Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Soup of the Month: Hearty Vegetable

As December rolled over into January this year, I started thinking about New Year's resolutions. In addition to forming new resolutions (like my decluttering one, which I'll update you on some time soon), I considered whether I wanted to keep up my old resolution from last year about trying a new fruit or vegetable recipe each month. As resolutions go, you'd have to say it was a success: I did, in fact, try a new recipe each month—sometimes more than one—and it gave me plenty of good material for this blog. Moreover, several of the recipes we tried as part of this challenge, such as September's Skillet Kugel and March's Roasted Brussels Sprouts, had gone on to become regular staples of our dinner table. So if my goal was to incorporate more vegetable dishes into our diet, I'd done what I set out to do.

Still, thinking back over it, I wasn't really sure how far this resolution had helped me toward my ultimate goal of eating a healthier diet overall. Yes, we were eating more of certain specific vegetables, like Brussels sprouts—but we were eating them in place of, not in addition to, other green veggies. Roasted Brussels sprouts may taste a lot better than steamed broccoli, but they aren't necessarily any better for you, and because Brussels sprouts are a lot pricier than broccoli, you can't really eat more of them, even if you'd like to. And the skillet kugel, while very tasty, probably isn't the most healthful thing you could make with those same ingredients. It's not unhealthy, exactly, but it's still mostly a big slab of starch with a fair bit of oil and only a little smattering of leek. I don't think eating it every night of the week would make me slimmer or healthier overall.

So how, I mused, could I tweak this resolution to boost its benefits? Should I make it a rule that the Recipe of the Month has to meet certain specific health standards, like being low in fat or having veggies as the main ingredient? Or would that be too limiting? After thinking about it for a bit, I decided that maybe the best way to improve on the Recipe of the Month resolution would be to focus on specific types of recipes, ones that are usually low-calorie and nutrient-dense. Salads were one obvious choice, and thanks to my Volumetrics book, I knew that soups were at least as good. So I decided that this year, the Recipe of the Month would be confined to soups and salads only. Probably I'll focus on soups during the chilly months, and move on to light, cool salads as the weather warms up and the garden fills with fresh produce. But no matter which we choose in any given month, it will definitely be something that's genuinely healthful. Even if it's not a great success, just eating it for one meal will be good for us, and if we like it enough to make it a regular part of our diet, the benefits will last throughout the year.

For our first Soup of the Month, I was originally thinking about going with a curried soup that Brian dreamed up one evening. He started with a quart container of chick peas that was sitting in the freezer and just started adding stuff to it: onion, garlic, a package of chicken legs cut up into small nuggets, a nearly-full can of coconut milk, and some coriander, cumin, turmeric, and garam masala. This made a very hearty soup, almost more of a stew, so he served it with rice on the side to make a full meal. It was pretty good, good enough that he intends to make it again, but I wondered whether it was really healthful enough to qualify for the Soup of the Month position. True, it has a lot going for it just by virtue of being a soup, since a soup will satisfy your hunger more readily with fewer calories than the same ingredients with less water—but my Recipes of the Month were supposed to be veggie- or fruit-based, and this one didn't really have any veggies in it aside from the chick peas, which are pretty heavy as vegetables go. I figured I could use it if I didn't come up with anything better, but I was still hoping for a chance to kick off my Soup of the Month posts with a true vegetable soup.

Fortunately, an opportunity fell into my hands when I happened on a copy of the Raritan Valley Review in a local store. This little magazine is mostly ads, typically for local businesses that cater to a Jewish clientele, but it has a couple of articles thrown in to fill it out, and one of its regular features is a recipe page. The January issue featured three soups: cabbage soup, potato-leek, and "hearty vegetable." The cabbage soup didn't look all that interesting, and the potato-leek one was basically the same as a recipe we've made many times before, but the hearty vegetable had potential. It had all the usual veggies that any soup starts with—carrots, celery, onions—but it added red lentils and barley, which looked like it would make for a soup substantial enough to be a meal all by itself.

The only discordant note in the recipe, to my mind, was that it called for three zucchini. I've never seen the point of adding zucchini to any soup: they're mostly water anyway, so they don't add anything significant in terms of flavor, and as for texture, boiling them just turns them into an unappetizing mush. I was all for just leaving them out, but Brian, perhaps inspired by the cabbage soup recipe right next to it, decided to add cabbage to make up the veggie volume left out by the missing zucchini. The recipe also called for an optional garnish of fresh dill and parsley, but since we don't generally have these on hand in the winter, we decided to leave them out and work with what we had. We also made just a half batch of the recipe, since it was just for the two of us. The Raritan Valley Review doesn't have the January issue up on its website yet, so I hope they won't mind my copying out our version of the recipe for you:
  • 1 1/2 onions, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 3 carrots, sliced
  • 1/2 cabbage, shredded
  • 5 c. water
  • 1/2 c. barley (the original recipe called for only half this much, but Brian forgot to halve this ingredient with the rest of the recipe, and it seemed to come out okay)
  • 1/2 c. red lentils
  • 1 bay leaf (Brian added this on his own, saying he "couldn't resist") 
  • About 1 Tbsp. salt (the original recipe calls for 1 1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt, which is coarser, so I adjusted it down) 
Sauté onions and garlic until onions are translucent (about 8 minutes). Add remaining veggies and sauté until tender (about 30 minutes). Add water and bring to a boil. Stir in barley, red lentils, and salt. Cook for 30 minutes.
The resulting soup was...not bad. It was definitely hearty and filling, but it seemed to lack a little something. Maybe that fresh dill and parsley would have made a big difference, or maybe it could have used more garlic, or maybe we would have been better off starting with our favorite Penzey's vegetable soup base instead of plain water. I'm holding on to the recipe for now, and we may tinker with it a bit in future. Still, I'd say it makes a good start to my Soup of the Month resolution. It's nutritious and filling, so it sets a good precedent there, but as far as taste, it's setting the bar low enough that we should be able to clear it easily in upcoming months.
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