Easy, Creamy Potato Soup

As far as I am concerned, the best thing about winter is the soup. When the weather is cold, damp or just generally crummy, a piping hot mug of soup is like a reset button for my winter-weary soul. And you know what makes soup even better? An easy recipe that doesn’t take all day, uses the simplest of ingredients (so I don’t have to run to the store to make it), and can be customized with almost any extra flavors one could imagine. This creamy potato soup is ticking all those boxes for me.

Soup is one of my favorite comfort foods ever, and that probably dates back to days that I stayed home sick from school. On those rare occasions, I would get dropped off at my grandmother’s house, where I’d spend the day napping to the soothing sound of her cuckoo clock, sipping some variety of last-minute, homemade soup and watching TV under a soft afghan from the big, upholstered wing-back chair in her den. My Gram could whip up a soup from thin air, it seemed, and to this day, a “what’s-in-the-fridge” soup is my favorite kind. Is it possible that I may have feigned illness on occasion, just to enjoy that kind of day? Why, yes, that is certainly possible. Sometimes a kid just needs a little extra comfort—the kind only a grandma and a warm cup of soup can deliver.

I have outgrown the days of pretending to be sick, but I still yearn for the cozy comfort of a warm mug of soup, especially when gloomy weather has me down. I’ll take any kind of soup; chowders, stews, bisques, broth with noodles, minestrone—they are all on equal footing for me. My husband loves soup, too, but his preference is specifically for cream-style soups, so this one was a double win at our house.

Sour cream, shredded cheddar, bacon and chives makes this easy soup a satisfying meal!

We had fun dressing up our creamy potato soup like a loaded baked potato—with sour cream, chives, cheddar cheese and crispy bacon pieces on top. But it would be very easy to keep the base of the soup and swap in different enhancers, such as roasted broccoli florets, sautéed mushrooms, frozen corn, cubes of ham or whatever else takes you to your happy place.

This potato soup is very easy to make, and despite the ultra-creamy, silky appearance, it has no heavy cream whatsoever. Buttery Yukon gold potatoes were the key element for my recipe, but you could use any combination of gold, red or russet potatoes, as long as some of them will hold their shape after simmering. Peel or don’t—whatever works for you. I thickened the soup with a slight amount of roux, made from the drippings I had from crisping up the bacon (but you could swap in butter or olive oil), and a combination of low-sodium vegetable broth and milk, then I used my trusty immersion blender to puree it halfway. It was every bit as luxurious and comforting as a cream-based soup, but with far less guilt!

We still have almost four weeks ’til the official arrival of Spring. As luck would have it, there is at least a pound of potatoes remaining in the kitchen, so I’m pretty sure this one will be on the menu again by the weekend, just in time for another round of colder temperatures.


This recipe makes 4 entrée servings or 6 appetizer servings

Ingredients

3 Tbsp. bacon drippings, butter or olive oil

1/2 large onion (about 1 cup), chopped

3 ribs celery hearts, trimmed and chopped

Salt and pepper

2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour (gluten-free 1:1 flour works for this also)

2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth* (see notes)

2 cups milk*

About 1/2 tsp. ground cumin

About 1 lb. Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed and cubed (peel if you wish)

Toppings and stir-ins of your choice


*Notes

Vegetable broths vary widely in ingredients; for best results, choose a broth that does not contain tomatoes. The brand I like for this is Imagine vegetarian “no-chicken” broth. It has a rich golden color and seasonings that are very reminiscent of chicken broth.


I used a combination of whole milk and canned evaporated milk in my recipe, primarily because I only had 1 1/2 cups of fresh milk. Feel free to substitute 2% or skim milk if you’d like; the flavor will be less rich overall, but the roux will still give the soup a thick and creamy consistency, and you can also achieve creaminess with the immersion blender technique.


Instructions

Step up to the stove with me and I’ll walk you through this easy recipe. Keep scrolling for a downloadable recipe that you can save or print for a rainy, gloomy day. 🙂

Old Man Winter, you are no match for this soup.


“Cincy” Chili

Everything about this recipe is upside-down for me. It defies almost every cooking instinct I live by, except the most important one—it’s delicious! Cincinnati Chili is unlike any other chili you’ve tried. It does not have spicy Mexican or even smoky Tex-Mex flavors, and that’s because its roots are Mediterranean. The cooking begins not with browning meat and onions, but with water and a small amount of tomato juice in the pan. The spices come next, and they are not the ones you would ordinarily associate with chili—including cinnamon, cloves, allspice and bay leaf. The raw meat is simmered directly in the liquid, so it stays very fine-textured (much like my recipe for hot dog chili). And the most noticeable difference is in the presentation—this “chili” is served on a bed of spaghetti and buried under shredded cheddar cheese, and any “way” you like it. Honestly, it doesn’t seem like chili at all.

Top with any of the traditional ingredients. Make it “all the way” with heated kidney beans, onions and fine shredded cheddar cheese.

This tasty dish was born when two brothers settled in Cincinnati, Ohio from their native Greece and opened a restaurant. Their recipe for a hot dog chili topping was seasoned with all the flavors of the Mediterranean, and it was such a hit with the locals, they eventually began serving it as a signature entrée, and “Cincinnati chili” earned its title as the most iconic food of the city.

My first taste of Cincinnati chili did not happen in southwestern Ohio, but in Greensboro, N.C., in a hidden little downtown gem called Cincy’s. It’s a woman-owned business with bragging rights of being the city’s oldest downtown eatery. This out-of-the-way place is only open three hours a day for lunch, and it happens to be a short walk from the radio station where I used to work. Despite the limited hours, Cincy’s was usually jumping, and though it offers a wide variety of sandwiches, wraps and burgers, the restaurant is best known for its namesake, Cincinnati-style chili.

I looked at several “authentic” online recipes for this dish, and especially at the reviews, to see what natives of Cincy—the experts, if you will—had to say in feedback, and that became the basis for my version. This final composition is based on my taste buds’ memory of those downtown lunches from yesteryear.

What I have plated up here is every bit as good as I remember, though I’m sure I’ll have to visit Cincy’s again soon, just to be sure!


Ingredients

2 3/4 cups water

1 cup tomato sauce or strained puree (no chunks!)

