When I started experimenting with cooking in my early 20s, I was in the midst of my English-teaching experience in China. My little apartment was blazing hot in the summer and freezing in winter, so I didn't do much cooking in the summer, but made many pots of soup for warming lunches and dinners throughout the winter.
A pot of soup simmered on Sunday evening would easily see me through the week, and it never really occurred to me to get bored eating the same thing almost every day.
One winter, I was craving lasagna, but wasn't able to get some of the crucial ingredients in China, such as ricotta cheese (before I knew how to make it myself) and lasagna noodles. So I came up with a soup recipe that incorporated all the flavors of lasagna, in a thick, savory soup. Ground beef browned with onions, baby bella mushrooms and garlic, a rich tomato base, baby spinach, and lots of oregano and crushed red pepper.
I add the noodles at the end - this time we used a fun, trumpet-shaped noodle called Campanelle which Jamie picked out - and as soon as the pasta is cooked, the soup is ready. Of course, since lasagna isn't complete without cheese, we topped off our bowls with a sprinkling of mozzarella.
The other English teachers and I would all cram into one apartment - 10-12 people squeezed around a table intended for 6 - and we'd finish off every last bit of the soup, along with stacks of buttered garlic bread and bowls of salad.
I made this soup for dinner the other night, it was every bit as wonderful as I remembered from those cold winters in China. Instead of garlic bread toasted under the broiler, I tried a recipe for focaccia, adding minced garlic and chopped herbs to the dough, as well as a few sprinkled on top. The bread was very soft, and so good warm from the oven.
Those years oversees made me realize how spoiled I was in the US. In China, I learned how to make a comfy and inviting home in an apartment where the heat was regulated by the government, where I found icicles dripping out of my faucet one Christmas morning and ants inside my refrigerator, where I had no hot water in the kitchen for washing dishes. A two-burner propane cook-top, a microwave and an oven only large enough to bake 6 cookies at a time were my only pieces of kitchen equipment. These were the days when I didn't own a car or a cell phone, and neither seemed all that necessary at the time.
And yet, in spite of the lack of American comforts, we were treated much better than the Chinese teachers. Better pay, better apartment furnishings (we had carpeting, real beds and privacy; they got concrete, rickety cots and an apartment they shared with 2-3 other teachers). The longer I lived there, the more I embraced the culture and the less I had to complain about.
All of this makes me so thankful now that I have a cozy home, reminding me to be grateful for a beautiful condo when I find myself wishing we were in a house. Thankful for a home where I can turn the AC or heat up or down if I'm hot or cold, a home free of ants and mice, hot water in my kitchen, and someone to come home to every day...
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound lean ground beef (93/7)
- 1 sweet yellow onion, diced
- 4 baby bella mushrooms, chopped
- salt and pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 29-ounce can tomato sauce
- 1 29-ounce can stewed tomatoes in Italian spices
- 5 ounces (about 2 cups) fresh baby spinach leaves
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 pound bite-sized pasta, such as Farfalle, Rotini, Penne, Shell, Campanelle, etc...
- 1 1/2 cups grated Mozzarella cheese
Heat the oil over medium heat in a large stock pot. Add the beef, using a wooden spoon to break it up; brown for about 5 minutes. Add the onions and mushrooms, with a good pinch of salt and pepper. Cook until the beef is completely browned and the vegetables are softened, 7-8 minutes. Stir in the garlic, spices and flour.
Add the tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes, spinach and water. Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce to medium low and simmer for 30 minutes, until the flavors have developed. Taste and adjust seasoning as you like.
Add the pasta and simmer uncovered, until the pasta is cooked al dente. Serve garnished with the mozzarella.
Note: This soup is fantastic leftover. Since the pasta will absorb moisture which will thicken the soup, you may need to add more water the following day when you reheat it, to return it to a "soupy" consistency.
Yields about 6 servings
Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen
Herbed Garlic Focaccia Bread
- 1/2 cup warm 2% milk (70° to 80°)
- 2 tablespoons warm water (70° to 80°)
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 2/3 cup bread flour
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons butter, softened
- 1 egg
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary, sage and thyme, plus extra for sprinkling on top
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- Cracked black pepper
Combine the milk, water and yeast in a mixing bowl – let stand for 5 minutes until foamy.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, salt and sugar Add the flour mixture, butter, egg, herbs and garlic to the mixing bowl. Knead with the dough hook for approximately 5 minutes, until the dough is soft and elastic (it will be sticking to the bottom of the bowl and will not form a tight dough ball).
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and sprinkle lightly with flour. Turn the dough out onto the baking sheet and shape into an 8-inch circle. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 30-40 minutes.
Using the end of a wooden spoon handle, make 1/4-in. indentations in dough. Brush with oil, then sprinkle with additional chopped herbs and cracked black pepper.
Bake at 400° for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown. Cut or tear into 6 wedges.
Yields 6 servings.
Adapted from Taste of Home