Today I am dedicating my post to raise awareness about food Insecurity in America.  I decided to take part in the "Food Bloggers Against Hunger" project after watching the documentary, A Place at the Table.  It opened my eyes to a lot of issues that I never knew about or even considered before.  At first I thought I would have nothing to contribute to a project such as this one.  What do I know about being food insecure?  I can’t even begin to understand how difficult it must be when you can’t feed your family.  I sit behind a computer screen and write about fresh wholesome recipes made with ingredients I didn’t have to think twice about putting in my grocery cart. I take for granted being able to walk into a grocery store to purchase whatever my heart desires that day.  And lastly what could someone like me actually do?  How does one person so far removed from this issue help at all?
    After thinking through this for weeks I came to understand that I could help in a small way.  The little that I can do is listen, learn and help spread awareness.  One person can’t change a whole country and the politics behind it, but there are small things we can all do that will help.

Drive the Demand for Better Food

     What does that mean?  It means we need to make a conscious effort to support local organic farmers that grow fruits and vegetables.  We subsidize the wrong crops in this country and by creating a higher demand for locally grown produce we will create the need for more of it.  Farmers markets are becoming more and more popular.  You can visit, Local to find one in your area.  Farmer's markets are seasonal so when they are not available make better choices in your grocery store.  Always try to buy organic fruits and vegetables that are produced as close to where you live as possible.  If there are no farmer's markets in your area and you live in New Jersey like I do, look for the "Jersey Fresh" signs in your local grocery stores.

Spread Awareness and Write to the Politicians in Your State

    Visit this website and submit a letter to congress.  It only takes a minute to send a letter asking the politicians in your state to support anti-hunger legislation. This is a quick and easy way to help!  (I sent my letter :)

    Please do your part as a fellow American and learn about the issues that we all face together even if they don’t affect you directly.  Check out the documentary, A Place at the Table.  You can download and watch it on iTunes or Amazon.  If you enjoy this documentary as much as I did, then please urge others to see it as well.
    So the dish that I am featuring today is a Fire Roasted Tomato Soup.  I wanted to have something that could serve as both a hearty vegetarian dinner, and provide some great leftovers for lunch.  One big pot makes this soup easy to prepare, all the ingredients can easily be found in a typical grocery store and this soup is super fast to make (about a half an hour).  I also wanted to make this soup because it is a family favorite and the weather here in New Jersey has still been a bit chilly. 

    I tried to calculate the cost of this meal per person, but it will vary greatly depending on the ingredients that you use.  I used mostly organic items when I made this dish, and when I calculated out the price it came to about $ 3.32 per person per serving (large bowl of soup and big wedge of bread).  If you were to purchase regular items the cost decreases to $2.58 per person per serving.  The personal choice is up to you, but if you can afford it, purchase organic tomatoes, spinach and peppers because they are all items that are subjected to heavy amounts of pesticides when grown conventionally.         

Fire Roasted Tomato Soup

6 Servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 (28oz) cans of fired roasted whole tomatoes with their juices
2 cups of vegetable broth (To save some money make your own from food scraps, Oh my Veggies shows you how, HERE)
4 cups of water
3 teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon dried basil and dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground paprika
pinch of ground cayenne pepper  (if you like some heat)
1/2 cup of whole wheat orzo (or any other type of small pasta)
2 cups of cooked cannellini beans or 1 (19oz) can

2 roasted red peppers, chopped (use either homemade or a small jar of chopped roasted red peppers)
a few handfuls of fresh baby spinach
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
grated Parmesan cheese for topping

    In a food process or blender, puree the tomatoes with their juices and set aside. In a large soup pot heat the oil over medium high heat.  Add the chopped onions and saute until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.  Add the minced garlic and cook 1 minute more.  Add the pureed tomatoes, vegetable broth, water, salt, basil, oregano, paprika, and cayenne pepper (if using) and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and add the orzo, cannellini beans and roasted red peppers.  Simmer, partially covered for 15 mintues.  Just before serving (see note below) add the fresh spinach and a few cracks of black pepper.  Allow the soup to cook just until the spinach wilts.  At the table serve your soup with some bread and grated Parmesan Cheese. 