1 lb. lean ground meat* (see ingredient notes)

4 cloves fresh garlic, minced

¼ cup red wine vinegar*


Dry Seasonings:

Is there anything from my spice cabinet that ISN’T in this so-called chili?

1 Tbsp. chili powder*

1 ½ tsp. cocoa powder

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika

1 tsp. smoked paprika*

½ tsp. ground cumin

½ tsp. dried oregano

¼ tsp. ground cloves

¼ tsp. ground allspice

1 tsp. kosher salt (or 3/4 tsp. regular table salt)

Several twists freshly ground black pepper

2 dried bay leaves


For serving:

½ lb. spaghetti (I used whole wheat)

1 can light red kidney beans, rinsed and warmed

½ cup finely minced onion

4 oz. finely shredded cheddar (I used medium sharpness)

Oyster crackers, if desired


*Notes

Any combination of lean (90%) ground beef or turkey works well in this recipe, but for a vegetarian version you could substitute with a combination of cooked lentils and cracked bulgur wheat, as they do at the restaurant where I first enjoyed this dish. Follow the package recommendations for cooking time of those products and add them to the pot at the appropriate time to avoid overcooking them.

Apple cider vinegar would probably work in this recipe as well, but given that the recipe has Mediterranean roots, I used red wine vinegar, which is typical in Greek cuisine.

Chili powder is one of those spice ingredients that is different from one brand to the next. Peek at the label to see whether your chili powder contains salt or any other ingredients you may want to adjust in the overall recipe.

My smoked paprika is a sweet (not hot) variety. The slight smokiness was nice in this dish, but if you don’t have this, you could simply double the amount of regular sweet paprika.


Instructions

  1. Combine all the dry seasonings (except bay leaves) in a bowl and set aside.
  2. Combine the water and tomato sauce in a large saucepot, over medium-low heat. Stir in the dry seasonings, garlic and red wine.
  3. Crumble the raw ground meat into the pot and use a utensil or potato masher to break it up as much as possible into a fine texture. Add the bay leaves. Bring the mixture to a low boil, then reduce heat and cover the pot. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced, and sauce is thick but not dry. Give it at least an hour. Add a bit more tomato sauce and water, as needed, if the sauce has cooked down too much. It should be more meaty than “saucy.”
  4. Cook spaghetti noodles to al dente stage, then drain and immediately toss with a bit of oil or butter to keep the noodles from sticking.
  5. Plate spaghetti and top with meat sauce, plus any of the other toppings you like. Here’s how they break it down, Cincy style:

“2-way” = spaghetti with chili only

“3-way” = with chili and cheese

“4-way” = with chili, cheese and beans OR chili, cheese and onions

“5-way” = with chili, cheese, beans AND onions (the best)!




Authentic Arroz con Pollo

If you do an internet search for “authentic arroz con pollo recipe,” you will get at least a dozen pages of results, with very few duplicates. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Some of the ingredients are consistent across the recipes, but there are many variations and even the pictures can look dramatically different. The reason there are so many “real” arroz con pollo recipes is that there are many, many Hispanic grandmothers passing down their own recipes. And this dish—which is not definitively native to a single country or people—has become a blend of whatever ingredients are available in all the regions where those grandmothers have lived and cooked.

My previous experience of arroz con pollo—or “ACP,” as it is usually listed on many of our local Mexican restaurant menus—has not been completely positive, and that’s because here in the South, the recipe has morphed into an “Americanized” dish that is oozing with cheese and basically bland (it’s a rare instance of a dish being too much about the cheese, in my opinion). And that is a shame because at its roots, arroz con pollo has a lot going on!  

Recently, I had a front-row seat to watch and learn the authentic, real-deal Puerto Rican version of this flavorful dish. During our vacation up north, my husband and I spent a few days on Long Island, where we visited his cousin, Evan. To my good fortune, Evan’s husband, Will, became my own personal “ACP” instructor! His mother hails from P.R. and his father is of Spanish heritage, so Will has good reason to be passionate about this dish that is representative of his family. We had a joyful afternoon in the kitchen!

Will took the day off work to teach me how to make ACP. Love you, Sweetheart! ❤

Throughout this private cooking lesson, Will shared with me all the culinary wisdom handed down to him from his mother, who learned it from her mother, and so on. Because this was an authentic Puerto Rican variation of arroz con pollo, it was packed with layers of flavor, beginning with Sazón and finishing with saffron, and all in one giant pot, called a “caldero.” The pictures of Will’s family recipe tell the story far better than I can, so please join us at the stove as we celebrate this last day of Hispanic Heritage Month!


Ingredients

First, let’s take a look at the special ingredients that make this dish uniquely Puerto Rican.


Hold up, what exactly is “culantro?”

It can seem a little confusing, so let’s address the difference between cilantro, which most of us are familiar with, and culantro, which is an ingredient in both of these cooking bases. Unlike cilantro, which is wispy and delicate and mostly used to finish or garnish a dish after cooking, culantro is sturdier and stronger, both in texture and flavor. It has a similar flavor to cilantro, but its long, slender leaves are mainly included as a cooked ingredient, and during the cooking process, the hearty flavor calms down a bit. This herb is extremely common throughout the Caribbean, so of course it is a staple in the cuisine of Puerto Rico.

The remaining ingredients for the arroz con pollo included bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, corn oil, onions, peppers, garlic, tomato sauce and rice. I did my best to take notes and catch all the details, but this is the kind of recipe you make from instinct, and that’s exactly how Will prepared it. He was cracking me up as he went along, and reminded me so much of myself—occasionally cursing his stove and fretting about ways that his dish might not turn out perfectly. We are always our own harshest critics in the kitchen, can I get an amen? Trust me, this arroz con pollo was delicious!

Made with love, heart and soul!

At the end of the post, I’ve included a PDF that you can download for your recipe files. You will need to tweak seasonings to suit your taste and adjust cooking times for your own stove, of course, but my outline should provide a good starting point. Here we go!


Instructions

Arroz con Pollo!


French Onion Soup

Leave it to the French to take a mountain of sliced onions, a bit of broth and a few Provencal herbs and transform them into a heavenly, melt-in-your-mouth soup. The dismal weather that has become something of a default around here this winter has had me in the soup mood, and this one is astonishingly simple—from ingredients to technique.

