Quick, Warm and Yummy

You know those days when you have to get up early, hit the ground running, then work until after dark without even a bathroom break? When you are asking so much of your faithful body, it's especially important to make sure it is well taken care of. Unfortunately, the end of this kind of day is just when we're likely to grab whatever is filling and easiest to eat—often it's something starchy-fatty-sugary because bread, crackers, cheese, snack foods, cookies and their friends all look like dinner when you're ravenous, tired and cranky. Of course, it won't kill us to eat a meal like this now and then, but it doesn't make us feel great either. I've been searching for ways to make satisfying, healthy meals on the fly with whatever ingredients I've got on hand and I've discovered some wonderful strategies to share.

One of my current favorite fast meals is a creamy fresh vegetable soup with good whole-grain toast and a salad. As long as you have a blender or food processor, few basic ingredients and a vegetable or two, you can make this soup from scratch and have it on the table in less than a half an hour, and have leftover soup for lunch the next day. The flavors are infinitely variable and are great for seasonal cooking with locally grown or foraged produce. Hot, savory soup always makes me feel cared-for and happily sated. (In fact, soup scientists have discovered that soup makes people feel fuller than if they ate the same solids and liquids separately.) Plus, this is a very nutritious meal: plenty of vegetables, both greens and other colors, whole grains, and protein from dairy or nuts—no empty calories!

Here's the master recipe. Exact measurements are not important—you can fly by the seat of your pants on this one! Put on some nice music, slippers and pour yourself a drink while you're cooking. Take a breath—it's been a long day and you deserve it.

Creamy Vegetable Soup

serves about 4

3 tablespoons butter or oil

1 large chopped onion, or the equivalent in leeks, shallots or scallions, or 2 cloves chopped garlic

salt and pepper

1 medium potato, chopped

3-4 cups of chopped seasonal vegetables

3 cups of stock (meat or vegetable), or water

2 tablespoons or more chopped fresh herbs or 2 teaspoons dried herbs

½ cup of milk or cream—animal or vegetable, or a small handful of nuts

Heat the fat in a medium-large pot over medium-high heat and add the onions or garlic. Cook until soft, season with plenty of salt and pepper (if you season early, you'll need to use less). Add the potatoes, vegetables, nuts if using, and stock or water and simmer until the veggies are very tender. Remove from the heat and blend or process until smooth. Return the soup to the pot, add the remainder of the ingredients, and rewarm, but don't boil. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding stock or water to thin if needed. Toast some bread. Toss some fresh greens or raw veggies with dressing or just oil and vinegar or even just salt. Serve it forth! (As they say in the old cookbooks.)

Note: an immersion blender will make this a one-pot meal. A Ninja or Vitamix type of blender will make a super smooth soup.

Winter Variations

It's really very easy, fun and delicious to concoct an infinite variety of soups from this basic recipe. And if you've got extra time you can elaborate your creation with additions like a glug of wine, juice or vinegar, or embellish it with tasty garnishes drizzled or sprinkled on top. In the winter your locally grown salad is likely to be a slaw, made of cabbage or its relatives, or microgreens or sprouts.

Here are some great seasonal combinations:

Leeks + parsnips + lovage + a sprinkling of crushed bacon

Onions + winter squash + an apple, cored and chopped or some cider + nutmeg + drizzle of nut oil

Onions + cauliflower + coconut milk + curry powder + cilantro sprinkle

Scallions + carrots + fresh ginger + coconut milk + thinly sliced scallion greens sprinkle

Onions + carrots + replace dairy with orange juice + cumin + cilantro sprinkle

Shallots + beets + dill + hold the dairy and top with a dollop of sour cream

Garlic + fresh mushrooms + marjoram and/or rosemary + finely chopped walnut sprinkle

Leeks + celery root + tarragon and parsley + grated cheese sprinkle

Garlic + rutabaga + thyme + drizzle of maple syrup

Garlic and onion + sweet potato + tomato juice or tomatoes and water as stock + carrots and hot peppers + ginger + peanut butter as dairy + cilantro sprinkle (inspired by West African peanut soup)