Soups fixes everything. We turn to it to fix our ills when we are sick because each comforting bite is a familiar hug that warms us from the inside out. Last weekend my family and I went on our yearly apple picking adventure upstate in Tivoli, New York. While we end up drinking and eating more than we do picking, our real joy is not in the bushels of apples we bring home, but in the abundance of fresh vegetables available to pick on the grounds. This is the time of year I wait for all year, when I get to break out the recipes I’ve been saving with more exotic vegetables that we do not often have on hand during the rest of the year.
My sister is an avid vegetable hater, so you can imagine my surprise when she requested Butternut Squash Soup after seeing our squash haul. The prospect of pleasing everyone in the house with one meal and not having to disguise the vegetables masquerading in my sister’s meal was too good to pass up. This soup is derived from a French recipe, incorporating both butternut squash and pumpkin to create a smooth, thick savory soup that perfectly encompasses the flavors of the season.
Eggplant Caponata was one of my mom’s many signature recipes and I recall her preparing it quite often. Funny enough, it has also been the hardest to replicate. First, I couldn’t find the recipe even though I was sure of the cookbook it originated from. Then, a recipe index search yielded no results for Caponata. Frustrated I gave up the search, before ultimately going through page-by-page and finding a curious recipe for “Pickled Eggplant” with the Italian “Caponata” written below it. The recipe appeared to have basic similarity to mom’s, but ultimately I realized it was used a guideline and I would have to go about recreating her version by memory.
I remember coming home from school many afternoons with some trouble or another, my mother placing a cutting board and knife in front of me and letting me chop vegetables for the spread as we talked. The familiar tangy, sweet and savory smell of the Caponata melding together in the background. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Caponata is a Southern Italian (My Grandmother isn’t reading this, right?) tomato based eggplant spread, chock full of vegetables and finished with sliced black olives. It is a light and fresh appetizer to nosh on with crackers and a glass of wine and can be served warm or cold. Thankfully, we’ve had a thriving crop of eggplants in our garden this year, it took 4 attempts, but I finally got it right.
Wanna look like a rockstar at your next holiday gathering, while also using your OCD tendencies for the good of all? Yeah, me too. Hence, Caprese Salad. It looks all big and fancy, it’s way over priced at restaurants and it takes about 10 minutes to throw together. Not to mention the fact that someone is going to find one thing on the plate they like. (My sister only eats the cheese much to the dismay of my perfectly organized plate.)
I like to serve this salad staggered, that way it’s easy to scoop into neat little piles of goodness, so you get creamy mozzarella, sweet basil and juicy tomato in each bite. Also, if you lay the slices like this, you can hide the tomatoes you butchered because you can’t cut straight and you don’t have the good sense to just buy yourself a mandoline already and have done with it.
One of my childhood joys was smelling the familiar aromas of my mom preparing one of her famous soups. My mom had a knack for transforming vegetables into warm velvety bowls of goodness. Carrot, pumpkin, cucumber; whatever the vegetable we would all lick our bowls clean and ask for seconds.
I often times got to be her helper, dicing the vegetables and processing them in batches in our mini food processor. Fascinated by the magic of transforming the liquid into a puree, inevitably overflowing the blender and losing a bowl of soup in the process. Whenever she asked if I wanted to help her in the kitchen my reply was always yes. Little did I know those many afternoons spent in the kitchen with my mom would permanently etch these recipes on my brain.
Now that she’s gone, there is no greater comfort than the first familiar sip, warming me from mouth to heart. I realize that through her wonderful gift of food, she will always be right there cooking beside me.
As the main cook in a household with a strict vegetarian, a carnivore and me falling somewhere in between, I often have to get creative when it comes to meal preparation. It’s often difficult to find a meal that everyone can enjoy. Often times when I make a meat-based dish, I try to find an appropriate substitute so that my veggie father won’t feel excluded, but it must also appeal to me to be worth the effort.
These cannellini bean based veggie “meatballs” do just that. They are hearty, flavorful and most important, they are not pretending to be meat. For the most part I find faux meat substitutes to be off-putting and tend to avoid using them. I find that when you use real ingredients, especially vegetarian ones your flavor payoff is exponentially greater.
As the warm weather approaches, I hope meat eaters and non-meat eaters alike will enjoy this lighter remake of an Italian classic.