“Basilica has two meanings: one, an architectural term, means a large roofed building used for business and legal matters. The second, religious meaning, is a large and important church that has been given special ceremonial rites by the Pope.”

I’m Catholic, but I haven’t been Catholic my whole life. I went through RCIA training while I was in college back in Great Lakes State, and I was baptized and confirmed at Easter in 2007. A lot of people may be curious as to why I’d choose to be confirmed in a religion that has come under fire as of lately, and I can’t really give a good answer. My mom’s family is Catholic; as a matter of fact, one of my grandpa’s brothers is a priest in Florida. I made the decision to become Catholic a long time before I met my SO (whose entire family is Catholic). I remember when Pope John Paul II visited the United States in 1999 and I asked my dad why I was never baptized. I started going to youth group with a friend in high school and went to a nondenominational church when I was in college. But for some reason, I felt like I was in the wrong place, that even though I enjoyed what I was learning at church, I just didn’t feel right. I suppose it’s only natural for someone who was raised without religion to try out different churches to find their best fit, but I guess it’s pretty unusual to find that place in the Catholic Church.

My RCIA experience was kind of strange. A sorority friend of mine was my sponsor and went to my meetings with me, and that was really helpful. But I felt like I wasn’t really learning about the ins and outs of the church. The deacon who led the group said that people who go through RCIA tend to have a “more adult” view of the Church which I guess is true, but I still feel awkward that I don’t know the Nicene Creed by heart and I have to rely on the SO sometimes to explain certain rituals. Even if I’m learning the cathecism as an adult, I still need to learn it so I can expand on my faith and not worry if I’m doing it right.

Anyway, back to the subject. This past Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and gave it the status of minor basilica. The Sagrada Familia is a historically interesting basilica. Designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, construction began on it in 1882 and has been under construction ever since. Its completion is slated for 2026 which is the centennial of Gaudi’s death. George Orwell once called it “one of the most hideous buildings in the world” and I’m almost inclined to agree with him. This is what the Sagrada Familia looks like, and it’s not even completely finished.

I’m not really going to divulge into the aesthetics of this building and its architecture, but I think I’d be pretty safe to say that it is unique.

When you think of a basilica, you might think of St. Peter’s in the Vatican, which looks like this:

I have actually been to a minor basilica. When I went to Europe, I stayed in San Marino, which is a tiny enclave in the eastern part of Italy. It is its own country and has the honor of being the oldest continually operating constitutional republic in the world (its official founding date is in 301). Its founder, Saint Marinus, was a Croatian stonecutter who arrived in the nearby Rimini to help construct its city walls. When he became the object of persecution because of his Christian sermons, he escaped to Mount Titano and built a church there. My SO’s father’s family is from San Marino and his sister was married there this past summer. The wedding took place in the Basilica del Santo, which is a minor basilica that houses the relics of Saint Marinus.

What makes a basilica, a basilica? As mentioned before, it’s partly architectural and partly ecclesiastic. states that in architectural terms, a basilica is a “kingly and beautiful” hall in which people were to do business and judicial issues were settled. Basilicas were first built in the Roman Forum around 120 B.C. and in 46 B.C., construction on the Basilica of Julius Caesar and Augustus began. With their columns and plenty of light, they were built with an artistic purpose: to beautify the Forum. Small “half Basilicas” were built in the homes of important Roman statesmen.

Here’s a basic Roman basilica floor plan. When space permitted, small additions were made off to the sides of the nave where judicial business might be settled.

The ecclesiastical meaning of basilica is closely tied with its architecture. Most basilicas have the same basic layout; a rectangular transept is added perpendicularly to the main hall (nave) just before the apse and forms a symbolic cross shape. There is usually- but not always- three aisles, but this of course depends on the size of the basilica.

