My husband and I recently returned from a quick trip to Europe - a day in Amsterdam waiting for a connecting flight and a short week in Vienna. What I was struck by while wandering the two cities and stopping into cafés to warm up or have lunch was the variety and amount of soup being eaten for meals.
It sounds weird to say that this was something remarkable - soup was being eaten for lunch everywhere, by women and men. But it’s not so weird to notice the contrast when you read the stats on what's going on over here in the US: we’re eating more breads or food prepared with bread products for every meal, more than ever before.
What I love about soup is this: it’s warm, it’s filling and satisfying, and it is a simple way to deliver a number of good things – vegetables, whole grains, beans or pulses, root vegetables, garlic and onions, an earth-friendly amount of meat, and even meat broth (if you make your own stock) – in one convenient bowl. Better still, it delivers all of the good stuff for a minimum of calories (as long as your spoon isn’t standing on its own or the name of the soup doesn't include the words beer and cheese) – making it a wholesome, waistline-friendly meal option.
We ate some delicious soups in Amsterdam and Vienna: tomato soup; a light, fresh mushroom soup; pumpkin soup; winter root vegetable soup; and a carrot-chickpea soup. Nothing fancy or exotic – just simple, nourishing and delicious.
Soup doesn’t just taste good - it’s especially good to eat during these chilly seasons, when viruses abound and our immune systems and sinuses are prone to overworking. You may have heard by now the famous study done in 1993 by a researcher named Stephen Rennard, M.D., from the University of Nebraska who was able to show in the laboratory that chicken soup did indeed slow down the activity of cold and flu viruses. Isn't it gratifying when research proves what grandmothers around the world have known all along?
On the other hand, what’s wrong with eating so much of our food on, in, between or under bread? For one, when we’re consuming so many calories from one food group, chances are that we’re not eating an adequate amount of foods from the other food groups - namely fruits and vegetables or even non-wheat whole grains. Additionally, if it’s not 100% whole wheat, you’re most likely consuming GMO grains that have been stripped of any nutritive value by the processing and degerming processing – leaving an empty source of calories that wreaks havoc on blood sugar levels. (More on the bread issue in an upcoming blog.)
But what happens instead when you have a bowl of soup and a couple of whole grain crackers with a piece of cheese, or slice of turkey or a couple of spoonfuls of chickpea hummus? You are filled with warmth and a sustained source of energy, with vitamins, minerals, protein and nutrient-dense calories to keep you operating without suffering the classic craving/crash cycle. If you think that a bowl of soup is not filling enough, then eat it with a salad or have two bowls of soup - you’d STILL be better off than eating two slices of pizza.
As far as stressing out over the amount of time it takes to make soup, why not make a big pot over the weekend? It reheats quickly and transports easily in a lunch box to work and tastes good all week long. Or use a crockpot by preparing the ingredients in the morning (or the night before and refrigerating) and letting the soup simmer while you’re out for the day. Few things smell as good as a dinner waiting for you when you walk in the door, hot and ready to go.
Of course homemade soup is better than canned, packaged or deli soups - high sodium content, excess sugars and quality of ingredients would be the main reasons to avoid them. In a pinch, a couple of local companies sell freshly prepared soups ready to go in some refrigerated sections of area grocery stores, as do local bakeries.
Ultimately if I can convince you to make a pot of soup – or at least eat soup for at least a couple of meals a week, then I’d think you were on to something good.
2 cups corn, either cut fresh off the cob (in summer) or frozen kernels
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil, or a combination of both
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled, (green sprout removed) and finely chopped
2 stalks celery, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
3 medium potatoes, cubed (3 cups)
5 cups vegetable stock or low-sodium bouillon, dissolved (or corn stock in summer)
1 tsp. salt
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, basil or other herbs, chopped
freshly ground pepper, to taste
Sauté onions in olive oil or butter for 3-5 minutes or until golden. Add garlic, carrots and celery (and potatoes at this point if you’re cooking at high altitude) and sauté another 5 to 8 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Add potatoes (at sea level), corn and stock. Season with salt and half of the herbs; cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
For a creamier soup without the cream, remove 2 cups of soup and purée in a blender. Add the purée back to the soup. Finish seasoning with additional salt, if necessary, the remaining herbs, and freshly ground pepper before serving.
