Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Homemade Vinaigrette Recipe and Tips

My mom circulated an article on the health benefits of raw unfiltered apple cider vinegar to me and some friends last week and it got everyone thinking and talking about ways to incorporate this "superfood" into our diets. I am not a fan of drinking vinegar so my natural go-to was an apple cider vinaigrette.

Salad dressings are super easy to make at home and generally much cheaper and healthier than store-bought dressings. You probably have a lot of the ingredients on hand at any given time, so why buy the bottled stuff when you can customize your own to your specific tastes? I whipped up a pint of dressing last week and gave a half cup to a friend who requested the recipe today, so here it is!

For all dressings like this, I recommend using an immersion (aka hand-held) blender if you want to emulsify (creamify) the ingredients. If you have a jar with a lid (like my favorite pint-sized canning jars), you'll likely be able to fit that blender right down into the jar and then seal it up, minimizing dirty containers and dishes (timesaver!). If you don't have one of those doo-hickys, you can use an upright blender. You'll just have more cleaning to do, I suppose. If you don't need or want to emulsify your dressing, you can simply put all of the ingredients in a container with a spill-proof top and shake well to combine. If you do this, you'll want to mince the garlic instead of adding them whole (again, adding to the dirty dishes)!

3 cloves garlic
1 1/3 c extra virgin olive oil
1/2 c apple cider vinegar
2 tb dijon mustard
1 tsp honey or maple syrup (optional)
dash of sea salt
freshly ground pepper to taste

Makes roughly a pint of dressing. :-)

Other ideas for dressings:
Use a pitted date instead of honey or maple syrup to sweeten
Add some fresh herbs like parsley, basil, or chives
Dried herbs work, too
You can swap out the apple cider vinegar for any kind of vinegar
Instead of vinegar, try lemon or lime juice
Instead of garlic, try a shallot
Add a dash of hot sauce for some zip
Some Braggs Liquid Aminos or soy sauce can add some umami flavor

What are your favorite homemade dressing tips?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Minestrone Soup and Soup Tips

I LOVE SOUP. No, not the salty excuse for flavor you get at (insert your chain restaurant of choice here). I mean real, homemade veggie soup full of love and nutrition. It's so easy to make (especially if you have a great sou chef) and is a great way to clean out the fridge. We make a pot (sometimes two) almost every Sunday and put it in pint-sized wide mouth ball jars for convenient lunches and dinners for the busy week ahead.

Yesterday, James and I made one of our favorites - a basic minestrone. It's such a simple soup to whip up. I never measure anything and improvise with what we have on hand. Here's a list of the ingredients and some general soup-making advice...

Ingredients (listed in order how I added them to the pot):
2 tb + extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 flavorful carrot, chopped
2 stalks (organic) celery, chopped*
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tb herbs de provence
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 can no-salt-added diced tomatoes + can of water 
1 qt low sodium vegetable broth
1 can white or red kidney beans
1 zucchini
2 cups chopped kale 
Fresh parsley and/or basil, finely chopped
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Rather than walk you through THIS recipe step by step, I'm going to give you my tips on how to make a delicious soup every time in the context of this soup.

It all starts with your mirepoix, a simple saute of onions, carrots, and celery (in a ratio of roughly  2 parts onion to 1 part carrot and 1 part celery). This is the base of most soups, though it is often varied by adding peppers and/or garlic.

Goldilocks chop your onion (or shallots or leeks) -- not too big, not too small, just right! The onion will soften a lot, but try not to use big hunks of onion unless you like biting into big hunks of onion. Add it to a large heavy-bottomed pot after your olive oil is hot (it should NEVER be smoking). You'll know it's the right temperature when you add a piece of onion to the oil and it sizzles but doesn't go crazy and brown quickly!

Keep in mind that for a pretty soup, you want them to be uniformly chopped, but that it doesn't really matter when it comes to taste! For texture, you have to chop and add ingredients to the pot based on cooking time. Carrots go in right after the onion because in this soup, they're the hardest. I usually saute the carrots for a bit before adding the celery to finish the mirepoix. Add sea salt to taste and add dried herbs to the mirepoix now because the sauteing in olive oil unlock their flavor, infusing the soup with it. Fresh herbs always get added at the end.

I don't add the garlic until there's some moisture in the saute from the veggies because if it goes directly in hot oil, it will burn and turn bitter pretty quickly. So in this soup, I added the garlic then the peppers and let them saute a bit before adding the tomatoes. Stir this mixture and monitor your heat. You don't want the veggies to start browning, but you do want them to soften and sweat their juices a bit before you add the tomatoes and broth. Give them a few minutes to get to know each other before adding the tomatoes, water, and broth. Turn the heat up and bring the soup to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat to simmer once it comes to a boil. When the carrots are almost soft enough for your liking (go ahead and eat one!), add the beans, zucchini, and kale. Continue to simmer until the zucchini is perfectly soft and the kale is bright green. Then, add some freshly chopped parsley and/or basil to finish. You can also stir in some good extra virgin olive oil or some grated Parmesan, Romano, or Pecorino (or all of the above!)...

The best thing about soup like this is that it can feed you all week. One day, eat it on it's own. The next, add some orzo pasta, quinoa, or brown rice to change it up a bit. I love using wide mouth pint-sized canning jars (they're even freezer safe) to store it because it's the perfect serving size and if you fill the jars while the soup is still hot, the seal will pop air tight, lengthening the shelf life a bit. A jar of veggie soup stored like this can last up to a week in the fridge and months in the freezer!

* A note about celery: According to the Environmental Working Group, it's routinely one of the dirtiest produce items in the grocery store with the highest amount of residual pesticides. Go for organic if you can. Trader Joe's carries organic celery hearts at a reasonable price.