vegetable soup

Part of the magic and trouble of eating real food is that real foods rots. Greens wilt and veggies that were once firm soften. All things that come from the earth yearn to return to it and often move in that direction sooner than some of us might wish they did.

So, what you, the home cook, must have are a number of devices in your emergency culinary toolbox (let’s call them screwdrivers for fun) that move products from the inside of your refrigerator to the inside of your stomach. I think meals of this nature work best when they are less recipe and more general instruction, so that’s what you’ll find here. No running to the grocery to pick up that one item you don’t have to make this type of dishes. If it’s not in your fridge, cabinet, or on your counter, it doesn’t belong in a screwdriver meal.

In my personal “oh shit everything I bought at the farmers market is about to mold” toolbox you will find a how-to for a basic stir-fry, a vegetable-heavy pasta sauce, and a greens-and-tomato-laden fritatta. But in these first weeks of spring, I consider vegetable soup the best possible way to clean out any fridge. Here’s what to do:

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  1. Round up all the produce and other items in your kitchen that are about to go off or that you need to move along to make room for your upcoming shopping trip. This time, for me, that search included some many-eyed potatoes, frozen bags of last summer’s green beans, partial jars of beef and chicken stock, and some extremely limp carrots.
  2. Evaluate your stash and add in some other ingredients to round it out. Do you have any onions, celery, carrots, or garlic? Those foods are an ideal starting place for just about any soup. What about a jar of tomatoes (whole/diced/crushed will all work beautifully)? A partial bag of frozen peas or corn leftover from a casserole you made a few months ago? What’s your dried herb situation? Pull out some parsley and oregano along with salt and pepper, if you have it.
  3. Splash a few glugs of olive oil into the bottom of a stock pot or dutch oven and allow it to warm. Dice an onion or two and throw them into the bottom of the pot. Gently stir and allow the onions to turn translucent. Add chopped carrots, celery, and garlic, if you have them. If you don’t have them, do not panic; move to the next step. (Whenever I cut up carrots, celery, or onions, I keep the peelings in a big jar or bag in the freezer for future use in making stock. Image of my peelings below.)
  4. Chop and add to the pot whatever other vegetables you have selected. Things that would work well here include root vegetables (sweet or white potatoes, turnips, parsnips), cubed squash of just about any variety, beans or peas, cabbage or other greens, corn, canned/frozen/fresh tomatoes, or peppers. Honestly I don’t think you can go wrong here with maybe a few exceptions — possibly artichokes, olives, and asparagus would not be good. But by all means, please go ahead and prove me wrong on that one.
  5. Once all your vegetables are in the pot, cover them with stock or broth or water. Bring to a boil and allow to simmer until all the vegetables are tender and flavors are combined. I left my pot on the stove simmering for a least an hour because it was a chilly and rainy Monday and it made me feel better, but it was certainly ready to eat well before then. If you are an insane person like me, you will end up with nine quart jars of soup and will be ready for visitors, natural disasters, and nuclear war.

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chana masala, cooking dried beans

The small town where I grew up does not have much going for itself in the way of authentic international food. There is a Mexican restaurant — I’m pretty sure these come standard in all little Midwestern towns — where you can purchase tacos or enchiladas served alongside cold liquid-y salsa. There are several Chinese restaurants, one a buffet, where dishes that are intended to be delicate and vegetable-forward are meat-centric and coated in sticky sauces that pool with oil and leave the consumer with a stomach ache. As a child, and even today, there are several dishes from these non-authentic restaurants that I quite like. They just aren’t the real thing. And as my travels and eating habits have expanded, I want the real thing. Or at least something close to it.

My childhood haven for authentically prepared cuisine from a culture that was foreign to me (a very specific type of haven, I know) came in the form of my dear childhood friend’s home. My friend is a first generation Indian American and her mother is a culinary master. She prepares beautiful meals for her family that left me, a kid who hadn’t eaten much outside of salt and pepper in the spice-department, nothing short of salivating. She keeps her kitchen fully stocked with bins of dried goods, spices, vegetables, and pastes ready to be crafted into brightly colored dishes that are as intoxicating to the eyes as they were to my stomach. Tuesday and I spent many afternoons watching TV or doing schoolwork at this friend’s home. Shortly after arriving, we’d often pull a big container of salsa, one of her mom’s specialties, out of the refrigerator. The salsa was so spicy to our underdeveloped taste buds that Tuesday and I kept a gallon of milk and two cups on hand while we munched on tortilla chips overflowing with the hot sauce. I remember having to run to the bathroom for tissues to wipe my nose and eyes. These flavors were completely new to me and unbelievably enticing. Visiting this home for dinner was a treat and culinary adventure; I simply couldn’t believe my mouth.

