Autumn Appetites: Winter Squash-Kale-Bean Soup

“Grandma’s wisdom….”

Last week I read that the folks at America’s Test Kitchen learned something which my grandmother had taught me 30 years ago and which she had known for many more years than that before she taught me. Not for the first time, I was surprised that those culinary “experts” hadn’t known something which I had figured was known by many.

As I thought more about it, though, I realized that there’s a difference between folks who have culinary jobs and people who have years and years of cooking experience. My grandmother raised eleven children and had to find ways to stretch food as much as she could, and she learned the best ways to make food and how to keep things as simple as possible whenever she could.

What I had learned from my grandmother, which America’s Test Kitchen apparently just learned this month according to their magazine, is that you never boil corn on the cob. You bring water to a boil and then you let the ears of corn sit in the hot water for a set time, depending on the amount of corn. This is how I’ve made corn on the cob ever since my grandmother showed me as a teenager. I had taken it for granted that others knew, too.

I figured my grandmother had learned it from someone before her, but she may also have simply figured it out on her own after cooking for so many for so long. I started thinking about the many other tips my grandmother had given me over the years when I was younger before she passed away, and I realized a lot of my cooking depends on things I learned from her. Just this past weekend, I made one of my family’s favorite soups, which uses tips I learned specifically from my grandmother.

My grandmother rarely had “fresh” food in the house. Dependent on food from local farms, which tended to be seasonal, certain foods simply weren’t accessible year round. So, she always had meat and vegetables frozen in a big freezer and jars of canned beans, jellies, sauces, and fruits in the “pantry” which was the walk-through area between the garage and their double-wide trailer. From her, I learned how to create foods which use staples from the freezer and pantry and which can be quickly put together to feed a lot of people.

The winter squash, kale and bean soup I made uses frozen squash, which I roasted last year, pureed, and froze; frozen kale which I always keep on hand, purchasing them by the bagfuls at the grocery store when they’re in season (early Spring and then again in the Fall); canned, unsalted, no sugar added beans, which I keep in my pantry; and no salt, fat free vegetable broth which I also keep in my pantry. I mixed everything together in my crock pot with some herbs and let it cook all day. When evening came, we had a hearty soup for dinner which warmed both the heart and the tummy.

Winter Squash-Kale-Bean Soup


9 cups thawed, frozen pureed cooked winter squash (equivalent to 6 of those 12 oz packages you can purchase in the freezer section of the grocery store)

1 cup frozen chopped kale (equivalent to half a 16 oz bag you can purchase in the frozen section of the grocery store)

One 16 oz can of no salt, no sugar added white or northern or cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

1/2 tsp dried thyme, crushed between your fingers before putting in

1 tsp onion powder

1/2 to 1 tsp salt

1/4 tsp black pepper

No salt, fat free vegetable broth (amount will depend on how thick or think you like your soup, between 1 to 3 cups)

Cooking Instructions:

In a crock pot (4 1/2 quart will work), mix the thawed squash with the frozen kale, the can of beans, the thyme, onion powder, salt and black pepper. Add the desired amount of vegetable broth and let it cook in the crock pot on low all day (6-8 hrs) or on high for half the day (3-4 hrs).



Cooking Techniques: Croquettes

“But you play that, not eat it!”

I confused my son last week because I made croquettes (kro-kets), and he thought I said, “Croquet (kro-kay).” He thought it was funny that we were going to eat the game! And of course, croquettes actually look like little balls, so throughout the entire meal, he kept pretending that he was hitting them through croquet hoops.

If you aren’t familiar with croquettes, the name comes from the French, but they’re simply chopped up meat or chicken or cheese or vegetables or fish or potato or rice or quinoa or beans or combinations of all these, rolled in breadcrumbs or seeds or nuts and then cooked. For me, croquettes are a lovely way to use up leftovers. They’re versatile, not only in what you can put into them, but the way you can make, cook, and serve them. Plus if you serve them for company, the French name makes them think you’ve done something special. *grin*

Croquettes are quite easy to make, especially if you’re beginning with leftovers. The most common recipes you’ll find online are for ones made with mashed potatoes, either alone or in combination with meat, chicken, cheese, or vegetables. You’ll usually find, too, that they’re fried in some way, whether deep-fried or pan-fried, but they can be just as good baked. Below I’ll give you some tips for how to go about making your own.

