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on Leap Day, hope springs

It’s just so confusing! In October we had a foot of snow and leaves still on the trees. That was just about it for the snow this year. January and February saw many really mild days that have coaxed out the daffodils and crocuses. Today, Leap Day, the forecast calls for snow, sleet, freezing rain — generally disgusting weather. Yes, I know that it is winter after all and it is New England as well. But what’s a person to believe in when the weather is such a tease? The answer is simple: my garden.

Christmas future

tomatoes (Christmas Future) on right

At the beginning of February, I planted a few tomato seeds that my neighbor gave me. After a month of sprouting and growing in a  seed-starter unit, they were ready to graduate to the two-inch square peat pots that you see here. (I’ve staged them with some “store-bought” tomatoes just to give them encouragement.) They are a heavy-maintenance project. Must keep in warm, sunny window; must keep moist, but not too wet; must re-pot repeatedly; must gradually introduce to the outdoors and real sunlight before planting; must be careful not to plant too early. The list could go on, and each year I claim that I won’t grow tomatoes from seeds again.

The return on investment — assuming that my time is worthless, which as a freelancer is sometimes true — it is still questionable whether you do better just buying plants in the early summer. Certainly at most garden stores and even at many big box stores you will find large and hearty vegetable plants for a couple bucks a piece. Being an organic gardener, I avoid those venues and browse my local farmers’ markets in the spring. Even the organic varieties aren’t that expensive compared with the time and effort it takes to nurture plants from seeds.

“so why?” you ask

The immediate answer that comes to mind is the perennial one that parents use with their children when they can’t think of an easy reply, “because.” Yes, because I need to see the possibilities. I need to know that there will be a time when real food will come from the soil in my backyard, and that food will taste so good. It is a leap of faith to put the tiny seed in some moist soil and believe that with enough love and nurturing, you’ll have a tomato to savor in seven months. Yikes, when you put it that way, it’s almost as long as making a baby! (Every parent knows it takes a leap of faith to raise a child, too.)

Christmas past

Christmas past: the last butternut squash from my 2011 garden

Isn’t she pretty? Wish that you could feel her. She’s just as firm as when I took her from the dying October garden. And I know that her flesh will be bright orange, sweet, and nutty. Oh, that I would age so well!

The winter squash varieties (butternut, acorn, Hubbard, pumpkin just to name a few) take a long time to mature and are best picked after their vines die back. But while you have to wait a bit for their tasty flesh, they are incredible keepers. Just store them in your cool basement and they’ll keep until spring. We’ve enjoy sautéed squash, squash soup, and my newest favorite thanks to the New York Times, kale pesto with roasted butternut squash. The latter is an incredible season stretcher since kale will survive easily through several frosts.

enjoy the bonus

Leap day is a bonus! Hope that you are enjoying what feels like an extra twenty-four hours.

 

kale Lacinato "trees" in my garden

 

Kale. Three years ago I had heard of it, but really didn’t know what it was. Knew that it was a vegetable, but not much beyond that. Brendan encouraged me to plant it a few seasons ago, and it did remarkably well in my not-terribly-sunny garden plot.  It has done so well that this year, we had a plot of what we called “kale trees”! The stalks were at least four feet high and have surrendered countless pounds of produce!

If you’re not familiar with kale, give it a try. It is one of the healthiest vegetables around.  High in fiber, it’s been found to reduce cholesterol, reduce risk of at least five different types of cancer, and is off the chart in levels of vitamins K, A, C, manganese, and more. Kale is a cruciferous vegetable (part of the Brassicaceae family) whose cousins include broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. But unlike many of it cousins whose leaves simply frame their fruit, kale’s leaves are its raison d’être. Think spinach, but on a mega scale. The very young leaves can accent a salad nicely, but the larger, older leaves can be a bit tough and need a long marinade to work in a salad, but make a great kale soup, see recipe below. I love to include kale in a mixed vegetable stir fry, or steam it and serve like spinach. 

While I love kale for its high nutrition value, I love it equally because it’s a flexible and hearty species. I planted it once in the spring and it grew all summer (after a somewhat rocky start, which I’ll explain). It loves cool weather and can withstand cold weather and a hard frost, but also survives a hot, dry summer. The trick to making it last through the summer is to pick only the outside leaves and let the center leaves grow. The trick to making it last through a frost is let the sun thaw it completely before picking. It won’t make it through the dead of winter — at least not here in New England — unless you try a tunnel cover or cold frame. Check out Eliot Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook
for details.

 

typical curly leafed kale

 

This year, I planted both Winterbor and Lacinato varieties, but only the Lacinato survived. The Winterbor, which is a traditional, curly-leafed variety, was the target of an as-yet-unidentified pest that insisted on demolishing the emerging plants before they could establish themselves. The reason the Lacinato survived is because I started it in a cold frame; grew it there until it reached a couple inches in height, then planted in garden. After planting, I kept it covered with a floating row cover to keep off the pests until it reached a size that allowed it to withstand the predators. I sewed the Winterbor directly into the garden and it never made it to the critical size.

 

kale "trees" on left side of garden, winter squash and chard on right

 

Now it’s nearly the end of October; there’s not much left in the summer garden, but there are still kale “trees” that we’re harvesting, as shown in the picture. I can count on them to yield the makings for salad, steamed kale, and kale soup until nearly December. During that time, there will also be enough kale to freeze for the winter months. Kale is the gift that keeps on giving!

The next time the weather forecast is cold and dreary, make some kale soup: it’s a soup star that ticks a lot important boxes: comfort food, healthy, tasty, and local.

Kale Soup

3 T. olive oil

1 large onion chopped

6 C. water

1 teasp. salt (or to taste)

1 teasp. freshly ground pepper

4 large potatoes, scrubbed (not peeled), diced

1 lb. Portuguese sausage (linguica or chourizo) or Polish kielbasa sliced into 1/4 inch circles

1 large bunch of kale, center stem removed, and thinly sliced to make 8 cups chopped

3 T. white vinegar

In a large soup pot, sauté onion in olive oil until golden brown. Add water and diced potatoes; bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are soft (about 30 minutes). While potatoes are cooking, place prepared kale in colander; rinse well with cold water; blanch by pouring 2 qts. boiling water over kale in colander; drain well, set aside.

Using an immersion blender, puree broth, potatoes, onions until smooth. If you don’t have an immersion blender, use a potato masher (texture will be slightly more chunky) to mash. Add remaining ingredients. Simmer on low for 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning. I like to use very little salt, but more vinegar (total 4 — 5 T.) Simmer for another 30 minutes — longer for a thicker broth. Serve with crusty bread. Or better, put in the refrigerator overnight. Reheat and serve the next day when the flavor has developed even more. Delicious!

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