When Mama’s Kitchen is a Research Lab

I only invited today’s Soup & Stories contributor, Stacy Trasancos, because she has a rockin’ kitchen. Well, that’s not entirely true. I also asked her to participate because of her Ph.D. in Chemistry, her M.A. in Dogmatic Theology, her beautiful family, her …. I could go on and on, but let’s stop at these two words: Stacy rocks! The Catholic blogosphere is a better place because of her work in and for it. Thanks for all you do, Stacy!

Stacy’s Bio: Mother of seven. Chemist turned homemaker. Joyful convert to Catholicism. I write from my tiny office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge that overlooks a small spring-fed lake. More about me here. Find me on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter.

Rustic Elegance cropped

I don’t have a specific recipe to offer because I don’t generally follow recipes. I use them, but only as research to build my own recipes. I try not to throw anything out and use whatever is left over for the next creation to study how the foods we like work together. My kitchen is my research lab; my table, the analytics department. From my bench, I offer this basic recipe for soup along with some equipment that comes in handy.

We cook big, and eat it straight through until it is gone because it’s economical, convenient, and allows for creativity. This particular soup recipe feeds our family of seven dinner for about a week at around $0.40/person a meal. You can hardly beat that! The secret is a 22-quart stock pot. I fill it up with soup, and clear space in my refrigerator to store it. Each night I ladle what we need into a smaller pot to warm it and serve it, adding a little of this or a lot of that to mix it up, and then I heave the whole stock pot back into the fridge.

Because dinner is basically already cooked each night, I have time to test new ingredients or ways to serve the soup using the base taken from the stock pot. Think—add a meat (if none was added originally), add more vegetables, add more cheese, change the garnish, even use it to fill a pie crust or serve over pasta or rice toward the end of the week when the soup is getting thick. The soup may be frozen or canned for later too.

Here’s my plug for investing in a large stock pot. Even if you don’t have a large family, it’s worth it because you save a lot of money and time by cooking large, and you avoid relying on processed and packaged foods. The big pot doesn’t fit in our cabinets, so we leave it on the stove top when not in use. It’s got attitude. Nothing says “Welcome to Mama’s Kitchen” like a humongous steel pot on the stove. Besides soup, we use it for making apple butter, salsa, chili, stew, and mashed potatoes. Ours is a moderately-priced Tramontina available at WalMart for $60.

March 2014 008

Can you spot Our Lady of Good Soups?

Other equipment: You’ll also need a bigger than normal spoon, something like this. And while we’re on the subject, when the time comes to splurge, I recommend investing in a Shun Scalloped Santoku chopping knife. A knife that costs over $100? Yep. I’ve had it for nearly 10 years and use it daily because it has a great feel in my hand and the 16 layers of high-carbon stainless steel keep a nice sharp edge, which is a necessity if you chop massive amounts of foods and want to do it safely. The scalloped edge allows air pockets between the food and the knife so it doesn’t stick to the food when you cut. It can be used as a cleaver or a chopper. Love this knife!

One forewarning: Be ready to add a lot of salt. It’s okay, you’re seasoning 40-50 meals at a time. Don’t be hasty though. As the old adage goes, you can always add more, but you can’t take it out.

About cooking time: My husband and I usually chop the vegetables together in the morning and put the soup on the stove. This isn’t a quick soup. A large pot takes time to cook, but you don’t have to do much during that time.

Consider this a basic recipe with room for experimenting. The butternut squash becomes the soup base because the chunks mostly disintegrate. Therefore the texture is creamy, and goes well with foods that stay chunky, such as beans, carrots, potatoes, vegetables, or meat. The flavor is sweet and nutty, and goes well with salty, hearty flavors. Ham is our favorite meat to add, but the soup is good without meat too. All the other ingredients can be adjusted, omitted, or substituted.

Our favorite beans are chickpeas (also called garbanzos), which are large and require considerable time, so if you use those, allow at least six hours and maybe more. They have to be cooked through. Crunchy chickpeas ruin the meal and are rumored to give tummy aches. Like most soups, this soup is even better the next day, and the next. Healthy, hearty, plus the house will smell wonderful.

