- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

I grew up in a household that felt as if we were always on a low budget. But that doesn’t mean we ever went hungry or had food that was anything less than delicious.

Many nights, that meant that we would have soup for supper. Why? Because most of the protein we got came from beans, lentils, and grains, which as everyone learns today in school give the body complete proteins when eaten in combination. Add to that the vegetables from our garden, along with water or maybe some broth my mother or grandmother made by simmering leftover bones from those rare roasts for many hours, and it added up to satisfying pots full of soup that would cook slowly on the stove for hours and fill our house with rich aromas. They got great results even when all we had were the onions, carrots, and other root vegetables that stayed in our cellar throughout the winter.

Some people tell me that as grown-ups they have trouble enjoying childhood dishes that they had no choice of eating day in and day out. I never feel that way about soup. Even today, I can be completely satisfied with a bowlful of good vegetable soup the way my mother and grandmother made it.

As I learned from them, the secret to any great vegetable soup is slow cooking. You have to be really patient, so that the simmering liquid coaxes out of the vegetables the maximum flavor. (I sometimes use a pressure cooker to extract flavors even more quickly and easily, and I include separate instructions for that appliance in my recipe.) After all, you’ll only get as much flavor out of your soup as you put into it.

With that principle in mind, I’m also always careful to season my vegetable soups well. Dried herbs such as thyme, sage, and bay leaf will give it an extra dimension of flavor. So will spices like cumin or crushed red pepper flakes.

You’ll see exactly what all these simple principles can add up to when you try my recipe for minestrone soup - which, by the way, is just an Italian name for a hearty vegetable soup, literally a “big soup.” You can make an even bigger impression when you serve it by passing slices of grilled or toasted bread topped with olive oil and quickly rubbed with a halved clove of garlic, along with a large bowl of freshly grated parmesan cheese for each person to sprinkle into the soup. No one who tastes the results could possibly believe that you’re cooking on a budget!

ROBUST MINESTRONE SOUP WITH BROWN RICE AND LENTILS

Serves 6

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 medium leeks, white parts only, halved lengthwise, thoroughly rinsed, and chopped

6 garlic cloves, chopped

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch (12-mm) pieces

2 celery stalks, chopped

1 14-ounce (430-ml) can crushed tomatoes

1 1/2 cups (375 ml) chopped Savoy or green cabbage

1/3 cup (80 ml) uncooked brown rice

1/3 cup (80 ml) dark-green Puy-style lentils

1 large bay leaf

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried thyme

7 cups (1.75 l) cold water or canned vegetable or chicken broth

Chopped fresh Italian parsley, basil, or chives, for garnish

1/2 cup (125 ml) freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

In a large, heavy soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the leeks. Saute them, stirring constantly, until they are tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute, stirring, until it is fragrant, about 30 seconds more.

Add the carrots, celery, tomatoes, cabbage, brown rice, lentils, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and thyme. Stir them together briefly, and then stir in the cold water or broth. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot, and cook the soup for 1 hour.

Alternatively, if using a pressure cooker, heat the pressure cooker over medium heat. Add the oil and saute the leeks until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the garlic and stir briefly; then, stir in all the remaining ingredients except the garnishes. Bring to a boil, secure the lid, and bring to high pressure, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Then, turn the heat to low and set a timer for 20 minutes. When the cooking time is up, turn off the heat and release the pressure, following manufacturer’s instructions. Continue simmering with the lid off until the soup is thick but still fairly fluid, about 10 minutes more.

Before serving the soup, adjust the seasonings to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into heated serving bowls and garnish with parsley, basil, or chives and grated Parmesan.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, N.Y. 14207.)

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