your farmer's market or supermarket. 

Leeks are related to garlic and onions but have a much subtler, sweeter and more sophisticated flavor. They can be used to enrich soups or stews and they partner brilliantly with potato and cheese to form tasty side dishes and suppers that comfort and satisfy during fall and winter.

One of my favorite things to do with leeks is to make Potato Leek Soup. It's a very simple soup but do not underestimate it's heartiness. It is very satisfying. It can be pureed and made creamy with the addition of a little cream, it can be left chunky, you can leave it vegetarian or add bacon for a little extra zing.

Another nice thing to do with leeks is to braise them, getting a little color on them to sort of caramelize them. This really sweetens them up. They can also be grilled. 

No matter what you do with them, make sure to clean them well, as dirt can be often left behind. You'll want to cut off the end a bit at the point where the roots grow and then make a slit down the long way just about half way through and run water through it, releasing the layers one by one to loosen up any dirt that might still be hiding.

May I present: Potato Leek Soup. Make it and let it soothe your soul!

Potato Leek Soup
Image result for potato leek soup
3 large or 6 medium leeks, finely chopped
1 1/2 lbs. boiling or baking potatoes, scrubbed well
2 Tbsp. butter
Salt and fresh ground pepper
Milk or water to thin the soup, if needed
A splash of heavy cream

Slice leeks lengthwise and slice down the long end, holding the leeks under running water to rinse out any dirt or sand, quarter the potatoes lengthwise and slice them thinly.

Melt the butter in a wide soup pot, add the leek and potatoes, and cook over low heat, covered, for about 10 minutes. Add 7 cups of water and 1 1/2 tsp. salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the potatoes are soft to the point of falling apart, about 30 minutes. Press a few of them against the side of the pot to break them up. If the soup is thick, you can thin it with a little milk or replace the milk with cream (highly advised). If opting for cream, add only at the very end. Taste and adjust your seasonings if needed.

That’s the basic recipe. There are countless options for how to continue. What I would do is this: instead of pressing the potatoes against the side of the pot, which is fine if you’re going to leave your soup chunky, I would transfer the soup to a blender or use an immersion blender to puree it. If using a blender, bring the soup back to the pot and then add the cream. 

Garnish with chopped chives and parsley. 

This soup can also be served chilled. In that case, it’s called vichyssoise (pronounced veeshee-swa).

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Garlicky Red Lentil Puree

I hated lentils growing up. Not sure my parents even knew that, but I really did hate them. My mom would often make green lentils with sausages, and a sprinkle of vinegar over them to perk them up, and I thought this was horrible. Surprising, really, because now I like them and make that very same dish fairly frequently. 

They are so versatile - you can do so much with them. Lentils can be cooked into soups, made into hearty stews with a plethora of vegetables, cooked and then eaten cold in salads, or even whirled into purees.


Lentils are eaten the world over, so there must be something to them! For one thing, they are really packed with nutrients and fiber.

There are French green, puy, black, yellow and red lentils.
The one type I never could really get into was the red one. I found it often too mushy and shapeless to do anything with, so for a long while, I never bought them. Red lentils are used frequently in Indian cuisine, and are typically made into soup because they do cook fast and tend to be a little soft. And I have found, for this reason they make a great dip!

Garlicky Red Lentil Puree is such a dip.

Red lentils take on a deep garlic flavor and are punched up with a puckery dose of lemon juice, a subtle infusion of cumin, and a blast of chili powder and red pepper sauce. For an all-around garlic fest, serve this dip with garlic bagel chips. If you don't like things as garlicky as this, tone it down by using regular extra virgin olive oil and fewer garlic cloves. But come on - live a little! Garlic purifies the blood. Go for it!

1 cup red lentils
1 1/2 cups water
6 large garlic cloves, preferably roasted (this will soften the impact)
1/4 cup roasted garlic olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. hot red pepper sauce (like Tabasco) (optional)

Place lentils and water in a small saucepan and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Boil for 3 minutes and then remove the pan from the heat. Cover and let stand for 12 minutes. The lentils will have absorbed almost all of the water.

In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process the lentils, roasted garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, cumin, chili powder and hot pepper sauce until pureed and smooth. Taste and add more salt, if desired. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve with crudités, pita chips, bagel chips, your favorite gluten-free cracker or chip, or some blanched vegetables.

This dip can be prepared up to 3 days in advance. Cover and refrigerate. Remove from fridge 20 minutes before serving. It tastes better at room temperature.