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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Friday, December 16, 2016

It's Soup Season

The Ultimate Comfort Food

John Denver released “Season Suite” in 1972. In it he wrote, “It's cold and it's getting colder. It's gray and white and winter all around.” And even if it's not “gray and white” where you are, chances are it's cold and getting colder. In other words, it's soup season.

Soup is the ultimate comfort food. A good bowl of hot soup on a cold day warms the body and the soul.

Soup has been around for a long time. It has existed in some form or another since about 20,000 BC. The form with which we are most familiar today, however, has only been around since 1897. That's when Dr. John T. Dorrance, a chemist with the Campbell Soup Company, invented condensed soup, or “canned” soup, as most people call it. That's something of a misnomer anymore since not all canned soups are condensed. Canned “ready-to-eat” soups are accounting for a growing segment of the soup market. Dry soup mixes, reconstituted with hot water, are also a popular option.

Those are all fine, but when it comes right down to it, none of them hold a candle to a steaming hot bowl of hearty homemade soup. As with most prepackaged foods, there are many reasons to choose homemade soup over the canned and boxed varieties. For one thing, homemade soup is cheap. It costs little to make and goes a long way at the table. Soup is easy to make and doesn't require a lot of special knowledge or equipment. Soup is satisfying. It's great for weight loss because it fills you up without actually filling you up – or out. But the best thing about making homemade soup is the control you have over the quality of the ingredients.

When you make soup at home, you know what you're putting in it. You know how long the carrots have been languishing in the refrigerator, how crisp and fresh the celery is, whether or not the onions have sprouted. You can season the soup according to your own palate. You can also add or leave out ingredients as your taste dictates. For example, you can leave out the high fructose corn syrup and the monopotassium phosphate that's in condensed Campbell's Classic Tomato soup and you can use real celery instead of celery extract. You can also eliminate the 480 mg of sodium contained in each serving of Campbell's. The “ready-to-eat” Progresso Tomato Basil soup fares a little better. There's no HFCS in it, but it's still not prepared exactly the way I'd make it at home. I don't use corn syrup solids, soybean oil, or modified food starch in mine. And mine doesn't deliver a whopping 680 mg of sodium per serving. And don't get me started on the reconstituted dried stuff. Besides the 540 mg of sodium each serving delivers, I never use maltodextrin, autolyzed yeast extract, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, dextrin, corn syrup solids, and “natural” flavors in my tomato soup and you shouldn't use them in yours either.

“But it's so convenient,” you cry. “Just open the can.” Your freezer is convenient, too. Just open the door. Most homemade soups freeze really well, so make up a big pot of soup, enjoy it for dinner on a cold evening, and then portion it and freeze it for cold evenings to come.

All that said, let's move on to some delicious, hearty soups you can make at home.

Have you ever had the Chicken & Gnocchi soup at Olive Garden? It's not particularly Italian but it is actually pretty good. Good enough that I cloned the recipe and make it at home on a regular basis.

Here's what you'll need:

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1/4 cup finely diced celery
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups milk
½ cup heavy cream
1 (15-ounce) can low sodium chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground pepper (white, if possible)
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
1/2 cup finely shredded carrots
1/2 cup diced cooked chicken breast
8 to 12 oz gnocchi, fresh or prepackaged

A note about the gnocchi: I seldom use prepackaged gnocchi simply because made-from-scratch gnocchi is better and so simple to make. The packaged stuff is okay in a pinch, but you really should try making your own. And as far as the chicken goes, if you don't happen to have a cooked chicken breast around, you can use canned chicken if you really must. Another better alternative is cut up supermarket rotisserie chicken. You can also make the soup without any chicken at all. It's still delicious.

And here's what you do:

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter into the oil.

Add the onion, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally until the onion becomes translucent. Whisk in the flour and cook for about 1 minute. Stir in the milk and cream. Simmer until thickened. Stir in the chicken broth. Simmer until thickened again. Stir in about 1/4 teaspoon of salt, a couple of grinds of pepper, the thyme, parsley, carrots, chicken, and gnocchi. Simmer until the soup is heated through.
Before serving, season with additional salt, if necessary. Serve hot in warmed bowls.

Serves 4

Here's an easy vegetable soup you and your family will enjoy:

You'll need:

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, sliced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 medium onion, diced
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
2 (14-ounce) cans vegetable broth
1/2 cube chicken bouillon
1 medium potato, diced
1 (15 oz) can diced tomato
1/4 teaspoon dried basil, crushed
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup orzo, ditalini or other small pasta

And here's what you do:

Heat the olive oil in a 3-quart saucepan over medium high heat. Add onions and saute until translucent, 3 or 4 minutes. Add garlic, carrots and celery, cook until tender, another 4 or 5 minutes. Add vegetable broth and bouillon, then add tomatoes, potatoes and seasonings. Bring to a low boil.

Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add pasta and continue to simmer uncovered for another 10 to 15 minutes.

Serves 4 to 6

Finally, after I spent so much time talking about tomato soup, here's a great recipe for creamy tomato basil soup:

Here's what you'll need:

4 tbsp butter
1 small red onion, diced
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3 cups (1 12 oz can) canned diced tomatoes
2 cups heavy cream
3 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste

And here's what you do:

Over medium heat, melt the butter in a heavy saucepan. Add red onions and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add chicken broth, tomatoes and heavy cream, bring to a simmer and reduce by half, about 30 minutes.

Puree the soup in a blender, food processor, or with an immersion blender. Stir in 2 tbsp chopped basil, salt, and pepper. Be extremely careful blending hot liquids in a blender! Steam can create pressure that will literally blow the lid off if the stopper is left in place. Best to remove the stopper and cover the opening with a towel.

Garnish with remaining basil and tomatoes and serve.

Serves 4

Buon appetito!

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