Hidden Vegetables Italian Style – Minestrone Soup with Meatballs

Following on from last week’s post, I definitely tried to keep the kids and food debate general but as I wrote I realised that I was actually rounding on the subject of kids and veg. That 5-a-day advice haunts me relentlessly and I can’t blog for much longer without addressing the issue head on.

I’m with everyone else who becomes more than a little frustrated with the food writers who claim that as long as the food looks appetizing and that you start as you mean to go on then there is no reason why your kids won’t enjoy vegetables. Yeah right! Perseverance, patience and pleading is more likely and so it has been with us.

I don’t share Annabel Karmel’s world view.

Nigella on the other hand does really talk some sense and not just on this subject. She, like me, believes in cooking vegetables hidden in cakes, casseroles and the like, suggests that if you are really going to be bold about it (and deal with the issue head on) serve fruit and veg up in pure form as part of the habilitation process and (rather randomly) the kid’s homework is far more troublesome than your own ever was! (It’s that last remark which totally won me over to her way of thinking.)

Marrying kids and vegetables is a long hard road with many pitched battles along the way; I keep adding cucumber to Child 1’s ham sandwiches and he keeps taking it out and leaving it in the box to taunt me. He is clearly defiant on this point as he doesn’t even pretend he’s eaten the stuff by disposing of it in school. Both of mine will not ever never eat a tomato (just like Lola, or maybe because of her!) cherry or otherwise despite that fact that I will pop the little ones like sweets.

So we really are driven to underhand means. For the record mine do eat a reasonably wide range of veg now but only after much work and the list of acceptable veg is random, still protest if asked to eat fruit however will do so if they can have something ‘nice’ afterwards (I don’t always comply) and, thankfully, can still be completely duped with hidden stuff. Tee Hee.


The Continentals do have gadgetry for helping with this; the French have moulis, and the Italian’s, Nonna (Grandmother – hardly a gadget I know) to cook sauces and soups for hours and hours so that a rich, thick, delicious homogenous, usually tomato coloured goo is all you have to look at. Perfect.

Now this minestrone recipe won’t take 3 hours to make, I promise, but can be made in advance/at the weekend/frozen in batches to make a fantastic mid-week meal and can also be assembled in about ½ hour having dashed in from swimming.

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/Fan 180°C. Into a reasonably sized saucepan add 2 tbsp olive oil and fry off a chopped onion gently for 5 minutes or so and towards the end of this time add a crushed clove of garlic, a grated carrot, ½ finely chopped red pepper and 1 finely chopped stick of celery! (Round our way this is the basis for practically anything that needs a tomato based sauce.) Cook that lot gently for another 5 minutes or so and then add 1 tin of tomatoes, chopped ultimately, 1 squirt of tomato puree, 1 pint of vegetable or chicken stock (you may need a bit more), 1 tsp of sugar and optionally 2 tsp pesto and the rind-y end-y bit of the parmesan. Stir all that round and bring to the boil and then add either a handful or so of rice or macaroni and let it simmer whilst you cook the meatballs.

Now then, you can make your own….. *hmmm* (quite), or buy some of those in packets of twelve on the fresh meat section, beef or sometimes you can get pork or turkey. Think mini here as we are having soup not spaghetti, so cut each one in half and reshape and place them in a small roasting tin or baking sheet and pop in the oven for 15 minutes or so to cook. Beef and pork will cook in their own fat, turkey may need a drop of oil in the bottom. Everything should then be ready together. Back to the soup: fish out the parmesan rind, check the seasoning and add a little more warm stock or water if necessary to provide the right consistency.

If you need to produce a smooth puree then the tomato sauce minus the pasta/rice can be blended with a hand-held blender and couscous can be added with 5 minutes to go instead.

Ladle into bowls and ‘sprinkle’ with the meatballs. Supply grated cheese, parmesan or otherwise if you wish. To bulk this up a little more, we often have cheese on toast as an accompaniment rather than cheese sprinkled on top.

N.B. Whilst you can freeze or hold the soup in advance I would cook the meatballs at the point you need them, not ahead of time.

I appreciate that the amount of veg here is minimal, but everyone has to start somewhere, we will aim higher when I return to this topic.

