Potato and bean soup (patate e fagioli)

Who invented the idea of “Meatless Monday?”  The U.S. Food Administration did during World War I and urged families to conserve key staples to aid the war effort, but the idea was revived in 2003 by an ad exec-turned health advocate for dietary and environmental reasons.   Ironically, the Food Administration also tried to promote “Wheatless Wednesday” during WWI, which I would love to see make a comeback.  But I have a feeling you won’t see the US government advocating abstaining from any big political donors major food industries anymore.  However if you ask my sisters and me who invented “Meatless Monday,” we would tell you with conviction that it was our mother.   Vegetarian dinners on Mondays were a part of my life growing up.  I loved them since I was a vegetarian from about the age of 10 to 18.  But believe me, my mother was not trying to cater to me at all.  Her thought was that we tended to indulge over the weekend with heavy meals, usually centered on lots of pasta, meat and cheese and that we needed a break.  My sisters, who were most definitely NOT vegetarians called it “Low Budget Night,” since Monday’s dinners tended to be less expensive and less fancy.

Beans or lentils were almost always the star of the show on Mondays and they usually found their way into a soup.  This potato and white bean soup is just a take on a traditional pasta and bean soup or “pasta e fagioli,” as you might see it on a menu.  I love that potatoes, a whole food, take the place of pasta, which is a (processed) food I eat very occasionally.  The recipe requires so few ingredients, many of which you probably have in your pantry.  And if you make your beans from scratch, this soup will cost you practically nothing.  The potatoes and beans both add a rich creaminess to the soup, as well as work together to form a complete protein.  Even though beans are typically bland, this soup has a nice, almost smoky flavor and feels very satisfying despite the lack of fat.  A typical Monday dinner would be a nice big bowl of this soup with a side of sauteed greens or a salad and some crusty bread.  Sometimes my parents would also add a wedge of good cheese (that my father smuggled in his suitcase from Italy) to the table and that was that.

My husband grew up with neither Meatless Mondays nor Meatless Any Days, so getting him to buy into a dinner of potato and bean soup took some time.  Now he loves it and especially how it makes him feel afterwards (“not gross”).   Lest anyone feel cheated, I happily serve both a salad and some roasted vegetables on the side.  All my kids, Mr. Picky included, love this soup.  It’s white!  What kids don’t like white food?  Of course,  I can’t help but stir in some escarole in at the end.  You know me and my greens.  They’re going to save your life, so I’ll find anyway to include them that I can.  If your local market doesn’t carry escarole, feel free to add some spinach, arugula or chard.  I always plan to have extra soup for thermoses in the next day’s lunch boxes, which works out perfectly for “Trash-free Tuesday” at our school!

Have you made any new year’s resolutions?  I’ve been contemplating a few, but what tends to work better for me are measurable resolutions, such as “cook dinner five nights a week” or “do yoga every Sunday.”  I’ve never had luck with “eat better” or “exercise more.”  Most people tend to come up with resolutions about diet and health, but they’re usually about short term weight loss or feeling better after 6 weeks of holiday overindulgence.  I think “Meatless Mondays” is an easy one to try and it doesn’t mean you’re becoming a vegetarian or a vegan, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It just means a commitment to eating more plant-based foods and acknowledging the heavy environmental footprint of raising animals in this country.  Just a thought.

Talk to me here — am I the only one who grew up with Meatless Mondays?  Does your family currently partake?  I need some inspiration for my new year’s resolutions — feed me!  Or just make this soup.  Here’s to a happy and healthy 2012!

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Potato and Bean Soup (Patate e Fagioli)
Serves: 8
  • 1 pound dried white beans, such as Great Northern or cannellini, about 2 ½ cups*
  • 1 2-3 inch piece of kombu (optional)
  • 2 Tablespoons unrefined, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 8 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
  • 1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes (or other boiling potato), cubed
  • 1 6-inch sprig of fresh rosemary (optional, I like it just as much without)
  • 3-4 teaspoons sea salt (depending on saltiness of the stock)
  • 1 head escarole, leaves coarsely chopped
  • Grated Pecorino-Romano or Parmesan cheese for serving, if desired
  1. Wash beans well and pick over for stones and debris. Soak beans with kombu in plenty of fresh cold water overnight or at least 6 hours. This can be done in a covered container or in a pot (I use the same pot for soaking as for cooking the soup) on a countertop. Refrigerate if your kitchen is warm.
  2. Just before you begin cooking, drain the beans into a colander. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large heavy-bottomed pot, and add the onion and garlic. Cook until softened, about 8-10 minutes.
  3. Add the beans and stock to the pot and raise the heat to high. You can add the kombu to the pot, if you like for additional alkalinity. Bring soup to a boil, cover, then lower to a simmer. Cook for 1 hour.
  4. Add the potato, sea salt and (optional) rosemary. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Test the beans for tenderness. If they’re not done, continue to simmer until they’re tender. Once beans are tender, you can puree the soup to your desired consistency or leave chunky. Remove the kombu and sprig of rosemary before pureeing.
  5. Stir in the escarole and cook until wilted. Serve with grated cheese, if desired.
If you want to use canned beans, you will need 4 15-ounce cans, or about 6 cups. I like Eden Organic. Follow the directions below:

Saute onions and garlic.
Add potatoes, stock, salt and (optional) rosemary. Cook for 30 minutes or until tender.
Add beans to pot and cook until heated through. Puree to desired consistency (or don’t). Stir in escarole.


