Meat Free Mondays – Lentil and Pumpkin Soup

It’s that pumpkin time of year!

Every autumn, there’s a three or four week period where pumpkins are everywhere and in everything, from our spiced lattes to our breads and bagels.

Lentil and Pumpkin Soup

Lentil and Pumpkin Soup

This year there must have been a bumper crop, because pumpkins are cheaper than I’ve ever seen them. Yesterday, I paid $2.98 for an enormous pumpkin the size of a basketball, which I quickly chopped in half, seeded and roasted off for its delicious and versatile meat.

In this vegetarian recipe, I used pumpkin as a thickening agent for a pretty traditional lentil soup. Lentils are are a type of bean — also known as a pulse – that are in the legume family.

Lentils are a staple of many vegetarian diets because vegetarians and vegans don’t eat animal protein, so they must supplement their diet with plenty of protein-rich lentils.

Lentils also are one of the oldest of all known foods, having been part of the human diet since at least the Neolithic periiod. They were one of the first foods that humans grew themselves, rather than gathered in the wild, with archeological evidence showing that they were eaten 9,500 to 13,000 years ago.

What I like about lentils are their versatility and their flavor. They make excellent cold salads, can be added to other dishes to contribute density, and can be mashed up, combined with other vegetables and be used as a veggie burger. They also can be served as a side dish, and, as seen here, they make delicious, hearty soups.

Lentils come in a variety of colors, including brown, red and green. Their flavor is sort of like a combination of kidney beans and peas. They have a meaty texture to them when cooked.

Unlike other dried beans, lentils don’t have to cook forever before they are done. Just simmer them in liquid for about 45 minutes and they are ready to eat. Dried lentils should be cooked in a 4:1 liquid ratio. So if you are cooking one cup of lentils, you should use 4 cups of water or other liquid.

Lentil and Pumpkin Soup

1  cup Dried Lentils

15.5 oz can Vegetable Stock

2 cups Water

1TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 Carrots, peeled and chopped

1 White Onion, medium dice

2 Celery Stalks, medium dice

2 Garlic Cloves, minced

1/2 tsp Smoked Paprika

10 oz can Diced Tomatoes

1 Bay Leaf

1-1/2 cups Cooked Pumpkin

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1 oz Queso Fresco (for garnish)

1. Fill a soup pot with water and add lentils. Stir them around to clean them, discarding any beans that float to surface. Drain and set aside.

2.Place the pot over a medium fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, celery and carrots. Stir and cook until softened, about two minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add lentils, paprika, vegetable stock, water and bay leaf. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook about 30 minutes.

3. Add tomatoes, replace cover and cook until lentils are soft, about another 15 to 20 minutes. Add enough pumpkin to thicken the soup to desired consistency, season to taste with S&P and continue cooking just until pumpkin is heated through, about five minutes.

4. Remove bay leaf, ladle into bowls, garnish with queso fresco and serve.

I actually cooked my lentil and pumpkin soup in my new crock pot, combining all the ingredients — except the tomatoes and pumpkin — and cooking on low for 8 hours. I just threw the tomatoes for the last hour and thickened it with the pumpkin at the end. It turned out wonderful.

A programming note: For those who have been wondering why there have been long absences in this blog recently, there are two reasons: 1.) My freelance writing business has picked up substantially (yay!) and 2.) Sandi and I spent a long, relaxing weekend on Siesta Key, Florida, with my family earlier this month.

I’m  glad to be back in the saddle, however, and promise to try to be more consistent with my blog writing. Thanks for your patience.

 

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Crockpot Corner — Turkey Quinoa Meatballs

I’ve decided to start a new feature now that the cooler weather has arrived here in Chicago. It’s called Crockpot Corner and the first recipe to be featured are these wonderful Turkey Quinoa Meatballs.

The name Crockpot Corner sounds like it should be in a 1980s women’s magazine, I know, and if anybody has any better suggestions, I would appreciate it.

Anyway, who doesn’t love meatballs? They are so veratile. You can serve them over pasta, offer them as an appetizer, or — my favorite — put them on a hinged roll and melt some cheese over them for a meatball grinder.

When I was growing up, my older brother, Michael, introduced me to many of the more counter-cultural happenings that were going on in the mid-1970s, one of which was the “underground comics” of R. Crumb.

The one I remember most clearly was called “Meatball” and as far as I can recall it comprised mostly of ordinary people getting hit in the head with meatballs that were thrown at them from somewhere off-panel.

