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Soup’s On!

Comforting + Nourishing Soups for a Cozy Winter

By Mary Abitanto

Colder weather is upon us, which means cozy, woolly sweaters; warm puffy coats; tall leather boots; snuggling by the fire with hot cocoa loaded high with marshmallows; and making more soups, stews, and other delicious meals.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, we are expecting a chilly and snowy winter, so my soup recipes can help nourish you with healthy, nutrient-dense ingredients that will keep you warm all winter long. It’s like a big hug in a bowl.

Winter is the coldest time of year because it is when the Northern Hemisphere points away from the sun. It is also the season with the least amount of daylight hours. One of the many things I love about New Jersey is that we experience the four seasons. Winter is one of my favorite times of year — everything is quiet and still, the snow covers the ground like a blanket, the trees are bare, and the garden is empty, but soon we will see the early signs of spring emerging, representing hope and new beginnings. It’s a metaphor for life — now is the time to focus on a healthy new year and a commitment to maintain our health through mindful eating and good nutrition.

Growing up, my mom was the best soup maker. It was an inherent skill that has fortunately been bestowed upon me. Some of my soup recipes are featured in my books. My cookbook Food That Will Gather Your Family features Beef Barley Soup, Chunky Rustic Tomato Soup, Chicken and Dumpling Soup (a family favorite), and Potato Leek Soup. Food From My Heart & Home includes Gazpacho (a Spanish classic), Spicy Moroccan Chickpea Soup, and a Chunky Vegetable Soup. There are plenty more delicious soups on my blog like Corn and Chickpea Soup (a personal favorite) and my newly developed Creamy Lentil Soup with Crispy Mushrooms. My newest cookbook, NOURISH: Celebrating Nature’s Harvest & A Healthy Lifestyle, will feature Creamy Cauliflower Soup, Shredded Chicken and Leek Soup, and my classic Butternut Squash Soup. Call the family — soup’s on!

Butternut Squash Soup

Serves 6

My classic Butternut Squash Soup is on repeat all winter long in my house. I change it slightly each time I make it. Sometimes instead of sweet potato, I will add pumpkin. I make a big batch of this soup and store it in large glass mason jars in the fridge for easy eating throughout our busy week. Serving it with crusty Italian bread makes this a hearty meal that the whole family will love.

Ingredients:

2 pounds butternut squash, diced
A good quality extra virgin olive oil
6 fresh sage leaves, whole
1 large shallot, diced (or more)
1 cup sweet potato or yam (about 1 medium potato)
1 (48-ounce) container chicken stock
(or vegetable stock), homemade or
store-bought
2–3 thyme sprigs, bundled
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
A tiny pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
A splash of cream (optional)
Large pot
High-speed blender

Chef tip: Use only good quality extra virgin olive oil. To test the olive oil, dip some bread in it. It should be smooth to the palate and have no aftertaste. It will make or break your soup. Same holds true about your stock. Just avoid tomato-based vegetable stock for this soup.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place cubed squash onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast in the oven for about 40 minutes until fork tender. Roasting the squash will slightly caramelize it, which offers another layer of flavor that you would not get by simply boiling the squash.

Cooking tip: If you are buying a fresh butternut squash, pierce it multiple times, and cook it in the microwave for 5-6 minutes until slightly softened. Then, using a good chef’s knife, cut a piece off the bottom so it lays flat on the cutting board. Be extra careful. Alternatively, many local markets sell the butternut squash cubed, which saves time. Cubed frozen squash is an option as well.
In the large pot, drizzle a small amount olive oil and add a sprinkle of sea salt. Add the sage leaves. The sage will infuse an amazing flavor base into your soup. Next, sauté the diced shallots until translucent. Set the sage leaves aside or save a few as garnish.

In the meantime, cook a sweet potato (or yam) in the microwave until a fork can pierce through it easily. Alternatively, you may roast the sweet potato when you roast the butternut squash, if you are not pressed for time. Let it cool. Scoop out the potato and measure about 1 cup, adding it into a small bowl.

In the high-speed blender (mine holds 6 cups), add the cooled squash, along with the shallots and 1 cup or more of the chicken stock. Blend until the ingredients are puréed, and no lumps are present. Then add in the cooked sweet potato. Blend until smooth, adding more stock as needed to loosen. Feel free to add some crispy sage as well.

Transfer the purée back into the large pot and add more stock. I will typically use ¾ of a 48-ounce container for this recipe. As the soup thickens, you will add more, so keep it on hand. Refrigerate leftover stock for the next day.

Next, add a few sprigs of thyme bundles or any fresh herbs (you may discard after 1 hour or so). Add salt and pepper to taste and a drizzle of olive oil, tasting as you go. A tiny pinch of nutmeg is always a good idea. Simmer on low heat for about 1 hour and serve with warmed bread.

Try the absolutely delicious Olive Loaf Bread from Terra Momo Bread Company, or visit the Bread Boutique for any of their well-crafted loaves like the Seeded Baguette. You could also get the Seeded Spelt Loaf from Mistral (made by Elements) or pick up the Sourdough Baguette from Jen at LiLLiPiES Bakery in the Princeton Shopping Center. Whole Foods Market also has a wonderful selection of artisanal breads. Supporting our local bakeries is always a good idea.

As a garnish, you may add the sautéed sage leaves to the top of the soup, or top with pumpkin seeds for added protein. Feel free to swirl in a little cream into each bowl (or coconut milk).
Seal any leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days.