One thing that sets French onion soup apart from others is the amount of time spent simply preparing the onions. You can use a mandolin or processor to make quick work of slicing them, but there isn’t much you can do to speed up the cooking. In a Dutch oven on the stovetop, it can take up to two hours to properly caramelize the onions—that is, to draw out their moisture and let all the natural sugars burst forth. If you work too quickly, you’ll have sautéed onions, but they won’t have the luxurious sweetness that is a signature of French onion soup. One way to get this done with minimal fussing is to use a slow cooker, set on the lowest setting. Another is to caramelize them in the oven, allowing a low-and-slow transformation, perhaps even overnight. The extra effort and preparation time has landed this soup in the Sunday Supper category here on Comfort du Jour, but I promise—however you approach the whole onion caramelization thing, it is well worth the wait.

If you’re the make-it-all-yourself type, feel free to slow roast some beef soup bones and make your own stock, too. I had a momentary lapse of reason and tried this myself, but mainly ended up with a bucket full of tallow and two sinks completely filled with dirty pots and bowls. As far as I can tell, a good quality store-bought stock is a gift from heaven, so that’s what I used. Make it vegetarian with a good vegetable stock or combine the two as I did for wonderful layers of flavor.

The final touches on top of French onion soup are toasted baguette or bread slices and melty shredded Gruyere cheese. Yes, it’s a luscious bowl of classic French comfort food that is guaranteed to warm you up in these final weeks of winter.

The melty cheese on top makes this soup even more satisfying!

Ingredients

4 pounds sweet onions, sliced

1 stick unsalted butter

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence seasoning* (see notes)

1 bulb roasted garlic

1/2 cup dry wine (red or white, for deglazing the pot)

8 cups (2 quarts) low-sodium broth or stock (beef, vegetable or combo)

Crusty French bread slices (toasted, for serving)

Shredded Gruyere or Swiss cheese (about 2 Tbsp. per serving)

*Notes

Herbes de Provence is a blend of seasonings native to the Provencal region of France, and the brand I use includes thyme, rosemary, garlic, lemon peel and lavender. The combination of this seasoning is aromatic and typically used somewhat sparingly, but it is such a central flavor to French onion soup, I’ve used a good amount in this large batch. As always, take note of the salt content of any seasoning blend you use so that you can adjust the overall salt accordingly.

Instructions

I’ll walk you through it, and you’ll find written instructions below, plus a link to download the recipe for your files. 🙂

  1. Slice onions about 1/4” thick, preferably from stem to root ends, rather than into rings. For this recipe, I think it’s helpful to have the onion pieces generally the same size, and the top-to-bottom slicing will help you achieve that.
  2. Place a heavy Dutch oven over low heat, and melt the stick of butter in it. Add the onions at the same time as the butter if you’d like. But if you are using a slow cooker, melt the butter first, then toss the onions thoroughly to coat before cooking on low setting. Season with salt and pepper. Stir the onions around in the pot, and resist the urge to turn up the heat. Proper caramelization is important for this recipe, and it’s a long, slow process. Happily, you don’t have to stand over it constantly; as long as you stir the onions occasionally, it’s fine.
  3. After an hour or so, start watching for signs of browning on the bottom of the pot. This is a sign that the onions are caramelizing and once it begins, it proceeds more quickly. Stir more frequently from this point, but do not increase the heat.
  4. When caramelization is complete, the onion mixture will begin to look like it’s frying rather than simmering—this is because the moisture content has fully dissipated. Add the herbs de Provence, roasted garlic, salt and pepper.
  5. Pour the wine into the pot, and use your utensil to scrape up any browned bits that have stuck to the pot. The acidity of the wine will dissolve those tasty bits back into the onion mixture.
  6. Add the stock, bring to low boil and then reduce to simmer, covered, for a couple of hours.
  7. Serve the soup in warm bowls or crocks, place the toasted bread on top, then scatter shredded Gruyere or Swiss over the bread. If your bowls are broiler-safe, put them on a baking sheet and broil just long enough to make the cheese gooey. Alternatively, you could put the bowls in the microwave for about 30 seconds, or go high-tech with a kitchen torch and brûlée the cheese into blissful melty goodness.
I want to plunge a spoon right through this screen and into that cheese!

Want to make this recipe?


Brunswick Stew

After 30-plus years in the Southeast, I’ve come to appreciate many of the traditions, especially the ones related to food. There’s a particularly tasty tradition that occurs here in the fall, when churches, civic groups and Boy Scout troops set up giant, outdoor cast-iron kettles for their Brunswick stew fundraisers. They sign up volunteers, who take turns stirring the simplest of ingredients into a delicious aromatic stew, and folks arrive in droves to enjoy it by the bowl, and to take home quarts for freezing. It’s tradition and it’s delicious.

If you look into some of the old-time church cookbooks, you’d likely find Brunswick stew recipes that begin with fresh-caught rabbits or even squirrels, but (thankfully) my introduction to this homey, comforting soup was a chicken version, and that’s what I’m sharing today.

Brunswick stew is one of those comfort foods that tastes rich and hearty, but checks in on the low end of the fat-and-calories scale. Feel free to swap in other vegetables that suit your fancy—it’s what folks do in different parts of the South and depending on where you are, you might find potatoes, green beans or carrots in the bowl.

You can roast your own chicken if you’d like (overnight in the slow cooker makes amazing broth at the same time), but to keep it quick and simple, I’m using a rotisserie chicken this time, plus packaged broth, a few simple fresh and frozen vegetables, and a can of tomatoes. Whip up some corn muffins while it simmers, and dinner is served.

Can you taste the comfort?

Ingredients

First, the essentials. This is a Southern classic comfort food, so the “holy trinity” of peppers, onions and celery is the foundation of the recipe. Any color bell pepper is fine for Brunswick stew, but I personally find the red and orange bells to be a bit on the sweet side, so I’m using a green bell.

