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Thursday, July 25

Gapers Block

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If you read last week's column and played along at home, you've hopefully got at least 4 quarts of vegetable broth sitting in your refrigerator or freezer waiting to be turned into something tasty and delicious. If you didn't play along at home, maybe you bought a carton of vegetable broth in anticipation of what this week would hold. Or maybe you just read this while you eat your delivered pizza and wish you could cook. You can! This week provides two incredibly simple recipes and a reminder about the risotto we've made in the past.

All of these recipes are vegetarian and can easily be vegan. But they're all hearty, tasteful, and perfect for warming up when it's cold out. They're all good enough that the average carnivore won't notice they're "missing" something, and they're also good for folks who are trying to limit their fat intake.

Lentils are a staple in many different cuisines. They're high in fiber, low in fat, and contain iron and protein. They're versatile since they readily absorb flavor, and they cook very quickly. If you've got 30 minutes and a few ingredients you can make this tasty soup.

Basic Vegetable and Lentil Soup
1 cup of split lentils
3 cups of vegetable broth
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 minced clove of garlic
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1/2 of a bell pepper, finely chopped
1 teaspoon of dried thyme
1 teaspoon of dried basil
1 bay leaf
2 cups of fresh spinach that has been cleaned well
salt and pepper to taste

Place the lentils, broth, carrot, garlic, onion, celery, bell pepper, thyme, basil and bay leaf in a large saucepan. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to a low simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Stir in the spinach and cook for 15 more minutes. Remove the bay leaf, season with salt and pepper and serve. To make this soup creamier, you can run it through a blender or food processor or use a "boat motor" stick blender in it. Serve with a slice of toasted rye bread.

One of my favorite soups is minestrone. It can be made quickly using canned beans, frozen vegetables and a few handfuls of pasta. And it's the perfect way to showcase your vegetable stock. Using basic ingredients and herbs, about 30 minutes of work will get you several servings of an Italian classic.

Minestrone comes from the Italian verb minestrare, which means "to administer." Soup in general was considered good for invalids and people who had a hard time digesting food; it was assumed to have medicinal or healing properties. In fact, the very first restaurants were places that only sold soup and their focus was on the ways in which it could heal the buyer.

Minestrone Soup
1 large onion that has been thinly sliced
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2-3 cloves of minced garlic
1 28 ounce can of stewed or chopped tomatoes
2 teaspoons of dried basil
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1 teaspoon of dried marjoram
1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
2 zucchini chopped into 1/2" cubes
2 large carrots chopped into 1/2" cubes
1 russet potato chopped into 1/2" cubes
1 can of kidney or garbanzo beans
1/2 cup of red wine (check that it's vegan)
4 cups (or more) of vegetable stock
1 cup of swiss chard, cleaned well and chopped or torn into large pieces
1/2 cup of small pasta, or 1-2 cups of cooked pasta

In a large stock pot over medium-high heat, combine and stir the onion and olive oil. Stir it frequently until the onions just start to turn yellow &mmdash; this should take about 7-10 minutes. Add the garlic and stir constantly for a minute or two before adding the tomatoes, basil, oregano, marjoram, pepper, zucchini, carrots, potato, beans, wine and vegetable stock. Let it just come to a boil and reduce the heat low. Simmer while covered for about 20-30 minutes. Add the chard and let it cook for another 10-15 minutes, or until the chard is cooked through. If the pasta is not cooked, add it at the same time as the chard. If the pasta is cooked add it after the chard is finished and let it cook for 2-3 minutes so it warms up. Dish and serve with a rustic crusty bread. It's traditional, but obviously not vegan, to shave off a couple of large slivers of parmesan cheese to float on top of the soup. This should make 4-6 large portions of soup, and likely as many as 8.

Risotto is an easy but labor-intensive recipe that will require one person to stand near the stove and stir constantly for 20-30 minutes. (Which might be a good thing if your landlord is stingy with the heat.) Risotto was featured in One Good Meal a while ago. I'll provide another list of ingredients so you can follow those instructions to make a vegetable risotto.

Vegetable Risotto
4 cups vegetable stock
1 small onion, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 cup arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 cup of chopped mixed veggies which are mostly cooked (steam them lightly if necessary before adding, although frozen veggies will work)
1/3 to 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (or try a vegan cheese)
Salt and black pepper

(Look here for full instructions. I've got the bare bones on this page, and the recipe is cut in half to make two large dinner portions, or 4 side dishes.)

Pour the vegetable stock into a small saucepan and keep on low heat. You want this to barely simmer, not boil.

In a larger saucepan over medium-high heat, add the onion and butter. The butter will melt and slowly turn the onions translucent. (It's OK to use vegetable or olive oil instead.) Stir the onions frequently so they don't burn or stick. Once they're translucent, add the rice and stir constantly until you can see a small white dot in the center of each grain. Once this happens, pour in the white wine and stir rapidly. Now begin to ladle the stock into the pot 1 cup at a time. Stir constantly until the liquid has mostly evaporated before adding another cup. Repeat until you have 1 cup of liquid remaining. Add it and the cup of veggies and stir until the liquid is absorbed before stirring in the cheese and the salt and black pepper.

I think the best part of these recipes is that they're very healthy, fairly easy, and so fulfillingly tasty. It helps that they're also quite inexpensive and easy to add to or take away. If you don't like bell pepper (or are allergic to it like I am) take it out and add some fennel or parsnip. You can easily add a dried pepper or two to each of these recipes to spice them up, or you can even add sausage (real or faux meat) if you just don't think they're filling enough. These basic recipes are ripe with opportunities for experimentation, but they're equally good if every ingredient is measured exactly as written.

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