Mega Minestrone - march 15, 2010

Phew - that was a nice vacation!  A little sledding, a little skiing, lots of snow and lots of kids. Now we're back and ready for spring. It's especially lovely that San Francisco has been sunny and 65 degrees the two days since our return - it is so liberating not to need a thousand layers of clothing to go out the door. And better yet, the kids sleep longer in the morning and now five o'clock is late afternoon instead of evening. Hooray for springing ahead!

I managed to get away with cooking only one night of our seven day trip. And I didn't check my email or write a blog entry once. Not ever. I didn't even check my voicemail. Next time I'll be more responsible and set up an email auto-responder. I promise.

So here it is - a simple soup that serves twelve. It's hit or miss with toddlers, so good to serve next to a composed salad (mine is loosely based on salad nicoise) with multiple protein options, some crusty whole grain bread and soft cheese. At our big ski cabin dinner, everyone ate something and I managed to make a meal from scratch in an unfamiliar kitchen after a relaxing trip alone to the local Safeway - it did take two or three hours, from start to finish, though, so plan for that. The total cost was $62, including two twelve-packs of PBR. PBR because it is cheap there - at least cheaper than my local corner beer store. I buy it in bulk because that is what the slugs in my yard drink, as their final meal. MGD or some funky Trader Joe's beer just won't do. You might want to offer the folks at your ski cabin something a little more suited to cold weather, like a zinfandel or rye and ginger ale.

As for the blue flowers below, that is what's blooming in my garden, aside from oxalis and a couple of sunflowers still hanging on from summer. I think this plant overwintered from last year - it grew from seed that came from a hummingbird garden packet. Or maybe it was Bring Home the Butterflies. Or perhaps the Fairy Meadow Mix. I love the artwork on Botanical Interest's seed packages, they are even prettier in real life than on the web.

Mega Minestrone: (serves 12 or more)

3 Tablespoons olive oil    
6 oz can tomato paste
1 large onion
1 smallish bulb garlic
6 medium waxy potatoes    
1 small bunch carrots
1 Tablespoon thyme     
1 teaspoon oregano (if there are no dried spices in your ski cabin's kitchen, just leave them out)
1 bunch chard (white stems if possible)   
8 oz small pasta (stars, ABCs, loops, whatever)
24 oz cooked chickpeas(from a can is fine)
1 parmesan cheese rind (if you happen to have it)
salt & pepper

Mince the onion (if possible - I know cabin knives tend to be horridly dull so just chop it if need be). Put the olive oil in a really big stock pot, heat it up and toss in the onion. Let it cook over low heat for a while, ten minutes or so, while you chop the other veggies. You want it to get soft and translucent, but not brown or burn, so adjust the heat accordingly.  

Chop the potatoes and carrots into 1/4 inch pieces, mince the garlic. When the onion is translucent and soft, add a teaspoon of salt and the tomato paste, stir it around, then let it cook for a minute. Then add twelve cups of water, the potatoes, carrots, garlic, thyme and oregano. Go ahead and add the water even if you haven't finished chopping the veggies, just toss them in as you finish.  

Bring the pot to a boil, then turn it down to a simmer. Drain and rinse the chickpeas if canned, then add them to the pot. Add the parmesan rind now, if you have it. Then separate the chard leaves from the stem - for each chard leaf, grab the stem with one hand and from the bottom up, pull your other hand along the stem to pull off the leaf. Chop the leaves and save them, chop the stems into 1/4 inch pieces and toss them in the pot.  

In a second pot, boil enough water to cook the pasta, cook it until it is chewy but not soft then drain it in the sink.

Simmer the soup partially covered until the potatoes and carrots are quite soft - probably about an hour, but just keep testing them until they seem right. Taste and add salt in 1 teaspoon increments or so when ever you test the veggies. But don't over salt it - it's better to let your eaters add more themselves than feed them something too salty. But then don't let it taste bland either - the key to this soup is really the proper amount of salt. Keep it slightly under salted until it's done, then do a final salting before you serve.

When the veggies are soft enough, turn off the heat and stir in the chard leaves. Taste it and add salt, if needed.  Put some pasta in each bowl, then ladle the soup on top - you can make it as soupy or pasta-y as you like.  Don't serve up the cheese rind - pull it out and throw it away. Grind some pepper on top.

Voila! Salad Nicoise or A Salad With Something for Everyone: (serves 12)

8 oz spring mix salad
2 7oz cans of tuna (chunk light if you like less mercury)
1 can black olives (for kids)
assorted olives (for grown-ups)
cherry tomatoes
6 to 12 eggs
2 avocados
6 Tablespoons olive oil
3 Tablespoons champagne vinegar
salt & pepper

For starters, hard-boil the eggs. If you don't already have a favorite way, try this one:

Put the eggs in a pot, cover them with water. Bring the water to a medium boil (that's not wimpy, but not hard enough to crack the eggs, either). Let them boil for a full minute. Turn off the heat, and let the eggs sit in the water until it is cool. I've been told that adding vinegar to egg water makes them easier to peel, but I haven't tested this. I have found that fresher eggs are harder to peel, so I like to stash some away in the back of the fridge to age for easier peeling.

When the eggs are cool, peel them, slice in half and put on each plate. Peel and slice the avocados, add some to each plate. Add some olives, then some tuna. Be sure to leave room on the plates for the lettuce, in the middle of all the other items. Slice the cherry tomatoes and plate them too.

Wash and dry the salad, then let it rest in the fridge while you mix up the dressing. In a small jar, add the oil and vinegar, then about 1/4 teaspoon salt and some pepper. Put on the lid, shake it up. Pour over the salad and toss it. If it seems too dry, sprinkle on some more olive oil. It's handy to keep some in a cruet just for situations like this. Grind some more pepper over it, add it to the plates, and serve. Be sure to put salt on the table for this one - I like to sprinkle it on the egg and avocado.



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