Come on, you just know it – you missed me! It’s alright, I missed you too, and so did my husband. Well sort of. Can you believe that on an 12 night cruise all over the Mediterranean, where we got to experience many new tastes, sights, and smells, this man actually missed his wife’s cooking? Pretty sweet, isn’t it? I think so. We arrived home late Friday night, grouchy and groggy and even a little angry (2 of the 8 bottles of wine we purchased broke somewhere along the journey of intercontinental transport, inside my suitcase – wonderful). When we heard the nasty weather forecast for Saturday (cold, windy, and pouring rain all day), I thought, what a perfect day for relaxing, unpacking, doing laundry, and of course, cooking! Combine that with that post-vacation feeling of “I must have not used enough antibacterial hand gel because I think I am coming down with something” sort of feeling, I wanted nothing more than to make a big pot of soup and some bread to go along with it.
Vegetable soup can often be a “clean out the fridge” sort of meal, except when your fridge is completely bare because you emptied it out before you left, two weeks prior. So we had to venture out into the storm. No biggie, it’s New England after all. Went over to our favorite vegetable market (goodness, they must have missed us too!) and picked up soup ingredients: onions, a leek, carrots, celery, turnip, zucchini, garlic, and baby spinach. We followed with a trip the grocery store where we picked up lots of chicken broth, crushed tomatoes, fresh herbs (sage, thyme, and rosemary), cannellini beans, and some additional ingredients for a rosemary focaccia bread: flour, (see, we really had NOTHING in the house), and olives – because over the past few months, I’ve developed a new found appreciation for them, and my husband loves them. I think the only ingredient I used in the soup that I had on hand already was pumpkin – we had about five good sized sugar pumpkins in our yard which we moved to the back porch before we left, and they held up totally fine.I guess I’d have to say my friend Vanessa taught me to make this kind of hearty autumn vegetable soup – and I am really glad she did. There is something so nurturing and joyful about cooking with friends, which comes through with every bite of your creation, and returns when you make the dish again, even if your version strays a little from your friend’s. With soups, it’s very easy to alter the ingredients and use whatever you like to make it your own. This is the second time I have made this soup after cooking with Vanessa, and both times I have used the ingredients stated above. I’m really loving this combination – it’s extremely hearty and flavorful, and of course, healthy!
For this soup, I begin by heating a touch of olive oil in a large nonstick dutch oven over medium heat, and toss in a chopped onion. Meanwhile, I thinly slice a leek, peel and chop about 3 carrots, dice up a few stalks of celery, and mince a few cloves of garlic, adding them as I go. At some point, I turn down the heat to low and just let the veggies sweat out, since it takes a while to get everything cut up. This way they soften, and do not burn. Then I go for the hard root vegetables – the turnip and pumpkin. If you were using potatoes, this would be a good time to add that as well. Finally, a diced zucchini, the rinsed and drained beans, and generous amounts of salt pepper and fresh minced herbs. In goes a large can of crushed tomatoes, a jumbo can of broth (chicken or vegetable), and more water or broth – because there’s just so many darn veggies! Bring to a boil then let simmer till you are ready to eat, adjusting the seasonings if necessary. Finally, add the baby spinach, a handful or so at a time, letting it wilt. Ladle into bowls and garnish with freshly grated pecorino romano or parmesan cheese. It doesn’t get much better than this!
Until you take your first bite of homemade bread, that is. There’s something to suspenseful and satisfying as a new baker (I’ve only made yeast breads a handful of times thus far) giving yourself little checks as you pass each step successfully: (because I admit, I’ve had at least one of these steps go wrong in each of my previous attempts!)
-Yeast and water gets foamy? Check!
-Dough comes together with the perfect soft and slightly sticky texture? Check!
-Dough rises! Big time! Check!
-Punch down the dough, shape it, and watch it rise again? Check!
-Bake to a perfect golden brown on the inside and maintain soft and chewy on the inside with perfect little pockets of air? Checkity-Check!
Hmmm… maybe this means I am progressing from the new baker stage! Anyway, I used this recipe from Epicurious.com for Olive, Rosemary, and Onion Focaccia. I found it to be fool proof and very easy. A few tips I’d suggest, just to make life a little easier (and sweeter!):
-Use your whisk attachment in the stand mixer to combine the yeast with the water and sugar, to make sure all the yeast dissolves, then remove it and use the dough hook when you’re ready.
-Add the chopped rosemary with the flour – there’s no reason to kneed it in separately later.
-Divide the dough in half to make two loaves – eat one today, bring the other to a friend tomorrow (you know, if you’re a family of two and you won’t eat it all anyway and you’ve been invited over to watch the game!)
-Just use your olive oil spray to coat the tops of the loaves – easy peasy.
-Use thinly sliced red onion in the topping (something I stole from my days working at California Pizza Kitchen long ago – I always thought their focaccia was delicious).
-Add some chopped roasted garlic in the topping (very easy to do when you are at the olive bar at the supermarket, filling up your container, and notice the beautiful caramelized cloves in the next compartment over).
You see what I am getting at? The basic bread recipe here is simple and versatile. You can’t screw up preparing it, and it retains a great taste and texture. So if you are looking for a base on which to pile that crazy (or not-so-crazy) combination of flavors itching on the surface of your tongue, this is a good place to start. Sundried tomatoes, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, any kind of cheese or herbs – the choice is yours.