Forgive me for the intermittent blogging, but I've been partying hard with the ladies.
Alice had me up way past midnight on Tuesday. Thursday, I woke up at 3 in the morning to find Kylie in my bed. Make that, my head.
Spring fever has rendered me delirious. Even in my dreams, I am slicing carrots into matchsticks.
Now, if your eyes have stopped rolling at the thought of a woman who actually fantasizes about vegetables, a confession: I suspect these visions are fueled as much by guilt as by new-season inspiration.
For several weeks now, my children have been existing on a mostly protien + carbohydrate diet.
Roast chicken (courtesy of Coles, not Kate), ham sandwiches (leg ham off the bone - not processed - but still, pig is pig), and toast. Lots of toast. Throw in some pasta (okay, a lot of pasta), fruit, the odd sausage and a few carrot sticks, and you've got the whole picture.
Nothing too egregious, but we haven't exactly been scaling the heights of the food pyramid, either. Now that spring is here, it is time to turn over a new leaf.
Speaking of the food pyramid, do you ever look at it and wonder how on earth anyone could possibly get children to consume (let alone prepare) 5 servings of vegetables every day?
My own answer to this challenge is soup.
Served along with some crusty bread and a dollop of pesto (or, in the case of WB, heaps of Parmesan Reggiano, which he insists on grating himself, directly into the bowl), this is one sure fire way to pump a week's worth of vegetables into my children in just a few sittings.
There are no rules with minestrone, which is part of it's beauty. This is cooking fast and loose. You can use whatever vegetables and herbs are in season and to hand. But there are a few basic principles worth mentioning:
1. I always start with a bit of chopped pancetta or bacon, sauteed in olive oil. It makes all the difference and transforms this from mere vegetable soup into something heartier that, with the addition of crusty bread, even men-folk will consider a real meal.
2. I always toss in the heel of a piece of parmesan. Never throw those out - they are gold.
3. Garnish is key. A healthy drizzle of good olive oil and a dollop of fresh pesto. Or, a sprinkling of cheese. I use imported Parmesan Reggiano, freshly grated. It costs the earth, but it is so superior that you'll only need a smidge to make a tremendous imact. (Which is why I snatch the grater away from WB when I see him adding quantities that could cut into my retirement fund.)
4. Cut near-equal volumes of the the aromatic vegetables (onion, carrot, celery) to a roughly uniform size and shape, to ensure even cooking. Add them to the bacon and saute, seasoning generously with sea salt and freshly grated black pepper - sauteing and seasoning the vegetables along with the bacon will give them much more flavor. If you are including root vegetables, such as potatoes or parsnips, sautee and season them along with the aromatics.
5. If you are adding tender fresh beans or other delicate vegetables (which will cook much more quickly than root vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots and parsnips), hold back on adding those until the final stages of cooking.
6. In a perfect world, I would always put a bowl cannelini beans out to soak the night before I make my soup, but the reality is that I am simply not that organized and usually reach for the organic canned variety. The same goes for canned tomatoes, which, when tomatoes are out of season, are a much better option, anyway. Whenever I go to the supermarket, I try and grab a can of each so that I never run out.
7. Again, in a perfect world, I would always have homemade chicken stock on hand, but, sadly, I am hopelessly imperfect and have been known to reach for (a) homemade stock from the gourmet deli, which is hideously expensive, (b) high-quality, mass-produced stock from the gourmet deli, also very expensive, and even, on occasion, (c) Knorr chicken stock cubes (gasp). The kids certainly couldn't tell the difference, but to avoid excessive expense and/or consumption of chemicals in the future, I recently resolved to make a pot of stock a week. Three weeks later, so far, so good.
8. I never add pasta to my minestrone (cannellini beans tick my starch box), but many people do. If you do choose to add pasta, I would recommend preparing and storing it separately, as opposed to chucking it in the pot, as the pasta will turn soggy and absorb most of the liquid.
9. I blend some of the soup with a hand blender, because (a) the kids eat more veg when it isn't individually identifiable and (b) I like the texture.
10. Think big - make lots.
Minestrone, One Way
Small piece or several slices of pancetta, chopped
2 onions, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 zucchini, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 stalks celery for the bouquet garni
fresh herbs, any combination of the following: thyme, marjoram, basil, rosemary, parsley
heel of parmesan
3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 cans peeled Roma tomatoes
1 litre chicken stock
3 cups (or two cans, drained) cannellini beans
Good olive oil and pesto* and/or freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano, to serve
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, saute the pancetta or bacon in several tablespoons of olive oil over high heat, stirring frequently. Add the onions, carrots, celery and zucchini. Season generously with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add two tins tomatoes, garlic, chicken stock, parmesan heel, and bouquet garni*. Simmer for an hour, or longer, until the vegetables have softened. Add two tins of drained cannellini beans. Taste and adjust seasoning. Using a hand-held blender or standard blender or food processor, blend approximately half the soup, being careful not to over-do it - there should still be plenty of vegetables in tact. This step is, of course, optional, but I do find it helps with the vegetables go down with the children.
Ladle into warm bowls. Garnish and serve with crusty bread.
There is more than one way to make a bouquet garni. A clear or delicate soup would dictate the use of cheesecloth, which allows you to infuse your dish with the flavour of the herbs, without risking any stray, and unwelcome, leaves.
Minestrone is a fairly rustic affair, so I opt for a bourquet garni formed from by stuffing fresh herbs between two celery stalks, which are then tied together (second to last photo, above). The celery stalks are a less precise vessel for you herbs (wrapping the cooking string around the whole length of the stalks reduces the chance of finding rosemary leaves or thyme twigs in your bowl later on), but they impart additional flavour, which I like, particularly if you leave the potent celery leaves on the stalks.
Again, for me, pesto is fast and loose. No prescribed quantities; I tend to think in fistfuls. Fresh basil (approximately 1/2 a bunch), a handful of pine nuts, a clove or two of chopped garlic, several good drizzles of olive oil, and a handful of freshly grated parmesan. Blitz in the blender or processor, adding more olive oil as needed and a heavy pinch of sea salt, to taste.