Okra came to the Americas from Africa in the 1600s, and it remains a staple of Southern cooking. You’ll find it in many Cajun and Creole recipes in Louisiana, and it’s not unusual to see it breaded and fried, or even pickled, which I love in a Southern-style potato salad or on deviled eggs. The pectin in okra gives it some thickening power when it’s cooked in liquid, but some people are turned off by the slightly slimy texture. Two things can minimize this: don’t overcook it (for this recipe, it’s added at the end), and cook it in combination with tomatoes, which is what’s happening in this Brunswick stew.

If you make this stew in the late summer or fall, of course you would want to use fresh corn, lima beans and okra.


1 deli roasted chicken, dark and white meat shredded* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

4 stalks celery, trimmed and chopped

1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

3 large cloves garlic, chopped

15 oz. can diced tomatoes

2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth

1 bay leaf

2 cups frozen corn

2 cups frozen lima beans

2 cups frozen sliced okra

1/4 cup BBQ sauce

2 to 3 Tbsp. tomato paste

A few shakes hot sauce (optional, Frank’s RedHot or Texas Pete recommended)

Salt and pepper, of course


*Notes

If you prefer to roast your own chicken, more power to you! If you have time to work ahead, you might also want to make your own stock. Or you could make your own stock from the frame of the rotisserie chicken. After de-boning and shredding the meat, toss the bones and skin into a pot with cut-up onions, celery, carrots and just enough water to cover it all. Simmer a few hours then strain out the solids, and you’d have a great alternative to the packaged broth (or, at least, some of it).


Instructions

If the pictures here seem to defy the ingredient amounts listed, there’s good reason for it—on this particular day, I only had half a rotisserie chicken, so I halved the entire recipe. The ratios are the same, and this stew is so satisfying and delicious, I’m already regretting that I didn’t run to the store for another chicken!


  1. Place a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil. Sauté onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic until vegetables are soft and onions are translucent. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Stir in tomatoes, tomato paste, shredded chicken and broth. Add bay leaf, reduce heat and simmer up to an hour.
  3. Add frozen corn and lima beans, but reserve frozen okra until about 20 minutes before serving, to prevent the okra from breaking down too much. Give it a taste and add salt and pepper to your preference.
  4. Stir in BBQ sauce (and hot sauce, if using), and add the okra to the pot. When the bright green color of the okra begins to fade a bit, it’s ready to serve!

Want to make this Southern classic?


Bean & Bacon Soup

Nothing makes me crave soup more than a snow day, or as is usually the case in North Carolina, an “ice day.” Like much of the U.S., we have been under threat of severe winter weather this week, and it finally arrived overnight in the shape of freezing rain. Bleh. Rather than stare out the window at the ice accumulating on the trees behind our home (beautiful, but dangerous), I’ve decided that I will make soup, and I am thankful once again to be cooking with gas. Power outages be damned, we will have a comforting bowl of something to eat. I wish I had a pot large enough to feed all of Texas this week.

Soup is a very forgiving meal, allowing you to use whatever you already have in the fridge and pantry, and this one is very true to that. A few cans of beans, some stock from a carton, basic vegetables and thick-sliced bacon comes together to create hearty, soul-warming goodness.


Ingredients

A few slices of thick-cut bacon, cubed (measuring about 1½ cups)

1 medium onion, chopped

3 ribs celery, chopped

Several carrots, chopped (about 1 cup)

Salt and pepper

3 cans (15 oz.) white beans (cannellini, great northern or navy)

1 carton low-sodium vegetable broth

2 Tbsp. tomato paste

1 or 2 bay leaves


Instructions


  1. Heat a medium-size soup pot over medium heat. Toss the bacon cubes in the pot until all edges are crispy and fat is mostly rendered. Transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined bowl and drain off excess grease, keeping about two tablespoons of it in the pot. You’ll return the bacon to the soup after it is simmered and pureed.
  2. Add the mirepoix (onion-celery-carrot) to the pot and season with salt and pepper. Sauté until onions are translucent and carrots are just tender.
  3. Drain and rinse the canned beans and add them to the pot. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Add vegetable broth, tomato paste and bay leaves. Stir to combine and bring soup to a low boil, then reduce heat, cover pot and simmer an hour or two.
  5. Remove bay leaves and puree some of the soup, using an immersion blender, regular blender or food processor. If the power is out and you’re cooking in the dark, use a potato masher. Blend as much or as little as you like; for me, this is usually about 2/3 smooth with chunks of bean and vegetable throughout.
  6. Return crisped bacon to the pot and continue to simmer about an hour, until bacon is softened and its smoky flavor has infused the soup.


Want to make this comforting soup?



Midwinter Minestrone

Cold weather and shorter days gettin’ you down? Me, too. We’ve had a few close calls this season for snow or wintry mix, but not much has materialized here in the South, though we’ve had our share of cold, dreary days and nights. My friends and family around New York and Boston have seen far more than their share of winter this week, thanks to the Nor’easter that dropped a foot or more of snow. And Punxsutawney Phil, the jumbo rodent in charge of this whole thing, saw his shadow (or perhaps felt the snowflakes falling against his fat cheeks) this morning, and declared “six more weeks of winter.” The bottom line is that winter is getting old; we are all tired of it. What we need is some warm and nourishing comfort food.

I finally pulled out our 7-quart cast-iron Dutch oven and made a huge batch of this soup that never fails to chase away my midwinter blues—a steaming hot bowl of Italian flavor that is chock-full of fresh, nutritious vegetables, spicy Italian sausage, creamy beans and petite pasta. This is the kind of food that warms you from the inside, whether you’re dining at the table or curled up with a soft blanket on the sofa while eating your minestrone from a pottery mug and binging on Netflix. Whatever comfort looks like for you, this soup has it covered.

Minestrone is Italian, obviously, so I’ve seasoned it with my own “Mamma Mia” blend of herbs and spices. This seasoning blend was born more than a decade ago when I participated in a “reverse offering” experiment at church. We were given $20 and challenged to double (or more) that money for charitable donation. The effort was intended to show how we could use our own talents to make a difference in the world. I bought a bunch of bulk spices, turned them into blends and packaged them into baby food jars (which I found for free on Craigslist) with little fabric-wrapped tops for individual sale. The end of the story is that my $20 turned into almost $60 (a fine return), and I still have several of my blends in regular rotation today. Mamma Mia seasoning contains dried oregano, basil, thyme, marjoram and ground fennel seed, plus garlic and crushed red pepper. It’s zesty, herbal and a little bit spicy, and just the right punch of flavor in this minestrone.

