You know those days when you have to get up early, hit the ground running, then work until after dark without even a bathroom break? When you are asking so much of your faithful body, it’s especially important to make sure it is well taken care of. Unfortunately, the end of this kind of day is just when we’re likely to grab whatever is filling and easiest to eat—often it’s something starchy-fatty-sugary because bread, crackers, cheese, snack foods, cookies, and their friends all look like dinner when you’re ravenous, tired, and cranky.
Of course, it won’t kill us to eat a meal like this now and then, but it doesn’t make us feel great either. I’ve been searching for ways to make satisfying, healthy meals on the fly with whatever ingredients I’ve got on hand and I’ve discovered some wonderful strategies to share.
One of my current favorite fast meals is a creamy fresh vegetable soup with good whole-grain toast and a salad. As long as you have a blender or food processor, a few basic ingredients and a vegetable or two, you can make this soup from scratch and have it on the table in less than a half an hour, and have leftover soup for lunch the next day. The flavors are infinitely variable and are great for seasonal cooking with locally grown or foraged produce.
Hot, savory soup always makes me feel cared-for and happily sated. (In fact, soup scientists have discovered that soup makes people feel fuller than if they ate the same solids and liquids separately.) Plus, this is a very nutritious meal: plenty of vegetables, both greens and other colors, whole grains, and protein from dairy or nuts—no empty calories!
Here’s the master recipe. Exact measurements are not important—you can fly by the seat of your pants on this one! Put on some nice music, slippers, and pour yourself a drink while you’re cooking. Take a breath—it’s been a long day and you deserve it.
Creamy Vegetable Soup
Serves about 4
– 1 large chopped onion, or the equivalent in leeks, shallots or scallions, or 2 cloves chopped garlic
– 3 tablespoons butter or oil
– salt and pepper
– 1 medium potato, chopped
– 3-4 cups of chopped seasonal vegetables
– 3 cups of stock (meat or vegetable), or water
-2 tablespoons or more chopped fresh herbs or 2 teaspoons dried herbs
– 1 cup of milk or cream—animal or vegetable, or a small handful of nuts
- Heat the fat in a medium-large pot over medium-high heat and add the onions or garlic. Cook until soft, season with plenty of salt and pepper (if you season early, you’ll need to use less).
- Add the potatoes, vegetables, nuts if using, and stock or water and simmer until the veggies are very tender.
- Remove from the heat and blend or process until smooth. Return the soup to the pot, add the remainder of the ingredients, and rewarm, but don’t boil.
- Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding stock or water to thin if needed. Toast some bread. Toss some fresh greens or raw veggies with dressing or just oil and vinegar or even just salt. Serve it forth! (As they say in the old cookbooks.)
Note: an immersion blender will make this a one-pot meal. A Ninja or Vitamix type of blender will make a super smooth soup.
It’s really very easy, fun, and delicious to concoct an infinite variety of soups from this basic recipe. And if you’ve got extra time, you can elaborate your creation with additions like a glug of wine, juice or vinegar, or embellish it with tasty garnishes drizzled or sprinkled on top. In the winter, your locally grown salad is likely to be a slaw, made of cabbage or its relatives, or microgreens or sprouts. Here are some great combinations:
Leeks, parsnips, lovage, and a sprinkling of crushed bacon
Onions, winter squash, an apple(cored and chopped) or some cider, nutmeg, and a drizzle of nut oil
Onions, cauliflower, coconut milk, curry powder with a cilantro sprinkle
Scallions, carrots, fresh ginger, coconut milk, and thinly sliced scallion greens sprinkle
Onions, carrots, replace dairy with orange juice, cumin with a cilantro sprinkle
Shallots, beets, dill, hold the dairy, and top with a dollop of sour cream
Garlic, fresh mushrooms, marjoram and/or rosemary with finely chopped walnut sprinkle
Leeks, celery root, tarragon and parsley with a grated cheese sprinkle
Garlic, rutabaga, and thyme with a drizzle of maple syrup
Garlic, onion, sweet potato, tomato juice or tomatoes and water as stock, carrots and hot peppers, ginger, peanut butter as dairy, and a cilantro sprinkle (inspired by West African peanut soup)
You can make a good soup with water, but stock or broth can enrich the flavor very nicely, so it’s great to keep it on hand in your pantry or freezer. Veggie stock concentrate is easy to make—I’ve got a no-cook, no-strain recipe on my blog at stick2local.com—this recipe is killer. If you have the time, it’s easy and cheap to make great meat broth by simmering leftover bones and aromatic vegetable bits for a couple of hours and then straining and freezing the stock.
It’s shocking, but almost all store-bought chicken stock and broth, including organic, has a miniscule amount of chicken, America’s Test Kitchen/Cook’s Illustrated Magazine reports. Beef stock is required by law to have only one ounce of beef in a gallon, but chicken stock has no minimum requirement at all! Not only that, virtually all packaged stocks and broths are reconstituted from concentrate that mostly comes from one factory in Missouri. Welcome to 21st century processed food.
The umami, meaty flavor is generated from a combination of amino acids called glutamates and nucleotides, chemicals extracted from soybeans, yeast, and other foods. Premade stock is undeniably convenient, and if you are going to use it, America’s Test Kitchen recommends Better Than Bouillon concentrate—it’s the same thing as what’s in a carton at a fraction of the price, you can make only as much as you need, it keeps in the fridge forever, and it’s almost vegetarian.
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food adventurer who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY.