Winter Vegetable Minestrone Soup

Winter Vegetable Minestrone Soup


Winter Vegetable Minestrone

When I see bundles of rainbow chard, full heads of green escarole or bushels of curly savoy cabbages, I know it’s time for a savory winter vegetable soup. Warm, hearty and satisfying, winter vegetable soups are great meals that are simple to make and even better the next day.

Although chard, escarole and cabbage are among my favorite ingredients, shaved Brussels sprouts or dark leaves of kale often work as substitutes. I also like to swap dark red onions for sweet yellow ones, as I find they have a heartier flavor.  Sometimes, I’ll even rinse creamy white cannelli beans for additional protein, and other days, I prefer the comforts of chewy ditalini pasta tubes to bite on.

That’s the brilliance of a good soup base — if you have a good recipe, you can interchange the ingredients based on whatever you can find.  Although my soup creations vary, I think the following guidelines yield great results:


A bundle of rainbow chard

Patience — When I make soup, I give myself plenty of time to sweat the vegetables. Sweating vegetables means you cook them without allowing them to caramelize.  When vegetables caramelize, they release their sugars and turn brown, which often leads to a bitter taste.  By sweating the vegetables, they retain their texture, shape and moisture, without sacrificing taste.  To sweat vegetables, simply lower the heat, use a good oil, stir the vegetables often and be very patient!

Leafy Greens — If you’re making soup, one or more of the following leafy greens are needed: escarole, parsley, kale, cabbage or chard. When it comes to chard, take each leaf and lay it flat on a cutting board.  Using a sharp knife, make two long cuts, one on each side of the stem.  Once the stem is removed, you can chop the stem and add it to the soup.  Chard stems are colorful and flavorful, with a texture similar to celery.  Save the leaves for the final cooking phase of the soup.

Cheese Rind — When making a soup with a tomato base, add a piece of cheese rind like  Parmigiano-Reggiano, for a nutty and rich layer of flavor.  Most grocers and cheese markets will sell you just the rind if you ask.  If you happen to buy fresh cheese regularly, save and freeze the rinds for such an occasion.

Finish — All soups need a garnish: a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkling of herbs, a dollop of cream.  For minestrone, I take the extra step to make a pistou.  Pistou is a simple sauce made from basil leaves, garlic and olive oil.  Very similar to pesto, but there is no cheese or nuts.  Just a few seconds in a mini-chopper and you have the secret to a truly savory and satisfying soup.  You can also refrigerate or freeze pistou for future use.

Winter Vegetable Minestrone Soup
Yield: 8-10 servings



Vegetable Soup with Pistou

1/2 lbs. pancetta or bacon, medium dice
2 red onions, medium dice
4 celery stalks, chopped
3 large carrots, chopped
3 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch rainbow chard, stems removed and chopped
1/2 head escarole, leaves only, chopped
1 piece Parmigiano Reggiano rind
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
3 cups ditalini noodles (mini-tubes)
Water for the soup
Salt and Pepper to taste

For the Pistou:
3 cloves fresh garlic
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt to taste

  1. Heat a large dutch oven with olive oil over medium high heat.  Add the pancetta, onions, celery and carrots.  Stir frequently, allowing the vegetables to sweat, but not brown, for 8-10 minutes.
  2. Add the chopped chard stems.  Allow stems and vegetables to sweat for an additional 20 minutes.  Lower heat if necessary, to prevent from browning.
  3. Add the potatoes and garlic to the pot and combine well.  Sprinkle with a good pinch of salt.  Move all the vegetables to one side of the pot and add the tomato paste. Allow paste to cook for a minute or two, then fully incorporate into vegetables.
  4. Add the diced tomatoes with all their juice.  Add enough water to cover vegetables and create the soup (water line should be about two inches above vegetables).  Stir and bring to boil.  Once boiling, lower the heat, cover and simmer for 45 minutes.
  5. In a separate pot, boil the noodles in salted water.  Strain and drizzle with olive oil.
  6. Prepare the pistou.  Using a food processor or mini-chopper, combine the garlic, basil and olive oil with a generous pinch of salt.  Add more olive oil if needed.  The pistou should be a smooth and thick sauce, not chunky or dry.  Set aside.
  7. When cooking time has passed, taste the soup.  Adjust flavors with salt and pepper.  Continue simmering, if needed, until vegetables are tender.
  8. To serve, ladle bowls of soup then add a spoonful of pasta noodles.  Drizzle with pistou.
Chicken Matzoh Meatball Soup

Chicken Matzoh Meatball Soup

My chicken matzoh meatball soup

I am the worst kind of lover.  When I have it, I take it for granted.  I love ’em, leave ’em and never look back.  However, when love is gone, I long for it — desperately, insatiably, craving just one more touch upon my tongue.  And this, my friends, sums up my true stomach-aching story:  I’ve had a long, tumultuous, heart-stopping love affair with soup.

