Easter Sunday is coming up, and over at my church, the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Tucson, the folks who attend the 12:30 p. m. Spanish Mass are going to have a potluck. That places me in the position of deciding what I will contribute.
The priest of our church is a vegetarian, which makes me think immediately about what I might make in the way of a vegetarian main dish. I have a certain standard about so-called health food dishes: they must be as good as, or better than the conventional dishes that they are equivalent to. Therefore, if I make something like a vegetarian Minestrone or a curry, they have to be so good that it would never occur to the dinner guests that they are not a conventional high-end entree.
I like to make a pot of soup, store it away and eat it up over a week or so (being careful that it does not deteriorate). This makes meals easy, and it's kind of like celebrity Chef Rachael Ray and her "week in a day" idea. I also make bread and slice it when it has cooled, and then freeze it sliced so that I can warm up one or two slices at a time, further enhancing my dinner.
So when you put together a vegetarian Minestrone, all you have to do is get the right ingredients before you start cooking, and everything will come together wonderfully for the kind of soup you can serve to your friends. They will probably not ask you if it is vegetarian unless you are dealing with someone conscientious, who wants to make sure. But of course you could also mention it, once the guests are seated. You toss it off casually, understating it this way, "Oh, by the way, guys, this soup is vegetarian." You ought to get some compliments!
I shop at Costco down on the Kino Parkway for their outstanding organic canned tomato products and other organic or high-quality products (like their coffee). For the mixed vegetables that typically appear in minestrone, I stop by Sprouts for their organic cut mixed vegetables. There really isn't much to it after that--it is not the prep but the ingredients that make the difference.
ORGANIC VEGETARIAN MINESTRONE
From Cafe Margot
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 large organic onion, diced
4 cloves organic garlic, minced
2 stalks organic celery, sliced thin
2 cups organic cut mixed greens
1 28-ounce can organic diced tomatoes
1 14-ounce can organic crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce
6 cups organic vegetable broth
1 can organic Cannelloni beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup organic elbow pasta (whole wheat works well)
1 teaspoon dried organic oregano
1 teaspoon dried organic basil
Sea salt and freshly-ground pepper
1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh organic basil
Sweat the onions in the olive oil until they begin to become translucent, and then add the minced garlic. Cook for 1-2 minutes more over medium heat and add the celery.
Place the tomatoes and broth in the pot with the vegetables and stir to combine. Add the dried herbs. Bring the broth back to a boil if it has cooled, and stir in the cut mixed vegetables (the boil will go down now). Let the broth come back to temperature and cover the pot. Let it cook for twenty minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
Remove the top and add the pasta and beans. Allow the soup to boil for 10 minutes, so that the pasta will cook and the beans will heat through.
Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish the soup with the Parmesan cheese and chopped basil.
This is actually a pretty simple soup recipe. You are more or less home free after you have cut up the onion, garlic and celery--after that it is just a matter of opening cans (don't forget to drain the beans).
For a dinner party, I would make a loaf of my go-to Big Six bread but skip the bread pan. I would roll the risen dough into a ball, flatten it slightly and allow it to rise the second time to make an Italian loaf. I don't see much reason to meddle with my bread recipe that works so well, although it's reasonable to use artisanal bread flour if you want a certain taste. I might also skip the wheat germ and Ralston cereal that I usually add to the bread, and slash it over the top to give it the European look. If you are going to do this, you could also add 2 teaspoons of Italian seasoning to the bread dough for an herbal taste.
Do not waste your delicate extra-virgin olive oil on anything that you are going to cook, by the way. Just get a good olive oil for soups and save the EVOO for salad dressing or drizzling.