But what makes a basilica different than, say, a cathedral or your average parish church? There are two divisions of basilicas, major and minor. There are only five major patriarchal basilicas in the world and they are representative of the ecclesiastical provinces of the world:

  • St. John Lateran is the seat of the patriarch of the west, the Pope
  • St. Peter’s of Constantinople
  • St. Paul’s in Alexandria, Egypt
  • St. Mary Major in Antioch
  • St. Lawrence-Outside-the-Walls in Jerusalem

There are other major basilicas in the world that are given major status such as in Assisi, Italy, and all greater basilicas have a “holy door” and special privileges bestowed upon them by the Pope. There are a great many more minor basilicas- such as the Basilica del Santo in San Marino- who do not have a holy door, but share in these privileges. Basilicas have a certain precedence over other churches in their area- except if there is a cathedral- and also have the right of the conopaeum, the bell, and the cappa magna. The conopaeum is a sort of umbrella or veil that covers the tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament is kept. The bells are used during the elevation of the Host, which is the time when Catholics believe the wafer and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. These two are carried in together at the head of the clergy during state occasions. The cappa magna is a long cloak of any liturgical color that is worn by clergy of any rank. It is the cloak worn by the celebrant of most occasions except for someone who is celebrating Mass.

I’m not going to lie. When I chose this subject last week, I thought it was going to be really interesting and for some of it, it has. The SO (who has been Catholic his whole life) didn’t know that the term basilica can refer to architecture. As the week stretched on, I started to hate the topic and wanted to scrap the whole thing. It turned into a research project which in some way, every topic in this blog is a research project. But I know something has to change when I start to approach blog entries as work. As I said to the SO when I was writing the last paragraph: “This blogging thing was supposed to be fun!”. I suppose I’ll have to choose lighter and more fun topics, and maybe set a time limit as to how much time I’ll spend writing an entry. When it gets to be a week or more, it becomes work.

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Serotonin Storm

“Also called serotonin toxicity or serotonin syndrome, it is a potentially life-threatening consequence of excessive serotonin activity on the central nervous system and peripheral serotonin receptors due to drug interaction or overdose, or therapeutic or recreational drug use.”

Whenever I think of the term serotonin storm, I think of the song “Electrical Storm” by U2. I wish it were as awesome as a song by U2, but unfortunately, it’s not. I’ve only recently figured out that I may have experienced a serotonin storm.

For the past 15 years or so, I’ve been treated for depression. I’m okay with it and make no secret of it. I have family members that all suffer from some kind of psychological problem and I have a degree in psychology, so I’m not ashamed of my treatment. Currently, I’m on a low dose of Zoloft and have been for about the last year and a half. Zoloft belongs to the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) family of antidepressants which help treat depression by increasing the amount of serotonin excreted by neurotransmitters and preventing it from being reabsorbed once it is secreted. Other examples of SSRIs included Paxil and Prozac, both of which I’ve taken at some point in my life.

About two months ago, I went to the doctor for some back pain. She prescribed me a course of steroids for inflammation and tramadol for the pain. Tramadol belongs to the opiate family of drugs that includes fentanyl and oxycodone and is used to treat a number of different issues; in addition to treating mild to moderate pain, it is used for restless leg syndrome, acid reflux disease, anxiety, and fibromyalgia. Between the steroids and Tramadol, I was in heaven. My back felt wonderful.

My heaven was quickly replaced by agitation. For about a week, I was excessively agitated. I felt as if I had a long list of things to do and not enough hours in the day in which to complete them. I generally felt like I wasn’t getting enough done and my list was getting longer and longer. I had to go grocery shopping, I had to cook dinner, I had to run to Sam’s Club… I can normally accomplish many things without feeling rushed; this was very out of character for me as I’m usually cool as a cucumber. I had a hard time falling asleep because of this agitation and had to take an Ambien to get my mind to settle down. After a week, my mind did end up settling down and things returned to normal, but this sudden agitation remained a mystery to me until last week.

I picked up my monthly Zoloft refill last Saturday and after I got home, noticed there was a note on the pharmacy bag. “Pharmacist consultation required: major interaction between Zoloft and Tramadol.” Highlighted. In capital letters. Being a responsible consumer, I hopped onto to see if the interaction was as bad as the pharmacy bag led me to believe. If the two drugs did have a major interaction, wouldn’t the pharmacist have a legal obligation to let me know that? After all, the bag did have a warning on it.

