Maybe it’s a skill engrained in a farmer’s DNA, but my Dad has a special gift for turning nothing into Something. He used to say it was his favorite thing to do. He had a big workshop that always had at least one formidable piece of farm machinery in it that had been rolled in with a broken or missing appendage. It was sort of like John Deere triage.
Lining the walls of the shop were shelves and shelves of stuff. The uneducated eye might go so far as to call it trash. Little random pieces of hardware, old coffee cans filled to the brim with mismatched nails and bolts – a veritable house of hopes and dreams for stuff that should have ended up at the dump. But for my Dad, this was Zion. Whenever we’d be in the house and something needed fixing, he’d disappear into the shop, only to return a few minutes later with just the right Something. (Except for the time we installed a ceiling fan in my bedroom. There was no magic scrap of gold for that train wreck. Twenty years later, we still don’t talk about that project.)
He’s the guy who, when putting together IKEA furniture for you in college, would actually keep the excess parts (because, let’s be honest, IKEA gives you all sorts of extra parts to screw with you enough to make sure you never put 100% of your weight in that POÄNG chair). He’d say, “You never know when we could use these extra (insert useless hardware pieces here). You should keep ‘em.” Uh, yeah. I was that kid in college who had a toolbox that all my roommates’ dads envied. And I’m quite sure that it still contains the extra mounting brackets from my first apartment’s curtain rods. You never know!
While his knack for nothing-into-Something was no doubt the secret to the farm’s success, my favorite instances, of course, were directed at me. The very best in the Bob Winner handbook took a piece of penny candy and turned it into an after-dinner ritual that I vividly remember to this day. After the plates had been cleared, he’d push his kitchen chair back, and my brother and I would climb into his lap and search his chest pocket for the piece of butterscotch candy we knew was waiting there. (In retrospect, I realize this was a monumental sacrifice by my Dad and his raging sweet tooth.) He would gently cradle this little piece of candy in his palm, then whack it with the back of a spoon, CRACK! breaking it into pieces. He’d carefully unwrap the gold-colored cellophane paper, and the three of us would divvy up the shards of butterscotch and savor the time in his lap. To this day, I can’t turn down a butterscotch in the candy bowl for the memory alone.
I don’t claim to be a fraction of the Something-maker my Dad is, but I do think he passed on some of this obsession to me. As I’m sure you can see, this could easily turn into an episode of Hoarders. But I like to think I use this power for good, and it manifests itself as a lean kitchen. If you’re a Seattle Palate fan, you may have noticed this tendency in the past and just thought I was cheap. Nope, just trying to use up the nothing in a last ditch effort for Something. Just check out my chicken stock recipe. I seriously think that’s a plain old-fashioned miracle that you can make that stuff from scraps and carcasses. Or my veggie red sauce and winter vegetable hash – both “clean out the fridge” recipes that turn pretty much any (marginally fresh) produce into a Wednesday night dinner. Sure, I can’t resurrect a combine with scrap medal and duct tape, but man-oh-man, can I make that limp carrot appetizing!
So in the spirit of making Something out of nothing, here’s another one. Soup is the ultimate magic wand of this game. Please. Please. Don’t go buy these ingredients. This is just what I happened to have on hand leftover from my CSA box and a particularly over-zealous trip to the store. Look in your fridge and pantry for that nothing that’s lurking in the back shelf, about a day or so away from being pitched. Then use these tricks (and a really nice loaf of fresh bread) to concoct some deliciousness. Enjoy!
Click here to print this recipe.
Yields: about 9 cups
Time to prepare: 90 minutes, less if you are a fast chopper.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium zucchini, diced
3 medium carrots, quartered and sliced
3 cloves garlic, pressed or finely diced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
32 oz stock – any type, or water
2” piece of Parmesan rind
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (more or less, depending on your heat preference)
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried rosemary
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 medium red potato, diced
6 plum tomatoes, concasse (see notes) or canned, diced tomatoes
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
3 cups spinach, roughly chopped
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed (you could also use a small pasta)
Start by sautéing the onion in olive oil in a large stock pot, over medium heat, stirring occasionally so nothing burns.
Add the zucchini and carrots as you’ve chopped them, and sauté until softened slightly and the outsides have some color on them.
Push the vegetables to the sides of the pot, and add the tomato paste and garlic. Stir continuously to ensure it doesn’t burn. After 30 seconds or so, mix in with the vegetables.
Add the stock, and all the remaining ingredients. They don’t need to all go in at the same time, so chop and add as you go. The potatoes will need the longest to cook, probably close to an hour. The beans and spinach only need a few minutes to warm through. Add additional water or stock if needed to cover the vegetables, and to achieve the desired consistency.
Let the soup simmer, partially covered, for a while – up to an hour. The longer the soup cooks, the more the flavors will meld and develop. Check for seasoning, and adjust as needed.
- To make this recipe paleo-friendly, simply omit the beans, and the parmesan rind if you’re really picky
- Stocks vary wildly in salt content. I prefer to start with either unsalted homemade stock, or low sodium canned. Salt is a huge part of developing flavor, and it’s always a lot easier to add salt than get rid of it. Remember, salt added early in the cooking process brings out the flavor of the ingredients. Salt added at the end just makes the dish taste like salt.
- The Parmesan rind is one of my favorite tricks. It adds a really nutty complexity to the soup. You won’t be able to taste it per say, but it will do wonders for your flavor profile. I use it in my red sauce and all sorts of soups. You can purchase rind from a grocery store with a cheese counter – if you don’t see them out, just ask. They often will sell you pieces that they’d normally throw out. Stick them in a Ziploc and freeze indefinitely. Or better yet, use fresh parm in your own kitchen, and keep the rind when it’s gone – Something out of nothing! Love it.
- Think about how your selection of vegetables will cook and the texture you want them to have, and size your cuts appropriately. Things that are the same consistency and size cook at the same speed. If you cut your zucchini pieces huge and your pepper small, then the peppers will be complete mush by the time your zucchini is done. Since potatoes take the longest to cook, you’re going to want to keep those pieces on the small size. The most important thing is keeping each individual vegetable cut consistently – if some of the potato pieces are small and some are large, you risk some being under cooked.
- Canned stock (or better yet homemade frozen), canned tomatoes and a can or two of beans are absolute pantry staples for me. They are the duct tape of your kitchen.
- If you’re using fresh tomatoes, you’ll want to concasse them first – meaning peel off the skin and remove the seeds. That’s where all the bitterness comes from, and who likes to wrestle with a big chunk of tomato skin anyway? If you used canned tomatoes, it’s already done. If you’re using fresh, cut a shallow “X” in the bottom of the tomato, cut out the woody stem end, then put in a pot of boiling water for 1 minute. You will see the skin split. Rinse with cold water, then peel the skins off easily. Cut in half or quarter, and scoop out the seeds with your finger. Chop to your desired size. Watch this video if that doesn’t make sense, or if you want to get in touch with your Frenchness. Oui oui!
- If you like a more hearty soup, a good trick is to mash some of your beans up to a paste-like consistency with the back of a fork. I drain and rinse right in the can, dump half the beans into the pot, then smash the rest with the back of a fork right in the can.
- The vegetables in soup are going to end up being sort of mushy, so it doesn’t really matter if you use produce that isn’t at its peak of freshness. But here’s the requisite disclaimer – don’t use anything that’s moldy or rotten. Or at least cut those parts off