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Now, let’s talk about dried beans and legumes. I know that they are somewhat intimidating, and Tuesday made a special request for instructions on how to prepare them. Let me first say: It’s incredibly easy and rewarding and you get a whole lot more bean for your buck! The following directions are specifically for chickpeas—also called garbonzo beans — but the process for cooking all beans and lentils is relatively similar. The main difference is in the cooking time and Google is pretty handy for figuring that one out. Here’s what to do:

Purchase chickpeas either from the bulk section of your grocery if they have one (you can bring your own container to fill up or use the plastic bags that are typically provided) or find them pre-packaged in 1 lb. containers near the canned vegetables. Once the chickpeas are home, rinse them in a colander and pick out anything that isn’t food; you may come across a stone or small bit of a twig. After you’ve sorted and rinsed the chickpeas, put them in a bowl and cover with several inches of water. The beans will expand as they soak, so be sure to allow enough excess to keep them underwater as they grow. Cover bowl with a towl and leave on the counter overnight.

The next day, re-rinse the chickpeas in a colander. Pick out any funny stuff that may have been missed during the first inspection. Dump the chickpeas into a large pot and pour water over top, approximately 3 cups of water per 1 cup of beans. Bring the water to a boil and continue cooking for 60 – 90 minutes to desired softness. When finished, scoop off any chickpea parts that have risen to the surface of the water and drain. Done!

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Back to the main event. This recipe for chana masala is adapted from Smitten Kitchen who adapted her recipe from this guy who adapted his from Madhur Jaffrey. And though I’d never claim that this dish is the real thing, it’s a pretty damn good imitation.

ingredients:

  • 1 tbsp. canola oil
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 in chunk of ginger, grated (I keep ginger frozen in a piece of parchment paper and cut off and grate a chunk when I need it; best way I’ve come upon to store it)
  • 1 tbsp. ground coriander
  • 4 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 2 tsp. ground paprika
  • 1 tsp. garam masala
  • 1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 2/3 c. water
  • 4 c. cooked chickpeas (2 15 oz. cans will also work)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • juice of one lemon

directions:

In a large pan over medium heat, warm canola oil and add onions, garlic, and ginger. While the onion/garlic/ginger mixture cooks, measure out spices and mix them in a small container. Add spices to pan and lower heat slightly. Stir to coat onions with spices and allow to cook for a few minutes. Stir in jar of tomatoes with juices, water, and chickpeas. Simmer for 15 minutes and add salt and lemon juice. Serve immediately on its own or over rice, or continue simmering to allow flavors to further combine.

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Pro tip: This stuff is also pretty good on tortilla chips with a scoop of sour cream. Talk about inauthentic!

 

cooked

“surrounded as we are by fast food culture and processed foods, cooking our own meals is the single best thing we can do to take charge of our health and well being.” – MP

Let’s take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to talk about the incredible production I spent hours enamored by last Sunday: The new Netflix series Cooked by author/teacher/activist and all around brilliant man, Michael Pollan. Some may have read his words in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Rules, The Botany of Desire, or another of his intriguing and educational books (maybe even Cooked, the one this series grew from.) If you’ve done so, you’re probably already sold on how great this guy is and how smartly he communicates his ideas. If you’ve never heard of him, make this show your introduction.

 

The program is split into four episodes, and each episode covers one natural element: Fire, water, air, and earth. Below are some tidbits from each.

Fire features a pitmaster in the Southern US and aborigines in Western Australia who continue to hunt wild game. It will give you a new understanding and appreciation for human heritage, the original diet, and beautiful pigs.

Water delves into the ways in which climate change is impacting farmers and food production in India. It also explains how completely the act of cooking is chemistry, in both the home kitchen and the food processing facilities around the world which so many of us are increasingly eating from.

Have you ever heard the aphorism, “Man cannot live on bread alone?” Air, will give you all the details as to why that addage is false. You’ll also learn that the way we make bread in the U.S. is so spooky and that we should all start making our own. Needless to say, I began my sourdough starter on Monday.

