Friday Feeding: Minestrone for Many

Note to readers: I love looking up recipes online when I’m cooking. But it annoys me to scroll through a bunch of commentary, videos, ads, and random detritus to get to an actual recipe. So I’m going to reverse all that when I share recipes. Instead, I’m going to post them first. That way, if you’re like me and short on time and patience, you can go ahead and use it. If you’ve got more time and a desire to read my rambling love note to a particularly delicious food, then you can just scroll on down past the recipe. 🙂

As a family of eight, we have mostly adjusted to the fact that we are that family. That family with the giant van with a million kids spilling out of it (usually some with our genes and some without. Hey, it’s basically like a party bus). That family with the laundry that never, ever ends. That family with all the noise, noise, noise, noise from all the boys, toys, and joys of screeching energetic kids (including the girls). And finally, that family that goes through so. much. food.

I’ve learned that there are perks to cooking huge portions for basically every meal. First, if you’re going to chop a bunch of vegetables, you might as well chop a little more, which will double the servings and maximize your efforts. Second, it’s easy to invite over extra people to eat because–hey!–there’s a ton of food, and that’s one big hurdle down for hosting. And who doesn’t love some hot soup and freshly baked bread on a snowy evening (hey, we’re in Wyoming, where it snows until at least May)? That’s right–nobody we know!

This is all a long way of saying that if you want to have enough soup for ten people and still be able to freeze an ice-cream bucket amount of leftovers, then this is your recipe!

I started making minestrone soup at around 11:00 in the morning, intending to let it simmer most of the afternoon. But I realized after tripling it that the leftovers would be abundant, even for our family. So at 3:00 in the afternoon, I asked Jon if we could invite some friends over. Being the great man that he is, and not having any particular responsibilities that night in the kitchen, he said yes. I texted my friend, she consulted her husband, they rounded up the kids, and around 5:30 they were at our house.

My kitchen company while I made the soup. Don’t you love the sock rainbow?

I love soup. Like really, really love it. I’ll try not to repeat myself here as to why I love it so much, but suffice it to say that it’s cheap, hearty, delicious, and hot. Four awesome reasons to eat it!

I have a few criteria when I make soup for my family and others.

First, the soup must taste great. As a wedding gift, a dear church lady and her daughter gave me the Taste of Home‘s Contest Winning Annual Recipes 2004 (affiliate link). I’d received some other Taste of Home cookbooks as a newlywed, but this one is by far my favorite. After fifteen years, I can honestly say that it is worth far more to me than the-less-than-$7 you can buy it for from Amazon. Why? Because it’s got some recipes in it that have never failed me, including soup recipes!

In the absence of my mother and other amazing, experienced cooks I knew, Taste of Home gave me home-run recipes when I really didn’t know what I was doing in the kitchen. My mother-in-law got me a subscription to the TOH magazine about ten years ago, and my recipe box still holds cut-outs from those issues. Even fifteen years later, that cookbook, those magazine remnants, and Taste of Home website continue to provide me and mine with the kind of heart-warming food that makes you think of, well, home and love and all good things having to do with belonging. High cuisine it is not, but if I’ve learned anything from both cooking and hosting, it’s that most people don’t want super fancy when they eat. They want big portions and good taste. Which is a long way of saying that many of my good soup foundations, including my minestrone, a variation of one I found at TOH, are indebted to lots of other cooks.

Innumerable grease spots, food stains, and random deposits mark this well-beloved book.

Second, the soup must stand on its own–meaning it’s got to be more meat than broth. I learned early on in my marriage that Jon didn’t really like soup. But when I pressed him on why, his answer made sense: he liked the substance over the broth, and many soups he’d had were, well, weak on the substance. He’s a man who doesn’t tend to like food that’s, well, watery. So I collected soup recipes that were hearty, or my husband wasn’t happy. With a bunch of cooked chicken, this soup already stood a good chance of winning his favor (emphasis on “bunch” over “chicken.” The man likes mostly red meat. What can I say?)

To quickly make some chicken breasts, I often the Pioneer Woman’s hack that she shared for her chicken tortilla soup. Basically, you spray a cookie sheet with non-stick spray, throw some cut-up chicken breasts on it, sprinkle it with some seasonings like salt (I like to use Lowry’s), garlic powder, Italian seasoning or rosemary (my personal choice)–whatever your preference is! Then bake them in a 375 degree oven for about fifteen minutes. Like the PW, I make a ton–even more than my minestrone recipe calls for!–so I have leftover baked chicken breast for salads, toppings for pasta, and more.

Mmmmm. Chicken.

I love red meat, too–I mean, we live in Wyoming, so our freezer has not only beef, but elk and bison and venison, and probably some other kinds of meat I’m forgetting right now. But chicken can be used for so many things and made ahead for more than one meal! And for recipes like this soup, I end up with extra cooked poultry. It’s a win-win.