The Main Ingredients: What’s important to know about croquettes is that no matter what you use, smaller is better. You don’t want large chunks in your croquettes. Because you’ll be rolling the mixture into balls, the smaller the pieces of meat or vegetables, the easier it will be for them to adhere to one another. I use my food processor to zoop at least one of the ingredients into almost a paste – potatoes, butternut squash, chicken, fish, rice, quinoa, beans, etc… all work well. Then I process the rest of the ingredients into tiny pieces which will mix well into the more paste-like ingredient. The reason I made croquettes last week was because I had some leftover chicken breasts which weren’t enough to serve as another meal for the whole family, so I processed them into a paste and added finely chopped cooked zucchini, mushrooms, and broccoli (also leftovers).

The Seasonings: You can season croquettes however you like. Salt and pepper, of course, but herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, chervil, sage, mint, dill, tarragon, marjoram, etc…) and spices (allspice, cayenne, cardamom, coriander, tumeric, cumin, paprika, nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, cloves, mustard, onion, saffron, etc…) of your choosing are great, too. If you are going to eat the croquettes by themselves, you should season more heavily. If you are going to serve them with a sauce, then the croquettes can be more plain because the sauce will give them flavor.

The Binder: It’s important that your ingredients hold together to keep their shape. If you do as I do and puree one of the ingredients into a paste, then the rest of your ingredients will stick to that. It’s one of the reasons why so many croquette recipes are made with potatoes. Potatoes are naturally glutinous. If you want all your ingredients to be small, solid pieces, though, then you’ll need something to hold them together. Most anything works. Some recipes use eggs. Others call for mayonnaise or sour cream or yogurt. Many just moisten the ingredients with a little bit of liquid like chicken or vegetable broth or milk and add some flour or bread crumbs to give the vegetables or meat something to adhere to. Whatever you choose to do is fine. What’s important is that your ingredients can be shaped into balls, so if they can’t and won’t stick together, try something different.

The Shaping: Whatever ingredients you use and however you choose to bind the croquettes, I recommend that you chill the mixture before you shape the croquettes. Unless your ingredients are super sticky, chilling the mixture will help them to adhere to another better. I use a quarter cup measuring cup to form my croquettes but you can certainly make them smaller or larger. Whatever size you make, though, having them be uniform will allow them to cook evenly if you bake them or help you to time them consistently if you’re frying them.

The Coating: After you’ve shaped your main croquette ingredients into balls, you need to coat them with something. Usually they are coated in bread crumbs. I like to make my own with gluten free bread, but you can use store bought bread crumbs. What’s important is that your crumbs be very fine. Texture is very important to the taste of the croquettes. If you opt to use something other than bread crumbs, there are many options: cracker crumbs, finely ground nuts or seeds, flour, etc… Once you decide on your coating, you can decide how you want to adhere the bread crumbs (or other choice) to the croquette balls. You can roll the balls in beaten eggs, in milk, in broth, in mayonnaise, in just about anything which will help the bread crumbs stick to the croquettes. I find that eggs make for a crispier croquette, mayonnaise (or something similar like sour cream or yogurt) for a moister croquette, and milk and broth for softer croquettes, so you can choose.

The Cooking: If you want to deep fry them, it’s best to make sure you have enough oil to completely cover the croquettes. You also want to heat your oil as hot as you can. I have a deep fryer which heats to 374 degrees but if you heat oil in a pan stove-top, you can usually get the oil to about 350 degrees. The hotter your oil, the more quickly the croquettes will cook and the less oil they will absorb. Since your ingredients in the croquettes are already cooked, all you’re doing is making the croquette warm and crispy, so usually just two to three minutes is all they need to cook.

If you want to pan fry the croquettes, you simply need enough oil to brown all the sides of the croquettes. Having your skillet on medium high is good. Simply place the croquettes in the skillet and allow them to brown on one side before turning them over to brown on the other. When making the croquettes in a skillet, they usually take about four to five minutes per side.

My preferred method for making croquettes is to actually bake them because they’re healthier that way. I line a pan with aluminum foil which I’ve crinkled and very lightly grease the foil with olive oil. I place the croquettes on the foil and then lightly brush them with olive oil. I preheat my oven to 450 degrees and bake the croquettes for about 20 minutes, turning them halfway through.