Mini-empanadas with mixed greens

Well, like it or not, it’s officially holiday season!  Even though there’s so much to love about the holidays, I just wish it didn’t all happen at once.  Do you ever have that feeling?  But one thing I truly look forward to is getting together with friends for a good, old-fashioned cocktail party, provided I get invited to one.  I love mingling and chatting with lots of different people and eating fun little noshes at my leisure.  However, if you ask me, I do think there’s a little room for improvement in the hors d’oeuvres arena.  (Maybe that’s why I don’t get invited to too many parties.)  You know what I mean, right?   Lots of baked brie with chutney, sad-looking crudite with not-homemade hummus, or tomato-basil bruschetta…in the winter!  We’re going to step it up a notch today, folks.  You need to bring an hors d’oeuvre to a party either this weekend or next, correct?  Although I have several fab party recipes on the site already, these empanadas are tied for my favorite with the Zucchini-Gruyere Tart, which is a winner every time.

Empanadas are these delicious little savory hand pies.    It’s almost like a small tart that has been folded over.  Whereas there are infinite fillings you can use, empanada pastry dough is usually stuffed with seasoned ground beef and fried.  We’re not doing any of that.  When I noticed a recipe for empanadas in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone using leafy greens and olives, I knew I had to try them.  I have tweaked the recipe over the years to make it simpler and sometimes I add finely diced precooked turkey sausage to the greens — delicious, I tell you.  My kids are crazy for them and I really don’t think they even know what they’re eating.

After my last class the Friday before Thanksgiving when I thought I might collapse, I realized that two months ago I had volunteered my house for a pot luck dinner the NEXT night because, you know, it seemed like a bonehead  good idea at the time.  Well, what was a good idea was that I offered to do a turkey since I would have a leftover demo bird from Friday’s class as well as an hors d’oeuvre, knowing full well that I could make these scrumptious little empanaditas in October and freeze them.

Daughter #1 and I had fun making them one afternoon when she had a day off from school.  You don’t have to make the pastry from scratch like I did.  I have seen prepared empanada pastry rounds in specialty markets, or you can cut out rounds from pie crusts.  But if you have ever made cut-out cookies, you can do this.  I normally just roll out the little rounds and leave them with imperfect edges, but I was surprised that my daughter wanted to take the time to use round cookie cutters to make them “prettier.”  If you don’t want or need to freeze the empanadas, you can roll out the rounds the day before and keep them well-covered.  You can also make your filling in advance and then assemble the empanadas before you bake them.  Let me just tell you right now, you should make these whether you’re party-bound or not and freeze them for a rainy day.  My kids will pull them out of the freezer and pop them into the toaster oven for an after school snack or to eat with a bowl of soup on the weekend.  You can even stick them in a lunchbox!  Do my good ideas ever end?  Can you tell I’ve had too much green tea today?!


Mini-Empanadas with Mixed Greens
Serves: makes 24 mini-empanadas
  • Empanada Dough:
  • 3 ¾ cups all-purpose flour (you can sub out ½ cup with whole wheat pastry)
  • ¾ teaspoon fine grain sea salt
  • 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 2 sticks + 2 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • ½ cup + 2 Tablespoons ice water
  • Filling:
  • 2 Tablespoons unrefined, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil or ghee
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 12 cups mixed chopped greens such as Swiss chard, beet greens, kale, spinach, and/or escarole
  • ⅔ cup shredded fontina cheese (optional)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 beaten egg + 1 Tablespoon milk
  1. Make the dough: In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the flour, salt and sugar. Add the butter and pulse until the butter is in pea-sized pieces. With the machine running, slowly add the water through the feed tube and pulse until a ball of dough comes together.
  2. Transfer the dough to a piece of parchment paper or plastic wrap. Use your hands to pat the dough into a disk. Wrap the dough with the parchment (or plastic wrap) and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
  3. Divide the dough into 24 pieces: first cut 8 equal wedges, like a pizza. Then cut each wedge into three pieces. Roll each piece into a 4-inch circle. Transfer to a sheet pan and refrigerate.
  4. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Make the filling: Heat oil or ghee in a large skillet over medium heat and add the onion, garlic, parsley and red pepper flakes. Saute until the onion is tender, about 4 minutes. Add the greens and sea salt and pepper to taste and cook until softened, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. If there’s a lot of moisture, drain some of the liquid.
  5. Add the cheese to the greens and taste for seasoning. Allow to cool slightly before filling the pastry.
  6. Place a spoonful of filling on the lower half of each dough circle, then fold the pastry over and seal the edges with the tines of a fork. Brush with the beaten egg and milk mixture. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until browned. (If you are baking these directly from the freezer, bake an additional 10-15 minutes.) Serve warm or at room temperature.
If you would like to add some precooked turkey sausage to the filling, take 4 (about 12 ounces) and diced them up. Add them to the pan with the onion, etc. Reduce the greens to 10 cups.

If you have a few tablespoons of leftover filling, save it the next day for an omelet. Yum!