In taking inventory of my freezer last week, I discovered a quart of black bean chili (recipe at "Chili weather ahead") from last fall that I had made a lot of using the last eggplants and peppers from the markets. The chili held up extremely well; the peppers, eggplants and juice from fresh tomatoes gave it the texture and fresh taste I made it for—even a year later.
One way to put veggies away for the winter is cook them up in a ready-to-eat manner. A veggie soup that can be defrosted in no time and doctored up with stew beef, pasta or shredded leftover chicken is a new favorite for quick dinners at our house. The following recipe idea came from a neighbor who was recounting her days before retirement and widowhood, when she pressure-canned quart jars of "soup mix" with the produce from her massive backyard garden. Before going to work in the morning, she might put some stew beef in the slow cooker to braise, and when she got home in the evening, she'd pop open a jar of the soup veggies, add these and presto! Dinner for four simmered while she changed into sweats. Right now at the farmers' market, tomatoes are abundant by the box (as are potatoes and sweet potatoes for pantry storage), so it's a good time to make tomato-based soup and spaghetti sauce. It's also a more efficient method of storing this vegetable, since they cook down more this way than when frozen or canned whole.
As with any soup or stew, the combinations reflect the taste of the cook—not rigid science but flexible art. Spaghetti sauce is a common enough way to put up tomatoes for winter, and I've included it here to give general proportions of tomato puree, herbs and cooking time. Bearing in mind that lots of Indy readers don't have the time, freezer or kitchen space for too big a production, I've scaled down (from, for example, recipes that call for a bushel of tomatoes) the recipes to work on the average stove in the average condo kitchen. If the finished products are stacked nip and tuck in the back of a top-of-the-fridge freezer compartment, there should still be room for the usual frozen suspects to continue cohabitating. This is a weekend project. Put on some music, invite a friend to help and divide the results.
This soup goes well with chewy bread and winter greens salad. It's also delicious with a spoonful of pesto per bowl, stirred in at the table. One variation: Leave out the tomatoes (but replace them with two cups stock) and you have white vegetable soup, into which pesto is also stirred à la Soupe au Pistou of French country cooking.
Freezer Veggie Soup Base
8 sprigs each fresh parsley and fresh leaf celery, thin stalks included
1 cup onion or leek, diced
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups tomato puree, strained of skins
2 cups shelled green lima beans
1 to 2 cups carrots, scrubbed and cut into half-inch rounds
2 cups corn kernels, cut okra, and/or chopped zucchini
2 cups green beans, in two-inch lengths
1 head cabbage, finely shredded (3-4 cups)
2 cups cooked white beans, such as navy or cannellini
2 teaspoons each kosher salt and pepper, or to taste
2 cups water, chicken, beef or vegetable stock, plus extra if needed
In an 8- to 10-quart stock pot, sauté herbs and onions in the olive oil just until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, remaining vegetables and stock. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Cool in the pot to room temperature; freeze in pint or half-pint containers. Yields approximately 7 to 8 pints, each of which serves 2 to 4 people if reheated for 15 minutes with 1 cup cooked pasta, potatoes or rice.
Freezer Spaghetti Sauce
2 cups onions, chopped
8 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups fresh basil leaves, chopped if large
1/2 cup fresh oregano leaves
1/2 cup fresh parsley, snipped small
1/2 cup olive oil
5 quarts peeled tomato puree (roma or plum works best)
1 cup sweet potato, cooked and mashed
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons each kosher salt and pepper
In an 8-quart stock pot, sauté first 6 ingredients over medium heat until wilted and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients, and stir vigorously to combine. Turn heat to low and simmer two to three and a half hours, stirring now and again. How long the sauce simmers depends on how watery your tomatoes are and your preferred thickness. When it's as you like it, spoon into pint freezer containers (or repurpose takeout plastic containers with lids). Label and freeze. Yields at least 8 pints of sauce, which feeds 4 to 6 when served over pasta. As always, doctoring it up after it defrosts is fun: frozen peppers, fall market mushrooms, more garlic, onions, frozen vegetables, such as zucchini. One of our favorites is this sauce spooned over garlicky sautéed cabbage instead of pasta, passing just-grated parmesan.
Provincial French and Italian cooking have a lot in common, and basil paste is one of them. The following makes the cheese optional. My friend Korki taught me this keeps the paste from drying out in the freezer. If you do make it without, it can be added at the table. I make some of each, with and without the parmesan, and it is a fine thing to pull out and serve on a cold winter's night.
4 lightly packed cups basil leaves, without stems
4 to 8 cloves garlic (to taste), chopped
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 cups toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups good quality olive oil
1 cup freshly grated piquant parmesan cheese (optional)
In the bowl of a food processor, combine first four ingredients until smoothly blended. Add olive oil slowly in a very thin steam, taking a full two minutes. When combined into a paste, add parmesan, if using, and pulse to combine. Divide into eight 4-ounce freezer containers (it shrinks up in the blending). When defrosted, it keeps a week or more. Stir 1 tablespoon into individual steaming bowls of cooked pasta or soup. Spread on bruschetta or pizza; mix 1 teaspoon per quarter cup mayo for sandwiches or spreads.
A note about celery: Celery does not really grow well in our area, and yet it is critical to soups, stews and stocks. Last winter, one local chef-turned-farmer taught me about leaf celery, which is grown as an herb. Also known as French or Chinese celery, it looks like parsley. Planted now, it will keep going until February. I bought two 4-inch pots at a local farmers' market a couple of weeks ago. Transplanted, they have already grown to 12 inches. During its short time in my garden, this plant has flavored a round of stocks, bouquets garnis and the above soup. I cannot say enough about what a difference it makes as herbal flavoring to one-pot meals and soffritos.