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Thinking big

Cat Campbell/For The Madera Tribune

Similar to minestrone, this homemade vegetable soup will feed you for several days.


As of this writing, people are being asked to stay home and limit any outings to essential things such as getting groceries or medical attention (unless your job is considered as essential.)

I am fortunate because this stay-at-home program is not much different than my normal daily life routine. The only difference is I am unable to visit my in-laws at their assisted-living residence, and trips to see my mom are rare. I have been enjoying a lot of jigsaw puzzles, have crocheted two shawls and am working on various art projects.

And then there is cooking, of course.

One thing that really helps me out is preparing a dinner that is large enough to provide leftovers for at least one more night, and quite often two. When you fix something that you like, it is not a punishment to have it for dinner again. My best go-to idea is a big pot of homemade vegetable soup.

I do not use a recipe, but I can at least give a decent explanation, one that allows for you to adjust all ingredients according to your tastes. I will start out with that, and also share a few other recipes that you can use to give yourself a break from cooking for a night or two. Here’s hoping you are all dealing with this situation the best you can and staying healthy.

Cat’s vegetable soup

This is more like minestrone than anything else, and sometimes I add beans to it. When I do, I love to use dry cranberry beans, because my Italian Nana grew some in her garden and used them in her soups. I cook them separately, then add to the pot when they are tender. Add some garlic to this soup if you like, but it isn’t necessary. You can also use dried herbs if fresh aren’t available.

1 medium head green cabbage, chopped roughly

1 medium onion, chopped

2 large ribs celery, stringed and chopped (tops included if you have any)

1 or 2 sprigs of fresh parsley, minced

About 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, minced

Very small amount fresh rosemary leaves (about 1/2 teaspoon), minced

About 1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves, minced

Small amount of extra virgin olive oil

1 slice raw bacon, finely chopped

1 small can tomato sauce (use 2 if you really like a strong tomato flavor)

1 can (I think 11.5-oz.) V-8 Juice, original flavor

1 bag (16-oz.) frozen mixed vegetables (the kind with diced carrots, corn, peas, green beans and sometimes lima beans)

1 box frozen chopped spinach

3 or 4 small zucchini, ends removed and sliced

1 1/2 to 2 cups white, red or gold potatoes, peeled and diced

1 cup small dried pasta, such as small shells or ditalini (the kind commonly used for macaroni salad)

About 4 tablespoons Knorr chicken bouillon granules

1. In large kettle over medium-high heat, cook bacon until the fat renders out. The bacon does not need to be cooked to a crisp. If you think it is necessary, add a little olive oil, as you will be cooking vegetables in this.

2. Add the chopped cabbage, onions, celery, parsley and other herbs. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage, onions and celery have softened and become tender. If using fresh garlic, be careful not to let it burn.

3. Add the bag of frozen mixed vegetable to the pot. Remove spinach from its box and microwave it on a plate for about 9 minutes, or until it thaws and becomes tender. (You can also use an equivalent amount of frozen chopped spinach that is packaged in a bag. In that case, you can skip the microwave.) Add the spinach to the pot.

4. Add at least 2 quarts water to pot, or if needed, 3 and possible four quarts. This is where your own judgement kicks in. Add the tomato sauce and can of V-8 juice. When the mixture starts to boil, add the chicken bouillon and stir well. Turn down heat to a good simmer and let the soup cook, uncovered for at the very least 1 hour. When the broth seems rich enough (taste it) you can place a lid on the pot so it doesn’t evaporate too much.

5. At this time, add the zucchini slices and cook until they are turning a bit translucent. Add the pasta, and when it is about halfway done, add the diced potatoes. Cook until tender. Serve the soup with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese. A bit of red pepper sauce (such as Trappey’s Red Devil or Crystal) adds a nice flavor boost.

Penne pasta with beef and veggies

1 package (about 16-oz.) penne pasta

1 pound lean ground beef

2 medium zucchini, finely chopped

1 large green pepper, finely chopped

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 jar (24-oz.) spaghetti sauce

1 1/2 cups Alfredo sauce

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, divided

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder or granules

Minced fresh parsley, optional

1. Preheat oven to 375. Cook penne according to package directions. Meanwhile, in a Dutch oven, cook the beef, zucchini, green pepper and onion over medium heat until meat is no longer pink; drain, if necessary. Stir in the spaghetti sauce, Alfredo sauce, 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese and garlic powder. Drain penne; stir into meat mixture.

2. Transfer to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Cover and bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining mozzarella cheese. Bake, uncovered, an additional 3 to 5 minutes longer or until cheese is melted. If desired, top with parsley. Makes 8 servings.

Pasta with Swiss chard and butternut squash

3 cups uncooked bow tie pasta

2 cups ricotta cheese

4 large eggs

3 cups frozen cubed butternut squash, thawed and divided (if using fresh, steam until about halfway done)

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon salt, divided

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 cup coarsely chopped shallots

1 1/2 cups chopped Swiss chard, stems removed

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs

1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder or granules

1. Preheat oven to 375. Cook pasta according to package directions for al dente; drain. Meanwhile, place the ricotta, eggs, 1 1/2 cups squash, thyme, 1/4 teaspoon salt and nutmeg in a food processor; process until smooth. Pour into a large bowl. Stir in pasta, Swiss chard, shallots and remaining squash. Transfer to a greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

2. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add bread crumbs; cook and stir until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in parsley, garlic powder and remaining salt. Sprinkle over pasta mixture.

3. Bake, uncovered, until set and topping is golden brown, about 30 to 35 minutes. Makes 8 to 9 servings.

Loaded baked potato casserole with chicken

2 pounds baby potatoes (about 15 to 20)

1 whole rotisserie chicken, meat removed and shredded

1 pound bacon, sliced crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces

1 bag (12-oz.) frozen broccoli, thawed and warmed in microwave or stove top

1 bunch green onions, sliced crosswise

1/2 cup chicken broth

2 cups sour cream

2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 375 when potatoes are about halfway done cooking. While potatoes are cooking, cook bacon pieces in a large skillet over medium-high heat until crisp, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels. Reserve bacon grease. Boil potatoes in a large pot in heavily salted water until fully cooked and tender, approximately 20 minutes. Drain potatoes. Grease a large 9-by-13-inch baking dish with butter or cooking spray. Place cooked potatoes in baking dish in a single layer. There should be a little space between each potato. Using the bottom of a drinking glass, lightly press down on each potato, smashing it about half way. The bottom of the baking dish should be fully covered when all of the potatoes are smashed. Drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons of the reserved bacon grease over the potatoes.

2. In a bowl, mix together shredded chicken, cooked bacon (except about 2 tablespoons for garnish on the top), heated broccoli, and green onions (except 2 tablespoons for garnish on top). Sprinkle with salt and pepper and mix well. Put this mixture on top of potatoes and spread evenly.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together chicken broth, sour cream 1 1/2 cups of the shredded cheese, paprika, pepper and salt until well blended. Spread this mixture on top of the chicken mixture.

4. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes until heated through. Remove foil and top with remaining bacon, cheese and green onions, then bake another 5 to 10 minutes to fully melt the cheese. Remove from oven and serve hot. Makes 8 servings.

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