Earth features an Abbey in Connecticut that I had the opportunity to visit a few years ago where they still make raw milk cheese out of a wooden vat. Not only is this methodology preserving a cultural tradition, it has created a surprising relationship with E. coli. Also, those dairy cows are called Dutch Belted and they are a critically rare breed in the U.S. and I want all of them!

I was feeling a lot of feelings while watching this show. I laughed, I had to blink a lot at certain moments to avoid tears, I considered that maybe I should procreate so that I could explain all of this information to my child, I was hungry, I was amazed that the human race hasn’t gone extinct, and my mind was BLOWN by just how much I still have to learn about food and nutrition, even after studying it at some length and feeling relatively confident about my knowledge of the subject. If you’re interested in food or cooking or food systems, care about what you put into your body or what your body does with it once you put it in there, or if you like looking at farmers and cooks, beautiful cinematography, or watching people enjoy the heck out of the things that they are doing, this is your new weekend plan.

If you don’t have a Netflix account, sign up for a free months trial (that’s what I did!) — just remember to cancel it before the 30 days end if you don’t want to continue your membership.

(I imagine this is obvious to anyone reading this, but neither Netflix nor Michael Pollan is in any way affiliated with my endorsement of this show and I’m certainly not being compensated for doing it. I just really really liked it and I think that you will too!)

squash and democracy

I voted today! Just got done and have my sticker to prove it. YAY! You know what tastes really great with a side of democracy? I don’t think you’re going to guess this so I’ll just tell you: The answer is squash.

Why, you may ask, does squash go so well with representative government? Here’s why: Squash, like voting, is a humble and not particularly exciting thing. People take squash for granted. They leave it in the corner and forget to use it and now, a year later, the squash is still sitting around in that same dusty nook. But lucky day! Squash, while not particularly gorgeous or exciting, is hardy. It sticks around for the long haul and if you don’t use it when you thought you might, there’s always next time. (Is this too far a stretch? Are you still following?) Furthermore, squash, like voting, comes in all shapes and sizes! You’ve got your butternuts, and spaghettis, and acorns, and kabochas. Similarly, there is election day voting, early voting, or absentee ballots. Pick your poison and go do the damn thing because if the squash rots, it’s on you, my friend. (Still following? Quite possibly not by this point, so we’ll just move right along…)

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Squash! You can find this stuff in countless varieties at farmers markets throughout the winter and it can be stored for an absurdly long time in the right conditions (maybe not a full year, but at least for a couple of month.) There are so many methods by which squash can be cooked and eaten. It makes a great pasta, can be eaten on its own, can be mashed, made into soup, roasted, etc. Per pound, they are very economical and if you can learn to embrace the process of breaking them down, there’s nothing to dislike about a good old squash.

I asked Tuesday last week if she had any recipe requests, and she mentioned that she’d been hoarding squash. To help her begin to get through that reserve and to add extra A, B, and C vitamins to her diet, here are two easy recipes that together use up all the parts of whatever squash you may also be hoarding. Just about any type of squash will work for these recipes, so give whatever you can get your hands on a go.

stuffed squash ingredients:

  • 2 small squashes (something grapefruit sized is good)
  • 1/2 lb turkey sausage links
  • small onion
  • handful of mushrooms (I used blue oysters)
  • two big handfuls of spinach or kale
  • 1/2 c kamut
  • 1/8 c shredded parmesan cheese
  • salt and pepper, to taste

This is a super flexible basic recipe which can be thought of as a model for making your own squash filling. Use a different protein, or none at all. Add variety in the vegetable department. Use brown rice or millet or quinoa or another grain in place of kamut. Whatever you choose to do, these amounts should provide a helpful guideline. Also, I was able to find all of these ingredients minus the salt, pepper, and kamut from Indiana farms.

Soak kamut in a pot of water overnight. The next day, drain kamut and refill the pot with fresh water. Bring to a boil and add kamut and a pinch of salt. Cook for 30 minutes. When done, drain kamut and set aside.

Preheat oven to 375F. Cut squash in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds and pulp. Set seeds aside. Place squash flesh-side down on a baking pan and fill with 1/4 inch of water. Place foil overtop and bake for 40 – 50 minutes, until tender.

Brown turkey sausage in a pan. Once browned, remove from pan and slice. Return to pan to continue cooking. Chop onions and mushrooms and add to browned sausage. (If not using meat, heat a few tsps. of oil and sauté veggies in it.) Once vegetables are translucent, add cooked kamut and spinach and adjust seasonings to taste.

