Soup: Easy Peasy (Really)

am temperatures

 

AM Temp

 

Let’s cut right to the chase. It’s cold. Really cold. Like single digit cold (as of this morning), and this is not Fargo, North Dakota. It’s Rockville, Maryland, suburb of Washington, DC. Even though the temperature climbed significantly during the day, it was blistering cold walking to my car at 5:15 today. #bombcyclone #teacherslovesnowdaystoo

I’m a Cajun girl, as you can see from my blog’s name. I never owned a coat until I moved to Bethesda, Maryland, in 1988. We didn’t even have many sweaters, other than the requisite wool ones that our Scottish cousins sent us every few years. We never wore them, though. Growing up in my hometown, Port Sulphur, Louisiana, is almost like living in the tropics, except there’s no beach, no resorts, and no celebs arriving on private jets for vacation. So basically, our version of the tropics was just gnats, mosquitoes, 100% humidity eleven months of the year, and summers so hot you ran from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car to run errands or “go to town” which meant a forty-mile drive to New Orleans.

evening temp

 

PM Temp

 

So, waking up this morning to unseasonably cold temperatures, I knew in advance what I would be having for dinner tonight: soup. I love soup. I could eat it every day. In fact, I had homemade chicken noodle soup for lunch today. A few years ago, one of my requested Christmas presents was a baby Crock-Pot which I plug in at my desk in my classroom. It doesn’t cook but it does reheat. I bring my container of soup to school each morning, plug it in, and by lunch time, it is steaming hot and I am a very happy camper, which is important when you are a teacher. Trust me.

soup naziBut, that pot of soup was nearing its end so I had already made up my mind that I was making a big pot of soup when I got home from work. I knew what I had on hand in my fridge: an onion, some celery, two bell peppers, and a package of Italian sausage. That, combined with pantry staples, was all I needed to make a wonderful, belly warming dinner tonight. And the best part: there will be plenty left over for lunches the rest of this week!

easy peasy memeBecause I eat a lot of soup at school, people are always asking me about it. When I say it’s easy to make, they always look at me like I’m crazy. But, really, soup is easy. It’s all about layering the flavors. During the two years we lived in Belgium with limited TV programs broadcast in English, I watched a BBC One cooking show every afternoon, Ready Steady Cook. For me, that show was basically a lecture series in how to make soup. The British chefs made soup on almost every episode, and they always started a pot of soup the same way: in a large, heavy pot, sauté a finely sliced onion in a bit of olive oil. Season it with salt and pepper, dried herbs, and red pepper flakes. Add your veggies and/or protein, a starch if you wish (pasta, potatoes, rice), some broth, and simmer until veggies are tender and protein is cooked. Voila! Soup!

Italian Sausage and Bean SoupSoup du jour chez Michelle was Italian Sausage and Beans. I got home at 5:30, by 6:00 it was simmering away and I was setting the table, and at 6:15 we were soup-soup-souping away. With a little planning we could have had a salad and a crusty baguette, but – still – in under an hour, we were having a lovely bowl of soup and feeling all warm and cozy inside.

Here’s the “recipe”, adapted loosely from dozens and dozens of episodes of James Martin making soup on Ready Steady Cook, with my own Cajun twists here and there.

Michelle’s Italian Sausage and Bean Soup

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely sliced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced (or orange or yellow, matters not)
  • 2 stalks of celery, diced
  • 1 32-oz carton of Swanson’s beef stock
  • 1 package of Johnsville Sweet Italian Sausage, casings removed
  • 2 15.5-oz cans Hanover cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 14.5-oz can Hunts petite diced tomatoes, with liquid
  • Seasonings

Directions:

  • In a 6-quart heavy pot with lid, brown sausage in olive oil, breaking it up into small pieces. When browned, remove sausage with a slotted spoon and set aside, leaving oil in pot.
  • Add onion to pot, and sauté on medium heat. Season with kosher salt and pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, herbes de Provence or Italian herbs, and garlic powder.
  • When onion is soft, add celery, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Cook on medium heat to allow tomatoes to soften and break down, stirring often.
  • Return sausage to pot and add cannellini beans and beef stock. Stir to combine, cover, and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. If liquid does not completely cover the solids, add more broth or water.
  • Optional: add a bag of baby spinach near the end of the cooking time to up the nutritional value, although it is pretty healthy as is. Bon appetit!
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For Only a Soupçon of Effort

As I write this, it is currently 30° here in Rockville, Maryland. We had our first snow of the season today, just a scattering that fluttered down, most melting upon hitting the ground, but some managing to stick and cling to the naked tree branches in my yard. When I took my dog out for a walk before lunch it was bitterly cold, even wearing a coat, scarf, and gloves. After lunch, my daughter and I bundled up and headed out to attend the matinee performance of a play being performed by a local community theatre organization. By the time the play was over and we walked out to the car, the snow was gone and the temperatures had risen, but it was still a damp, miserable night out.

While it isn’t the kind of winters common in Minnesota or Colorado or Alaska or even Pittsburgh, when our version of winter settles upon us and confirms that it is here to stay a while, the first thing I think about is soup. 1255267055-soup_quoteIt’s no wonder, since I have great soup genes coming from both parts of my unique heritage. The Cajuns are known all over the world for their gumbo, but I also grew up with oyster stew, shrimp and corn soup, crawfish etouffee, shrimp creole, red bean soup, and many other hot, steaming bowlfuls of yumminess. My mother didn’t learn much cooking from her Scottish parents but she made a delicious beef vegetable soup, along with all the other Cajun recipes.

My own soup making began with the homemade chicken noodle soup I learned to make from my daughters’ day care provider in the early 1990s. It is still a family favorite today. However, my break-through in soup making came in 2002 when my family moved overseas for two years. While living outside of Brussels, Belgium, we only had two English-speaking television channels so our TV watching was greatly limited.

soup-quoteEvery afternoon, however, while waiting for my daughters to get off of the school bus, on BBC Two was a cooking game show hosted at the time by British chef Ainsley Harriott. Two celebrity chefs were each given a budget bag of ingredients chosen by audience members and from the contents, along with access to a well-stocked pantry of staples, the chefs had to prepare several dishes. Almost daily, without fail, one or both of the chefs would start with a soup. It is from watching Ready Steady Cook every day that I learned the basics of soup making. With just a few ingredients and thirty minutes, you can make a healthy and delicious pot of soup to stave off the winter humdrums and warm up your family.

To make a good pot of soup, it is important to build layers of flavors, one step at a time. Heat some olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add your protein. This can be a few links of sausages, a few boneless, skinless, chicken breasts, some thinly sliced flank steak or cubes of stew meat. Season the protein with salt and pepper and toss until the pieces are evenly browned on all sides. Remove the meat and drain off any fat that remains in the pot. This is your first layer of flavor.

Layer two is the aromatics. Peel and thinly slice an onion. It doesn’t matter whether it is a red, white, or yellow onion. It can also be a well-washed and thinly sliced leek or a few diced shallots. Add a bit more oil to the same pot used to cook your protein and sauté your onion until it softens. Season the pot with salt, pepper, and whatever other seasonings you like. I always add garlic powder (sorry, Julia Child), crushed red pepper flakes (just a pinch because my family has sensitive palates), and Herbes de Provence. This is your second layer of flavor.

When the onion is softened, add in other vegetables such as sliced celery, carrots, frozen peas, fresh or frozen green beans, red or green bell peppers, diced tomatoes, sliced green onions, and chopped parsley. To add richness, you can add a few tablespoons of tomato paste but be sure you sauté the tomato paste for several minutes to tamper the acidic punch it will bring to the pot.

Now it is time for adding the liquid, the ingredient that turns it into a soup. If you have homemade stock, you are in the bonus land. But, you can use chicken, beef, or vegetable stock or broth from a can or carton, or you can use bouillon cubes and boiling water to create your own. Be sure to taste your store-bought stock or broth though so you can adjust your seasonings accordingly. Some are very salty and will necessitate you reducing the amount of salt you use when seasoning the protein and vegetables for your soup. You can use plain water, however, your finished product will have less flavor, which can be adjusted by adding other seasonings.