There was an interaction between Zoloft and Tramadol. A big one. A major red flag with a “generally avoid” label. I didn’t know if I should trust what the internet told me (What? I shouldn’t believe everything the internet tells me?) so I looked into what Tramadol does that is so bad. It weakly stimulates the production of serotonin and has actually been suggested as a treatment for depression and anxiety as it does have the potential to raise serotonin levels. The chances of an interaction increases with dosage but even with an overdose of serotonin-stimulating drugs does not always guarantee toxicity in a healthy adult. The chances of actually experiencing a serotonin storm are rare and it is difficult to diagnose; there are no lab tests to confirm it and even though it has distinct symptoms, it is often mistaken for medical issues such as a viral illness or worsening psychiatric problems.

Interestingly (and saddeningly) enough, there has been a case of suspected serotonin poisoning- the case of Libby Zion– that resulted in the major change in how many hours resident doctors in the state of New York. She presented with a fever, altered mental state, and strange convulsions. The ER doctors initially believed that she was experiencing a hysterical reaction to an otherwise mild viral infection. To treat the convulsions, the doctors administered an opioid painkiller. This interacted with the antidepressant she was already taking, and in the morning, she had a fever of 107. She died from cardiac arrest at the age of 18. There was a major state investigation that resulted in the intern and resident being charged with gross negligence because not only had Libby been given a medication that ultimately killed her, she was given Haldol (an antipsychotic) and put in restraints as her mental state became increasingly altered. Most of her treatment was approved without her doctor being present; the initial opioid painkiller was approved over the phone by an intern with eight months of training, and the psychiatric treatments were approved without Libby being re-evaluated as the intern was out treating her other 40 patients and the resident was on duty but asleep in another building. The intern and resident were not convicted of their charges but were censured and reprimanded for their actions. Libby Zion’s parents were awarded

There’s obviously no way to know for sure that I had serotonin toxicity, but it was extremely out of character of me to be so agitated for so long. I was aggravated for the better part of the week. Even when I’m experiencing a depressive episode, I’m more lethargic and weepy than agitated. I’m upset at the fact that my pharmacy bag specifically stated that I need to have a consultation and I did not receive it. I’m more unsettled at the fact that my doctor prescribed me two conflicting medications. I know that the chance of actually getting serotonin toxicity is extremely rare, but I’d rather not take the chance with my health.

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“Offensive, disgusting, noxious, harmful or injurious to health.”

This past week, I tried really hard to plan out our dinners to improve our quality of eating and to save money. Today for some reason, we decided to go out to eat.

Actually, I know the reason: the SO neglected to take out the red sauce and gnocchi to thaw… it’s his ONLY job! Rawr… end rant.

Anyway, there is a serious lack of good eateries in our town. Despite it being a College Town (which you would think would be filled with neat little restaurants that you can’t find anywhere else like a normal college town), our town is well-known for the plethora of chain restaurants and franchises. You want six different kinds of Mexican fast food? You got it. Fancy fried chicken and want at least three different places to choose from? College Town is the place for you! But some kind of organic mom-and-pop bistro or cozy pub with two dozen draft beers? Not so much.

Today, the SO and I decided to try Furr’s which is in the next town over from College Town. It’s a buffet chain that is local to the Southern Great Plains/Southwestern States. As a kid, I wasn’t much of a buffet-goer and I don’t think the SO had EVER been to a buffet, so we approached it as an experience unique to this area of the United States. Cruelly, we giggled at the prospect of counting how many fatties we would see and knew to set our standards pretty low. However, nothing could prepare us for what we were about to experience.

The restaurant itself was pretty new and clean. I was put off immediately at the price: just under $10 for an adult and an additional $1.89 for sodas! I know it’s been a while since I’ve been to a buffet, but somehow, that seems somewhat unreasonable. Every buffet I have ever been to included drinks in the price of the dinner… sodas are a major money-maker for any eating establishment as they cost pennies to make and are sold for almost $2.

There are two general options you have when choosing what to eat at Furr’s: fried and steamed. Their menu is extensive and they do grill sirloin steaks to order, but that does not make up for items such as steamed cabbage (uh, yuck) and steamed broccoli, the latter of which is steamed beyond recognition until all its nutritional value is lost. Predominantly featured is its fried menu: chicken fried chicken, chicken fried steak, fried coconut chicken tenders, citrus-fried chicken, Southern fried catfish, fried okra… the list goes on. Even when doused with cream gravy, my piece of chicken fried chicken was so dry it was nearly inedible.