Remove squash halves from oven and fill  with vegetable and grain mixture. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and bake for 15 minutes longer. Allow to cool slightly, and dig in!

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squash

baked squash seed ingredients:

  • rinsed squash seeds (I used seeds from 5 small squashes and ended up with approximately one cup of seeds; use whatever you have)
  • a few glugs of olive oil
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. cayenne
  • 1/2 tsp. chilli powder

Preheat oven to 325F. Bring a pot of water to a boil and add seeds and salt. Boil for 10 minutes, remove, pat dry, and allow to cool. Put cooled seeds in a small bowl and coat with olive oil, spices, salt, and pepper. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and sprinkles seeds over top. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring seeds every 10 minutes.

These make some heavily-seasoned seeds, so halve the amount of spices if you’d prefer a less spicy batch.

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seeds

on giving gifts; painted spoons tutorial

Gifts can be a weird weird thing. When they feel mandatory, I’ve sometimes found it difficult to get inspired. Giving an unexpected gift, however, can be a lot more fun. I participated in a Secret Valentine gift exchange this year with a group of friends and wasn’t quite sure what to get the recipient, whom I adore, that a computer program had generated for me. Personally, I love nothing more than receiving a dozen home baked cookies, a hand-crafted ornament, or a thoughtful note. Here’s to hoping other people share this sentiment?

I think I first saw a tutorial for dip-dyed spoons on pinterest a few years ago — I used to really love pinterest — and thought that they’d make a sweet and simple gift. Fast-forward a number of years, and they are now in the hands of an excited owner! Here’s a quick how-to for making your own:

materials:

  • set of utensils (I found this bamboo set at TJ Maxx for $3.99)
  • one colored paint, one white paint (or maybe black? I didn’t consider going from light to dark — artists, would this work?)
  • dish to put paint in
  • paintbrush
  • painter’s tape
  • old cloth or wax/parchment paper

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Lay out utensils on wax paper/cloth/job rejection letter that you want to defile, and wrap painters tape at roughly the same place on each. (If you want to paint different heights on each, wrap the tape in a way that makes that happen.) Paint the first utensil with either the base paint color, or adjust the starting color with white paint first. Continue painting each subsequent utensil, adding white paint to the existing color to lighten it between each utensil. Below, I’ve accidentally made the paint lighter than I wanted it, so I added more of the original color to darken. Gotta work with what you have.

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Continue lightening the color and painting each utensil until the entire set is complete. It may be helpful to prop the utensils up with some object so that they dry without sticking to whatever is underneath them. I strangely happened to have many rolls of tape laying around, so I used those. I allowed the paint to dry overnight, though I’m sure it was finished within a few hours. Viola!

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on hobbies and busyness

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I’ve long dreaded being asked what my hobbies are, because, quite frankly, I’ve never had any. Up until recently, the only possible responses to the question I could have honestly given were watching tv, reading, and maybe running, if that were a thing I was actually doing. To excuse my lack of extracurriculars, I would use America’s favorite buzzword (phrase?) — I’m just so busy.

Don’t you hate it when people tell you how busy they are? It’s like, “No kidding! I’ve never met anyone with that particular problem before!” We are all busy. Of course, this phenomenon occurs to varying degrees, but vying for the title of ‘most busy person’ simply isn’t a contest I want to participate in.

I came to the conclusion that instead of lamenting to every curious inquisitor about how very booked my schedule was, maybe it was wiser (and more genuine) to say this instead: “These are what my priorities are, and aren’t.” Because isn’t that the truth? I know many people with what I would consider fully-booked schedules (and often children or other people they care for on top) who make time to train for a marathon, participate in a book club, or host a weekly dinner with friends. This assertion does not encompass all situations, but I think the argument can be made that what many of us do or don’t get done is more related to our priorities than to busyness. It is certainly the case in my own life.

A few years ago, I came upon this quote by Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And I thought, well shoot! When you put it that way….. A professor of English and an author, she made this statement in reference to writing, but I think it applies broadly and generally to the whole of life. With this new and empowering/frightening information in hand, I was moved to take a look at my priorities. Did I want to spend my life tired and stressed and finishing a long day by binging on Grey’s Anatomy, a not even good show? No. I did not. To be clear, this is not a rant advocating that people don’t watch tv. If that feels enjoyable and empowering to you and is how you want to spend your life, please watch tv. That is 100% what you should do. For me, it has become a thing that absorbs precious hours that I’d prefer to use differently and I usually walk away from the activity feeling regretful and unmotivated. It is not how I personally want to spend my life. I no longer want it to be a priority.