Nothing says “comfort” better than a bowl of nourishing soup, and I hope you’ll find it just right for stuck-at-home days, snow days, waiting for snow days, sick of the snow days and—well, pretty much all the days.

Who says comfort food can’t be good for you? This soup has so much going on nutritionally.

This recipe makes about 4 quarts. You will need a large soup pot, slow cooker or Dutch oven to hold all the ingredients, but the recipe can easily be halved for a more manageable batch. This soup also freezes well, so you can pack some away for another gloomy day.


Ingredients from the pantry

Choose low-sodium, organic ingredients as much as possible. The spice blend in the jar is my own Mamma Mia seasoning.

Extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper (of course)

1 medium onion, chopped

2 Tbsp. fresh chopped garlic

1 carton low-sodium vegetable broth

1 carton low-sodium chicken broth* (see notes)

28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes in tomato puree (San Marzano preferred)

15 oz. can white kidney beans, drained and rinsed (cannellini)

15 oz. can dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

2 tsp. Mamma Mia Seasoning blend (see the end of the post for ingredients, or substitute another salt-free Italian seasoning + a few hearty shakes crushed red pepper flakes)

2 cups dry ditalini (or other petite shaped pasta, such as small elbows or mini farfalle)


Ingredients from the fridge

It looks like we are eating the rainbow with this soup!

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 cup chopped carrots

1 cup each green and red bell peppers, chopped

1/2 bulb fennel, sliced and chopped*

8 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 fat handful kale leaves, chopped small*

1 handful fresh Italian (flat leaf) parsley, cleaned and finely chopped for garnish at serving

1 or 2 lbs. bulk hot Italian sausage* (optional, see notes)


*Notes

Minestrone is perfectly adaptable for a vegetarian, or even vegan, option. Simply swap more vegetable broth for the chicken broth and skip the sausage in favor of additional beans. For texture and interest, I’d recommend a can of garbanzo beans in place of the meat.

Fennel provides a real Italian flavor to minestrone, and the flavor is echoed in my Mamma Mia seasoning, which includes ground fennel seed. It has a crunchy texture that is similar to celery, and a slight licorice flavor that blends well with the other ingredients. Use only the white bulb part of the vegetable (see the slides for more description).

Any type of kale can be used in minestrone. Lacinato kale is commonly used in Italian cooking, but I used curly kale. If you prefer, you could also substitute about 1 1/2 cups finely shredded and chopped green cabbage. These hearty greens add texture and fiber to the soup.

You decide how much sausage, if any, you use in this recipe. My batch included only 1 pound this time, and I used a chicken sausage that was labeled “hot Italian.” Turkey or pork sausage would also work or as mentioned above, you could omit the meat altogether for a vegan version.

Want to make this in a slow cooker? Go for it! The soup doesn’t need much attention other than occasional stirring or adding ingredients. After the initial cooking of sausage and veggies, simply dump everything into the slow cooker and let it go on high heat for several hours, or low heat overnight. It may help to give the kale a quick sauté before adding to the crock, given that it is much larger volume before cooking and most slow cookers recommend filling only 2/3 full.


Instructions

First, the pictures, or you can scroll down for written instructions and a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.


  1. In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat 4 Tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add sausage and cook until browned, breaking up larger pieces with a spoon or wooden utensil.
  2. Add chopped onions, carrots, celery, peppers, fennel and garlic. Stir and cook until vegetables soften, and the moisture released from them has mostly evaporated.
  3. Scatter Italian seasoning blend over the ingredients and stir to combine.
  4. Move the sausage and vegetables to the outer edges of the pot and drizzle another tablespoon of olive oil in the center. Toss in the mushrooms, half at a time, and gently toss them around to lightly brown them. If you’re using a slow cooker, transfer the mixture at the end of this step.
  5. Add the whole plum tomatoes, squeezing each thoroughly by hand directly into the pot. This will assist in breaking down the tomatoes for quicker cooking. Empty all puree into the pot as well.
  6. Add the vegetable and chicken broths and stir to combine. Heat soup to a low boiling point, then reduce heat to a simmer. This will take about 15 minutes.
  7. Stir in finely chopped kale and stir. Add piece of Parmesan rind and allow it to simmer with the soup for a few hours.
  8. Near the end of your expected cooking time, drain and rinse the canned beans. Season them with salt and pepper before adding them to the soup.
  9. Fill a large pot with water and cook the ditalini (or other petite pasta) to al dente texture. Drain pasta and add to the soup just before serving. Alternatively, drain the pasta, toss with a small amount of oil to prevent sticking, and transfer it to a separate bowl to be added to soup as it’s served. This will help you enjoy the soup several days later, without mushy noodles.
This soup is destroying my midwinter blahs!

Want to make this nourishing soup?


Mamma Mia Seasoning Blend


1 Tbsp. granulated garlic

1 Tbsp. dried minced garlic

1 Tbsp. dried Mediterranean oregano

1 Tbsp. dried basil leaves

1 Tbsp. fennel seed, crushed

2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

2 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1 tsp. dried marjoram leaves


Scallops with Spinach on Bacon Risotto

Seafood has snagged the spotlight here on Comfort du Jour, and today’s post continues that trend, with a scallop and risotto dish that is both elegant and simple (yes, really).

If you have ever watched “Chopped” on the Food Network, there’s a good chance you have seen the elite panel of judges gasp collectively in sheer horror when a contestant announces an attempt to make risotto. Honestly, I gasp as well—not because risotto is complicated or difficult (it isn’t)—but because risotto is a tricky proposition in the very limited time the chef contestants usually have to complete their culinary challenge. Those chef-judges know from decades of experience that risotto in 20 minutes will not likely be successful.

The soft, creamy texture of risotto is achieved by the breakdown of the starch inside the rice grains. There’s a lot of science to explain why, but the upshot is that you need to cook it gradually, stirring all the while, so that the starches release and become a thick, slurry-like coating. Eventually, the grains are softened and the rice seems to be floating in a creamy sauce that doesn’t depend on cream at all, though most cooks add a little at the end. This kind of perfection doesn’t happen in a hurry.