(To make in a crockpot, sauté onions and garlic until tender in a skillet on the stovetop. Add to crockpot along with remaining ingredients (reduce water to 4.5 cups) and cook on low while you’re away. To finish, season to taste with fresh pepper and additional salt, if neccessary, and add fresh herbs.)
Over the holiday weekend, I spent a few days Up North in a Cabin by a Lake as a fortunate Minnesotan able to escape the urban zoo for a while with friends. Full of northwoods-style fun with long walks, swims and canoe paddling, it also turned out to be a ripe weekend to forage for wild berries. Mostly I was keeping an eye out for ripe wild raspberries to pop in my mouth as I walked along the woodland road, but out by the edge of the woods I saw a different color, much closer to the ground: blue!
I have eaten so many foods, grown and picked all kinds of varieties as well in many places in the world, but I have never seen a blueberry growing wild on a little bush before. I was charmed, excited and amazed – these little fruits, warmed from the sun, bursting with tart-sweet flavor and so wonderfully colorful.
It was the blueberries that got me thinking about color in our food, and how lucky we are that there are still places on earth to find small wonders of incredible wild fruits. It’s more than just the fruit, though – the earth is providing us with a guidepost for the healthiest foods to eat.
It’s all in the color. You don’t have to know the first thing about which fruits or vegetables are the best choices for a healthy diet – you just have to let the color be your guide. Berries, which are abundant, available from local sources right now, and at the peak of their flavor, are all superstars in the fruit world. Pale and timid? Definitely not – berries are deeply colored in shades of red, magenta, purple, and blue – promising juicy, flavorful and nutrient-packed goodness.
Around Minnesota in summer, we have strawberries, raspberries, blackberries or black raspberries, blueberries and thimbleberries – and all of them are especially high in Vitamin C, fiber, manganese and perhaps most importantly, ellagic acid. Ellagic acid is part of the phenol classified phytochemical group called flavonoids, which are responsible for those brightly colored plant pigments as well as many medicinal properties of foods, and have been shown to have a broad and effective range of antioxident activity because of their anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antiallergic and anticancer properties. Ellagic acid, specifically, has especially high anticancer activity against pollutants and toxic chemicals.
Ultimately the key is to eat a rainbow assortment of foods, and to try to eat a wide variety of these ellagic acid-rich foods throughout the season from different fruits. Among our local fruits where ellagic acid is found, raspberries top the charts, followed by blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, cherries and later this year, apples and cranberries.
It’s always better to get a super compound from its original source, and to provide your body with as many of them as possible rather than relying on a supplement in pill or additive form. Next to fresh in season, frozen berries are the best bet for the highest antioxident content for out of season choices, with freeze-dried coming in second – even over shipped-in berries – because they were picked at the height of freshness and preserved immediately for storage.
So you don’t really have to remember that it’s the flavonoids that are the source of those bright colors, you just have to remember that bright colors equal good things for your body. If we allow our eye to be witness to the beauty and promise of juicy, sweet flavors, then we have let instinct and the earth guide us to what is really good and what we really need to heal, repair, and keep us healthy every day.
Just like that little bit of blue out of the corner of my eye, hiding under some shiny green leaves – protected enough to be able to ripen, but just tempting enough to be discovered – and eaten!
Our first CSA share showed up yesterday, delivered from Burning River Farm by farmer/owner Mike Noreen. What a bounty: bok choy, broccoli rabe, crispy-fresh head lettuces, baby kale, spinach, and a basket of herbs for planting so that we’ll have herbs later on this summer. Oh, those greens - they looked so good that I felt better just opening the box, even before I had eaten them.
Then, my mom arrived at my door with bags of freshly snipped leaf lettuces and just-picked asparagus. By now I’m feeling like a queen, with all of these riches of the new summer garden season arriving in my kitchen.
