Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither. C.S. Lewis
Just last Thursday we saw temps in the high 90s with humidity to match. Last night it was so cold we had to turn the fan off, and I woke up with a dog sleeping under the covers at the end of the bed. Though I thoroughly dread the coming winter (it’s just the snow and bitter cold I dislike) there is something about fall that is so glorious and breathtaking – when the sky turns that deep bright blue, and the trees are dressed in dazzling fall colors. Such a treat for the eyes! And then there’s the cool nights – I adore piling the bed with warm blankets and flannel sheets, and sleeping with the window wide open to let in the cool air. Actually, we turn the heat down to 55° at night in the winter – I’ve been known to sleep in sweats with a knit hat – some of the best sleep I’ve ever gotten is when I’m totally bundled up and the temperature in the house is super cold.
I’m a big fan of the author Bill Bryson. In The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (one of his many incredible books) he writes a story about visiting his grandparents during an Iowa winter. Iowa winters closely mirror Minnesota winters, so I got a huge kick out of his story. He writes that his grandparents all but turned the heat off at night, and that the coldest room in the winter was the sleeping porch:
The sleeping porch was a slightly rickety, loosely enclosed porch on the back of the house that was only notionally separate from the outside world. It contained an ancient sagging bed that my grandfather slept in in the summer when the house was uncomfortably warm. But sometimes in the winter when the house was full of guests it was pressed into service, too.
The only heat in the sleeping porch was that of any human being who happened to be out there. It couldn’t have been more than one or two degrees warmer than the world outside – and outside was perishing. So to sleep on the sleeping porch required preparation. First, you put on long underwear, pajamas, jeans, a sweatshirt, your grandfather’s old cardigan and bathrobe, two pairs of woolen socks on your feet and another on your hands, and a hat with earflaps tied beneath the chin. Then you climbed into bed and were immediately covered with a dozen bed blankets, three horse blankets, all the household overcoats, a canvas tarpaulin, and a piece of old carpet. I’m not sure that they didn’t lay an old wardrobe on top of that, just to hold everything down. It was like sleeping under a dead horse. For the first minute or so it was unimaginably cold, shockingly cold, but gradually your body heat seeped in and you became warm and happy in a way you would not have believed possible only a minute or two before. It was bliss.
He goes on to describe the folly of any movement, which let the cold back in; and to tell how he remembers sleeping on the porch in the cold and silence of winter as wonderfully serene and peaceful. I absolutely implore you to READ THIS BOOK. Or really, anything by Bill Bryson – if you’ve never read his books, you are in for such a treat. He is at once erudite and charmingly humble and self-deprecating. His books are a treasure and you can read them again and again. I think the thing I love best about Bryson’s writing is that I am learning so much while I laugh myself silly.
Anyway, every year when the weather turns cold, I start to think about big vats of soup, and chili and spaghetti sauce and…need I go on? I like to make great big batches of the stuff and freeze it. That way, when we come home on a dark winter’s night, we can pull out a packet of something yummy and have a hot and filling meal in a twinkling. It’s also a great lunch to bring to work.
So today I made vegetable beef soup. I’ve been making this soup for about 30 years now, and I still love it. I don’t really have a recipe for it, so I had to concentrate on keeping track of how much of everything I used. But, the beauty of soup is that you can easily amend the recipe to fit your own taste buds. So use this as a jumping off point, and add whatever sounds good to you. I’ve also always made dumplings for this soup, and I know there are a ton of recipes for dumplings out there. I’ll show you how I make them, but you don’t have to make them, or you can use your favorite recipe. I learned this dumpling recipe from my mom, and they are heavy and filling, definitely not light and fluffy. But we love ’em!
Probably it’s important to put some veggies in vegetable beef soup? Today I used all these. Sometimes I add parsnips, too. I forgot to put the tomatoes in the picture, but I’ll use those too.
I don’t add salt to my soup, at least not until I’m ready to eat a bowl of it. I think the salt loses it’s flavor if you add it early on, maybe gets too incorporated. The result is salty soup that may not taste salty. I also try to use low sodium beef stock or beef broth, and had some of each for this batch. I add garlic, rosemary, thyme, basil and bay leaves. I like to add barley – love the extra “something” it adds to the soup.
Yep, and we need beef for vegetable beef soup. I also add flour (I know, sounds odd), and I’ll show you what I like to do with it a couple of photos from now.
Now, I think the beef stew sized chunks are too big for soup, but you may disagree. I cut each piece into about thirds.
Get out a big, heavy bottomed stockpot. This one is a 12 quart, and it will be full when I’m finished!
Heat up a couple tablespoons of olive oil in the pan over medium high heat. You could use butter or vegetable oil if you prefer. I used to use butter, but I really like the taste of olive oil. It’s your choice.