Third, the soup must include at least a few–if not many–vegetables. I’m a mom, so I’m fairly conscientious about providing my kids with healthy options (cookies are not a food group, though they’d argue otherwise). My kids are used to meals with veggies, and one-pot soups like this with lots of veggies mean it’s almost impossible for them to eat without swallowing some healthy goodness. Most of them don’t like the zucchini, but that’s okay. They’ll still get tomatoes, and peas, and green beans, and….you get the picture.

Carrots. Lots of carrots.

So that’s it for good soup. Good taste, lots of meat and fillings, particularly vegetables, and we’ve got a hearty, crowd-pleasing meal. And, of course, this minestrone scores in all three categories. It’s simple and filling and there’s lots of it. So yes, we’ve already eaten the ice cream bucket of leftovers, too.

Mmmmm. Minestrone!

After baking the chicken, chopping the veggies, throwing in the spices, and letting it all simmer together for a few hours, I made some quick French bread to go with the soup. That’s another recipe for another time–you can look forward to that one!–but it’s an easy side that pairs well with soup. Plus, the smell of home-baked bread always wins over guests. Or maybe that’s just me.

YUM!

I didn’t have time between picking up the kids from school and doing the homework tango to make a dessert to share with our friends, but wouldn’t you know, they didn’t care. We just enjoyed eating bowl after bowl and catching up on work doings, summer plans, and kid foibles (okay, sins. Kids are sinners! Hey, we’re Lutherans and call sin what it is).

So if you, like us, are experiencing the last, furious vestiges of winter weather this early spring, make this delicious minestrone soup. Better yet, make it and invite over some neighbors in need of hot food and caring company. It doesn’t get much better than full stomachs and full hearts.

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Men Building a Sandbox

“Your dad and I are going to build that sandbox,” my husband said to me unexpectedly a few days ago.

I was surprised, but pleasantly so. Jon and I had discussed converting an empty flower bed on the north side of our house in our backyard to a sandbox since we’d moved in nearly two years ago, but other projects and priorities always cropped up. Plus, with my parents visiting for just over a week, and the weather sunning us with spring, Jon had both the help in my father, Steve, and the weather to actually enjoy crafting and building.

Dad and sawdust.

Dad learned young how to build. His father, my grandfather Charles, built and remodeled several homes when Dad was young, and Dad literally got his hands dirty with hammers and nails, wood and sawdust through his childhood. Some of his experiences are family legend, like the time Dad took copper tubing from Grandpa’s stash to build a bathroom in his tree house. “It was just sitting there,” Dad says facetiously. Suffice it to say, Grandpa was beyond furious to discover what Dad had done. The now-corroded tubing–because of course Dad had to test the plumbing, performing the kind of boy experiment outdoors that any boy can imagine, peeing down a pipe–was useless for the actual plumbing Grandpa had intended for the tubing. Dad got a sound whipping for that one. “And I never could get that plumbing to work,” he jokes. “Not a drop ever reached the ground. There must’ve been too many leaks.”

Dad eventually graduated to more sophisticated projects, including buying an old house and flipping it, his sweat equity in that remodel resulting in the down payment for my parents’ first home. He earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture, and though he ended up in the energy business, every single one of my childhood abodes were improved with Dad’s design or muscle, and usually both. A new heat pump (hey, energy efficiency is key!); a garage converted to a family room and half-bath; an added-on garage, front door entry nook, and sun room; a pantry conversion and tile flooring; a basketball pad in a backyard; finishing basements–these are just some of the major construction projects I remember as a kid that Dad tackled and finished. That’s not even considering all the cosmetic work of wallpapering or dewallpapering; painting; landscape design, and much more. Dad always said, “Leave a house better than you found it.” And he did. And yes, my mother is a very patient woman. Suffice it to say, her willingness to live in a construction site has pretty much disappeared after nearly forty years–and countless home projects–of marriage.

So Jon and I have also benefited from Dad’s expertise. Over the last fifteen years, Jon has learned to wire lighting and other basic electrical outlets under Dad’s direction. With the help of another extremely handy church member, Jon helped build a porch that Dad designed for our first house. He and Dad have built egress window covers, put in above-stall garage storage with pull-down stairs, and installed under-cabinet lighting together, among other things. It’s an assumed part of visits anymore, that Jon will do some kind of house or yard project with Dad.

Men need to build and keep things, and they need other men to do this. God told Adam to work and keep the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15), and since the Fall, men have been sweating over tools and the ground. It’s a mark of sin, that sweat, but God always intended Adam to toil, because the work of our hands with the earth and material God has given us is a blessing.