Today is Veg Box Day and the Introduction of Unloved Vegetables

Today is veg box delivery day – Hurray!! What a shame the fridge is still half full of the previous delivery, I feel a bit of soup making coming on. A lot of our cooking and eating is governed by the fortnightly appearance, over the garden wall, of our veg box. We have subscribed to one for years now and really do feel lost without it. Not having to think about which veg to buy I find quite a release, drives the small amount of menu planning that goes on here, ensures we are eating seasonally and prevents the peppers-broccoli-mushrooms rut we would be stuck in otherwise.

A lot of my peers also seem to belong to that section of the population which feel they ought to have, do have, did have, cancelled then went back too, couldn’t get on with but nonetheless did try a veg box. Many of us seem to treat veggies like one views medicine, it’s got to done, grimly peeling, chopping, steaming, coaxing kids into eating and endlessly flicking though cook books over. My view, for what it is worth, is that either because I need an antidote to the amount of sugar I work with or because I genuinely like most of them, I really don’t mind the effort involved in coping with them but admittedly it probably has taken years to get into a groove.

I currently have a Riverford box and previously to that when living in Bristol we had one supplied by The Green Wheel who can be located with a bit of searching on their link (Don’t have a website). Green Wheel were completely great, as Lola from Charlie and Lola might say. Reliable, veg was great, you had little treats of this and that, the odd lemon thrown in and Billy and Co really thought about what people might need from their veg delivery. True customer service was a trademark and I was sad to eventually move out of their range. However Riverford are good too and in my experience deliver slightly better quality veg than Abel and Cole the other big player in this field (!).

Now it’s hard to make any of this sound very jolly so I think I’ll have a picture, of a carrot cake (the shed), which happens to have veggies as part of it’s theme.

Unloved Vegetables

I doubt these need much explanation. Chatting to friends about their experience with ordering boxes the main complaint is usually ‘too much of things they don’t really want to eat’. The reasons behind this problem probably range from not liking something, to the dictatorial nature of the veg box to just not having enough recipes to vary how a particular veg box inhabitant might be served up. The unloved vegetables. This theme of using up unloved veggies is sort of starting to take root (!) in recipe books as cookery authors and chefs have worked out that those who buy such books are often veg box recipients too. Box schemes themselves also try to help with this, I for one have never got on that well with most of the veg recipes supplied by schemes. During the week I often want a one pot meal and endless recipes using veg as an accompaniment do not hit the spot. A range of books and authors seems to be the only tactic.

I am planning to try to address this from time to time as I blog to give some ideas for those in despair over too many beetroot, cabbages, swedes, leeks….

So unloved vegetable number ONE – Celeriac

Soup is often an excellent route to take when dealing with unloved veggies. Celeriac I think is relatively versatile, as it can be mashed with potato, mashed on its own, used to pad out casseroles, widely used in salad-y type things and also works very well in soup.

A basic celeriac soup recipe might look like this: Chop an onion, and fry over a medium to low heat in a reasonably sized knob of butter and a little oil until transparent, add a clove of crushed garlic, along with, diced, a medium potato and a medium celeriac, (optionally a sliced leek),  cover and sweat for 10 minutes or so over a low heat. Then add around 1 litre of stock, veg or chicken, actual or from stock cubes is fine. bring to boil and simmer for around 20 mins until the veggies are tender. Blend, add a little thyme or chopped dill or parsley and a couple of good tablespoons or either, fromage frais, crème fraîche, or double cream. Season to taste.

Things one might add here: ¼-½ tsp of truffle oil or garlic oil, or 15-25g of dried mushrooms soaked in boiling water for 20 minutes (add these, drained, with the stock), or 4-6 chopped field mushrooms (again add with the stock), or lemon juice to taste.

The New Covent Garden Food Co. Soup Cookbook  needs a shout out here, brimming with fantastic recipes and lots of inspiration.

P.S. A word about tagging – I am planning to develop my own tagging system to work alongside the more conventional one supplied by WordPress. Unloved veggies will therefore appear as a tag and be used each time I feel I have blogged about a tricky vegetable. Over time I’m hoping this will produce a list of recipes to browse through.

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