Ever since then, meatballs have always struck me as funny and I can’t eat them without remembering that R. Crumb comic.

Like all crockpot recipes, this delicious meatball recipe is simple to make and cooks all day at low temperature, filling the house with a rich, lush aroma.

It’s based on one I found it at the amazing blog How Sweet It Is, which is written by a wonderfully fearless madwoman named Jessica who consistently provides great recipes and generously shares details of her life with her readers.

Most weeks, I find at least one or two recipes on Jessica’s blog that I end up making  (I’m planning to make one tonight, in fact). And her incredible food photography always inspires me to improve my own.

Turkey Quinoa Meatballs

2 lb Ground Turkey

2/3 cup Cooked Quinoa

3 Garlic Cloves, crushed

1 Egg, lightly beaten

2 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 TBS Grated Parmesan

2 tsp Dried Basil

1 tsp Dried Oregano

1/2 tsp Onion Powder

1/2 tsp Sea Salt

1/2 tsp Freshly Cracked Black Pepper

1 White Onion, cut into thin rings

28 oz can Crushed Tomatoes

10 oz can  Whole Peeled Tomatoes

6 oz can Tomato Paste

1. In a mixing bowl, combine turkey, quinoa, egg, olive oil, parmesan, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Mix together just until all the ingredients are combined, but be careful not to overmix because this can make the meatballs tough. With your hands, roll into meatballs about the size of golf ball. This should make about 24 meatballs.

2. In a crockpot, pour the crushed tomatoes and tomato paste and stir around until blended. Then lay the sliced onion on top.

3. Put a cast iron pan over a medium heat. When hot, drizzle in a little EVOO and wait until it starts to smoke. Then place about half the meatballs in the pan, being careful not to splash yourself with hot oil. Turn until all sides are browned, then place in the crock pot on top of the onions. Cook the remaining meatballs the same way and add them to the crockpot.

4. Pour the juice from the whole peeled tomatoes on top of the meatballs, then hand crush the tomatoes. I enjoy the tactile experience of hand-crushing my tomatoes, but it also allows the tomatoes to maintain some of their shape the sauce cooks down, adding texture. Cover and cook on low for 6 hours or on high for 3 hours.

I served these on hinged rolls smothered in tomato sauce and then covered with a slice of provalone cheese. Then I put it under the broiler for just a minute to melt the cheese a little.

This makes a lot of meatballs, so I ended up having these for lunch for a few days afterwards. I eventually sliced up the remaining meatballs and put them on a homemade pizza.

I hope you like the new feature and watch out for flying meatballs!

Crock Pot Spaghetti Sauce

The weather is officially cooler here in Chicago, so it’s time for one of the most exciting times of the year in our house: The beginning of crock pot season! I decided to start this season with something basic — Crock Pot Spaghetti Sauce.

Last crock pot season ended on a sad note. My crock pot broke! It was only about a year old, but I suppose I must have worn it out. During the colder months, we use our crock pot A LOT.

One day, it just died in the middle of making a batch of chili. Rescucitation efforts were unsuccessful. I was able to save the chili, however.

The good news is that I bought a brand new crock pot to kick off this season. While the last one had all the bells and whistles — including a digital readout, the ability to shift temperatures automatically, a temperature probe I never used — this time I decided to go back to basics.

I bought it at our local Kohl’s. I love that store because of all the discounts and special offers you get there. In this case, I was able to get my brand new, back-to-basics crock pot for a whopping … $13!!! That made my day, especially when you consider the last one that broke after only about a year cost more than $60.

It seems like I find new recipes I want to make from only a handful of blogs. That was the case with this Crock Pot Spaghetti Sauce recipe which I found on the wonderful Mom Makes … blog. Probably about 90 percent of the internet recipes I try come from either there or How Sweet It Is.

My new bare bones crock pot

I haven’t gotten on to Pinterest yet because I tend to be a bit obsessive. I’m afraid if I start looking around on that site, it would be days before I got off of it. That’s the same reason I don’t allow myself to play video games, incidentally. There are entire months of my life in the late ’80s that were wasted playing Super Mario Brothers.

Anyway, I modified this recipe slightly. I used ground turkey instead of ground beef. And I didn’t add the can of tomato sauce until close to the end of the cooking time because I discovered I didn’t have any and had to go out and buy some.

Still, it turned out very delicious. Both Sandi and I agreed that it was far superior to store bought pasta sauces, which tend not to taste much like anything. The tomato paste gave this sauce a distinctive bite to it, which I enjoyed.

