Nothing satisfies on a cold day more than soup. Most weekends I will make a big pot of whatever strikes my fancy. I allow it to simmer on low all afternoon then we enjoy it with crusty bread for a Sunday night dinner. There are always leftovers which is perfect since soup tastes better the next day. I have yet to find a soup that I didn’t like but this minestrone is a soup that I absolutely love.
It is more of a method rather than an exact recipe; I will use whatever vegetables I have on hand or whatever looked good at the market that morning. I like to be heavy handed with the vegetables and go lighter on the pasta and beans but you could easily add more of the later if that is to your liking. Not only is this soup vegetarian but it is also low in sodium. Rather than using a pre-made broth, I simply add water as the soup base and allow the cooking vegetables to flavor the broth. The results? A rich, tasty and satisfying soup that everyone will love. Serve it with crusty French bread and dinner is served.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, minced
1 leek, quartered and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 small zucchini, diced
1 small eggplant, diced
1 cup Brussels sprouts, quartered
1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed
1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 26-ounce can tomatoes, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
3/4 cup small pasta (shells or elbow macaroni works well)
1 large handful fresh basil, chopped
Salt & pepper to taste
Grated parmesan cheese, to serve
- Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot set over medium high heat.
- When the oil shimmers, add the onion, leek, celery and carrots and stirring occasionally, cook until soft but not brown, 4-5 minutes.
- Add in the zucchini, eggplant, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, beans and canned tomatoes. Stir well.
- Add enough water to the pot to cover the vegetables by 1 inch.
- Bring the soup to a simmer then reduce the heat and cook uncovered until the vegetables are soft, 35-45 minutes.
- Add in the oregano and thyme and season with salt and pepper.
- At this point you can proceed to the next step or cover the pot, turn the temperature to the lowest setting and allow to sit until you are ready to proceed.
- Return the temperature to medium-high.
- Once the soup is boiling again, add the pasta, stir well and cook until the pasta is al dente, approximately 6-8 minutes.
- Stir in the basil, adjust the seasonings and serve, topped with grated parmesan cheese.
It’s Fast Friday again and time for another fast and fabulous dinner suggestion. If you are anything like me, by the time Friday rolls around the last thing I want to do is cook a big meal yet we all still have to eat. The dishes featured in this series aren’t necessarily fancy but they bring together simple ingredients most people already have in their pantries or have easy access to and allow you to put a real meal on the table in between 30 and 45 minutes. Enjoy and if you have your own fast recipes you want to share, please send them my way and I will in turn share them with all of my readers.
This pasta is a regular part of my dinner menu rotation; I substitute whatever vegetables are fresh and in season. This version uses the last of the local zucchini from my neighborhood market along with a healthy dose of fresh grape tomatoes. The pancetta adds saltiness and additional flavor to the dish but you can omit it and turn this into a vegetarian entrée. Alternatively, for a lighter and healthier dish, you can reduce the amount of pasta and substitute additional vegetables. I do this often and my family is none the wiser.
GARLICKY ZUCCHINI & TOMATO SPAGHETTI
1 pound whole wheat spaghetti, cooked according to package instructions with 1 cup of cooking liquid reserved
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup diced pancetta
1 small red onion, minced
6 garlic cloves, crushed and minced
2 medium zucchini squashes, cut into cubes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups mixed grape tomatoes, halved
Salt & pepper to taste
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
- Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling water according to package instructions. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the liquid, return to the cooking pot and set aside.
- Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet set over medium-high heat.
- Add the pancetta and stirring occasionally, cook until crispy and browned.
- Add the onion and garlic and saute for an additional 3-4 minutes.
- Add the zucchini to the skillet and cook, stirring frequently, until the squash is browned and is slightly softened.
- Deglaze the pan with the white wine, scraping up any browned bits.
- Stir in the tomatoes and cook until heated through, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Pour the vegetable mixture into the cooked spaghetti and using tongs, toss until the vegetables are evenly distributed. Add up to 1 cup of the reserved cooking water if the mixture seems dry. (I usually use about 1/2 cup).
- Divide the pasta among warmed shallow bowls and sprinkle with the grated cheese.
We are deep into the heart of zucchini season so here is an easy recipe to help you use up your stash of these green squashes. Growing up, baked zucchini was always a summer time staple on our dinner table since year after year my mother’s garden produced baseball bat sized squashes. By the time September rolled around I actually grew to dread seeing another baked zucchini on the table.
But times and tastes have changed and baked zucchini is making a regular appearance on my own family’s dinner table. This version has a Mediterranean flavor with mild Italian sausage and sautéed fennel complimenting the usual breadcrumbs and zucchini filling. I like to use round zucchini since I think they make for a prettier presentation but you can easily substitute any small zucchini that you like. Or if you must, use a baseball bat sized squash and simply cut it into smaller portions before stuffing.
SAUSAGE & FENNEL BAKED ZUCCHINI
6 small zucchini
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 fennel bulb, cored and diced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 ppound mild Italian sausage, crumbled
1/2 cup diced tomatoes
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
- Scrub the zucchini, trim the ends and pierce with a fork on all sides. Place the zucchini in a steamer basket.