While visiting family for Christmas, I stumbled upon an ad in my hometown newspaper about a beekeeping class that was to take place nearby in February. It was a day-long seminar (nine hours in total) and as soon as I saw the ad, I knew I had to do it. That was absolutely how I wanted to spend my life. It will be at least another year before I set up a hive, but it has been so fun having a new project to research and be excited about.

In addition to my new interest in beekeeping, I’m also taking a pottery class, writing this blog, and working on a number of other projects that are just about me and not related to monetary gain in any way. Notice that all of these activities require my thought, creativity and energy. It is logical to assume that tasks of this nature would leave a person feeling more tired and less energetic after the aforementioned long day which might have previously ended in a Grey’s Anatomy-induced stupor. However, I can attest to the fact that these activities have had the exact opposite effect; I feel more focused, more in tune to myself, more alive. Holy moly has this been liberating.

So, here’s to taking a hard look at our priorities and to remembering that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Spend wisely.

 

when life gives you lemons (and lavender and vodka)

I am in California this week for work, so another Californian (who is also one of my dearest dearest friends) has a recipe to share. This lady just made a big life change, moving thousands of miles from chilly Boston to the shores of the West Coast. I am so proud of her and the journey she is on. We got to spend the day together on Sunday and enjoyed a long walk, really tasty food, and lots of laughs. Here we are at the Palace of Fine Arts . (Has anyone else been here? Unbelievable that this thing is just hanging out in the middle of a bustling city.)

Without further ado, meet Isabel!

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When Alyssa first asked me to do a guest post, I was honored, yet understandably intimidated. Week after week I am impressed by the delicious and creative concoctions she comes up with, and always rapt by the personable and witty repartee that goes along with them. So, I’ve cleverly avoided the possibility of comparison and decided to stray from the beaten path of food! Food brings the party, but drinks make the party if you ask me.

I came upon this recipe in an ironically very Tuesday fashion. I recently made the move from the East to West coast, and have landed in beautiful San Francisco. Not only is it not 0 degrees right now (Hi East Coast friends! Come visit!), but the mild weather means fresh fruits and veggies are in abundance year round. When my new roommate casually informed me of the lemon tree growing in our back garden, I was beyond smitten. (Yes, I have a back garden in San Francisco. Yes, there is a lemon tree that is currently producing fresh lemons.) Upon further investigation, I learned that not only is there a lemon tree, but also a beautiful herb garden growing very happily alongside it. One of the largest plants in that garden is a lavender bush. Lavender has forever been one of my favorites, so it was time to get creative.

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Here was my challenge: What could I make that incorporates both lemons and lavender while letting each ingredient shine? A beautiful Saturday was coming up, and friends were coming over to enjoy the sunshine. The answer became obvious — vodka spiked lavender lemonade. This recipe is super simple, crazy delicious, and an instant crowd pleaser. Be forewarned…the drinkability of this can sneak up on you. Trust me.

simple syrup ingredients:

  • 6-10 sprigs of fresh lavender blossoms
  • 4-8 springs of fresh lavender leaves
  • 1 ¼ c. sugar (I recommend white if you want a clear syrup, but raw tastes great too)
  • 1 c. water

simple syrup directions:

Strip blossoms and leaves from the lavender sprigs and roughly chop. Simmer sugar, water, and lavender over medium heat until all sugar is dissolved. For a thicker syrup, add more sugar and simmer longer, but no need to go over 10 minutes. Take off of heat and let sit for 30 minutes. Strain out lavender and set aside, or bottle separately and add to all sorts of drinks you want to experiment with.

lemonade ingredients:

  • 4-5 ripe lemons (fresh from the tree if you’re lucky enough)
  • 4 c. ice
  • 5 c. water
  • ½ c. lavender simple syrup
  • your favorite vodka, to taste

Squeeze out all of the juice from the lemons making sure to scoop out any seeds. A little pulp adds a homemade touch; I kept mine. Keep one half of a lemon to slice thinly for garnish. Add water, lemon juice, ice, simple syrup, and vodka in a pitcher and stir. Add the sliced lemon to the pitcher or to individual cups. Pour over more ice and add a sprig of lavender. Add more simple syrup for a sweeter drink. (For those not into vodka or alcohol in general, this simple syrup is also deliscious in sparkling water.)

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