Sunday, December 13, 2015

Soup of the Month: Sausage-Spinach Soup

Well, here it is at last: the final Soup of the Month for 2015. And this is a particularly special recipe to wrap up the year with, because it's the first one I invented all by myself.

This recipe is loosely based on Brian's vegetarian chili recipe, which substitutes Lightlife Gimme Lean Veggie Beef for ground beef. For the two of us, he browns half a tube of the Gimme Lean, then sets it aside and sautes a chopped green pepper, onion, and garlic. Then all this goes into the pot with two cups (or one can) of cooked kidney beans, a can of tomatoes, and three tablespoons of our homemade chili powder, and he just simmers it until it's nice and thick.

Brian was planning on making this chili for his family over Christmas, but he thought we might have to bring our own tube of Gimme Lean, because the stores in their area don't seem to sell it. I suggested Trader Joe's, but he reminded me that they no longer carry the Gimme Lean beef; they only have the sausage version. And that got me wondering: just what would you have if you tried to make this recipe with the sausage instead of the beef?

I quickly realized it wouldn't work as a chili, because the flavors aren't compatible. But you could use the same basic method—brown the sausage, then the veggies, then put it all in a pot with beans and appropriate seasonings. I thought white beans would probably make a better complement to the sausage than kidney beans, and sage and bay leaf would make compatible seasonings. I hesitated over the tomatoes, but eventually decided to leave them out and use veggie stock instead to make up the volume. And then, since it seemed like it could still use some more veggies, I decided some spinach would make a good finishing touch.

Now, we actually ended up making two versions of this, because the first time he tried it, Brian forgot the spinach. He also used veggie stock made with our Penzey's Vegetable Soup Base, a powerful, savory mix that's great for raising the flavor of an otherwise bland vegetable soup—but this stuff already had plenty of flavor from the sausage and onion and garlic and seasonings in there, so when made the soup base, it was actually too flavorful. Brian said he quite liked it, but I thought it was a bit too much, and I also felt like it really needed more veggies.

So the next night, we tried it again, leaving out the soup base and throwing in half a pound of thawed frozen spinach—plus an extra can of white beans so the spinach wouldn't be too dominant. Yet even so, the finished dish was awfully spinach-heavy. As I suspected, it had plenty of flavor even without the soup stock—all Brian had to add was a teaspoon of salt—but the spinach really dominated the texture.

I think the ideal version of this soup would probably be a cross between the first and second versions: some spinach, but not so much that it's the primary ingredient, and some soup base, but not so much that the flavor packs too hard a punch. So I think we'll be trying this again some time soon, this time cutting back the spinach to just 4 ounces, or else substituting an equal volume of chopped fresh spinach (which is less dense) for frozen. And perhaps we'll use some of the Penzey's soup base in the stock, but at half rather than full strength. With those two tweaks, I think this soup will be exactly what I envisioned: a hearty, savory, filling soup that, eked out by whole-wheat biscuits, makes a satisfying meal on a cold winter night. In other words, an ideal alternative to chili when you're in the mood for a change of flavor.

So, with this recipe, I've successfully carried out my resolution to try a new soup or salad each month for 2015. But I have to admit, it wasn't easy. Limiting myself to soups and salads, rather than any kind of veggie dish, made it much harder to find suitable recipes, and there were some months when I ended up having to fudge the definition of "soup" or "salad" a bit to squeeze my recipe in. Plus there were a couple of interesting-looking new recipes that I clipped out of magazines but ended up not trying, because they weren't soups or salads, and if I only had time to try one new dish that month, it had to be a soup or a salad.

So I think for 2016, I'll probably expand my horizons a little. Instead of limiting myself to soups and salads, I'll make my Recipe of the Month any dish that puts either fruit or veggies front and center as the focus of the meal. That should promote my ultimate goal of making healthy fruits and veggies a bigger part of my diet, without putting too many restrictions on how we accomplish that goal.
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