Living on the East coast, I could walk to any deli, noodle shop or food truck and grab a bowl of steamy pleasure whenever I wanted.  I wouldn’t think twice about sipping, slurping or savoring hot broth, but I would always complain or grumble when drops of soup trickled off my face and onto my scarf or blouse.  Because soup was available everywhere, I took for granted how warm and comforting a savory cup of tomato and basil could be, how intriguing and fulfilling layers of beef pho with fresh veggies could fill my belly or how decadent and spoiled a seafood velouté would make me feel.  Oh  Soup, I never fully appreciated you and I’m sorry.  I miss you more than you know.

All smiles with a steaming bowl of pho

OK, I know I’m being dramatic, but allow me to explain.  I now live in Florida and there is no soup to be had – nothing, nada, nowhere.  There are no deli’s or diners with daily soup specials.  There are no ramen shops or noodle counters to speak of.  Curry houses and soup bars are non-exisistent.  And food trucks?  Forget it.

Yes, I know there are some restaurants here and there that offer soup.  But soup in Florida always seems to miss the mark.  Aside from the grab and go convenience that we love on the East Coast, there is a comfort factor that is absent.  Soup has to wake your tastebuds, coat your throat and fill your body with soothing energy.  I’ve found that in order to assuage my troubled soul and to quench my longings, I must turn to my own kitchen and rely on my own culinary abilities.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Emilio’s Caldo Gallego, a hearty and savory soup from the hills of Spain.  Today, I give you my rendition of chicken and matzoh ball soup, where both ingredients are combined into one.  I use ground chicken and matzoh meal to make moist little meatballs, all cooked in a vegetable and chicken broth.  It takes about 30 minutes to come together, and every delicious slurp reminds me of why it’s so important to appreciate good soup.  Soup is simple, easy, delicate and nutritious.  It’s comforting, soothing and warm, and something I promise to never take for granted again.

Chicken Matzoh Meatball Soup
Serves 4

I combine ground chicken with matzoh for moist, delicious, meatballs

1 lbs. ground chicken (I use white meat)
2 packets matzoh ball mix (I use Manischewitz)
2 eggs, gently scrambled
1/2 large onion, grated or finely minced
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 celery stalks, chopped
2 cups fresh spinach leaves
8 cups chicken broth
4 cups water
Additional oil for quick saute
Salt to taste (I recommend kosher)

  1. Heat a heavy stockpot over medium high heat with a tablespoon of vegetable or olive oil.  Add the grated onion and stir frequently, do not allow onions to brown.  When onions are translucent, after 1-2 minutes, remove from heat and place in a bowl.  Allow onions to cool.
  2. Add the ground chicken, eggs, matzoh meal, 2 tablespoons of oil and chopped parsley to the onions.  Add a generous teaspoon of kosher salt.  Use your hands to combine well.  Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
  3. With the same stockpot used for the onions, return to medium high heat.  Add a little more oil, then quickly saute the chopped celery and carrots.  After 1-2 minutes, when the vegetables begin to soften, add the chicken broth and water.  Lower the heat and allow to simmer 10-15 minutes.  Taste and adjust seasonings.
  4. Raise the heat on the soup to high and bring to a rolling boil.  Using a small portion scoop, a spoon or your hands, form the meat mixture into small 1-inch balls. Drop the balls into the soup until the entire mixture is used.  Reduce the heat to low, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and allow to simmer for 15 minutes.  The meatballs will expand and float to the top, so use a spoon to bob and turn the balls every 5 minutes or so.
  5. After 15 minutes, add the spinach and stir into the soup.  Adjust seasonings if needed.  Cover and allow to simmer for 5 minutes longer.
  6. Take the soup off the heat, remove the lid, and allow to rest 5-10 minutes.  Serve immediately following.
Lesson 1: Forget the French

Lesson 1: Forget the French

Mushrooms, fresh cactus leaves and squash blossoms

Chef Estela Silva runs a tight kitchen.  There is no deviation from her recipes (which have been handed down exactly as they are for generations).  There are no shortcuts, no substitutions.  If you have questions, ask them.  And if you can follow these rules, you’ll find she is one of the warmest, knowledgable and interesting chefs to work with.  I am absolutely loving my time with her in the kitchen.

Estela told me to forget my French culinary training — I was in a cocina now.  When we made chicken stock, it was whole chicken, one onion, water and nothing more.  No celery, no carrots and certainly no bouquet garni.  As for skimming the fat, Estela said that wasn’t necessary if you use the stock the same day you make it. She is right, of course, as the fat provides a perfect full-mouth texture and boosts the flavor of the stock.

