Tortellini Onion Soup

shutterstock_13106131His name was Bill, though William seemed to suite him better. He was not very tall, only about 5’ 6”, a bit overweight and prematurely balding. He had bright pale blue eyes that smiled from behind thick wire rimmed glasses. Bill was a man of fine mettle, and a friend of a friend’s husband. We had met a few times in gatherings of similar social circles.

We were in our mid-twenties, me recently entering college while he having graduated several years earlier and working in his field. Bill was an oil drilling engineer. He looked at geology with a very different eye than most people. He travelled about the country as confident in his brown tweed suit for consulting, as he was in Vibram Sole hiking boots and backpack surveying potential drilling sites.

One afternoon he called and asked me to join him and his sister for dinner at a French restaurant he had discovered near his apartment. This may not seem too remarkable at first reading, but Bill lived in Denver, Colorado and I resided near Detroit.

A few days after the phone call, to which I had said yes, I received in the mail plane tickets and an itinerary of the four day weekend out west. I had never flown before and was nearly beside myself with excitement.

My very Catholic grandmother was delighted for my adventure and equally concerned about my virtue. None the less, she took me shopping for appropriate clothing, for I was after all a college student with a wardrobe indicative of that station in life. She only mentioned once her concerns.

Bill’s older sister was much like him. Short and round, thick glasses and prematurely aged. They both liked things that were aesthetically pleasing and minimalistic like modern art and jazz music—and really, really good food.

Apparently they had conspired to share with me, their city peasant, some of the finer delights of a true French cuisine. One of the items on the menu I had asked to try, along with the hors d’oeuvres they had ordered, was the onion soup. Bill’s sister turned slightly to meet his eyes, rolling her own, and shrugged. He then looked at me, smiled indulgently (knowing how much I loved soups), turned to the waiter and order it…in French of course.

What came was totally unexpected. A bubbling and slightly browned covering of baked cheese sealed in the soup beneath. I waited with great expectations as the soup cooled enough to consume. When I finally broke through the crusty cheese the aroma filled my senses, as did the taste of its hearty broth and sweet onions. It was by far one of the tastiest and most challenging soups to eat—being somewhat messy with the stringy cheese and trailing onions dripping steaming broth.

I thoroughly enjoyed that soup and often ordered it at restaurants back home, knowing each time that I would face the same daunting challenge of how to consume it with some dignity and grace.

The following stove top recipe tastes very much like the baked French Onion Soup served at restaurants but with the dripping hazard some what reduced.

Tortellini Onion Soup

3 large Vidalia sweet onions, cut into quarters and thinly sliced

1 each: carrot, celery stalk, medium parsnip, diced

2 tbl. olive oil

1 tbl. butter

32 oz. beef broth (pre-packaged or paste dissolved in water, don’t use bouillon cubes)

16 oz. vegetable broth (pre-packaged or paste dissolved in water…again, no cubes)

1 pkg., 9 oz., cheese tortellini, fresh is better but frozen works just fine

Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in olive oil and sauté sliced onions, when starting to turn clear, add remaining diced vegetables and cook until tender. Meanwhile, in large stock pot bring broth to a boil, add sautéed vegetables and tortellini. Simmer for about 5 minutes until pasta is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with fresh hard crusted bread for dipping into soup.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully to change up this recipe by using regular, not sweet, Vidalia onions or omitting the parsnip. In both instances the flavor was changed, and not for the better. The sugar content of Vidalia’s when they’re cooked really makes this soup. The parsnip adds a flavor that is hard to identify but seems to be crucial to the excellence of this recipe.

(Image by Kellie L. Folkerts, courtesy shutterstock.com)

Bad Seed and Contaminated Food

shutterstock_66883147One of the small pleasures in my day is watching the birds, especially when praying a rosary. Their feeding at the window reminds me of the Bible verse about sparrows (Mt 10:29-31), and I am comforted in knowing God is at least as attentive to me as to his little brown birds.

For this reason, I’ve added a platform feeder to the sill outside my oratory window. It hangs near the suet feeder that’s attached to an iron swivel bracket. Positioning the feeders at a second story window has the added benefit of being out of reach of marauding squirrels. Those thieving rodents have enough food supply on the stone path beneath.

During the summer the squirrels would gather the fallen sunflower seeds and bury them randomly around the yard. These small clusters of sunflowers were left to grow, and matured seed heads allowed to partially dry on the stalks. I would then deadhead the pad, leaving it intact, and place it on the shed’s workbench to finish drying. Throughout the winter I’d attach a pad—seeds up—near the window and delight as I watched chickadees and nuthatches pluck a blackened hull from its papery cup.

Last summer there was a bumper crop of sunflowers. To make more room on the bench, I’d bagged a few of the seed heads—regrettably, too soon. They hadn’t dried properly and a fungus grew. Undeterred, and not wanting to waste the food supply, I used a brush to clean off the fuzz and set them in the sun to dry a bit more.

The weather turned colder and it was time to bring out the sunflower pads. The birds had been devouring the fresh supply of food but within a day all feeding stopped—including feeding on the suet nearby.

I waited for two days, still no birds. Only a few seeds had been eaten from the pad. Then I surmised I had probably placed a formerly-fuzzy head upon the tray, and that the tainted seeds had turned the birds away—even from that which was good. It seems a tainted source of nourishment could upset the whole supply of food.

I realized it was the same with us, as we seek the fruits of our faith. When a corrupted source presents us with tainted spiritual food, it can turn us away from whatever good is nearby.

The sparrows can recognize the difference. We should, too.

(Image by Karol Gallus, courtesy shutterstock.com.)

Portobello and Beans Vegetarian Chili, Meatless Friday

IMGP7275The Garden Society at St. Francis Retreat Center in DeWitt, Michigan, had many volunteers and a core group of five women. The society began in 2005 and continues to this day. I retired from the group in 2013, leaving it in the competent hands of the dedicated Master Gardener, Ann.

The garden society’s goal was (and still is) to build and maintain gardens of prayer and memorial on the 95 acre site. One of the first memorial gardens established in 2006 was the Stella Smythe Ornamental Grass Garden. The Smythe family donated time and money, and daughter Claudia—a key garden society volunteer and my right hand for years—with husband David assisted with the design and installation. The garden is landscaped with fourteen species of ornamental grasses, including the 14 foot tall Erianthus ravennae…aka Hardy Pampas Grass.

Throughout the year Claudia with another memorial garden donor and volunteer extraordinaire, Kathy, and I would meet on Wednesday mornings, and usually were joined by other volunteers. All of us would weed, prune, water, and plant. Our labor of love was in service to Our Lord to help bring souls to God. We wanted to offer an outdoor space where people could pray. We trusted the Holy Spirit to do the rest.

At the end of the gardening season there was the traditional pot luck. All the volunteers, their families and friends were invited. Claudia and Kathy usually coordinated those meals, and some were epic! You can bet that throughout the years a lot of recipes were shared. From those gatherings this recipe came. It is one of Claudia’s favorites. She and David often ate vegetarian, and it’s good for Friday’s fasting too. I’ve modified it only slightly from its original form.

Portobello & Beans Vegetarian Chili

2 cups chopped sweet Vidalia onion

1 cup peeled and chopped carrots

4 cups Portobello mushroom caps, chopped

1 tbl. olive oil

14-15 oz. can diced tomatoes,

1 ½ cup vegetable broth (or chicken if preferred)

1 tbl. Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp. chili powder

1 tsp. ground coriander

1 tbl. maple syrup (the real thing!)

15 oz. can black soy beans, or black beans, drained and rinsed

15 oz. can white kidney beans, or navy beans, drained and rinsed

15 oz. can pinto beans, drained and rinsed

½ tsp salt, or to taste

½ tsp. freshly ground pepper, or to taste

¾ cup scallions, green and white portions, chopped

Fresh chopped cilantro for garnish

Grated pepper jack cheese (soy or dairy) for garnish

In soup kettle heat oil and add onions and carrots, cook until tender, stirring often. Add mushrooms and simmer another 4-5 minutes. Add tomatoes, broth, Worcestershire sauce, chili powder, coriander, and maple syrup. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook uncovered for about five minutes. Add beans, salt and pepper and simmer for another five minutes. Add scallions and remove from heat. Serve garnished with cheese and chopped cilantro.

If you’re not going vegan with this chili, and using chicken stock, I have added leftover roasted chicken—skin removed and dice into small bite-sized pieces—near the end of sautéing vegetables.

(Image by Seeman, courtesy morguefile.com)

Regifting, Nobody Knows

shutterstock_149624612By mid-January we have settled into our usual routines. The Christmas season has ended, the nativity is packed away until the next First Sunday of Advent, most of the pine needles are vacuumed out of the carpet, and the presents have been incorporated in our daily lives.

The gifts I received this year were remarkably sweet, and addressed the needs of my soul more so than the clothing or feeding of my body. Well, about those bags of gourmet coffee—they’re good for the soul, aren’t they?

My friend in Indiana gave me a holy water font for the oratory. It is perfectly matched to my taste; clean lines, unadorned, and functional. When I touched the font for the first time I was surprised to find that its white glaze felt like soft leather. The basin is appropriately sized to hold a sufficient amount of water and roomy enough for easy dipping of fingers.

The woman who lives downstairs, and a friend for over quarter of a century, knew I was taking painting lessons—I’ve recently discovered that painting carries me away in much the same way as prayer. She is also aware of my spinal condition and the challenges of bending over a canvas.

The dear woman gave me a lovely wooden collapsible table-top easel that has a drawer for paints and brushes, and can be used outdoors—when I’m painterly enough for en plein air. Being able to now sit upright, practice sessions last longer.

I was delighted by unexpected gifts arriving in the mail from writing friends—DVD’s of the Catholicism series, and the leather-bound Manual of Spiritual Warfare. Both items were direct answers to long surrendered prayers.

We all receive gifts we will probably never use—though we would never be so crass as to let on to the giver! Those are the presents that are re-gifted, passed along, or donated to charity.

One such gift had come from “Annie“, who lives at a group home for women. She had gone with her case worker to the Goodwill store and searched through the racks and boxes of recycled cards. Annie selected cards she thought would be the best gift to me, put them into an old candy-cane bag and tied the top with several strands of colorful yarn. She had given from her need—for she has very little money—and offered everything she could in her limited way.

Annie gave me three cards: one for a granddaughter’s fifth birthday (I am single and childless), one wishing well after a surgery (which never occurred), and a Catholic sympathy card with prayers on three panels. Sentiments of good will all—for family, health, and my soul.

It was her thoughtfulness of yellowed, dog-eared cards that struck me as the greatest gift this past Christmas season. Her gift revealed love in a way I can only hope to attain.

(Image by Melpomene, courtesy shutterstock.com.)

Sweet Corn Chowder and Friday Suppers

For me, this soup is the ultimate in comfort food. It is smooth and creamy, heavy on the carbs and sweetened by the corn. My grandmother also liked it for its ease of preparation—especially on meatless Fridays.

When I was a young adult and still residing at my widowed grandmother’s home, we shared busy though rarely hectic lives. Mine was filled with work, college, and the occasional date. She still had a hand in the business owned by her son, which she and her husband began, and went daily to attend to the books. Frequently she went to visit her friends, most of whom were less able-bodied than she, with her closest friend, Mable, in a nursing facility. There were also her weekly drives for a visit with her sister, Helen. Our Sundays were fully a day of rest with Mass always on Saturday night.

No matter how busy our days, we both made time for the evening meal. Sometimes that meal had to be quickly prepared.

This soup was a frequent go-to supper. Depending on the day it could be readied in as short as fifteen minutes using leftover potatoes, which were almost always available in the fridge—second shelf, clear glass bowl covered in a plaid plastic cover.

We both loved potatoes and cooked several of them at a time. I remember many times coming home to a kettle of recently boiled potatoes still warm on the stove. Beneath the lid would be a nest of egg-shaped new potatoes, red skinned Pontiacs, or small quartered russets in their dark scruffy skins.

Snatching one from the cluster and breaking it in half with my thumbs, I would roll it in the dish of butter that always sat on the table, and pop it into my mouth. Pressing it hard with my tongue against the back of my teeth, the soft buttery orb would fill my mouth with its earthy flavor. By then my grandmother would have set aside her rosary and made her way into the kitchen to greet me. With mock consternation she’d slap my buttery potato-flaked hands, scolding me to “Stay out of that kettle. Those potatoes are for…”—a salad, soup, or dinner.

When time permitted we would make this soup from fresh ingredients, cutting unpeeled potatoes and if it were late summer, scrape the kernels from ears of corn instead of using frozen or canned. The batches were often doubled or tripled, some for freezing, but mostly for sharing with Mable or Helen who were as fond of this soup as we were.

Corn Chowder

Boil in 2 c. of water:

2 tbl. butter
1 medium, about a cup, of diced sweet onion
½ c. diced celery, use the leaves too
¼ c. fresh parsley (dried flakes really do not work well in this soup)
4-5 medium potatoes, chopped
 

When potatoes are tender add to the stock:

16 oz. can cream style corn
16 oz. can whole corn, drained, or 1-1 ½ c. frozen or fresh
Salt & fresh ground pepper to taste
 

Simmer until heated through, and serve. Garnish with chives, parsley, or bits of green onion.

The flavor and texture of this soup can be subtly altered depending on the produce you use. New potatoes have a more chestnut flavor and make for a thinner broth because they still have a fair amount of pectin in them and don’t break down. Yukon Gold’s are sweeter in taste, especially if refrigerated, and create a golden-colored soup. Fresh home grown potatoes are fuller in flavor with a deep and rich earthy taste. Baking potatoes, like Russets, are higher in starch and thicken a soup.

Boiling or new potatoes remain fairly intact and will need to be lightly smashed into the stock. I often take an immersion blender and break down just a small portion of the potatoes to thicken the soup.

Using whole canned corn is perfectly fine but more flavor is added when using frozen. To add exceptional sweetness use corn shelled from the cob.

(Image by Voraorn Ratanakorn, courtesy shutterstock.com)