At this point, for a heartier soup, you can add a starch such as a handful of small pasta or uncooked rice; a can of beans, drained and rinsed; a handful of frozen or canned corn kernels; or a few potatoes, that have been washed, peeled, and cubed. Return your protein to the pot, give it a good stir, cover the pot and let it simmer for 20-30 minutes. In that short period of time, the vegetables will soften and all of the flavors will meld together into a delicious, belly-warming one pot meal.

Before serving, taste and adjust your seasonings. You can add a dash of cream or milk if you want a creamier soup. You can remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon and puree them in the blender or food processor before returning them to the pot. You can thicken it with a bit of cornstarch mixed with cold water and added slowly to the pot. Or, you can serve it as is, with a green salad and some good, crusty bread and butter.

307268037-soups-quotes-1If you were in search of a soup recipe and stumbled upon this essay, you may be disappointed. However, if you haven’t ever made soup before and you don’t want to be dependent upon a recipe to throw together a pot of soup with what you have on hand, then I hope this helps. If you have a specific soup you would like to make and need some ideas, reach out to me via the comment section below. I’d be glad to write up a more formal recipe and send it your way. In the words of one of my favorite chefs, Jacques Pepin, “Happy Cooking!”

October: A Libra’s Day in the Sun

Libra Scales of JusticeI am a Libra. I’m not really into horoscopes or astrology, but a brief research of my “sign” reveals it fits me like a glove. The sun sign of Libra covers those born between September 23 and October 22, and is represented by the scales, symbolized by the Scales of Justice held by Themis, which is the Greek personification of divine law and custom. Some of the adjectives and attributes I found are ones I know describe me: artsy, talkative, diplomatic but likes to win, people-person, lazy if not engaged in something interesting, and sometimes fickle and indecisive. My family can attest to that last one…as they are able to recount many examples of this, such as the struggle to decide what color Kindle to buy (between black and white, why was that so hard?), and then, oh my, the decision for what Kindle cover to buy.  And, I do love to win, also well documented in everything from Scrabble to cards to Jeopardy questions. The lazy thing is not something I’m particularly proud of, and while I can work circles around anyone when I am actually at work, lack of motivation can get the best of me on the weekends.

my favorite color is octoberThe eternal question is of course am I all of this because I am a Libra or am I picking and choosing buzzwords from various descriptions of Libras that best describe who I say I am, of who I think I am? Long before I knew what a zodiac sign was or before I could “identify” as any of these attributes, I had my mind set on becoming a lawyer, with those scales of justice as my personal mascot. All four years of high school and all four years of college were spent thinking about this goal. My college major didn’t really matter; I was going to law school, so as long as it was something in the humanities I would be fine. I wouldn’t need to rely on that degree for employment because I would be practicing law. When I didn’t get into law school, I went to work in a law firm, working my way up from receptionist to legal secretary to paralegal. I traveled to courthouses and did title work for real estate transactions and oil and gas leases. acorn storageI organized files, maintained law libraries, interviewed prospective clients, drafted briefs and memoranda, and annotated and summarized depositions. I learned a lot about mortgages, real estate transactions, collections, bankruptcies, adoptions, divorces, personal injury, and medical malpractice. Eventually, on my third try, and with the help of a family friend, I was admitted into law school, but lasted only one semester. Back to work in law firms, back to the scales of justice, eventually becoming quite proficient at drafting and negotiating lease agreements for commercial real estate, where I spent fourteen years attempting diplomacy while always looking to win on each and every point being argued.

puccini at playWhatever the reason, October has always been my favorite month. Yesterday, while out walking the dog with my husband, I stopped to enjoy the beautiful fall colors of the landscape around our neighborhood. With the cool, crisp breeze and the clear, bright sky, I couldn’t help but think how much I love October. In true BuzzFeed fashion, I started thinking about the top reasons I love October, and being an English teacher, the image of an acrostic poem popped into my head. cropped acrosticI know I won’t be in the running for the Pulitzer in Poetry, but it does capture the essence of October for me.