Also, I substituted 1-1/2 TBS of Italian seasoning for the dried basil, thyme oregano because it is basically the same thing anyway.

Crock Pot Spaghetti Sauce

1 lb Ground Beef (or Ground Turkey)

Sea Salt

Fresh Ground Black Pepper

1 White Onion, diced

28 oz can of Crushed Tomatoes

8 oz can of Tomato Paste

6 oz can of Tomato Sauce

1 TBS Brown Sugar

1 Bay Leaf

3 Garlic Cloves, crushed

2 tsp Dried Oregano

2 tsp Dried Basil

3/4 tsp Sea Salt

1/2 tsp Dried Thyme

1/4 tsp Red Chili Pepper Flakes (optional)

2 TBS Butter (I actually forgot to add this)

1. Put a cast iron pan over a medium heat. When hot, add 1 TBS olive oil. When smoking, add the onions and cook until translucent, about 2 minutes, then add ground turkey. Season with salt and pepper and cook until liquid evaporates and meat begins to brown, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Meanwhile, in the crock pot, add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce, garlic and all the herbs and spices. When meat is ready, add to the crock pot and stir together. Cook on low for 4 to 6 hours, stirring once or twice. Add the butter just before serving.

Crock pot season is off to a great start with this delicious recipe. What sort of meals do you like to make in your crock pot? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Crock Pot Cooking – Italian Sausage in Tomato Sauce

First, an apology: It’s been far too long since I’ve written a new blog. No excuses, but my only explanation is that my freelance writing career has demanded all of my time and I’ve been swimming in work since approximately mid-April. Hurray!

One project I was working on was a book on crock pot cooking. The project eventually collapsed due to, ahem, creative differences with the client but I suddenly find myself with more than 100 crock pot recipes, some of which I’ve already photographyed.

Hence, a new feature at Budget Cooking Blog: Crock Pot Cooking.

I’ve written many times about the convenience of using a crock pot, such as this blog, this blog and, oh yes, this blog. The best thing about the crock pot is that you just set it and forget it, and at the end of the day you not only have a delicious meal that will feed your family for days, but your entire home is filled with a lush, mouth-watering aroma.

This particular recipe is one of my favorites: Italian Sauasage in Tomato Sauce. The combination of slow-cooking the sauce and the addition of roasted garlic-flavored tomato paste really brings out the acidity in this sauce, but it is nicely balanced with the sweetness of the sugar and is given complexity by the oregano and fennel.

While enjoying this classic appetier, it’s easy to imagine yourself dining al fresco along Mulberry Street in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood, watching as the parade of people pass by.

While this would be wonderful as an entree served over pasta, I like to serve it as an appetizer over hard polenta. The primary difference between hard polenta and soft polenta is that the former is made with water and the latter with dairy, such as milk, cream or whatever you happen to have on hand.

Hard polenta — which is not actually hard but is poured out onto a sheet pan and allowed to set up — can be cut into any shape you like, which gives you a lot of versatility for plating. It also can be pan fried or even grilled if you would like some additional color and flavor.

Italian Sausage in Tomato Sauce

1 lb Spicy Italian Sausage, either bulk or casings removed

1 small Red Onion, small dice

1 Carrot, peeled, small dice

1 Red Bell Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

28 oz can Crushed Tomatoes with Italian Seasonings

6 oz can Tomato Paste with Roasted Garlic

1 tsp Dried Oregano, or 1/2 tsp fresh

1 tsp Fennel Seeds

1 tsp Granulated Sugar

1/4 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

6 oz Hard Polenta (recipe follows), cut into any shape you like

1. Put cast iron skillet over a medium heat. When hot, add sausage, onion, carrot and bell pepper. Cook until sausage is browned, about 7 to 8 minutes, breaking up the sausage as it cooks.

2. Transfer sausage mixture into crock pot. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, fennel seeds, sugar and black pepper. Cook and cover until mixture simmers and thickens, about 4 to 6 hours on low or 2 to 3 hours on high.

To plate, arrange polenta on an appetizer plate then use a kitchen spoon to ladle a generous portion of the sausage mixture over half the polenta, leaving the other half exposed. Garnish with some freshly grated parmesan cheese and a sprig of parsley.

Hard Polenta

4 cups Water

1 cup Polenta (coarsely ground corn meal)

1 TBS Whole Unsalted Butter

3 TBS Grated Parmesan Cheese

1/2 tsp Freshly Cracked Black Pepper

1. Bring water to a boil then slowly whisk in polenta, stirring constantly so that it doesnt clump. Reduce heat and cook until polenta thickens to the point where it pulls away from the walls of the pot, about 12 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn.