The Sauces: Croquette sauces are as varied as the ways you can make the croquettes. You can dip them into a barbecue sauce, a cheese sauce, a tomato sauce, a lemon sauce, a mustard sauce, a garlic sauce, an avocado sauce, a dill sauce – if you can imagine it, you can make it. What’s important is to think about the ingredients you used in the croquettes and to match a flavor which would complement the croquettes. So, for example, if you used ham and potatoes, maybe a mustard sauce. If you made fish croquettes, maybe a lemon-dill sauce. What’s fun is if you make croquettes and serve them with a couple of different sauces for the family to try.



The Coating:

The Cooking:

In Vogue: ??Beans??

website beans

“Wake up!”

One morning last week I had one of those loop dreams which you may have had at some point, too: I kept dreaming that I had woken up, but of course when I finally did wake up, I realized my alarm had been blaring for ten minutes. My physical body had been doing its best to ignore that I needed to wake up but my subconscious knew I must, so it told me over and over through my dreams to “Wake up!”

I find a similar loop seems to play in people’s minds about beans. If I ask people whether they eat beans, they usually reply that they don’t but that they know they should. That “knowing they should” part is usually because they are constantly being told how good beans are for them and that loop plays in their subconscious even as they consciously ignore the information and continue to not eat beans.

In an email, I was asked this week whether or not the hype around beans is true….

Beans are high in fiber, protein, and antioxidonts, extremely low in sugar and fat, and are cholesterol free, all of which is great for our bodies. Beans also come in so many varieties that your options for cooking them are pretty much endless. They’re also quite cheap which is wonderful for the pocketbook.

At the same time, though, beans are not the answer to life’s health problems as many tout. For many folks, beans cause digestive issues which we don’t need to explain in detail. Also while adding beans to one’s diet can be good, solely subsisting on beans is not, because beans have been shown to have less protein than meats and to contain compounds which may not be great for our bodies in high doses. As well, many people today are actually allergic to legumes (peanuts, beans, peas, etc…).

So what does this mean for folks who are hearing the loop about beans and wondering whether they should or they shouldn’t? “Moderation in all things,” is my answer. It has been shown time and time again that a varied diet of fruits, nuts, beans, veggies, whole grains, small amounts of good fats, and lean meats, fish and chicken is best. So be varied. Add some beans to your diet once and a while to balance out the meat or to simply try something new, but don’t begin eating beans five meals a day because you think it may solve some health problem.

If you’re thinking you’d like to add beans to your diet and wondering how to do so, here are some suggestions:

Ways to Moderately Add Beans to Your Diet:

  1. Throw beans into your every day dishes: Making chicken enchiladas? Add a cup of black beans. Turning leftover vegetables into a soup? Add a cup of dark red kidney beans to make it a minestrone soup.
  2. Substitute beans in baked goods: A lot of dessert recipes these days call for beans instead of flour because it’s a good way to add protein and cut back on the carbs. You can use pureed black beans in brownies, white beans in yellow cake, garbanzo beans in chocolate cake… the options are limitless.
  3. Add beans as a garnish: Toss some chickpeas on top of your salad. If you make a pureed roasted vegetable soup, drop a spoonful of lentils on top.
  4. Make bean dips: Instead of your usual sour cream dip, try a bean dip. White beans pureed with garlic, thyme, lemon juice, and a tad bit of olive oil is quite yummy. Hummus with chickpeas is great but so much better when homemade. Black bean dip is tasty with tortilla chips.
  5. Use beans as fillers: Want to stretch your meat for tacos or meatloaf or a hamburger? Add some chopped, cooked beans. Don’t have quite enough leftover chicken for the stir fry? Throw in a handful of cooked beans with the chicken.
  6.  Eat beans as a side dish: Beans are tasty, and with the variety, you can experiment. Make a side dish of black-eyed peas and spinach with garlic and onions. Mix some salsa into black beans. Make a bean salad with three or more different types of bean flavored with some lemon juice and green onions.



Summer Veggin’: Kale

website kale

“One’s the size of a grape; the other the size of a lemon. Good news is that none are the size of a grapefruit.”

Last week I had to have a biopsy. One of my children asked me what I was thinking as the doctor talked to me about my “very slight but we still have to check” possibility of cancer.

She laughed when I answered, “Honestly? I was wondering why doctors insist on using food for their size measurements. I love grapes and lemons, and now I’m not going to be able to look at them in the same way again!”

