Soup's on! See how tasty vegetables can be

Nick Rodriguez adds peas to the mix as Nysirah Hall stirs and Aneza Abalo watches. "I would eat the whole pot if I could," Nick said after having some.
Nick Rodriguez adds peas to the mix as Nysirah Hall stirs and Aneza Abalo watches. "I would eat the whole pot if I could," Nick said after having some. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 04, 2014

Even before the others had shed their backpacks and donned their aprons, Nick Rodriguez, 10, was smashing a clove of garlic, slamming his fist on the flat side of a knife, at our second cooking class at Henry Lawton Elementary. Yes, he said, without looking up, he had already peeled it.

"Hey! I want a turn!" said Christian McKinney, 11, feeling like he was missing out.

"Hang on, guys," I said. While I was thrilled with the enthusiasm and the smashing skill retained from class the week before, I wanted to remind them to read the entire recipe before plowing in.

So each took a turn reading part of the instructions for tortelloni minestrone soup (we substituted the smaller tortellini) on the menu for the after-school class.

"Can I measure the oil?" "Can I chop the celery?" "Can I peel the zucchini?" "What does that mean, half peel?"

Yes, yes, yes, and I'll explain, I told them, first reinforcing the idea of mise en place, prepping all ingredients before starting, so they're ready when needed.

We started with leeks, which none of the kids had ever seen. Even after smelling, they didn't make the onion connection. And they were surprised at how much dirt the layers contained.

"Don't they clean them for you at the store?" Christian asked.

"Not entirely," I said. "And you really have to make sure you clean it well. We don't want grit in the soup."

Once cleaned, the leeks were thinly sliced, the celery was washed and finely diced.

"What's 'finely diced'?" asked Nysirah Hall, 10.

I demonstrated how to chop the celery, then turn the knife perpendicular and chop the other way, into quarter-inch squares.

Aneza Abalo, 10, was a champion. Nysirah got to chatting, turning the knife, then turning it again and again, and soon the celery was reduced to mush.

"That is super-duper diced," I said. But we had more celery, so she started with a fresh stalk.

On to the "half peeled" zucchini instruction, a suggestion in the recipe that creates a fun, striped effect. Kimberly Luu was meticulously creating dark green/pale green stripes on hers, while Nysirah, chatting away, had peeled all the skin off the top half of hers.

"Is this right?" asked Kimberly, showing me her perfect example.

"Yes, beautiful."

"Mine doesn't look like that," said Nysirah.

"Well, no, it doesn't, but that's OK. You can try peeling the other half with stripes like Kim's if you want."

Next, the green beans needed to be rinsed, ends trimmed, then cut in half. Aneza and Nick made short work of them.

With everything prepped, we headed over to the soup pot. The oil was warmed, the garlic sauteed to infuse the oil, then removed. Next, like an assembly line, the measured thyme and basil were added, then the peas.

All this is going to create a lovely, flavorful broth, I told them. We added the other vegetables and water, put on the lid, and waited for it to boil. Even though this is a powerful cafeteria stove, it still seemed to take forever. And watching only made it seem longer. So we set the table, opened the can of cannellini beans, and grated the Parmesan.

Everyone wanted a turn grating, and tasting, the cheese, so it was cut into five wedges. We removed the rind and added it, to give the broth more depth. Then, after the soup boiled and the vegetables were cooked, we added the tortellini (which we substituted for the larger tortelloni), beans, and grated cheese.

Finally it was time to ladle the soup into bowls and finish with a sprinkle of cheese.

Kimberly didn't want to eat the soup - in part because it was strange and in part because, she said, her stomach hurt.

"Well, would you like to just try a little sip of the broth?" I asked.

She did, then dipped her spoon into her bowl for another taste.

"Do you like noodles? How about cheese?" I asked. She nodded to both.

"Well, the tortellini is just like a noodle, or a dumpling filled with cheese," I said.

She spooned one out and gave it a try. Then smiled and nodded her head.

The others were already going back for seconds.

"I would eat the whole pot if I could," said Nick.

I had asked the kids about their favorite foods, and needless to say, vegetables were not on the list.

"Do you see how many green vegetables you ate in there?" I asked.

The kids ticked them off - zucchini, celery, leeks, green beans, and peas.

"Five vegetables in one soup. See how tasty vegetables can be?" I asked.

When Nick's older sister arrived, we offered her a bowl, and we had to scrape the bottom of the pot to fill it, mostly with broth and just a few vegetables.

"It's really good, guys," she said. "I'm impressed."

"You shoulda came earlier," said Christian. "So you got it with the tortellini. It was amazing."

Tortelloni Minestrone

Makes 8 servings

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon dried basil

2 teaspoons kosher salt

16 ounces frozen petit pois

2 leeks, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced

1 stalk celery, finely diced

2 large zucchini, half peeled, finely diced

8 ounces green beans, trimmed and cut into short lengths

2 quarts cold water

1 pound fresh spinach and ricotta tortelloni (or substitute smaller tortellini)

1 15-ounce can cannellini beans

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan, plus more for serving

1. Warm the oil in a large heavy sauce pan that has a lid. Stir in the garlic, then remove it after about a minute, just long enough for it to infuse the oil.

2. Stir in the thyme, basil, and salt. Then add the peas and turn them in the flavored oil. Then add the leeks, celery, zucchini, and green beans and stir in the heat of the pan.

3. Pour in the water, let it come to a boil, then - pay attention or it will boil over - remove the lid and let everything bubble for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.

4. Add the tortelloni and bring it to a boil again, let it cook for about five minutes. Then stir in the canned beans and heat through.

5. Stir in the Parmesan. Then ladle into bowls with a sprinkle of cheese on top.

- From Nigellissima (Potter)

Per serving: 316 calories; 19 grams protein; 50 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams sugar; 6 grams fat; no cholesterol; 660 milligrams sodium; 20 grams dietary fiber.


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