A Minestrone full of memories

For the longest time I found Minestrone rather bland. That is, until almost  ten years ago I tasted Marge’s, my late and beloved sister-in-law’s. Hers was wonderfully tasty. Of course I came home with the recipe. I have made it often ever since, always the whole recipe, although it yields a huge amount.  The soup is great when you have people trickling in, as it is very good reheated. It also freezes well.

I wish I could ask my sister-in-law for the origin of the recipe. She used to mail me a large Manila envelope once in a while with copies of recipes. A post-it said something like “I have been cooking lately”, and many recipes carried her handwritten comments such as “outstanding”, “superb” or “try this”. Sometimes she added her substitutes and the date when she made it. All very neat, always citing the source, always the librarian, even after she retired. The Minestrone recipe is the only one that I jotted down myself. Shortly after she died in the summer of 2006, I started the Master Gardener program at Penn State University. It was a welcome new focus and distraction in those days, and it put together my haphazard knowledge about gardening.

This week it was time for Marge’s Minestrone again. For the tomatoes, spinach, string beans, garlic and basil I used last year’s from my garden. When it comes to chickpeas, I am a purist – I cannot get myself to use canned ones. Since I forgot to soak them last night, I quick-soaked them this morning, boiling them in plenty of water for 1 minute and then letting them sit for 1 hour – exactly the time it took me to line up all the ingredients, which is most of the work. Cooking the soup is a cinch.

Marge’s Minestrone

¾ cup dried chickpeas (or 1½ cups canned)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound ground beef

1 very large onion (¾ pound,), chopped

8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1½ tablespoons salt

¾ cup finely chopped boiled ham

3 stalks celery including leaves, finely chopped

½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley

1 small can (16 ounces) canned tomatoes, cut up with their juice

1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste

2 large carrots, peeled and sliced

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh or frozen basil

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

½ cup dry red wine

10 ounces chopped fresh spinach

2 medium potatoes (¾ pound), peeled and cubed

1 cup fresh or frozen string or filet beans

1½ cups elbow macaroni

1. If using dried chickpeas, soak them in cold water to cover for 8 hours or overnight.

2. Heat the oil in a large pot (stockpot). Add the ground beef and brown, stirring.

3. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent.

4. Add the garlic and all the ingredients up to the wine plus 4 quarts water.

5. If using fresh chickpeas, add the drained soaked chickpeas now.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour, covered.

6. Add the potatoes, the spinach and the beans. If using canned chickpeas, add them now. Cook over low-medium heat for 20 minutes.

7. Add the pasta and cook until just tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Add salt to taste.

Serve with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan and fresh country bread or baguette.

Makes 16 servings

Similar but not the same

The diversity of Indian cuisines and the variety of spices, legumes, and grains is a bit overwhelming and I cannot claim that I know much about it. That does not prevent me from tinkering with Indian recipes every now and then because I love Indian food, and there is no place to eat anything remotely authentic around here.

The other day I pulled out a jar of yellow split peas and a jar of Toor dal from our pantry, wondering whether I had accidentally stored the same thing under different names.  But when I looked closer and did a little research, I found that the two are indeed different.

Yellow split peas are peas, as their name says. They usually do not need to be soaked and cook quicker than Toor dal, which are yellow lentils. Sometimes Toor dal is referred to as pigeon peas, which is confusing. The Cook’s Thesaurus tells me that the Indian name for yellow peas is Matar dal. Toor dal come plain or oiled and need soaking because they have a hard shell.

After identifying what I had, it was too late to make a dish with Toor dal that night, so I postponed it until the next day. I soaked the lentils for 3 hours and made up my own version of Indian Khichri using the spices I had on hand, and peeled frozen tomatoes from the garden (of course canned tomatoes will work as well). If I had had some, I would have topped it with chopped fresh cilantro. Next time…

Khichri with Toor Dal (Yellow Split Lentils)

1 cup Toor dal

¼ teaspoon turmeric

¼ cup vegetable oil

5 whole cloves

1 small cinnamon stick

Seeds from 5 cardamom pods

1 teaspoon ground coriander

2 onions, halved and thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 thumbnail-size piece of fresh ginger, finely grated

1 small piece of dried chili pepper

3-4 curry leaves

6-8 peeled tomatoes, chopped


Freshly ground black pepper

1. Rinse the lentils under cold water to discard any impurities. Put in a bowl and cover with cold water. Soak for 3 hours.

2. Put the lentils in a small pot with the soaking liquid and add the turmeric. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the lentils are soft. Set aside.

3. Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy medium-size pot.  Add the spices and fry them for 1-2 minutes, stirring. You should smell their scents but take care not to burn them.

4. Add the onion and fry over medium heat until golden, about 10 minutes, stirring often.

5. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 1 minute, stirring.

6. Add the curry leaves and the tomatoes. Mix well and cook covered over low heat for 15 minutes. Add a little bit of water if the tomatoes don’t have a lot of juice.