NOTE:  The spinach is best when it is only cooked until it is wilted.  If you do not want to serve the whole soup at one meal then ladle the extra soup into containers before adding in the spinach to the soup you will eat.  You can reheat the remainder of the soup another day or even store the extra in the freezer for an even quicker and easier dinner another day.
    I think this recipe pretty much speaks for itself.  Winter vegetable stew is just that, a stew made from vegetables and eaten in the winter.  It is simple, warm and delicious to say the least.  I was actually looking for a great reason to use the last of my canned heirloom tomatoes and a root box full of sweet potatoes.  I found a new mixture of beans and grains by Bob's Red Mill and I knew I had dinner plans in the making.  The signs of spring are quickly sprouting (pun wholeheartedly intended), so this was my opportunity to make the last of my warming soups and stews before we jump outside and start shedding some layers.   
    There is nothing difficult here, just great ingredients and one large pot.  Soups and stews are my favorite thing to make for dinner because I can prep the ingredients a little at a time during the day, and throw everything together at the end.  Or you could even make this ahead of time and reheat it in a few minutes (and there are always leftovers after serving 2.5 people, which equals a future free night from cooking for me!)  Served alongside some crusty whole wheat bread, there is nothing quite like the warmth and comfort you get from a big bowl of stew for dinner. 

Winter Vegetable Stew

1 cup of Bob's Red Mill Whole Grains and Beans, soaked overnight *
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 small spring onions, sliced (yes I put spring onions in a winter stew - if you can't find them use 1 medium onion, chopped)
1 large leek, halved and sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced
4 stalks of celery, sliced
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped

2 quarts of Ultrabroth or Vegetable Stock
2 teaspoons salt
1 bay leaf and 1 bundle of fresh thyme and rosemary (About 3-4 springs of each)

1 (2-inch) square of Kombu (This is to aid in the digestion of beans, useful but not essential)
14 oz jar or can of chopped tomatoes, drained (I was able to use canned summer heirloom tomatoes)
5-6 fresh leaves of sage, finely minced

Rinse your grains and beans mix thoroughly.  Soak them overnight in a bowl full of water that is about 2-4 inches above the beans.  The next day drain the grains and beans and discard the water.

In a large pot heat the extra virgin olive oil over medium high heat.  Add the spring onions, leek, garlic, carrot and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes or until the onions become translucent.  Add the sweet potatoes, grains and bean mixture, ultrabroth or vegetable stock, salt, bay leaf, thyme/rosemary bundle and kombu.  Bring everything to a boil and then reduce the heat.  Simmer, partially covered, for 40 minutes.  

After simmering for 40 minutes, turn off the heat.  Remove the bay leaf, kombu and thyme/rosemary bundle and discard.  Add the 14 oz of chopped tomatoes and minced fresh sage leaves.  Give a few good stirs and then your stew is ready to serve. Of course make sure you have some yummy crusty bread to serve along side your stew.

* If you would like to make this stew gluten-free pick a different bean mixture that doesn't have whole grains such as Bob's Red Mill 13 bean soup mix or your choice of dried beans.

    Celeriac, (aka Celery Root) is definitely something I would throw into a category of, "doesn't look like I should eat it."  But why not eat this knobby thing, once it is peeled it tastes and smells like another well known vegetable.  Those long green stalks that our mothers smeared with peanut butter and dotted with little raisins have always been a staple in my grocery cart that won't raise any flags.  But every time I buy celeriac at my grocery store the check-out clerks give me puzzled looks as they hold up the clear plastic bags. "It's celery root" I say, making them feel better that I am not purchasing what looks like an alien turnip on a really bad hair day.     

    I started looking into what you do with celeriac and I discovered one of my favorite ways to cook with it is roasting, like in my Roasted White Vegetable dish.  Another popular cooking method is to puree it in a soup as seen here.  Celeriac soup is a perfect warming winter soup that must be served alongside some crusty bread and perhaps some vegetarian cheese (If I am just serving soup for dinner I like to include some bread and cheese to make it a bit heartier).  The recipe includes roasted garlic, but if you are not fond of a strong garlic taste you could definitely lower the amount used.  It also includes a drizzle of chive oil, which is actually very easy to make and really quite essential to the soup.

Celeriac and Roasted Garlic Soup

serves 6-8 people

4-6 head of garlic (depending on how garlicky you want the soup to be)
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
salt and fresh ground black pepper
3 medium onions, chopped
1 1/2 pounds of celeriac root, peeled and chopped (about 2-3 large knobs)
1 pound of cauliflower, chopped into small pieces (about 1/2 a head)
2 quarts of vegetable stock or Ultrabroth
2 teaspoons salt

Chive Oil (recipe below)
Broccoli micro greens for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400° F.  Cut off the top third of the garlic heads (using as many as you wish) and place them on a sheet of aluminum foil.  Drizzle 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil over the garlic and then sprinkle them with some salt and fresh ground black pepper.  Pull up the sides of the aluminum foil, wrapping the garlic inside and pinching it all together at the top.  Roast the garlic in the oven for about 45 minutes.   Let the garlic sit until it is cool enough to handle, and then pop out the soft cloves (I like to use a chopstick to pop them out).  Set the garlic aside.