Find an hour to spare this weekend and you can be successful with risotto. I’ve jazzed up this version with smoky bacon and mushrooms, and I also added a touch of cream. Then I draped it with a layer of sautéed spinach and topped it with perfectly seared sea scallops (also easy). It looks and tastes like it came out of a restaurant kitchen, but I’m going to show you how to whip it up in the cozy comfort of your own home.

Time for dinner!

Gather up your tools—you’ll need two skillets and a medium saucepan, plus a ladle and a wooden spoon. See? Not complicated at all. 🙂

Serves: 2
Time to make: 90 minutes
Leftover potential: Oh, yes! (at the end of the post, I’ll show you how we enjoyed the leftover risotto)


Ingredients

3 slices smoky bacon

3 to 4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (most of a standard carton)

1/4 cup dry white wine* (optional, see notes)

1 cup Arborio rice* (see notes)

1/2 smallish sweet onion, minced fine

Handful of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

Fat handful of fresh baby spinach leaves, washed and chopped

1/4 cup half and half or cream* (optional)

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

2 portions sea scallops, patted dry

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend, for serving


*Notes

A typical risotto recipe uses a few ounces of wine to flavor the broth, but that isn’t critical. Make up the difference with additional broth, if you wish. If using wine, go with something dry, such as Pinot Grigio. I frequently substitute dry vermouth, as I have a bottle in the fridge all the time. This particular day, I poured in the remnants of a champagne split. Whatever works.

Arborio rice is specifically used for risotto because of its starch makeup. You will likely find it specially packaged in the rice section of your supermarket. In a pinch, choose any white rice labeled “short-grain,” and follow the same instructions. It may not result in the same level of creaminess, but it will be close. It is unusual for me to choose anything other than brown rice, but I will share honestly that I haven’t yet found success with brown rice risotto, although some internet resources suggest that soaking it overnight may help. I’ll save that challenge for another day. 😉

The addition of cream at the end is not absolutely essential, but I love the softness it lends to the finish of the dish. If you are trying to eat lighter, you might try substituting an equal amount of low-fat evaporated milk. It has similar consistency with lower fat and calories.

Before you begin…

Risotto is best served immediately after reaching perfect consistency. This recipe also requires cooking of mushrooms, spinach and scallops. You may want to employ a helper for these additional tasks, unless you are confident you can manage to cook them simultaneously while tending the risotto. You might also choose to cook the mushrooms and spinach in advance, and re-warm them at plating time. Either way, it’s best to have every ingredient, tool and utensil ready to go before you begin.


Instructions

As usual, the images tell the story, but I’ve offered written instructions below, plus a PDF version you can download for your recipe files. Enjoy!

  1. In a skillet large enough for cooking the risotto, begin by cooking the bacon until crisp. Transfer to a paper towel to cool, reserving the bacon fat (or drain the fat and substitute butter or olive oil for the next step). When cool, crumble or chop the bacon into small pieces and set aside.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat vegetable broth over medium-low heat, and keep it simmering. I usually begin with the full amount of broth, but if you prefer to heat it in batches and use only what you need, that’s OK. Begin with 3 cups, plus wine (if using). Season it with salt and pepper.
  3. In a second skillet, brown up the mushrooms in a bit of olive oil. Transfer them to a bowl, and then sauté up the spinach leaves and transfer them to a separate bowl. If you’re uncomfortable multi-tasking, you can do this work ahead, or ask a helper to work alongside as you cook the risotto.
  4. To the same skillet used to cook the bacon, add the dry Arborio rice to the fat (or butter or olive oil) in the skillet. Over medium heat, stir the rice around with a wooden utensil until it’s completely coated in the oil. Continue to cook until rice has a lightly toasted aroma, which should be only a couple of minutes.
  5. Add chopped onions to the rice and continue to cook and stir another minute, just long enough for the onions to appear translucent.
  6. Use a ladle or small cup to scoop about 1/2 cup warm broth into the skillet. Stir it around in the rice, scraping any browned bits of flavor off the bottom of the pan. When most of the liquid is absorbed, add another 1/2 cup of broth and repeat. Continue this effort until the broth is nearly gone. After about 30 minutes, give the rice a taste. It should feel creamy but slightly firm, similar to pasta that is cooked just beyond al dente. For me, risotto usually takes about 40 minutes total. You may end up using the full 4 cups of broth—I usually do.
  7. In the second skillet, melt the unsalted butter over medium heat. Arrange the sea scallops, allowing a bit of space between them for easy turning. Do not move them around, but allow them to cook several minutes until browned. Turn scallops (only once) to cook the other side. Season them with salt and pepper.
  8. To the finished risotto, add the bacon crumbles and cooked mushrooms. Add half and half (if using) and stir to blend.
  9. Plate a mound of risotto onto serving plates immediately; top each portion with sautéed spinach and parm-romano blend, then scallops.

You’ll probably have extra risotto after plating, and that is not necessarily a bad thing (see below).

Time for dinner!

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Here’s what I cooked up with the leftover risotto

As risotto cools, the starches gelatinize and the mixture becomes somewhat clumpy—similar to the way cold oatmeal sets up, and it isn’t necessarily delicious. Rather than trying to “loosen” it up again (which doesn’t work, by the way), I took a chance on the waffle iron. And wouldn’t you know? It was fan-freaking-tastic.

We had about 1 1/2 cups of cold leftover risotto from our scallop dish. I added 1/4 cup panko crumbs and 1/4 cup parm-romano blend, and stirred until the mixture was uniform. It had a thick, clumpy consistency that was similar to cold cookie dough.

I preheated our waffle iron to 400° F, and scooped the risotto mixture into it and pressed the lid closed. A few minutes later, voila! We had crispy exterior and smooth, soft and creamy interior. It reminded me of arancini, but in waffle form.

I made a quick onion-herb gravy with chunks of leftover roast chicken, and another fab 2.0 dinner was served!