7. Add the lentils with their cooking liquid. Add salt and cook covered for another 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and checking for water. Season with salt and pepper.

8. Remove the cinnamon stick, curry leaves, and cloves. Serve with basmati rice.

Makes 6 servings

Stock clarity (and a happy dog)

SwissChardWhile I consider myself a somewhat educated consumer and critical food buyer, for vegetable stock I succumbed to the delusion that because it’s organic it must be good. Until Cooks Illustrated found that the brand I usually bought tasted “like dirt” or “like musky socks in a patch of mushrooms”. Yikes. How could I have been so taste-blind? That was in 2008. Since then I either resorted to chicken broth for soup, or, on some rare occasions, made vegetable stock from scratch.

This past summer I finally got into the habit of making vegetable stock more often, usually a large amount, most of which went into the freezer. Maybe the trigger was that the new shiny stockpot I had bought last winter kept looking at me reproachfully for not being used. Or it was the mounds of fresh vegetable leftovers, scraps and peels that went into the compost bin all summer.

Depending on what’s available in the garden, I make vegetable stock in different combinations. For example, today I used, in addition to the staple ingredients onion, carrots, and parsley: Swiss chard stalks, the final eggplants of the season whose skins have toughened because of the cold nights but otherwise are perfectly fine, and a container of frozen tomato skins that accumulated when I made tomato soup a few weeks ago. I did not have any celery, scallions, and leeks but otherwise I would have added them too. Many different vegetables work well as long as they are not spoilt, don’t impart a strong flavor and color (no cabbage, turnips, beets etc.), and don’t fall apart so the stock remains clear. For a more intense flavor, I brown the vegetables and onion in olive oil first, then add the water and proceed as described.

The stockpot gets used, and someone else is happy, too. After straining the stock (salt-free until I add it to the soup I am making) I puree the vegetables. They make several days of veggie add-ons to Woody’s dinner – and he is crazy about it.Woody

Vegetable Stock

4 pounds (1.8 kg) mixed vegetables

2 large carrots

2 large onions

¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil (optional)

3 large bay leaves

1 big bunch of fresh parsley

6 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

Salt (optional)

1. If you use organic vegetables no need to peel them, except for the onions. Cut the vegetables into chunks. Peel and quarter the onion. Heat the olive oil and brown all the vegetables and onion for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often so they don’t burn. For the fat-free version, put all the vegetables in a large stockpot right away. Add the bay leaves, parsley, peeled and smashed garlic cloves, and thyme.

2. Add 7½ quarts of water and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat. Simmer for 1 hour. Strain the stock through a fine sieve. Add salt if desired. Cool and refrigerate, or freeze.

Makes about 7 quarts (7 liters)

Tomato resort

“You know,“ I said to my husband when he helped me fill tomato soup into freezer bags at 11 o’clock at night, and my eyes fell on a basket of cherry tomatoes, “I am getting a little sick of all this processing.” “You say this every year,” he responded, “and I give you the same answer every year.”

When I started planning a garden, the first book I bought was The Food Lover’s Garden by Angelo M. Pellegrini. M.F.K. Fisher called it a classic when it was published 40 years ago so I thought it had to be good. Indeed, the book is packed with excellent, no-nonsense garden advice about growing organic vegetables.

I remember that when I first read The Food Lover’s Garden, I smiled about sentences like the one that wraps up the chapter on tomatoes: “When your first tomato is ripe (…) pop it, a quarter at a time, into your mouth. I shall be listening for your sighs of sweet contentment!”

I also remember sighing over the fact that the author, located in the Pacific Northwest, could grow vegetables year round and I couldn’t. Six years later, I admit that I am grateful for the break that the Pennsylvania winter forces me to take between November and March. Which, of course, doesn’t mean that I don’t get antsy by mid-January, making planting lists and crop-rotation blueprints when the first seed catalogs arrive in the mail.

So back to tomatoes… Cherry tomatoes are plentiful this year and I needed to find a way of turning them into something that a) did not require buying additional ingredients, b) was quick and easy to make, and c) keeps for several days or longer. So I cooked up this tomato spread. It tastes good with crackers or wholesome fresh bread, or as part of a sandwich.

This recipe was a selected as a Food52 Community Pick.

Cherry Tomato Spread

1¾ pounds ripe cherry tomatoes

6 garlic cloves

¼ cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 pinch cayenne pepper

You also need:

A small cast-iron Dutch oven

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

2. Coarsely chop tomatoes in half, saving all of the the juice. Chop garlic. In a bowl mix tomatoes and juice, garlic, olive oil, pepper and cayenne pepper.

3. Put mixture in a small cast-iron pot and cook covered in the preheated oven for 1 hour.

4. Remove the lid and cook for 1 more hour, or until the juice has thickened. Stir occasionally and scrape down the tomatoes from the edges to prevent burning.

5. Cool and transfer to a tall bowl if using a stick blender for pureeing, or a food processor bowl. Puree finely. Fill in an airtight container, pour a little bit of olive oil on top to seal, and refrigerate.

Makes about 2 cups