A fun idea is to plan a potluck dinner with neighbors or your book club friends and have everyone bring a warming soup (or stew), with some bread from one of our local bakeries. Everyone can write down their recipe and share it with others.

Bundle up your herbs to impart flavor and aromatics. Simply use kitchen string to tie up the thyme in this recipe (or other herbs such as parsley, bay leaves, and dill for other recipes), and let them “swim” in the soup. Then fish them out and discard them. This way you get the flavor without all the herbs. In the case of thyme, the leaves will fall off, but not the sprig sticks. On the other hand, some soups I make are packed with chopped herbs, in this case, don’t discard the stems of parsley — when finely diced they have lots of flavor.

Minestrone Soup

Serves 6

To achieve depth of flavor in this Italian classic, start by sautéing the vegetables (or sofrito as it’s known in Italian cooking, which includes garlic, onions, carrots, and celery) in olive oil — or rendered bacon fat, even better! Next, bundle the herbs like thyme and add them to your soup — pulling them out at the end will infuse further flavor. Using good quality chicken stock (homemade or store-bought) and a good quality extra virgin olive oil are also important building blocks to any soup. Simmer time is important too — that’s when the flavors all come together. Adding the pasta to the Minestrone Soup will thicken it and add flavor from all the starches in the pasta. Another tip, I only buy Goya beans — they are the best in my opinion, so choose your beans wisely and always rinse well.

Ingredients:

3-4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 small onion, diced
A good quality extra virgin olive oil
3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped or sliced
2 medium celery stalks, peeled and sliced
2-3 tablespoons tomato paste (I use tomato paste in a tube)
Salt and pepper to taste
2 (32-ounce) containers chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup fire roasted crushed tomato sauce
Dried bay leaves
Fresh thyme, bundled
Red chili flakes (optional)
Rendered bacon fat or pancetta (optional)
¼ pound bag of spaghetti or linguini, broken into bite-sized pieces (or any pasta)
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
Chopped parsley for garnish
Kitchen string

Sauté the thinly sliced garlic and diced onions in olive oil (or rendered bacon fat) until translucent. Add the chopped or sliced carrots and celery. Sauté for 10 minutes on medium-low heat. Add the tomato paste, salt, and pepper and heat for 5 minutes on low heat. Add 1 container of stock (reserve the second container) and add the beans and mash with a potato masher (or keep the beans whole). Next, add the crushed tomato sauce. Bundle the thyme sprigs and toss them into the soup. Add the bay leaves, about 2-3. Bay leaves provide such an aromatic flavor to soups, stews, and sauces. Red chili flakes will give this soup a little spicy kick.

Note: If tomatoes are in season, you can use chopped tomatoes instead of crushed canned tomatoes.

Let the soup simmer until the liquid cooks down a little and the veggies are tender, then toss the broken pasta right into the soup and cook for 10 minutes. Feel free to use any type of pasta. Take out the bundled thyme sprigs and bay leaves and discard.

Have extra stock on hand to loosen the soup. If it sits on stovetop, it will start to thicken from the starches in the pasta. This soup should be more brothy than pasta fagioli, but both are similar.

Garnish each bowl with chopped parsley. Using fresh herbs to brighten and awaken flavors is the way to go! Add a heavy shaving of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Be sure to serve with one of the breads from our local bakeries.

My newest cookbook, NOURISH, will be published in early spring. It’s packed with healthy and nutritious meals including vegetable-based meals with legumes and lean meats. There are plenty of gluten-free recipes in the book as well. All my books can be found on Amazon. You can also follow me on Instagram @marioochcooks for great wellness and cooking tips and more delicious recipes.

To keep your immune system in tip-top shape this winter season, try these immune-boosting spices and herbs: ginger, turmeric and black pepper, cinnamon, garlic, cayenne pepper, sage, thyme, oregano, coriander, and cumin. Many of these can be added to soups (and even morning shakes!). Storing them in food-safe glass jars and labeling them is a good idea.

Community + Connection

One of the guiding principles in my life is if one hurts, we all hurt. My experiences as a volunteer chef at HomeFront in the teaching kitchen, as well as feeding at-risk preschoolers a warm lunch on a rotating basis (in my community), have taught me that the one meal they are served may be the only meal they get that day. Volunteering to participate in serving a warm, nourishing meal at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) is a wonderful activity for the whole family. My kids loved volunteering in the teaching kitchen, and it taught them empathy and compassion, something that they will carry with them for a lifetime.

According to TASK CEO Joyce Campbell, “TASK and our partners are leading the way. We are providing a holistic approach to our fight against hunger, particularly in our ability to offer a full resource hub to those seeking aid. We not only provide a meal, but we also provide our community with the tools they need to thrive. With your support, we can continue to nourish the mind, body, and soul while working to drive out hunger and its underlying causes.”

Michelle Wexler, chief development officer at Task, says, “To volunteer on site at TASK, you must be 13 or older. Although our original location was a church basement, now we are a secular organization, and our dining room is located at 72½ Escher Street in Trenton. Volunteer shifts are available six days per week for either lunch (Monday–Saturday) or dinner (Monday–Thursday). Volunteers do not need any prior experience, just the desire to help our neighbors in need. Most volunteers help to plate and serve the meals, prepare salads at our salad bar, serve coffee or tea, or provide meals to go. We are careful to ensure that our meals are not only nutritious but calorically dense, so that it provides enough sustenance on days when it is someone’s only source of food.”
For more information, visit trentonsoupkitchen.org or email volunteer@trentonsoupkitchen.org.

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