2. When thick, turn off heat and fold in butter and parmesan. Season with pepper. You don’t need to add any salt because the parmesan already is quite salty.

Let the polenta cool for a few minutes, then pour it out onto a greased baking sheet smoothing it with a spatula to create an even level. Let it cool completetly at least an hour. You can then use a knife to cut the polenta into triangles, stars, circles or whatever shape you want. These polenta peices can be grilled or sauteed, or stored in your refrigerator or freezer for another time.

For creamy polenta, substitute dairy such as milk, half and half or heavy cream for the water and kick up the butter to 1-1/2 TBS or more, depending on how rich you like it.

My apologies once again for my absence. I have missed writing this blog and am looking forward to sharing more easy, delicious and inexpensive recipes in the coming weeks and months.

Barbeque Baked Beans

Memorial Day weekend is coming up and that means three things: The Indianapolis 500, Irish Fest at Gaelic Park, and cookouts.

I’m a big fan of cookout food, especially baked beans. But I’ve never found a storebought baked bean product I’ve really liked, and most homemade versions I’ve tried have lacked oomph.

I think baked beans should stand up and poke you in the eye with their barbeque flavor. With this barbeque baked beans recipe that I modified from this one I found on the excellent How Sweet It Is blog, your baked beans will be noticed at your weekend holiday cookout.

It’s bold. It’s brassy. It’ probably gassy. But it’s super delicious and your guests won’t soon forget it.

Plus, you can make it in the crock pot. Bonus!

Barbeque Baked Beans

1 lb Navy beans, dry

10 slices bacon

1 White Onion, medium dice

2 Garlic Cloves, crushed

2 cups Water

3/4 cup Barbeque Sauce (Any kind, I use Sweet Baby Ray’s)

1 cup Brown Sugar

1/4 cup Ketchup

2 TBS Molasses

1/2 cup Kentucky Bourbon (I used fake Jake Daniel’s)

1-1/2 TBS Dry Mustard

1/4 cup Apple Cider Vinegar

2 TBS Worcestershire Sauce

1. Place beans in a large pot and cover with water. Soak at least 4 hours up to overnight. Drain, return beans to pot, cover in water again and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for approximately 1 hour. Remove from heat, drain again, then pour out onto a sheet pan to cool.

2. Cook bacon slices in cast iron skillet. When all the bacon is cooked, chop it into small peices and set aside. Drain all but 1 TBS of the bacon grease from the pan, then return it to the fire and add onions. Cook over a low heat for 10 minutes to carmelize, stirring frequently. Add garlic for the last minute, then remove from heat.

3. In a crock pot, combine water, bourbon, brown sugar, barbeque sauce, ketchup, dry mustard, vinegar, molasses and Worcestershire sauce. Stir in beans, onions and bacon. Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours or on high for 4 to 5 hours. When cooking cycle is over, leave crock pot on the warm setting for at least an hour so the beans can thicken up really nicely.

These beans are miraculous. I served mine with jalapeno cornbread and the pairing was so rich it could have been a meal in itself.

This recipe makes a large batch, so there will be plenty to share. They can be reheated the next day and in fact will taste even better. If you have an electrical connection in your backyard, bring the whole crock pot outside and keep your beans warm until you are ready to serve them.

What Memorial Day/beginning of summer food rituals do you look forward to every year? Share your story in the comments section below. And thank you for supporting my blog!

Ham, White Bean and Escarole Soup

As the weather begins to get warmer, I begin a desperate effort to make just a few more crock pot recipes before it’s time to put it away for the season.

There’s really nothing preventing me from using the crock pot during the summer months, but it just doesn’t feel right. It would be like buying a snow shovel in July.

My crock pot is great for the winter, but it’s even better during these in between times, when the temperature is warming, yet still crisp enough to send a chill down your neck.

It’s precisely these kinds of days when a warm soup slowly stewing in the crock pot brings the most comfort. Mix up a batch of jalapeno cornbread just before dinner is served and you have the perfect dinner for a cool mid-Spring evening.

Like most crock pot recipes, this soup is extremely economical. Of course, beans and the produce cost next to nothing, but in this soup I used ham scraps leftover from a long ago meal that have been waiting patiently in the freezer for precisely this moment.