Soup

Rustic Butternut Squash Soup (download here)

Serves ~50 meals

Adjust down for a smaller pot.

22 quart stock pot
Canning jars (optional)

5 T olive oil
2-3 onions, chopped
10 cloves garlic, minced
salt
pepper
Meat (optional, see list below)
2 large butternut squashes, peeled and cubed
Beans or potatoes (see list below)
Vegetables (see list below)
5-7 bay leaves
2 T oregano
Other stuff (see list below)
Garnish (see list below)

Prepare the ingredients that need to be chopped or sliced. You need a good peeler to peel a butternut squash. The skin is tough. (I let my husband do it.) Remove the seeds with a grapefruit spoon. Cut it into square inch cubes. Chop the onions. Dice meat if you are using it. Peel and slice any vegetables, such as carrots or potatoes. Wash the beans if you are using them.

If you are using uncooked meat, cook it in the bottom of the pot first. Then add the olive oil and saute the onions and garlic with a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. When the onions are translucent (don’t burn the garlic), add the butternut squash, beans and/or potatoes, and any vegetables. If the meat is pre-cooked, add it now. Fill pot with water, approximately to four inches below the rim. Add bay leaves and oregano, and any other seasoning you want to try.

Bring to a boil, and simmer until all ingredients are tender throughout, about six hours, maybe more. About once an hour, stir down to the bottom of the pan to make sure nothing is sticking and check seasoning. Add salt and pepper to taste as the flavors meld. You can even add other seasonings if you get a vision. Replace the water when needed. The soup is done when all ingredients are cooked through, especially any beans.

When you serve, remove any bay leaves if you catch them in the ladle. Garnish with something.

The soup can either be stored in the pot, if the the pot will fit in your refrigerator, or it can be stored in the freezer or in canning jars. Follow proper canning instructions.

Here are some options we like.

Meat Options:

Diced ham
Diced chicken
Diced pork
Chorizo

Beans or Potatoes Options:

You need 2 lbs. of beans if you use beans.

2 lbs. chickpeas
1 lb. navy beans and 1 lb. chickpeas
2 lbs. navy beans.
Any combination of dried beans

Or substitute 5 lbs. peeled and diced potatoes for the beans.

You can also use 1 lb beans and 2-3 lbs. potatoes.

Vegetables Options:

You need 5 lbs. of vegetables.

Peeled and sliced carrots are my favorite.
Substitute frozen, mixed vegetables for the carrots if you’re short on time.
Substitute green beans.
Substitute any vegetable you want to try.

Other Stuff:

You can add this stuff each night as you serve.

Throw in some white wine.
Drizzle in some heavy cream right before serving.
Throw in a chunk of cream cheese.
Pat in some butter—now you’re pushing it.
Sprinkle with chili powder.
Try a little cumin, but not too much depending on your taste.
Dump in some cayenne pepper—now you’re rocking it.

Garnish Options:

Grated cheddar cheese
Grated mozzarella cheese
Grated pepper jack cheese
Bacon crumbles
Sauteed mushrooms
Caramelized onions
Double-fried potato slivers
You get the picture.

Examples:

Here are some soups we’ve made with this base.

Butternut squash with ham, chickpeas, navy beans, and carrots, garnished with sauteed mushrooms. The next night I put some of the soup in a small pot, just enough for dinner, and before serving I added a little heavy cream and then garnished with cheddar cheese. And so on. By the end of the week the soup was getting thick so I spooned it over rice.

Butternut squash with potatoes and carrots, garnished with cheddar cheese. This is simple, but so good as a non-meat soup. Or you can add different meats each night as you warm up the dinner portions.

Butternut squash with chicken, chickpeas and mixed vegetables, garnished with mozzarella and caramelized onions. When this starts to dry out, it’s good baked with pasta and topped with mozzarella, like a casserole.

4 comments to When Mama’s Kitchen is a Research Lab

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