Roll the meat around in the flour mixture, and then rub it briskly between your palms. This will leave a very light coating on the meat. Put the meat in the stockpot to brown.
Dice the carrots, celery and onions, and add them to the pot once the meat starts to brown nicely. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the veggies start to get tender and the onions are translucent.
Chop up some yummy garden tomatoes if you have them, or use some canned diced tomatoes. Or both if you like. If you use canned diced tomatoes, don’t drain them – add the juice, too.
Chop up a bunch of cabbage. I used about 3/4 of a head.
Add the beef stock (about 10 cups), tomatoes, cabbage, rosemary, thyme, basil, bay leaves, and crushed garlic. Add about 8 cups of water. Now add about 1 cup of barley. Make sure to crush the rosemary, thyme and basil before adding to release the essential oils. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 2 hours.
In the meantime, dice the potatoes. I prefer red potatoes, because they kind of dissolve into the soup. But you can use russets or whatever kind toots your horn. I peeled them, but you wouldn’t have to. This batch used about 6 medium sized potatoes. When the soup’s been simmering for about an hour and 40 minutes, drop in the potatoes and the peas. I used two 12 ounce bags of peas, again, you can use more or less depending on your particular taste.
At this point, you can have a splendid bowl of filling and delicious soup, or…
You can also make some dumplings. Start with some eggs.
Beat ’em up a little.
Add some flour and salt (about a teaspoon) and stir it in.
Keep adding flour a little at a time, and stirring it in. You want to get the dough to the point where it is so stiff you can’t really stir it anymore.
Now add in some milk. Just enough to get the dough back to a less sticky state. Don’t ask me why. This is how my mama does it and they always turn out to be delish!
It’ll look something like this.
Transfer some of the hot soup to a smaller pot. I do this because the dumplings don’t freeze well – they get, well, mooshy. So I transfer enough for a couple of days worth of meals to a smaller pot, bring it to a boil and make the dumplings in there. The rest of the soup gets frozen for later.
Drop the dumpling dough by heaping teaspoonfuls into the hot soup. They’ll sink right to the bottom. Cover it and let them simmer for 10 minutes or so.
Ah, that’s the ticket. This is MY bowl of soup. Yum. That’s all I gots to say.
Vegetable Beef Soup (makes about 12 quarts):
2 pounds high quality beef stew meat, cut into bite size pieces.
1/2 cup flour
1-1/2 teaspoons ground pepper (or to taste)
Olive oil, or oil of choice
2 small bunches fresh carrots, washed and diced
4 stalks celery, diced
1 large onion, diced
10 cups beef stock or beef broth
8 cups water
1 tablespoon each of dried rosemary, thyme and basil, crushed
4 bay leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 medium tomatoes, diced (use all juice and seeds)
2 15 ounce cans diced tomatoes (note: may use all canned or all fresh tomatoes)
1 cup medium barley (not quick barley)
3/4 head of cabbage, chopped
6 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
2 – 12 ounce bags frozen peas
Approximately 1 cup flour (use more or less as needed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Put about 2 tablespoons of oil in a 12 quart stockpot. Heat on medium high.
Put about 1/2 cup flour in a pie tin or a shallow plate. Mix in about 1-1/2 teaspoon pepper. Roll the meat in small handfuls in the flour mixture and rub it between your palms to get a very thin coating of flour on the meat.
Brown the meat in the stockpot until partially browned. Add the carrots, celery, and onions and cook until the carrots and celery are tender crisp and the onions are translucent.
Add the beef stock/broth, water, spices, garlic, tomatoes, cabbage, and barley. Bring to a boil. Then turn down to a simmer, cover, and simmer for about 2 hours. The meat will get very tender.
About 20 minutes before the soup is done, add the peas and the potatoes. You may have to turn up the heat again to get the soup simmering.
At this point you can eat the soup, or make dumplings. If you decide to make dumplings, take a few meals worth of the soup out and put it in a 4 quart saucepan. You will likely want to freeze most of the soup for later, and the dumplings don’t freeze well. So I just make enough for the soup that will be eaten in the the next couple of days.
To make the dumplings, lightly beat 4 eggs in a medium sized bowl. Start by adding flour (start with about 3/4 cup) and about 1 teaspoon salt and mix well. Keep adding flour until the mixture is so thick you can barely get the fork through it. At this point start adding a little milk at a time until the mixture is stiff but you are able to mix it easily.
Drop it by heaping teaspoonfuls into boiling the boiling soup. The dough will sink to the bottom at first. After you have all the dough in the pan, cover it and turn it down to a simmer for about 10 minutes. When you take the cover off, you’ll the dumplings will simply be bursting out at the top of the pan. Serve one or two with each bowl of soup. If you want to jazz the dumplings up a little, add some thyme, rosemary or basil to the dough before cooking.
This soup freezes beautifully (sans the dumplings, of course!).