Shortly after the whirlwind of first-day CSA share pick-ups last night, my doorbell rang – it was my friend and neighbor Mary Jo holding in her hand a bunch of greens, wondering what they were and what she should do with them. This marks the other start to the summer garden and market season - shifting our way of eating away from the typical shopping list and grocery store options, to choosing what’s here, right now. Excitement can easily give way to feeling stymied or overwhelmed, though, when good intentions for opening the CSA box, buying arms full of veggies at the farmer’s market, or watching rows of Swisschard come up in the garden turn into vegetable panic.
But it’s not that hard. Eating fresh using the best vegetables of the moment actually takes less time – fresher food takes less work to make it taste good and vegetables cook more quickly because they are still plump and full of water from growing in the soil and not being shipped cross-country.
My advice to Mary Jo was to gently sauté the broccoli rabe with some olive oil and garlic and then throw in an egg or two to scramble, tossed with the greens. She reported back this morning that it was delicious.
So that’s the new bottom line, when we’re heading into this season of bounty and “of the moment” fresh foods. Quick is good. To use fresh greens after work but save time, rinse the greens, roll them gently in a kitchen towel and store them in a plastic bag – they’ll stay nice and crispy fresh, and won’t lose their moisture or nutrition to the dehydrating environment in the fridge. Take some out for lunches or dinner all week, and make a green smoothie with some of them in the morning.
Dinner can be quick as well. All greens taste good lightly steamed and served with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkling of balsamic vinegar or freshly-squeezed lemon juice, and some good salt and fresh pepper. Or sauté them with some garlic or maybe even some Texas sweet onions (also in season right now - delicious), add a little crumbled Wisconsin or Minnesota feta cheese and toss the whole thing with some whole wheat pasta for a more substantial weeknight dinner (see recipe below). Or, put steamed greens over some cooked sweet brown rice or wild rice and top with a Thai peanut sauce – coconut is slightly sweet and it makes a great pairing with the flavors of the greens. With all of these options, using a little fat from the eggs, olive oil, cheese, or coconut milk is key - dark leafy greens and fresh head lettuces are Vitamin A-rich, and we need a little good, healthy fat to help us unlock and absorb the available nutrients.
Try eating more salads, too. Salads should become more of the main story, at least a few times a week in the summer. A big pile of fresh greens can be topped with your favorite grilled mushrooms, fish, chicken or meat, as well as thinly sliced raw vegetables of every variety for extra crunch, flavor and nutrition. Keep the dressing light to let the flavors really sing in your mouth – drizzle with fresh olive oil and lemon or whip together a quick salad dressing. (Homemade is so much better than bottled, in every way – tastes better, doesn’t have all of those thickeners, stabilizers, modifiers, preservatives, and colorings, and it costs much, much less.)
The key is that if you want to eat well, then yes, it will take a little more time than dialing for take-out. But the rewards are literally life-giving. Instead of your poor little old body fighting inflammation and fatigue, you will be giving yourself energy and fuel from the original source. Real food. From the earth. Grown not by accident, but with purpose and a reason – and, incidently, chock full of things that we really, really need. Eat!
Fresh Greens and Feta with Whole Wheat Pasta
A painless way to eat your greens!
6 T olive oil
4 cups chopped Vidalia onions (or red or yellow onions)
7-8 cups mixed greens - kale, chard, collards, arugula, spinach, bok choy - washed, dried, cut off the stem and coarsely chopped
3/4 lb whole wheat bowtie pasta (I prefer the Bionaturae brand)
1/2 lb. good local feta (try Shepherds Way), crumbled
freshly ground pepper
crushed red pepper flakes
Set the pasta water on to boil.
Heat olive oil in a deep skillet dutch oven. Add onions and cook for 10 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until golden and sweet.
Add the chopped greens to the skillet, salt lightly, and stir until the greens begin to wilt. Cover and cook 5 minutes over medium-low heat.
