Hello Friends! It's been a while, eh?
By way of a very short explanation for my sporadic posts, a few of which had absolutely nothing to do with food, and my months-long absence from any kind of posts, I will just say that life has changed a good bit this year, and sometime in the late winter, early spring, I decided that I didn't have anything interesting to say about food anymore. I was repeating recipes and/or not cooking due to an awkward schedule and I just couldn't think of anything worth saying about stuff I'd made dozens of times before.
Sorry about that, but let's get back to it, shall we?
A couple of weeks ago, I lost my job. It's cool, don't worry - I feel much better, actually. It was incredibly more stressful than it needed to be and although I felt good about the things I was able to accomplish in my relatively short time there, my professional development was being strangled. So, aside from that "money thing," I've decided to consider my newly acquired LotsaTime a blessing.
Back to that whole "money thing" for a minute, though.
If you look back over older posts in this blog, you'll see a few times when our financial situation changed and we had to readjust our budget/financial paradigm. I'm a naturally frugal person anyway and gain great satisfaction from seeing the little "You saved $___.__ today!" that prints out at the bottom of my SuperFresh receipt after I painstakingly examined the 3 different brands of Navy Beans to find the one that would save a bit of money. Maybe not the best example, but when I can pay $3.59 for 28 oz of organic fire-roasted diced tomatoes or $0.88 for 28 oz of "regular" diced tomatoes, I find that a bit of a victory.
So what has inspired me to start writing again? Well, in a sense, I found a new thesis statement (do you remember having to learn those in elementary school English class??): How to Still Eat Well (taste-wise, as well as nutritionally) with Diminishing Funds.
When I lost my job, I had already put together a menu for the following week, since it included Thanksgiving, which I had the privilege of hosting again this year (click here for last year). It made my insides shrivel up when it came time to run our purchases down the conveyor belt of each store and watch the cashier tally up our debt, knowing it would be higher than usual and at possibly the worst time. Nevertheless, we had a delightful Thanksgiving and it took us many days (nearly a week, actually) to clear enough leftovers from the fridge for me to start cooking things that created more leftovers.
When it came time to shop for this week's food, I did something I haven't done in years. Literally. As in, since before I started this blog and began charting out weekly menus (which I continued all through my absence, even though I didn't share them with anyone but Mister). I went to the grocery stores and just bought staples and a few fresh veggies I knew would play well together. Then what? Then I took all the knowledge I've been storing away over the last three years of Cookbook Studying and just made it up! I know, right?
One night, I made a thick, hearty minestrone using some canned tomatoes, fresh zucchini and carrots, and orzo lovingly donated to us by my dear FIL (which is a whole other story for another time, but let's just say Mister comes from good stock).
Oh? You want a recipe? Well... it's the least I can do after leaving you high and dry for so many months.
Hearty Winter Minestrone (I know it's not winter yet, but it should be!)
yields about 4 quarts (I'll let your bowls decide how many servings that is)
1 Tbsp olive oil
6-7 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed (depending on clove size and personal preference)
4 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
2 large carrots, sliced into pieces of uniform size
2 small zucchini, diced*
1/2 tsp McCormick Mediterranean Sea Salt Blend
1 quart vegetable broth (or measure 4 cups water and add 2 bouillon cubes when it starts to boil)
28 oz crushed tomatoes
15 oz petite diced tomatoes
15 oz can of white beans (cannellini would be good, but I used Great Northern)
scant tsp sea salt
1/4-1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp dried basil
1 cup dried orzo
* The easiest way I've found to do this is to "top and tail" the zucchini, then slice each one 4x lengthwise, then cut those slices 3x lengthwise and then just cut across in half-inch slices.
This is definitely the kind of meal where you can be chopping ingredients as you go along, so you should, because it'll shave off a little time. Don't get me wrong - this is absolutely a delightfully slow-cooked soup, but there's no need to be standing around watching the pot for 5 minutes until it's time to add the next thing, right?
Heat the oil in a 4- to 6-qt pot on medium-low. When the oil starts to shimmer a little, add the celery and garlic. Stir well to combine and thoroughly coat with the oil, then cover and reduce the heat to low. While they're cooking, cut up your carrots. When they're all cut up, add them to the pot. If you have super-fast, ninja-like knife skills, feel free to dice the zucchini and add that at the same time you add the carrot - the idea is to give the celery about 5-7 minutes of quality time in the sauna, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing burns. Whenever you add the zucchini, sprinkle the Mediterranean Sea Salt blend over the whole mess, stir, and cover again. Let that melange mix and mingle for another 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Stir in the diced tomatoes, then sprinkle with sea salt, pepper, and basil, then pour in the quart of broth and stir everything together. Turn the heat up as high as it will go and wait for your soup to boil. It'll probably do this faster if you cover the pot again, but don't wander off and check your facebook - you want to be ready the very moment the broth starts to boil, so hang out in the kitchen and glance between the latest issue of Vogue and the pot on your stove.
When the soup has reached a healthy boil, slowly pour in the cup of uncooked orzo while stirring the pot. Continue stirring while the broth boils for another minute or two, then lower the heat to medium/medium-low. The soup should be at a vibrant simmer, but not boiling. Be sure to stir frequently now that you've add the orzo - the first time or two that you stir, you'll likely find yourself pushing stubborn bits of pasta off the bottom of your pot, but once you've gotten to the 8 or 9-minute mark, you can relax the stirring and just let your soup simmer another 10 minutes or so.
Taste for seasoning; if necessary, add more salt and/or pepper, and serve immediately.