- Fill a large saucepan (larger enough to hold your steamer basket) with one inch of water and bring to a boil. When the water boils, add the zucchini and steam for 5 minutes. Remove from the water and all to cool.
- When the zucchini is cool enough to handle, slice in squash in half, or slice off the tops if using round squash, and scoop out the insides leaving 1/4 inch of of flesh. Chop the scooped out filling and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 350.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet set over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, and fennel and saute until soft, 7-9 minutes. Season with the salt and pepper.
- Place the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil in a separate medium-sized skillet set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the sausage and cook until it is no longer pink 5-7 minutes. Use a wooden spoon to crumble up any large pieces. When the sausage is cooked, drain it and add it to the vegetable mixture.
- Add the tomatoes, breadcrumbs and the zucchini filling to the sausage and vegetables and stir well to combine. Adjust the seasonings if necessary.
- Scoop the mixture back into the zucchini shells, heaping the filling to fill. (You may have extra filling which can be placed in a buttered casserole dish and baked alongside the zucchini in the oven).
- Place the zucchini in an ungreased rimmed baking dish and sprinkle the parmesan cheese over the top of the zucchini.
- Bake for 20-25 minute until the cheese has melted and the filling is heated through.
If you have a garden, chances are that you are being overrun by zucchini right about now. If you don’t grow them yourself, they are probably showing up in your CSA share or filling the shelves at your local farmer’s market. So how do you use up your zucchini in a new way? Why not pair it with fresh corn (which is also plentiful right about now), crispy pancetta and pasta?
This dish was inspired by the fabulous Maine cooking blog From Away. With the zucchini, corn and a healthy amount of fresh basil, this is the quintessential summer dish. Serve it hot or even at room temperature with a glass of white wine and you have the perfect dinner for a summer evening.
ZUCCHINI, CORN & PANCETTA PASTA
1 large zucchini, grated
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 ears of corn, kernels removed from the cob
1 cup roughly chopped basil
8 ounces pancetta, diced
1 shallot, minced
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 pound small pasta, cooked according to package instructions and kept warm
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Juice of 1 lemon
- Sprinkle the salt onto the zucchini and toss. Let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes in a strainer then squeeze out the excess liquid.
- Cook the pancetta, shallot, and garlic in a large skillet set over medium-high heat, until the fat has rendered and the pancetta is crisp.
- Add the corn to the pancetta mixture and saute for 2 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook for an additional 2 minutes.
- Add the pasta to the pancetta, corn and zucchini mixture. Drizzle with the olive oil and lemon juice and toss well.
- Serve topped with the grated parmesan cheese.
Fish doesn’t need to be intimidating to cook. In fact, it is surprisingly easy and since it cooks quickly makes for a fast dinner. Fish filets are nice but if you want to really impress your guests serve them a whole fish. You can either serve a large one for the table or an individual fish for each guest. Your fish monger can clean them for you making preparation even easier.
Think of the combination of vegetables I’ve used as a method rather than an exact recipe using and substituting whatever vegetables you like or have on hand. If you don’t have capers substitute black olives or use both. I like oregano but you can also use thyme, basil or a combination of all three. Experiment with different combinations until you find a winning one for your family. It really is that easy.
I served this with buttered baby red potatoes but mashed potatoes, orzo, or Israeli couscous would also be good.
4 whole trout, cleaned, scaled, rinsed, and patted dry
2 large tomatoes, diced
1 large eggplant, diced
1 green pepper, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 zucchini, diced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 small red onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, divided
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
Juice of 1 lemon plus 8 lemon slices
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
- Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees.
- Coat four pieces of tin foil with spray and place a trout in the center of each foil piece and place on a rimmed baking sheet.
- Thinly slice two of the garlic cloves and distribute the garlic slices and 8 slices of lemon evenly inside the four fish. Generously season the outside of the fish with salt and pepper.
- Place the tomatoes, eggplant, green and red peppers, zucchini, fennel, and onion in a medium-sized bowl.
- Mince the remaining two garlic cloves and add them to the vegetables along with the capers, lemon juice, olive oil, sugar, and oregano. Toss well to combine all of the ingredients.
- Evenly divide the vegetables over the top of each fish.
- Tightly wrap each fish with the foil to create packets. Be sure to seal the edges so that the juices don’t escape.
- Place the pan in the oven and bake the fish for 35-40 minutes. Take care when opening the packets since hot steam will escape.
What a sneaky way to eat your vegetables! This cake is based on a recipe from Penzey’s Spices; I’ve increased the amount of spices and added cinnamon chips to give the cake added punch. The zucchini makes for a super moist cake yet disappears into the batter leaving diners none the wiser as to the secret ingredient. The total hands on time is less than 15 minutes so the cake comes together quickly. It is important to squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the shredded zucchini; if you don’t do so the cake may be too moist. Be sure to let it cool completely before slicing and serving. You can serve the cake as is or add a dab of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream to dress it up. Even the fussiest of eaters will love this–and they will be getting their veggies with their dessert.