Chef Estela Silva

She also doesn’t believe in being a stickler with meticulous knife skills.  Just a few rough chops then throw everything into a processor.  Who has time for perfect julienned strips or squarely diced tomatoes?   When French recipes call for concasse, peeled and seeded tomatoes, she instead pan fries them whole — because the skin blisters nicely and the tomatoes break apart themselves. Finally, she also loves to use whole garlic cloves, peels and all, in her sauces.  It’s wonderful to watch it all come together.

Today we made Sopa de Hongo (Mushroom Soup) made with fresh cactus leaves and epazote sprigs, Ensalada de Nopalitos (Cactus Salad), Pato Almendrado (Almond Duck) and Tortas de Papas con Espinaca (Potato Pancakes with Spinach).  Judging by the happy faces and warm smiles from the guests staying at her bed and breakfast, the dishes were a hit!  I absolutely loved the tortas and my favorite was the soup.

Now, it’s time for cerveza and some homemade bunelos.  Buenos noche!

Sopa de Hongo (Mushroom Soup)
Chef Estela Silva, Mexican Home Cooking School

Serves 8

The beautiful and delicious mushroom soup

4 nopal leaves, cleaned
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 fresh poblano chiles, toasted or grilled until soft
1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1/2 onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
10 white or yellow squash blossoms, stems removed
5 cups chicken stock
epazote sprigs

  1. Prepare the nopal leaves by cleaning, dicing and boiling in salted water with the baking soda.  Add a tomatillo or two to reduce the foam.  Boil for 25 minutes.
  2. Slit open the chiles, remove seeds and char the chiles until the skin blisters.  Wrap in plastic and allow to sweat for 10 minutes.
  3. Removed the charred skins from the peppers and slice into thin strips.
  4. Saute onion, garlic and chiles in oil for 2 minutes, add the mushrooms and cook for 2 minutes more.
  5. Add the squash blossoms and simmer for another minute.
  6. Add the chicken stock and epazote and simmer for 10 minutes.
  7. Garnish with the cooked napoles and adjust seasonings as needed.

At home in the kitchen!

Healing Chicken Soup

Healing Chicken Soup

I’ve been thinking a lot about healing — physically, mentally, universally.  When we are physically sick, we announce it, we rest, we let our friends and family take care of us.  When we are mentally weary, many of us internalize it, ignore it or try to work through it at our own pace.  And universally, there are collective stories or events that inspire and move us — some are spoken and shared and recorded throughout history while others are quickly forgotten.

Healing is the best part of the process — it means you’ve reached the end.  Whatever ailments you’ve endured, if you reached the healing stage, it means you’re ready to get better.  “Healing is letting go of the hopes of the past,” says Iyanla Vanzant.  How very true!

I can’t remember how many times I’ve made chicken soup to help my friends heal.  Sometimes, I drop off containers of soup as a surprise and scurry away.  In most cases, I bring everything, pot, chicken, vegetables and all and cook in someone else’s kitchen.  I can recall evenings where Heather was bundled up in a blanket, Jen was in her pajamas on a bar stool or Ron would lie on the couch, while I stood nearby, cutting vegetables, washing the chicken and stirring the soup.

My chicken soup with hearty dumpling

During the cooking process, we always talk, sharing stories of healing.  They could be funny stories, like childhood memories or goofball moments, or sometimes deeper stories are shared about experiences that have shaped us into the people we are today.  By the time these stories end, the soup will be done, bowls will be served and the healing process is already in full swing.

The following is my chicken soup recipe that has been a part of the healing process on so many occasions.  The variable in this recipe is the starch — sometimes it’s hearty dumplings, or dainty egg noodles or chunky ditalini tubes.  Usually, it’s whatever my friends, their hearts and stomachs desire.  I suppose cooking and healing are very similar in that the process can change, the outcomes can be different, but it’s something no one has to do alone.

Healing Chicken Soup
Serves 4

4 chicken legs (bone in, skin on)
4 carrots, cut into small circles
4 celery stalks, small dice
1 yellow onion, small dice
4 sprigs of fresh parsley, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 dried bay leaves
1 cup chicken stock
Salt and Pepper to taste

  1. Wash the chicken thoroughly and place in the bottom of a heavy stockpot or casserole.  Add the vegetables, parsley sprigs, thyme and bay leaves and enough cold water to cover the chicken.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for one hour.
  2. With tongs, remove the parsley sprigs and discard.  Carefully remove the cooked chicken and set aside until cool enough to handle.  Remove meat, keeping pieces in large chunks.  Discard skin and bones.
  3. With a ladle, skim off fat from the broth.  Add the chicken stock to the broth and adjust seasonings to taste.  Return chicken to the broth and cook until warmed through.
  4. Serve with dumplings, noodles or fresh bread.  Garnish with chopped parsley.