Comfort Food

This week I was filled with grief for a former co-worker who lost his only son. All week Jeeps and I have been upset, questioning the world and its tenuousness, reaffirming each other and the kids, trying to remember what is important. Redman, especially, got kissed and manhandled a lot this week.

In my sad distraction I found myself all too easily sliding back into not eating.  Seeking comfort as well as inspiration, I re-read Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life and she delivered on both fronts. Sobbing through the chapters of her beloved father's death, I arrived at the recipe for "Ed Fretwell Soup." This Italian vegetable creation was delivered to the Wizenbergs by Ed and Barbara Fretwell, during the time of Molly's father's long decline.

It was full of Swiss chard and carrots and plump beans, hearty and reassuring, one of the best soups I’d ever had. When the first batch was gone, we called to ask for more, and Ed delivered it on the next day.

It's one of the best soups I've had, too, and funny thing, because it seems like it's just another minestrone soup recipe. Yet it's not. I don't know what makes it different or so special. But I made it tonight and ate four bowls of it. And about eight oatmeal-chocolate-cherry cookies.

The recipe from Homemade Life involves dried beans and their preparation, which involves overnight soaking. I wanted to make this tonight, right now. I had no dried beans and I tend not to have good luck with them anyway. This involved rearranging the recipe, plus I added a few other tweaks. 

So for the original, click here to go to the January 2005 of Molly's blog Orangette. Scroll down to the post called "On industry, indolence, and Italian vegetable soup". Or, for crying out loud, buy yourself a copy of the book because it is well worth having.

Here is my sped-up tweaked version. The original recipe caveats this makes a lot of soup. If you don't have a large enough pot or enough people, Molly suggests halving the recipe. Which I did here.

Italian Vegetable Soup, based on half of Ed Fretwell Soup

  • 1/2 package of dried porcini mushrooms 
  • 3 large cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, sliced thin
  • 6 carrots, sliced
  • 1 medium zucchini, trimmed, quartered lengthwise and sliced
  • 2 turnips, diced (not in the original recipe but I'd bought a few because I've been wanting to try them anyway and this seemed a safe way)
  • 6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1/2 small bunch Swiss Chard, stalks discarded and leaves coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 head of cabbage, coarsely chopped (I didn't have cabbage so I used my entire bunch of Swiss chard, something else I've been wanting to try more of)
  • 1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes, drained and chopped (that's from the full recipe but I didn't have a 14-oz can so I just used the whole thing.)
  • 1/2 tsp dried sage leaves
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 can cannelini beans, 1 can red kidney beans, 1 can chick peas, all drained and rinsed together. You'll use 1 cup to 1 1/2 cups of the mix as you see fit.  Refrigerate the rest for a 3-bean salad.
  • Best-quality olive oil and parmesan cheese for serving.

About 1/2 hour before starting the soup, put the dried mushrooms in a small bowl with 1 1/2 cups of warm water. Let sit to reconstitute. Remove the mushrooms and chop. Strain the mushroom water through a fine sieve or coffee filter and reserve. (I can't stress the straining enough. You don't want grit in your soup.)

In a large soup pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, carrots, garlic, and turnips. Saute for 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the zucchini and broth, increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Add the Swiss chard, tomatoes, sage, and reserved mushroom liquid.

Cover the pot and turn heat low to keep at a simmer for 1 hour. It will seem there is far too little liquid for all the vegetables in the pot but don't worry: the vegetables will give off a good amount of water as they cook.

After an hour, stir in the beans (as much as you like). Taste to see if it needs salt, I found it didn't need a speck. Cover and simmer another 20 minutes. Stir in the parsley.

Serve, and be comforted, with a hearty glug of good olive oil over the top of the bowl and some parmesan cheese sprinkled about. It's not the prettiest soup in the world, but my God, it's good. And if you're going to fret, you should Fretwell.


I served some to Panda and she wrinkled her nose. "It doesn't look very good," I said, "but it tastes really good."