And men learn from and cherish work done with other men. Jon’s grandfather, Heinz, was a carpenter, and Jon had learned something of basic building and tools from him. He’s appreciated having his father-in-law to teach him and, more importantly, to serve as a resource and encouragement while Jon figures out all matter of handyman jobs. While Jon learns a lot from YouTube videos (how to install an all-house humidifier onto our heater was the latest), he needs other guys to call for insight and inspection.

Building and preserving things are a vital and truly enriching part of life. Most of what Jon does involves improvement–making our home more efficient, fixing needed repairs–but Jon also has improved himself by learning different skills over time. Men, in particular, need the transition from pursuit to maintaining and building, Brett McKay writes in “The Crux of Adulthood: From Choosing and Pursuing to Maintaining and Building” at The Art of Manliness. “While the pleasure of pursuit is in getting something, period,” says McKay, “the pleasure of building comes in getting better at something.”

All it needs is sand, some shovels, and happy kids.

And so Jon and Dad got better yesterday by building a sandbox. They planned, and measured, and sweat (a little). They moved dirt and rock and cut wood and stapled on landscape fabric. They even built a little bench for the box. They spent time together. It was a small project, all things considered. But our kids will love it, and Jon and Dad now have the sweet pleasure of knowing they built it, themselves, with their own hands. May all men know such gratifying work.

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Past Blast: Mud and Lavender, and Why We Need Both

This piece first appeared in the “Thoughts in the Heartland” column, which I wrote for several years, in the March 9, 2016 edition of the Pipestone County Star. I have edited it slightly here.

With the recent wave of warmer weather, northern prairie staters like Minnesotans can begin to think of outdoor pursuits with a little less affectation of duty and perhaps, even, a little hope. Rapidly melting snow piles, the reappearance of grass (and a meager but valiant green at that), and sunshine that actually warms the skin all make these first days of spring days to be—dare I say it?— celebrated rather than merely observed.

In the meantime, though, we will hide our budding optimism about the change of seasons with typical western aplomb: that mix of a careful acknowledgment of good things and simultaneous grumping about all the mess that comes with it. For spring, as we all know, is both glorious and a big, fat mud puddle.

What my kids love to do: dig in mud. By Lukas.

I was reminded of this recently when my kids spent some time outside. I was delighted that they could partake of the golden rays and the fresh air without the need for countless layers of waterproofed clothing that always end up soaked anyway. I was thrilled that my husband could get out their bicycles and wagon and toys that had been stowed away for the winter and that they could exercise their cabin-fevered muscles with vigor. But as Dr. Seuss might say, oh, the mess, mess, mess mess! The mucky shoes and boots, the cruddy pant hems, the crust, the grime, the sludge! My heart fainted a little at seeing these familiar marks, and streaks, and tracks, and residue of late winter.

It is a truth all parents know that small children can leave evidence of their presence virtually anywhere, and when the fertile earth cooperates with their heedless, hearty play, well, there’s just no stopping the mess. I have found mud on trim, on walls, even the ceiling (don’t ask. Just imagine how an impatient kid will try to kick off an extra muddy boot, and I’m sure your imagination will fill in the details). After years of spring springing right into the house along with the kids, I’m learning to be fairly resilient about the unending grime even when the mud parade seems to find corners in its route I didn’t think were possible (see above). Knowing that this season is short-lived helps, as does my favorite escape: clean, fresh bedsheets scented with lavender.

Fresh laundry on the line. Photo by Skitterphoto.

Perhaps like many of you, I have memories of playing among sheets hanging from clotheslines, my mother or grandmother (or both) with pins in their mouths and damp piles in their arms as I ran among the lines. Of course, we kids weren’t technically allowed to touch the laundry for obvious reasons, but we must have transgressed when the sheets were dry and less prone to catch the dust from our busy, dirty fingers. That’s when the wind would better catch the fabric anyway and blow them around us, like a parachute happily flapping in an energetic breeze.

Much of the appeal of the sheets lies in their lovely scent. Is there any better smell than freshly laundered cotton blowing in a strong spring breeze? If there is, it’s one that goes along with it: the cool, refreshing fragrance of lavender. For thousands of years, people have used the purple dried flowers in perfume and preservation, and yes, to place in clean laundry. Not only do they share their scent easily; they also ward off that perennial enemy of stored fabric—the moth. Some years ago, I received a lavender spray that I periodically use when I’m making up beds for guests, or for us when I’m feeling particularly extravagant. Such a soothing aroma! It’s a whiff of spring, and one notably without the season’s muddy residue. I feel relaxed just thinking about it.

Lavender in Basket by Pixabay.

After all, lavender receives its name from the Latin root “lavere,” which means to wash. It’s a fitting antidote to the grimy muck that spring necessitates, and even to the work that spring requires. Turning soil and preparing to plant is messy, and a good mess—even this fanatical mud-adverse homemaker can admit that. After all, food and fragrant plants must be cultivated. But all the more lovely is the clean-up after the sweaty and excellent outdoor efforts, like the promise of rest after hard work.