CHOCOLATE – CINNAMON ZUCCHINI CAKE
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 cups peeled, shredded zucchini, squeezed dry to remove as much liquid as possible
1 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup mini cinnamon chips (available from King Arthur Flour)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9 x 13 inch cake pan with baking spray and set aside.
- Peel and shred the zucchini. Place in a sieve over a bowl and press the zucchini to remove as much liquid as possible. Set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl cream together the butter and sugar.
- Beat in the eggs, oil and vanilla.
- Combine the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and add to the creamed mixture alternating with the buttermilk.
- Give the zucchini a last squeeze and stir into the batter.
- Pour into the prepared baking pan.
- Sprinkle the chocolate and cinnamon chips evenly over the top of the cake.
- Bake for 45-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.
Autumn is my favorite season and pumpkins are my favorite part of fall. I blame it on my New England roots but there is something about the weather changing from warm and humid to cool and crisp that excites me. Add in colorful foliage, the necessity to put on an extra layer when you venture outside, and the feeling of starting afresh and it is no wonder I look forward to this time of year. I know fall has really arrived when Starbucks rolls out their pumpkin spice latte, my perennial favorite drink which, being overseas, I had forgotten about, until I was reminded of their reintroduction by a stateside friend. (We do not have Starbucks or anything remotely resembling it here). The cooler fall weather also means I can comfortably crank up the oven to bake goodies filled with the best apples, pumpkins and spices of the season. Well, that was until we arrived in Albania.
The first issue with pumpkins in Albania is the actual word. Kungull
is Albanian for pumpkin. And squash as in winter squash. And squash as in zucchini. And any other gourd like vegetable. Talk about the confusion this raises when ordering what you think is a pumpkin, squash, or zucchini item from a restaurant menu. After anticipating risottos with sugar pumpkin or squash soups only to have them arrive at the table filled with zucchini I’ve learned to ask for clarification prior to placing my order. When the response is green kungull I know that the vegetable in question is actually zucchini and will adjust my order accordingly (not that I have anything against zucchini; rather it is just not the same thing as pumpkin or winter squash).
As far as I can tell, sugar pumpkins, my staple for everything from jack-o-lanterns to pies, breads, and donuts, are non-existent in Albania. Or, at least, I have been unable to readily locate them in any market, grocery store, or farmer’s roadside stand. When asked, people have directed me to squashes of various shapes, sizes, and colors –American kids use the white squashes as “ghost” pumpkins at Halloween– but none even come close to a good old American pumpkin. (I do have a lead on the possibility of some pumpkins being grown in the Northern Albania town of Kukes by the cousin of one of the nannies for a fellow American family here in Tirana. Yes, I’m pursuing this but I’m trying not to get my hopes up). I am fortunate, however, to have a small- and ever dwindling- stash of canned pumpkin imported from the United States via a military cargo plane, but I will be lucky if this supply carries me over through Thanksgiving.
Last week I found two orange looking squashes that had more of a resemblance to pumpkins than anything I had previously found here. I took them home but lesson learned- just because it looks like a pumpkin does not mean it tastes like a pumpkin! I’ve tried substituting these counterfeit pumpkins for the real thing with mixed results. Sometimes it works out and other times even the most tried and true recipe results in a culinary disaster. As with everything else in this country, even creating pumpkin out of a squash is an ordeal that isn’t for the faint of heart.
First one must go to the market and find an actual squash-pumpkin. Just because they sold them yesterday doesn’t mean they are in stock today. Nor does it mean they will be restocked this year. If you are fortunate enough to find one, there isn’t any guarantee that it will even remotely resemble or taste like the one you saw yesterday or bought on your previous visit. All of the squashes I’ve found here have been large; so large that their hefty weight is intimidating. Once I get the monster home, and I had better not be walking on that day- the real fun begins.
We received a cleaving knife as a gift when we got married but I had never used it and only reluctantly brought it overseas with us. Now I’m so glad I did. There isn’t any simple opening of a can of Libby’s in the Brown’s Albanian kitchen. After washing the the squash I have to stand on a stool (in order to get enough height) and whack the squash until it splits in two. Then I do it again and again, repeating the process until I have manageable pieces. If I am going to roast the squash to try to bring out any of its sweetness, I will place the pieces on a cookie sheet and bake them in the oven. If I’m going to boil them, I proceed to peel the tough skin off of each piece A vegetable peeler isn’t quite sharp enough for this task yet a knife is a bit unwieldy. (I will only attempt to break down a squash when Glenn is home since I am sure that it is only a matter of time before an emergency room visit becomes necessary). Whatever the cooking method, once it is cooled it is time for the vegetable to be pureed. Thanks to my trusty stick blender, this is by far the easiest step in this entire process.
After an hour or two of work, the squash is ready to be pumpkinized with whatever spices, seasonings, or sweetener will bring it closer to its much sought after cousin. This is always a process of trial and error. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t. Usually by the time I reach this point in the preparation process I am ready to call it quits for the day. When that happens I bag up my puree and stash it in the freezer until the next craving for pumpkin arises. Then I only have to defrost my stash and being cooking. If I close my eyes and pretend really hard, I can imagine that it is just like opening a can of pumpkin puree. Or not………………….