I couldn’t have planned it better than this! And now, I always have a fun way to use up leftover risotto. 😀

Chicago-Style Deep-Dish Pizza

It’s long been said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Just don’t tell that to our dog, Nilla, who learned at age 10 how to politely request the fresh vegetable treats she loves so much. She latched on quickly to my command of “where are you supposed to be?” It usually only takes one ask to get her to back up out of the kitchen and plop down into position in the doorway to receive her healthy snacks, which she catches in mid-air at least 95% of the time. I love that about her! ❤

Nilla keeps her eye on the prize, and she is wicked fast!

And you better not tell my husband, Les, about new tricks, either. Because just last week, this N.Y.-born-and-raised-pizza-snob hubby of mine was scarfing down on a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. Who’d have thunk it? (He tells me he has enjoyed Chicago pizza before, just not in the five years we’ve been together. Wait, does that mean I’m the old dog?) 😉

Oh. My. Goodness.


Distinctly different from a classic New York pie in so many ways—the tender crust, the order of layering the toppings, the longer time in the oven—this deep-dish pizza reminded me of a meat and cheese casserole with a crust that was crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy inside. After two-plus years spent tweaking my technique for a perfect New York thin-crust pizza, you may wonder what inspired me to give this deep dish a go. Easy, a sign in the supermarket announcing that the baking pans were 30% off! I’m a sucker for a sale, and the truth is I’ve wanted to try a deep-dish pizza for a while but refrained, given Les’s loyalty to the thin crust. Turns out, Chicago is a fine place to enjoy a pizza! He loved it (actually, we both did), and we are already dreaming up ingredient ideas for the next one. I want to make a deep-dish pie with roasted broccoli, bell peppers, onions and mushrooms, mmm.

As with so many recipes, what’s traditional or correct for Chicago-style pizza depends on who you ask, and the internet is jam-packed with declarations about authenticity. My first go-to was Food Network celebrity chef Jeff Mauro, the self-proclaimed “Sandwich King” who also happens to be an expert on Chicago foods because he’s lived in the area most of his life. His recipe for Chicago-style deep dish caught my eye, mostly for its simplicity but also for the kudos given by commenters on the Food Network site. I tweaked it a bit (don’t I always?), swapping in some cornmeal and whole wheat flour—for texture and nutrition, respectively—and embellishing with topping ingredients that suit our taste. Or maybe for this style pizza, I should call them “filling” ingredients rather than toppings, because it all bakes down into a delicious, melty mass. Yes, this is a fork-and-knife kind of pizza, a whole new level of comfort food for our Friday night quarantine pizza party.

You will need a deep-dish pizza pan or a large (12-inch) cast-iron skillet for baking this pizza. Note that the recipe requires a lengthy rise time on the dough, so you’ll want to plan ahead to stay on schedule for dinner. I hope you enjoy it!

Look at those layers! This will be coming up in rotation again very soon.

Adapted from Jeff Mauro’s Chicago-Style Deep-Dish Pizza

Ingredients (crust)

11 oz. (about 1 1/3 cups) lukewarm water

A packet active dry yeast* (see notes for quick yeast or sourdough adjustment)

1 tsp. sugar

12 oz. (about 2 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour*

3 oz. (about 2/3 cup) whole wheat flour

3 oz. (about 2/3 cup) medium grind cornmeal

2 tsp. fine sea salt

3 oz. (6 Tbsp.) extra virgin olive oil


Ingredients (pizza)

1 1/2 pounds deli-sliced mozzarella (the firm style, not soft white)

12 oz. spicy Italian bulk sausage*

1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced

1/2 red bell pepper, thinly sliced

2 fat handfuls fresh washed baby spinach leaves

1/2 package thinly sliced pepperoni

28 oz. can San Marzano whole tomatoes, drained

1/4 cup prepared pizza sauce

1/2 cup parm-romano blend cheese


*Notes

Does your yeast packet say “instant?” If so, skip the first instruction step for blooming the yeast in warm water. Only “active dry” yeast requires blooming. Instant yeast may be added directly with the flour.

If you’re a sourdough nerd like me, here’s how I converted the recipe to accommodate 4 ounces of ripe sourdough starter: omit the yeast (or only add a small amount to boost rising action), reduce AP flour to 10 ounces and water to 9 ounces. Skip the step of blooming yeast. My starter had not been fed in a few days, so I added 1/2 teaspoon of instant yeast. I did not need to adjust the rising time.

If you prefer an all-white flour crust (first of all, you’re missing a lot of flavor), adjust the amount of all-purpose flour to 18 ounces. (about 3 1/2 cups).

Jeff Mauro’s recipe suggested adding the bulk sausage in raw form, but I couldn’t get behind this, so I crumbled and browned it lightly in a cast-iron skillet, then cooled it before topping the pizza.


Instructions


  1. Mix 1 cup water, active dry yeast and sugar in a bowl and let it rest a few minutes until foamy on top. If using instant yeast, skip to step 2.
  2. In a stand mixer or large bowl, combine yeast mixture with flour, cornmeal, salt and remaining water (and sugar, if you didn’t use it to bloom the yeast). Mix until a soft, shaggy ball of dough forms. Pour in olive oil, cover and let rest about 15 minutes.
  3. Knead in olive oil until dough is soft, smooth and sticky. This should come together within about 3 minutes. Transfer dough to a lightly oiled clean bowl, cover and let rise at room temperature until it’s doubled in size. This may take up to 6 hours, depending on the yeast method and the warmth of your kitchen. If you want to speed it up a bit, put the covered bowl in the oven with the oven light on, and check on it at the 3 hour mark.
  4. Prep the other pizza ingredients by browning sausage, onions and peppers. Sauté spinach leaves until wilted and moisture is cooked out of them. Slice or shred your cheese. Drain the can of tomatoes, reserving puree and juice for another purpose. Set all topping ingredients aside until dough is ready to bake. Keep the cheese in the fridge until it’s time to bake.