You also could use a leftover ham bone or a smoked ham hock. Or simply leave the ham out altogether for a delightful vegetarian dinner soup.

I used Cannellini beans because they are a little larger than Great Northerns and I think they give the soup a little more substance.

If you haven’t used it before, escarole is a type of rough lettuce, kind of like a mix between green leaf lettuce and kale. I don’t generally make a salad out of it on its own because it has a little too much texture, but it is perfect for fortifying other salad greens or throwing into a soup like this one.

Escarole adds an iron-rich flavor that is similar to spinach but not as strong.

Ham, White Bean and Escarole Soup

1 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

1 Medium white onion, diced

2 Carrots, peeled and diced

2 Celery stalks, leaves included, diced

8 oz Ham, small dice

2  cans Cannellini beans, drained

1/2 head Escarole lettuce, rough chop

16 oz Low-fat, low-sodium chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

1 tsp Dried thyme

1 tsp Dried basil

1 clove Garlic, crushed

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1. Place cast iron pan over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, carrot and celery. This combination of vegetables is called a mirepoix (MEER-eh-pwah) and is the basis for many soup recipes. Saute until onions are translucent, about five minutes, then add ham and saute another two minutes. Add garlic, saute another minute, then add to crock pot.

2. Add to crock pot the beans, thyme, basil and stock. Set dial to low and cook for about seven hours. During the final hour of cooking, stir in the escarole. Continue cooking on low for another hour. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

This very basic soup recipe can be transformed into any number of variations by adding or substituting different types of beans, proteins, seasonings and even greens.

You can even add pastas, such as elbow macaroni or orzo, and a little crushed tomato if you want to make a  more traditional Italian soup.

 

The Best Split Pea Soup in Chicago

There’s not a lot I like about winter in Chicago, but I do enjoy making split pea soup.

The best split pea soup has a dense texture and a delicious, slightly smoky flavor that will warm up even the coldest winter night. Although we’ve been lucky so far this year in terms of very little snow, it has been quite cold.

This recipe is a little different than how I’ve made it in the past. This soup includes red lentils and sweet potatoes in addition to the green split peas. That accounts for the lighter color.

The recipe also included a lot of liquid, more than I would normally use. Perhaps it was because I found it in a Weight Watchers crock pot cookbook. But the texture ended up being lighter than normal split pea, which I found delightfully refreshing.

It was super easy to make in the crock pot. Plus it is low-fat because it is made with smoked turkey leg rather than ham, a ham hock or  a peice of salt pork. The turkey leg created just the right smoky flavor but without any of the fat and less salt as well.

The turkey leg I used had been smoked and cut into cross-sections, which resulted in a lot of tiny pin bones that I had to pick through. But the extra work was worth the effort because of the added health benefits of this soup.

The result was one of the best split pea soups I’ve ever had. It tasted exactly like split pea soup, but it was much lighter. I’ve had split pea soups before that you could use to spackle a wall. Not this one. It was just creamy enough.

It was also very inexpensive to make. The most expensive ingredient was the smoked turkey drumstick and that was only about $1.50/lb.

Low-Fat Split Pea Soup

48 ounces reduced fat, low sodium chicken stock

2 cups water

1 cup dried green split peas

1 cup dried red lentils

2 carrots, peeled, medium dice

2 celery stalks, leafs included, medium dice

1 white onion, medium dice

1 sweet potato, peeled, medium dice

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 TBS curry powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 smoked turkey drumstick

1. In crock pot, combine broth, water, split peas, lentils, carrots, onion, celery, sweet potato, curry powder and salt. Add turkey, pressing it down into the mixture. Cover and cook on high for four to five hours or on low for eight to ten hours.

2. Use a slotted spoon or tongs to remove turkey leg and set on plate to cool about 15 minutes. Using a fork (okay, I used my hands) carefully pick through the turkey meat to remove any bones. I found quite a few pin bones in the leg I used. Discard skin and bones, then pull remaining meat into pieces and return to pot.

A spicy crouton would go great with this soup. Simply cut some day old bread, any kind, into 1/2 squares, then toss it in a mixing bowl with a little extra virgin olive oil and a few shakes of cayenne pepper. Lay them out on a sheet pan and bake at 300F for about 15 minutes or until crisp. Cool then store in a sealable plastic bag or airtight container until ready to use. These will stay fresh for about a week.

This recipe makes a fairly large batch of soup, so be prepared to have split pea soup for a few days. Like most soups, it tastes better the second day!

What recipes do you like to make to warm up cold winter nights? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!