Meanwhile, cook pasta until al dente in salted water. When the pasta is just about done, remove the cover from the greens, turn it down to low and add the crumbled feta. Drain the pasta and add it to the greens mixture immediately, tossing to mix thoroughly.
Season with fresh pepper, red pepper flakes and salt if needed. Serve immediately.
Eating locally and seasonally is an easy prospect to get excited about in warm months. But what about when it feels like the tundra out there? In the beginning of February in Minnesota, we still have a long way to go before local vegetables are coming straight out of our ground again. A trip to the grocery store is a lesson in blissful denial - with so many beautiful vegetables and fruits coming from across the country or halfway around the world, why would anyone have to worry about finding only foods that are grown nearby?
Or at the very least, couldn’t we wait until spring before we think about eating locally and seasonally again? Not really. Eating local foods matters all year long. Food issues surrounding the long-haul transport of foods, the economy of growing, selling and buying food and the importance of eating nutritionally-dense foods grown near the place you live don’t go away in the winter.
But what to eat right now? Homemade soup!
We’re lucky to have plenty of foods that came out of the ground a few months back and are still around to nourish and sustain us. We have root vegetables in all shapes, sizes and colors; turnips, beets, parsnips, celery root (celeriac), carrots and potatoes. We have onions, garlic, and shallots. We have cabbage. We have local butter for sautéeing all of those vegetables, and cheese for garnishing the bowl. Plus, we have local chickens and meats for rounding out a pot of soup.
Of course, soups or stews – or their cousin, the casserole – are among the very best ways to eat the less glamorous members of the vegetable world in the middle of winter. Onions, garlic, root vegetables and cabbages are packed with nutrients that heal us, boost our immunity and ward off inflammation in the body which protects us from heart disease, cancer and other age- or environment-related ailments. Plus, soup filled with all of those delicious ingredients is the kind of food that makes sense when we hear the words “eating seasonally”, because a steaming bowl of soup sounds so wonderful when it’s desperately cold outside.
No matter where you go in the world, there is a soup pot on a stove somewhere, filled with the local ingredients of that area that makes it taste completely of the place. Soup is good for us in so many ways. It is a perfect thing for removing a winter chill. It is excellent for opening up a stuffy nose. Soup fills up the belly, may aid in weight loss (except the beer cheese varietals), makes us feel comforted and almost always a little bit better than we did before.
So your soup might be different than my soup – maybe you’re lucky enough to have a wonderful recipe from your mother or grandmother – and it will taste like your memories. It will certainly also taste of the place where you live or have lived, and of all the wonderful ingredients that will find their way into your pot.
But here’s to hoping we have this in common - that our soup has a few locally-source ingredients, and that it warms us to the core.
Winter Vegetable Potage
1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 medium leeks (white parts only), sliced into rings or 1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 medium carrots, cut into 1/4” dice
1 medium Yukon Gold potato, cut into 1/4” dice
1 medium turnip, peeled and cut into 1/4” dice
1/2 head orange or white cauliflower, roughly chopped
1 small or 1/2 large sweet potato, cut into 1/4” dice
1 small celeriac (celery root), peeled and cut into 1/4” dice
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
6 cups filtered water or vegetable stock
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons of fresh herbs - parsley, rosemary, or thyme, minced
Place oil and butter in a medium enameled cast iron soup pot or other soup pot over medium heat and add the onion, stirring to coat. Cook until translucent and add the garlic. Stir and cook for a few minutes longer, until garlic has lost its raw smell. Add the diced root vegetables, stir to coat with oil, and sauté until the potato is sticking to the pan and the pieces are beginning to turn golden, about 5-8 minutes. Season with salt and stir. Add water or stock and let the soup come to a gentle boil. Turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Carefully purée half or all of the soup in a blender or with a stick blender until smooth or leave slightly chunky. Season with salt and pepper to taste, garnish with fresh herbs and serve.
***This soup is totally forgiving and adaptable to any root vegetables you especially like or happen to get at the farmer's market or in a CSA share. Mix and match! Turnips, parsnips, orange cauliflower, white beets, rutabaga will all work.