  1. Preheat oven to 450° F, with a rack in the center position of the oven.
  2. Spray your deep dish pan or skillet with olive oil spray and transfer risen dough to the pan. Using your hands, spread dough out across the pan, gently stretching to meet the edges and up the side of the pan. The dough may spring back a bit but this is OK. Cover with a clean towel for 10 minutes to relax the gluten then proceed with the dough shaping. If you’re using a 12-inch skillet, you may only need about 3/4 of the total dough.
  3. Layer the sliced mozzarella all over the bottom of the pan, on top of the dough, with edges of the cheese overlapped for good coverage. I ran out of slices and filled in gaps with shredded mozzarella—no big deal.
  4. Scatter the browned sausage crumbles evenly over the cheese, then layer on the sautéed onions, peppers and spinach. Finally, arrange the pepperoni slices evenly around the pizza.
  5. Use your hands to squish each plum tomato slightly, and arrange them all over the top of the pizza. Spoon the pizza sauce into the gaps between tomatoes.
  6. Liberally sprinkle the parm-romano blend cheese completely over all the pizza toppings, and finish with a swirled drizzle of olive oil. I saved the grease from browning the sausage and drizzled that on top. No sense wasting that flavor, right?
  7. Slide pizza pan into the oven and bake 25 minutes, until crust is evenly browned and parmesan cheese is golden and bubbly. Give it a turn at the halfway mark for even baking. Allow pizza to rest at least 5 minutes, then carefully slide it out of the pan to a pizza sheet for serving at the table. My husband is good at this part, and he was able to move the pizza using two large spatulas on either side of the pie. If it’s too difficult, cut and serve directly from the pan.

Of course, we could not resist an extra sprinkling of our spiced-up parm-romano blend for serving.

Want to give it a go?


Just South of Buffalo Wings

It was circa 1977. I was just a kid in a small town south of Buffalo, New York, and I still remember my first bite of the mouthwatering spicy hot chicken wings my Uncle Mike made for me. Mike worked with nightclub sound and lighting systems during those days, which was a big freaking deal, given that we were hanging onto the tail end of the disco era. For his work, Mike traveled into the larger cities where the clubs were, and after an installation at a club in Buffalo, he brought home with him the recipe for these delectably crispy, tangy-hot treats.

And oh my God, did I love them! Clearly, I was not alone.

It didn’t take long for “Buffalo wings” to catch on across upstate New York, and eventually the entire country. Today, though restaurants everywhere have imagined new and unusual sauces for wings, I will forever favor the original flavor of Frank’s RedHot sauce with a side of celery and chunky bleu cheese dressing. Oh, and I can never, ever get behind the idea of breading them—not in flour or batter or crumbs or whatever, though plenty of sites suggest the original 1964 Anchor Bar recipe had them coated in flour and oven-roasted. That sounds suspicious to me, given that I’ve enjoyed them deep-fried for decades. The wings should be crispy, as they were on that hot summer night in ’77, and they should make my eyes water just from the smell of them. Just give me what I want.

Yep, this is exactly how I remember them! (photo from Wikipedia)

The only problem I have with Buffalo wings today is the whole deep-frying thing. I enjoy them, but I can’t indulge in them very often if I want to stay healthy. A few years ago, however, I came across a new technique for preparing wings that promised the same crispy exterior and juicy interior, but without deep frying or any amount of oil at all. Pinch me, I thought; I must be dreaming. And then I tried this simple little hack and it was as if angels were singing inside my head.

Friends, the non-fried wings are 100% as delicious as the crispy deep-fried Buffalo wings I tasted back in the day, and you don’t need an air fryer or any other special gadgets to make them. The big thanks goes to Alton Brown of Food Network. His technique involves steaming the wings to render some of the fat, and then oven roasting them to perfection before tossing them in your favorite sauce. I’ve named these “Just South of Buffalo Wings” because that’s where I’m from, and also because I’ve thrown a twist on the traditional wings, adding a generous blast of black pepper to the usual Frank’s RedHot sauce, and a little bit of brown sugar to balance that bite.

Serve these with fresh celery sticks and some homemade chunky bleu cheese dressing. And a cold beer, duh.


Ingredients

2 lbs. fresh chicken wings* (see notes)

1/2 cup Frank’s Original RedHot sauce*

1/4 stick salted butter

3 Tbsp. brown sugar

1 Tbsp. coconut aminos*

1 tsp. lemon juice

2 or 3 shakes garlic powder

1/2 tsp. black pepper


*Notes

For best results, use fresh (never frozen) wings for this recipe. If they are already split into drummettes and flat pieces, that’s fine. But it’s also OK if they are still whole pieces. I’ve done them both ways, and the only adjustment you may need to make is a bit more roasting time on the whole ones.

There are many newer versions of Frank’s RedHot sauce available today. Get the one that is labeled as the “original.”

Coconut aminos provide some depth of savory flavor to this sauce. It’s a dark-colored, liquid sauce, similar to soy sauce but sweeter and lower in sodium. It is made from the fermented sap of coconut trees, but doesn’t taste at all like coconut. You can find them in the same aisle, or substitute in this recipe with half as much lite soy sauce.


Instructions

I’ll walk you through it with pictures, or you can keep scrolling for more detailed description. There’s also a downloadable version you can print for your recipe files. Begin by setting a steam basket over a pot of gently boiling water.

  1. Bring a couple inches of water to a boil in a medium saucepan fitted with a steamer basket and tight-fitting lid. Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels and place a cooling rack over the towels.
  2. Add the chicken wings to the steamer basket, working in as many as will fit at a time. Steam the wings for 10 minutes, then arrange them on the cooling rack. Repeat with remaining wings and then cool a few minutes at room temperature, allowing most of the steam to dissipate. Cover the baking sheet with foil and transfer the wings to the refrigerator until they are fully chilled, about an hour. This step is important for crisping later.
  3. Preheat oven to 425° F. Remove the chilled wings from the fridge.
  4. Combine all the sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and heat over medium-low for several minutes, until the sauce is fully blended and slightly thickened. Turn off the burner and cover to keep the sauce warm.
  5. Roast the wings for 40 minutes, turning them once after half the time. The skin should be crispy and golden brown.
  6. Transfer the wings in batches to a large seal-able bowl. Pour enough sauce to coat the wings. Cover the bowl and gently shake to thoroughly coat the wings. Put the wings back into the oven for about 8 minutes to “seal the deal” and bake the sauce into the wings.
  7. Serve with crunchy celery sticks and chunky bleu cheese dressing.
Just South of Buffalo Wings

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