Slim Pickings

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So for those keeping score, the wedding is a little over two months away. How did we get here so fast? It feels like just yesterday that we were decorating the Christmas tree, drinking champagne with a roaring fire to ward of the winter chill, and then I was suddenly, happily betrothed.

Fast forward to August and summer days. The garden is finally started to take off (still waiting on my tomatoes, though…) after a not-so-hot season here in the Wine Country. The fig tree in the alley is almost ripe, and my wedding dress arrived at the bridal shop with much fanfare. I spent a day with my mom and grandmother, trying on the dress, shedding tears of disbelief and excitement, having a wonderful lunch at Zin Restaurant here in town, and some light shopping at the back end of the day. It was everything the blushing bride could want for the day she picks up her wedding dress; a day that holds much gravity because suddenly you are the proud owner of this auspicious dress, and if you change your mind, well, you can’t exactly wear it to brunch, now can you? It’s a milestone in the wedding process, one that I think is almost as important as picking the dress itself.

And in trying on said beautiful wedding dress, it was, well, snug. Breathtakingly snug to call a spade. Thank heavens for built-in corsets, but breathing is going to be so key on that day, the dress could fit a little, well, you can see where I’m headed here.

And so we begin the process of slimming down. For those of you who don’t know me, I firmly disbelieve in diets of any sort, cleanses, detoxes, starving in any form or format. I also believe in the power of awareness for what we put in to our gullets, taking a firm stand in local, organic produce, eating seasonally, and dairy and meats that come from animals raised somewhere other than a feedlot, but that’s a different post. To begin my slimming down process, I need to identify my food friends that are going on light duty for a while (breads, soft cheeses, gluten in many capacities, beer) and take stock of my pantry, adding in some rice pastas, nut-based crackers, and upping my ante on vegetables, salad fixings, good lean proteins and wine (a girl has to have one vice, yes?). All this and getting myself to the gym is going to do some good things for my body, and I’m ready for it.

To kick off my first week of the slim-down exercise, I’m making it easy on myself. I got a monster head of lettuce for modified Cobb salads, hit my garden and picked all of the squashes and peppers my basket could carry, and backfilled with some fresh local peaches and nectarines and fruit items from my favorite market. I’m also turning the bones and bits from last weeks’ chicken into stock for a pot of minestrone, one of the healthiest soups I know of because it’s chock full of veggies and so, so filling. If you don’t have stock on hand you can make this with water, but for me the stock makes it richer and because I make my own it’s very low fat and low sodium. I’ve made it with water too, though, and you wouldn’t know the difference. The soup will be dinner for at least one night and my lunch for several days.

I’ll warn from here that my minestrone is not ‘traditional’ in the sense that a lot of people look for; it’s not the one that you find at the Italian joint on the corner. It’s one that someone’s Nonna would make with the overflowing goods of her garden in the summer, refreshing, herbal and earthy. I stick to a basic format of beans, greens, squash and tomatoes, but which beans and greens and squash you get are solely based on the season. Add in some herbs, chicken stock and  my secret ingredient and you’re set.

In most cases I’d serve this soup with a side of crusty sourdough (mmmm, bread…), but this week I’ll have it with a green salad and N can have the bread.

Minestrone

Serves lots

1 Large Onion, coarsely chopped

1 Large Carrot, peeled and diced

2 Stalks of Celery, Diced

3-4 Garlic Cloves, minced

1 can of Diced Tomatoes, undrained (or use 3-4 from your garden, if you have them, mine just aren’t ripe yet)

2 Medium Zucchini, ends trimmed, halved and halved again down the length, and cut into 1/4″ pieces

1 Can Kidney Beans, drained but not rinsed

1 bunch Swiss Chard, tough stems discarded and roughly chopped

1 Small Potato, cut into 1/2″ cubes

8 Cups of Chicken Stock or water

Salt and Pepper to taste

A sprig of fresh rosemary and some oregano, or dried if you don’t have fresh, added to taste

A Bay Leaf

Parmesan Cheese rind – this is the secret ingredient

Soup Making Standards: Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat until glistening, and add in your onions, celery and carrots. Saute until fragrant and a bit softer, 5-7 minutes. Add in your sliced zucchini, swiss chard and garlic and saute until the chard is about half wilted. Add in the can of tomatoes or diced fresh tomatoes, the drained beans and your herbs, give it a stir and let it bubble for a minute or two. Top everything with the chicken stock or water and drop in your parmesan cheese rind, bring it all back to a slow boil, turn down the heat and let it simmer for at least a half hour, then salt and pepper to taste. Minestrone, like all soups, is better the second and third day, so make it ahead if you can.

The parmesan cheese rind is, I think, integral to minestrone. It imparts a salty richness that is hard to add in to vegetable based soups, even if you use chicken stock. I buy my parmesan in wedges or blocks rather than pre-grated, tossing the rinds into a zip-top bag when they’re spent and into the freezer for later soups. Just be sure to fish it out prior to serving, or tell people that, like the bay leaf, it’s good luck to get it in your bowl but not to eat it.

Here’s to taking it down a notch, I’ll let you know my progress (and welcome a cheering section!) and provide more yummy things on my journey.

Happy Monday!

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