In a large soup pot or saucepan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and add the onions.  Cook the onions over medium high heat until they are translucent, about 5-8 minutes.  Add the chopped celeriac and chopped cauliflower.  Cook, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes more.  Stir in the roasted garlic, vegetable stock and 2 teaspoons salt.  Bring everything to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer.  Partially cover the the pot and simmer for 45 minutes or until the celeriac and cauliflower is soft.  Blend the soup until smooth using an immersion hand blender or in batches in a regular blender.  Serve warm in large bowls topped with chive oil and a sprinkle of micro greens. 

Chive Oil:  In a food processor, puree the chives (about 1 large handful) and slowly add about 3/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil and continue to puree for about 2-3 minutes.  Then just run the oil through a fine mesh strainer or you could even use some cheese cloth.  If you don't use the oil the same day you make it, keep it stored in the refrigerator because it will discolor faster if you leave it at room temperature.  (Since it is oil, it will most likely separate and thicken if it is kept in the refrigerator, but all you have to do it leave it out on the counter for a few minutes to liquify, and then just give it a good shake before drizzling over the top of your soup). 
    This week sadly marks the conclusion of my local farmers market.  My once weekly trip with the boys down main street will be but a distant memory come this winter.  However, safely stored away at home are my locally raised and grown treasures from the market, which will one day soon make their debut for a family dinner or holiday dessert.  My cupboards will be stocked with canned heirloom tomatoes and raw buckwheat honey.  My freezer full of grass-fed cow meat, organic berries and sweet Jersey corn cut off the cob.  I am the kind of person who looks forward to the falling leaves and the winter snow, but this year I will definitely miss the summer for the fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs that helped to inspire dishes like this minestrone soup. 

    I always made a point at restaurants to order minestrone soup because I thought it would be too much work to make at home.  But, after a trip one day to our farmers market, and a bag full of fresh vegetables later I gained the courage to try it.  I didn't have any pancetta at home and I figured that with all my fresh ingredients why not leave it out and make it a vegetarian minestrone instead.  The result was the best soup I have ever made, with proof from 3 large empty bowls and an infant quite frustrated with the fact he doesn't have teeth yet.  (He must have known it was good from our lack of conversation that night).  Minestrone is a soup that dates back centuries, and is basically comprised of vegetables, beans and some sort of pasta or rice.  It can be altered to your tastes or preferences quite easily.  Below is my version, but feel free to change or add according to your own liking and availability of ingredients.

Minestrone Soup with Barley & Pesto

1/2 cup dried beans (I used Bob's Red Mill 13 Bean Soup Mix, but feel free to use whatever you have on hand)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 quarts of vegetable stock or Ultrabroth (or chicken stock if you are not a vegetarian)
3-4 sprigs of fresh parsley and thyme bundled together with twine
1 bay leaf
1 (2-inch square) of kombu*

1/4 cup barley **
1/4 pound green beans, cut into 1-inch lengths (about two good handfuls)
1 pound of tomatoes (about 2), peeled, seeded and chopped
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Homemade pesto (Recipe below)

    Rinse your beans thoroughly.  Soak them overnight in a bowl full of water that is about 2-4 inches above the beans.  Or if you didn't plan ahead you can always put them in a pot full of water enough to cover the beans by 2-4 inches and bring it to a boil. Once they start boiling turn off the heat, cover and let them sit for 1 hour.
    In a large pot, heat your extra virgin olive oil over medium high heat.  Add the chopped onions, carrots, celery and garlic.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender (about 5-10 minutes).  Add the beans, vegetable stock, parsley/thyme bundle, bay leaf, and kombu.*  Bring this all to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer.  Partially cover the pot with a lid and simmer for 30 minutes.  At this point if you are using the barley** add it and continue to simmer for 10 more minutes.
    Next, add your green beans, tomatoes, and salt. (if you wanted to use a pasta substitute in place of the barley now would be the time to add it).  Simmer another 25 to 30 minutes, until all the vegetables are tender.  Remove the herb bundle, kombu* and bay leaf. 
    Serve your soup in bowl topped with a few grinds of fresh pepper, a spoonful of homemade pesto (recipe below) and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

* Kombu is dried kelp.  This is added for flavor and to help aid in the digestion of beans.  You can find this in Asian grocery stores and some of the bigger health food stores.  If you have difficulty finding this then you can omit it from the recipe.
**If you are avoiding gluten in your diet then either omit this from the recipe or add your favorite gluten-free pasta substitute.

Homemade Pesto
    In a food processor, puree 1 clove of garlic and 3/4 a cup of lightly packed fresh basil leaves and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  While the processor is running add 1/4 a cup of extra virgin olive oil in a steady stream and continue to puree until well blended.  Turn off the processor and add 2 tablespoons of pine nuts and 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese.  Process again until the nuts are chopped up just a little and the mixtures is well blended.