After a long hard winter and a spring that seemed to sprint past us, we endured a hot summer. Then, it’s back-to-school season, and I am immediately saddled with grading summer reading assignments while trying to get to know my new 7th graders and helping my 8th graders buckle up for their very busy last year of middle school. Just when I feel as though I can catch my breath and ease into a good routine of school life, fallen leavesOctober rolls around. Even with the later sunrises and earlier sunsets, the days are just so much more pleasant. The crisp, cooler temperatures and beautiful fall colors seem to work their magic in easing away stress and tension. The promise of holidays is just around the corner but the crazy frenzy of those holidays still seems far off.

And, naturally, October 11th rolls around and because of its proximity to Columbus Day; I almost always get a three-day weekend to commemorate my birthday! If I’m lucky, decoupage leafthe temperatures will have dropped and I can pull out a favorite sweater to wear for my birthday dinner out at a favorite restaurant. Growing up in southeast Louisiana meant that I never owned an overcoat until I moved to Washington, DC, in 1988. Every year just before school started, my Aunt Helen would take me shopping in New Orleans and buy me a few back-to-school outfits. I distinctly remember those outfits, particularly a black and tan striped sweater and black “gauchos”.

pumpkin and pelicanFall weather also brings to the dinner table root vegetables and soups. I could eat soup every day. There used to be a small restaurant next door to the courthouse in Baton Rouge called Soupçon, which had a very limited menu that changed daily. Written on a sandwich board outside the restaurant were the choices of the day: soup du jour, salade du jour, and sandwich du jour. Whenever I was assigned work in that courthouse I ate there every day, where I tried whatever soup was on the menu: cream of carrot, pasta e fagioli, Italian wedding soup, and of course, Louisiana favorites like chicken and sausage gumbo or shrimp and corn soup.

colorful leavesOctober is also the month of the rosary and for Catholics this is a treasured devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Appearing multiple times before three shepherd children in Portugal, Mary asked the children to pray the rosary. The apparitions began May 13, 1917, and ended on October 13, 1917, which is the date that the Catholic Church commemorates the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. I grew up with the rosary and watching my mother pray the rosary before Mass every single Sunday. The Hail Mary was the first prayer she taught me and it is the first and last prayer I say each day of my life. During some of my darkest moments, spending hours in hospital rooms and sleeping in chairs in ICU waiting rooms, the rosary was a constant comfort to me. The words of my cousin Anna from Scotland became somewhat of a mantra for me, “Our Lady will not let us down.” So, I prayed, and it is that prayer that sustained and comforted me during her surgeries, illnesses, recoveries, and eventually, her death. living rosaryLast week, on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, before first period, my school said the Living Rosary, where students represent each bead of the rosary, all standing in the outline of a rosary, spread out across the auditorium. As each prayer is said the student sits and passes the microphone to the next “bead”. The rest of the school is seated by class, all following along on their individual rosaries, reciting the rosary quietly in their place. What a way to start the day! I am truly blessed to be able to experience this in my work life.

pretty colorsAnd so, my love of October continues year after year. As much as I love spring and the promise of rebirth, as much as I love summer which now to me means time off from work, October and fall will always be my favorite time of the year. As I know my words have not done it justice, I will close with the words of someone far mightier with the pen than I.

“October”

by Robert Frost

 O hushed October morning mild,

Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;

Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,

Should waste them all.

The crows above the forest call;

Tomorrow they may form and go.

O hushed October morning mild,

Begin the hours of this day slow.

Make the day seem to us less brief.

Hearts not averse to being beguiled,

Beguile us in the way you know.

Release one leaf at break of day;

At noon release another leaf;

One from our trees, one far away.

Retard the sun with gentle mist;

Enchant the land with amethyst.

Slow, slow!

For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,

Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,

Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—

For the grapes’ sake along the wall.