"If I don't like it, is there something else?" she asked in a small voice. I assured her there was leftover spaghetti and meatballs to fall back on. "Well...okay," she said reluctantly, and took a small spoonful. She still looked doubtful but she did take the bowl downstairs to the TV room. 

Puttering around the kitchen, I kept an ear to the basement stairs and sure enough, up floated that sound so dear to a mother's heart: a spoon repeatedly clinking against the bowl. Followed soon by footsteps up the stairs and those wonderful words, "Can I have some more?"

Minestrone Soup

Minestrone is one of my very favorite soups and I have two very vivid memories that involve it.

The first was when I was around 11 or 12 and playing at my friend Julia's house. Her mother made us Progresso minestrone soup and Stouffer's french bread pizzas for lunch. It was the most perfectly perfect lunch for that particular day, and a meal Julia and I frequently re-lived as we munched our boring peanut butter sandwiches in the dismal, windowless cafeteria of PVC Middle School (architecturally speaking, that school was one of the most bleak places on earth).

The second memory is a couple decades later, in fact I remember the date:  Sunday, January 18, 2004. Redman was a mere 4 days old. Our dear, dear friends Justin and Cindy came over to the house with a giant gift basket. Among other lovely things, the basket held an enormous tupperware of minestrone soup that Cindy had made just for us. Did I mention they are dear friends? Despite our encouraging, they didn't stay long, just enough to drop off the basket, give hugs, coo over the baby and get out of our hair. 

"Oh, will you look at him?!" Cindy said. "I'm sorry, I'm getting my days all mixed up—what is he, two weeks now?"

"Hardly," Jeeps laughed, "he was born on Wednesday."

Cindy spun around and looked at me and said the only thing a post-partum woman wants to hear: "Oh bull-shit, you did not have a baby four days ago!!"

Did I mention they are dear friends?

Anyway, minestrone soup recipes seem to come in two categories: expert and the rest of us. The expert ones—and I've tried two, one from Martha Stewart, another from Cooks Illustrated—involve dried beans and a soffrito and parmesan rinds and lots of cooking time. They are wonderful if you have the time. For the rest of us insane people trying to get dinner on the table before the Witching Hour, I found this one in that old recipe book of mine so the provenance is unknown. I'm going to guess either Redbook or Better Homes & Gardens.

Minestrone for the Common Man

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 potatoes, peeled and diced (I used 2 white and 1 sweet)
  • 3 medium-size carrots, peeled and diced (I used 5 because...I like to)
  • 3 medium-size ribs of celery, diced
  • 1 medium zucchini, diced (this wasn't actually in the original recipe which I found quite odd)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed (I used 4 because...I like to)
  • 1 32-oz box chicken broth (I used one whole box plus the odd dregs of 2 nearly-empty boxes in the fridge)
  • 1 bay leaf (I also used a sprig of fresh thyme and some chopped fresh sage leaves because in my opinion, minestrone is nothing without sage)
  • 2 16-oz cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed (I only had 1 can of these so I used a 16-oz can of chick peas)
  • 1 28-oz can whole tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 - 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked pasta (optional, but I like pasta in minestrone. Usually I put shells or elbows but I happened to have some leftover orzo in the fridge so I used that)

Heat olive oil over medium heat; add all the diced vegetables and stir well to coat. Cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add chicken broth and herbs. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low; cover and simmer about 10 minutes.

Add tomatoes to soup, dumping in the juice from the can as well and breaking up the tomatoes with the side of a wooden spoon. Add beans, grated parmesan, vinegar, crushed red pepper, and salt to taste. Cook at least another 5 minutes to allow flavors to combine. Or turn heat to very low and keep on the back burner until ready to serve, it won't hurt it.

I made herbed garlic toasts to go with this. The soup was great. The balsamic vinegar pulled all the flavors together, but still, there seemed to be elusive base note missing to the broth. It just needed one last bit of "umph," and I wondered if a couple teaspoons of tomato paste in the diced veggies would have provided it. This could also be, simply, what you get when you go for the quick-and-easy, rest-of-us minestrone recipe. It's delicious, but lacks the soul and wisdom of the expert, slow-cooked version.

I can live with that.