It may just be me, but wouldn’t quarters and golf or tennis balls suffice just as well? And while I’m already digressing:  Should anyone be given the choice of being awake or asleep during a biopsy, choose sleep, unless you are absolutely certain your doctor won’t insist on showing you what she has just removed! Because otherwise you might discover that you really will never eat another grape or lemon again.

Since my food choices are dwindling as the result of my experience, I decided it would be nice to do a post that might expand other people’s food options, and I’m opting to talk today about kale, one of my favorite summery foods.

For folks who might not be familiar with kale, it’s a cruciferous vegetable like cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli; and like those three, kale is very, very good for you. It’s has cholesterol lowering benefits, detoxifying properties, about 20 different needed nutrients, including omega 3’s, and is said to help reduce certain cancers.

I’ve found, though, that people don’t often know what to do with kale, so I’m going to share some thoughts with you.

1. Purchasing Kale:  When you buy kale from the store, look for them in fresh bunches in the produce section of the store. It’s cheaper that way! Stay away from bunches where the leaves look like they’re wilting, are beginning to yellow, or have many holes in them. Good kale will be a deep green with sturdy leaves.

2. Keeping Kale:  Do not wash kale until you are ready to use them. If you won’t be using them immediately upon purchase, put the bunch into a baggie which you can seal and put the kale into the fridge. I don’t often keep kale for longer than two to three days myself, but I’m told by others that kale will keep for a good five days or so in the fridge.

3. Freezing Kale: If I won’t be using kale within two days or so, I will freeze it. Best practices say to wash the kale, remove the leaves from the stems, blanch in boiling water for a minute or two, plunge into chilled water to stop the cooking, drain, dry and then put them into a freezer bag to freeze. I confess, I very rarely do that. I wash and dry my kale, chop the leaves off the stem into bite size pieces, stuff as much as I can into my freezer bag, seal it tightly without any air and freeze. I have not found much difference in the kale when I take it out of the freezer and pop it into a soup or casserole. The only thing blanching seems to do is slightly reduce the bitterness of kale, but I like that bitter taste. You can decide for yourself, though, whether I’m also just lazy.

4. Cooking with Kale: Kale is wonderfully versatile. You can use it in soups, casseroles, as chips, as a vegetable side dish, in stir frys, in omelets and anything else you’d normally use spinach for, in smoothies, and even in cakes! It’s moisture content keeps dishes from becoming dry and it’s slightly bitter tastes are a nice contrast to other herbs and seasonings and flavors in a dish.

Some things to keep in mind:

Always cut the kale leaves off the thick, woody stem. Those stems don’t taste very good.

Kale requires a bit of cooking time to soften so plan ahead that you’ll need to saute the kale for a good ten minutes or cook the soup a little bit longer.

Kale cooks down just like spinach so if you need a cup of cooked kale, you’ll need at least twice that amount of raw kale.

Keep kale handy in the freezer so you can simply add it to recipes without having to cook it to soften it first.

For easy chopping, after you’ve removed the leaves from the stem, just stack all the leaves on top of one another and slice.

5. Ideas for using Kale: We have several favorite ways of eating kale, but if you’re looking for a few easy ideas for getting started, here are three my kids really like:

One, is to make kale chips. Simply brush kale with a tiny bit of olive oil, sprinkle with the seasoning you prefer (salt, pepper, herbs, garlic or onion powder, grated parmeson, etc…), chop the leaves off the stems into bite size pieces, and bake in the oven on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for anywhere from five to 20 minutes, depending on the sizes and thickness of your pieces until the leaves are dry and crispy.

Another suggestion is to make a bean and kale saute. Saute your chopped kale in a little bit of olive oil with chopped garlic and onions until the leaves have started to wilt, mix in white cannellini beans and cook until both are soft and warmed through. Top with a small sprinkling of chopped turkey bacon or shredded cheese, if desired.

Make a frittata: Brown chopped potatoes in a little bit of olive oil with some salt and pepper. Add chopped kale when the potatoes have crisped to your liking. Once the kale is soft and wilted, beat up some egg whites mixed with a couple of whole eggs and pour the egg mixture carefully over the potatoes and kale. Add herbs of your choice. Cover the pan and slowly cook the frittata over low heat until the eggs have cooked through.