My mother is not a revelatory cook.
Don't worry. She doesn't read blogs.
Growing up, the go-to cookbook in our house was a little number by the name of 365 Ways to Cook Chicken. Even with all of those options, we rotated between two or three chicken recipes per week. This made room for random fish night (whatever was available at the supermarket) and random meat night (either pork chops or pork stir-fry, since my stepfather had spent time in Thailand and loved to use his wok). Side dishes included, but were not limited to: steamed Brussels sprouts, steamed broccoli, steamed asparagus, steamed cauliflower, steamed green beans, and sauteed summer squash/zucchini with chopped dill and dried chopped garlic.
There were, however, certain long-standing recipes that my mother executed perfectly. Her bread stuffing is now my bread stuffing. She taught me to roast a chicken. Her butterscotch blondies are out of this world. And on cold winter nights, if I begged long enough, she would make me my favorite dish, adopted from an old recipe in an old vegetarian cookbook (The Moosewood) by Mollie Katzen. Minestrone soup.
I was not raised vegetarian but I have gravitated towards vegetables my whole life. This may sound surprising to those of you who view me as the consummate pork-fat lover, but the truth is that my daytime diet--essentially, what I eat before I go out to eat--consists of a lot of fruits, vegetables, and simple proteins like eggs. If I ate restaurant food for every one of my meals I would be wearing a size 20 and tapping my heart in the mornings to make sure it still worked.
I live what I like to call an omnivorous lifestyle. My diet cannot be confined to one or two types of food; I eat everything and in any given week I eat very diversely. In the world of professional eating, it's probably the best anyone can hope for. Incidentally, living this lifestyle requires a serious amount of body work. My routine of eating opulent dinners is countered by my rigorous routine of exercise: pilates refomer on Fridays and Saturdays; weight-lifting on Wednesdays; running on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. That's right. I'm a runner. I run to eat.
Running obviously burns calories, but the sport also changes the way the body metabolizes food. Because of the sport's required endurance, the heart works hard and continues to work even after you stop running. This means that distance runners burn calories even when they aren't running. So that's the secret to staying trim and eating like a hedonist: short runs, long runs, tempo runs, interval runs, hill runs... all of it.
Why am I telling you this? Because it's important to know that eating like an ovine has consequences and those consequences are only mitigated by serious and dedicated exercise. End of story.
But I digress. I was thinking, yesterday afternoon, as I hit up the grocery store, that I would prepare my favorite vegetarian meal, not because I had any particular desire to go healthy for a day, but, rather, because it was really the kind of day (unbearably cold) that warranted a hot soup. So I bought vegetables for the soup--eggplant, green bell pepper, carrots, yellow onions, fresh garlic, and zucchini--and some ingredients for a salad that caught my attention. The C-Town grocery store in my neighborhood has produce aisles filled with exotic foods from Mexico and the Middle East. I found beautiful Persian cucumbers, smaller than pickling cukes and seedless. I couldn't resist.
Back home, I tackled the soup's biggest challenge: chopping. The key to making soup easily is doing all of your chopping first, separating the vegetables that cook together. Five diced cloves of garlic and one whole onion go in for the first round of cooking. Diced eggplant and carrot go in next (the recipe essentially calls for mirepoix, but I drop the celery because I have a weird aversion to mushy celery in soups). Then the diced zucchini and green pepper. The structure is: sweat down the onions in olive oil for a few minutes with garlic and salt, add dried herbs/eggplant/carrots and cook covered for ten minutes, add four cups of water (here's where I cheat: I always use chicken stock, but if you're a tried-and-true vegetarian you can use veggie stock instead) with a can of tomato paste and the zucchini and green pepper, cook for fifteen more minutes at covered simmer, add can of kidney beans (your call on can size; last night I used two cups), cook five more minutes, serve. Usually, I cook macaroni on the side and add it to each serving of soup, but this time the extra beans were substantial enough to forego the pasta. I like to serve my soup with fresh grated parm.
I had a friend coming over, so I also made a quick salad. I tossed together pre-washed arugula, ribboned red onion, and those two Persian cucumbers with thinly sliced parmesan cheese. I made a quick dressing of fresh lemon juice, a hint of balsamic vinegar, cracked black pepper, and olive oil.
We drank a spicy little red, the 2005 Weninger Zweigelt from Austria, and ate my favorite hand-me-down recipe, The Moosewood Minestrone. The best part? There's enough left for lunch.