It may be late winter, but my local farmer’s market is still thriving, offering the sweetest carrots and curliest kale. But how to turn this hardy winter produce into a cozy meal? Kristin Harmel’s weeknight minestrone soup is the answer.
Kristin is a journalist — she’s written for People, Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Day, and many other publications — and a novelist who has published seven books. She also appears regularly as the travel expert on “The Daily Buzz,” a national morning show. I loved Kristin’s most recent novel, The Sweetness of Forgetting, which tells the story of Hope, a divorced mother who runs her family’s bakery on Cape Cod. When Hope’s French grandmother, who is slipping into Alzheimer’s, reveals snippets of a family tragedy, Hope travels to Paris on an emotional journey through the faith — and pâtisserie — of three religions.
Kristin has lived in Paris (in my neighborhood!) and currently resides in Orlando, Florida. Today, I’m thrilled to share her tips for fast, weeknight, writerly meals!
On her *tough* winter in Florida (don’t hate her):
My boyfriend, Jason, and I live in Florida, so even though it’s the winter, we’ve had some wonderful 70- and 80-degree days lately. A typical weeknight might consist of a bike ride to the lake in Baldwin Park; there’s a Mexican place we like that serves margaritas on the deck, and it’s lovely to sit out by the water. If the weather’s not quite as nice, we might stay home and rent a movie. Most weeknights include dinners cooked at home, even if we go out for happy hour first.
On her secret weapon in the kitchen:
I am a big fan of my slow cooker, so it’s not unusual for me to throw several ingredients in first thing in the morning and let them cook all day. I particularly like stews, hearty soups, chili and pulled barbecue chicken, all of which are super-easy slow cooker meals that require 5-20 minutes of prep. By the time the meal is ready eight hours later, I’ve almost forgotten about preparing it, so it’s as if there’s a magical chef hiding in my kitchen, catering my meals. I also have a rice cooker that I use at least twice a week and I always keep white and brown rice on hand.
When she doesn’t feel like cooking:
An easy no-cook idea is to make artisan roast beef sandwiches: focaccia bread from the grocery store, horseradish mayonnaise, lettuce, cheddar cheese, and rare roast beef from the deli. In the winter, we’ll brush the bread with olive oil and make the sandwiches into paninis by using a panini press (or even a George Foreman grill).
Her favorite cooking shortcuts:
–I always keep diced onions in the freezer and peeled garlic cloves in the fridge. I find that I use onion and garlic very frequently in recipes, and not having to peel/slice them feels like a huge relief!
–Whenever there’s a sale at the grocery store on rotisserie chickens, I generally pick one up and serve it with Steamfresh greenbeans (you just microwave them in the bag) and rice (from my rice-cooker, so it’s very easy). The next day, I mix the leftover cold chicken with low-fat mayo, diced celery, diced onions, dried cranberries, salt and pepper for easy chicken salad, which is great paired with lettuce and a tortilla for a chicken salad wrap.
On finding cooking inspiration while writing:
I’m a novelist, so when I’m not traveling (for research or book signings – or just for fun!), I’m home most of the day. That often means that I begin thinking very early in the day about what we’ll be eating for dinner. Okay, so it might also have something to do with the fact that my office – where I work on all my books – is actually in my kitchen nook, so I spend my days overlooking my stove and countertops.
Weeknight minestrone soup
Note from Ann: I loved the healthy assortment of vegetables and tomato tang of Kristin’s soup. Though de-stemming and chopping the kale took me a bit longer than expected, this makes a huge amount of soup, which lasted us for two nights. I used low-sodium chicken broth, but stock cubes or even water would work. Don’t skip the rustic croutons — they’re a genius touch.
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, sliced
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced
1 medium zucchini, diced
4 cups washed and stemmed kale leaves, torn into bite-sized pieces. (“You can also substitute spinach or Swiss chard,” says Kristin. “If using spinach, add in step 5 instead of step 4.”)
7 cups vegetable stock (“I use two Knorr Homestyle Stock pods, with 7 cups water,” says Kristin.)
1 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes, undrained
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 Tbsp. Italian seasoning blend (I used a mix of dried thyme, oregano and basil)
1 cup cut green beans
1 15.5-ounce can light red kidney beans
1 cup uncooked small, bite-sized pasta (such as elbows, bowties or ditalini)
Rustic croutons (see below)
1. In large soup pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté for two minutes.
2. Add garlic cloves and sauté two additional minutes.
3. Add celery and carrots and sauté two minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Add zucchini and kale and sauté all vegetables together for an additional four minutes, until kale is wilted. (It will look like you have of a ton of kale, but once it begins to wilt, it reduces quickly.)
5. Add vegetable stock, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, Italian seasoning and green beans and bring to a boil.
6. Reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes.
7. Add beans and pasta, return to a low boil, and cook 10 additional minutes.
8. Serve with rustic croutons.
*Rustic croutons: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roughly tear leftover bread (preferably Italian bread, but virtually anything works) into bite-sized chunks. Toss in a big bowl with 1 Tbsp. olive oil, then sprinkle liberally with freshly ground pepper and freshly grated parmesan cheese. Bake for 15-20 minutes on foil-lined cookie sheet, turning twice.
* Note 1: Instead of using carrots, celery, zucchini and green beans, you could simplify this recipe by using a 16-ounce bag of frozen Italian vegetables instead. Add them with the stock, tomatoes, tomato sauce and Italian seasoning.
* Note 2: This makes a huge pot of soup, so we generally have it for dinner one night with a green salad, and then we reheat it the next night and serve it with grilled cheese (using provolone, mozzarella and grated parmesan). It goes perfectly (both nights!) with a big Italian red wine.
(All non-food photos from Kristin Harmel.)