So as the Chinook winds approach, and the dirt stirs up, and the mud clings, and the earth awakens again, I will take a deep breath, savoring the promise of spring. I will rejoice, and pray, and give thanks. I will roll up my sleeves, grab my sponges, and scrub. And I will look forward to sleeping in lavender-scented sheets.       

Clearing the Counter

You might have seen the video made by a church making the rounds on social media in the last few weeks. You can watch it here. I won’t ruin it, but I will say that it has to do with perspective and thankfulness.

I’ve intended to blog in the last month, many times. Sometimes I’ve been too lazy to type out my thoughts. Other times–most times–I’ve had other, more pressing priorities to address than blogging. Frankly, I’m one of those people that can only skip daily tasks occasionally to write instead. The glaring needs, especially in a large household with many children, just can’t be ignored often or we will all drown in the detrius and chaos that is a large household with many children. So I don’t go ahead and blog unless I’m fairly certain I can spare some time away from the tasks around here that never end–meaning thirty minutes of blogging won’t mean four days of trying to catch up on the rest. I exaggerate, but only a little.

As a writer, having ideas to write and being unable to commit the time to doing so can be annoying, even highly frustrating. But I learned many years ago some hard truths. First, I would not die if I did not immediately drop everything and write. Second, the world would go on turning serenely if I did not write my burning ideas for posterity. The same was not the case if I decided, say, to skip making dinner. Both of these truths, but especially the second, were humbling for me to realize. And yet they are both true. The vast majority of the world does not need me to blog. But a small portion of it needs me–and primarily me–to do other things. Simple things; necessary things; loving things.

So I write this evening with this small thought, borne from the inspiration of the above video: that while life may be full of things that we desire to possess, either by material ownership or active doing, it is full already of things that we have been given, that are priceless in their own right. Last week, I cooked and baked a lot, and my counters were more cluttered than normal. While I felt disturbed by the mess, as usual, I didn’t feel the kind of selfish irritation such an obvious job that needed to be done used to provoke in me. I used to think, “I have so many better things to do!” Now I think, “I sure would like to do something else. But this is what has been given to me, and that is its own gift.” Dirty dishes mean food, and nourishment, and abundance. They mean deliciousness enjoyed. They mean beloved people and meals together and sharing and togetherness. Few things are better than these. I am deeply grateful for them.

Clear counters are good, too. At least until tomorrow.

And yes, I actually washed them all, and did not hide them in the oven. Which I may have done in the past.

October, Outside In

The Professor happened to come home earlier than usual one bright October afternoon. He left the walk and cut across the turf, intending to enter by the open French window, but he paused a moment outside to admire the scene within. The drawing-room was full of autumn flowers, dahlias and wild asters and goldenrod. The red-gold sunlight lay in bright puddles on the thick blue carpet, made hazy aureoles about the stuffed blue chairs. There was, in the room, as he looked through the window, a rich, intense effect of autumn, something that presented October much more sharply and sweetly to him than the coloured maples and the aster-bordered paths by which he had come home. It struck him that the seasons sometimes gain by being brought into the house, just as they gain by being brought into painting, and into poetry. The hand, fastidious and bold, which selected and placed–it was that which made the difference. In Nature there is no selection.

The Professor’s House

Willa Cather

I am no interior design expert. Both my gross lack of training and a requisite extravagance of funds for such a pursuit—for it is a pursuit—make it impossible. Nevertheless, I enjoy the approach and the duration of seasons, the newness of each timely arrival and its very familiarity. So I try to make the most of what we have to, as Cather wrote, bring the seasons into the house.

It is a joy to make the most of what I have to make our home attractive. While I constantly struggle to complete even the basic chores every day, the cleaning and tidying that never cease, I have learned to take some time each season to pull out silk flowers, arrange bouquets,  and rotate small mementos and dishes to make our home timely. We follow the Church calendar and lectionary, and our days are measured by months and intervals, clocks and wall charts. The little efforts I make, then, to echo the outdoors and its cyclical changes within our walls seem a requisite, respectful nod to our connection to the world outside.

I use hand-me-downs and gifts, flowers and pumpkins and candles collected over many years of end-of-season sales and random $5 Hobby Lobby and Walmart buys.  A boutonniere from an October wedding years ago. A fall birthday surprise from a dear friend. Is it kitschy and nostalgic? Sure. Nothing we own would look like much, or is much, on its own. But together, some vivid autumn colors and varied textures in simple objects can change what we see in our kitchen and living room every day. They can remind us, in visual ways, of time passing and of the importance of cherishing each day, of being thankful for beauty in every season.

A mason jar; some butcher block paper; a bit of ribbon. Small favors, but an autumn gain nonetheless.