I fully intended to get a salad to balance out the junk I was going to eat. There were two separate salad bars offered: the traditional lettuce-type bar with a Caesar salad and a dozen trimmings, and a bar with fruit and pasta-type salads. I grabbed some Caesar salad and was disappointed: it had a more than average amount of wilted and dead lettuce and the dressing offered as pretty flavorless. I didn’t bother to choose from the other salad bar which included things like pineapple lime delight (which looked something like my grandma’s ambrosia salad only not), fresh fruit salad with Sierra Mist (what?), broccoli and raisin salad, and something called “health slaw”.

To top it off, I got a piece of their pumpkin spice cake which was pretty tasty except for its conspicuous lack of pumpkin flavor (and I KNOW what pumpkin tastes like) and the SO got an ice cream cone where the cone was the best part of the dessert.

The food at buffets are generally bad. I accept that. But the worst thing that I walked away with (other than the smell of the food on my hands) was a feeling of general sadness from its patron. Sure, there were plenty of fatties- granted, I’m a fatty too but these people were at least 50% larger than I am- but I walked past a large woman who had two full plates of food in front of her as did her large tablemates. To think that people find nothing wrong with eating this food tears me up inside. I know not everyone is able to afford good food (and I’m not going to get into that debate here), but it sickens me to think that these people might not ever know the goodness of fresh vegetables and unprocessed, unfried entrees and they’re okay with that. I don’t always eat perfectly, but I know that my digestive system will make me pay for the dinner I ate today. The restaurant patrons just looked sad and withdrawn, as if the food they were eating was sucking the life out of them.

We will never eat at Furr’s again. I regret it, especially since the SO forked out more than $20 for it. Some people would say “well, at least we tried it” and unfortunately, I can say I did, too.

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Puree Button

“Puree, a 13th-century Ancient French term for refined or purified, is a culinary process of mashing, blending, or grinding an ingredient until it has a soft, creamy consistency.”

Much to my sadness and chagrin, I do not own a food processor of decent size. I have a small one-cup blender that while good for making guacamole, is not handy for large quantities of ingredients. While my blender has a puree button, it is close to useless unless what I’m pureeing has a lot of liquid in it. If I intend to puree a vegetable such as squash or pumpkin, I have to resort to another method that involves a tired arm and a spoon- or if I’m really desperate, my hand mixer- because also to my chagrin, I don’t own a potato masher. Hopefully, this will be my last entry about all things pumpkin. I’ve established that it is a very versatile gourd and while I love it, I’m sick to death of it. Over the Hallo-weekend, the SO and I did three things with pumpkins: carved them, made puree, and roasted seeds.

Firstly, awesome pumpkin carving.

Puss-in-Boots from Shrek and King Boo from Super Mario Brothers.

Secondly, pumpkin puree.

Pie pumpkins are cute. They’re cheap and make good decorations, and apparently, they’re different from the regular carving pumpkins. We got ours from the local pumpkin patch- which I didn’t think there was a pumpkin patch within a thousand miles of here- and they sat on our porch contentedly serving as decoration until the time came for them to serve their primary purpose. I was inspired from a recipe in Men’s Health magazine and altered it.

Preheat oven to 350. Cut open the pumpkin and take out the seeds and stringy stuff. Save the seeds to roast later. Cut the pumpkin into wedges and put on a baking sheet or a roasting pan. Bake the pumpkin for 30 minutes, then check it every 10 minutes or so for doneness. I eventually cooked mine for almost 2 hours. Pumpkin can be deceptive; you might poke it with a fork at the end of a wedge and it feels done but if you poke it in the middle, it isn’t. It will feel like a potato when cooked through.

Once you have cooked pumpkin, cover it with tin foil and let it completely cool. In my case, I was doing this late at night and let it cool overnight until the next afternoon. When you are ready to puree, get yourself a metal spoon.

Peel the flesh from the skin into either a large mixing bowl (if you’re going to use a hand mixer or potato masher) or the bowl of a food processor and mix until the pumpkin has a smooth and creamy texture.

My two pie pumpkins yielded about 5 cups of puree. I froze 2-cup portions in quart size bags and plan to use it for pie and soup.

Thirdly, roasted seeds.

Prior to this experiment, I’d made roasted pumpkin seeds exactly once. They turned out leathery and not very salty, and they still had bits of pumpkin guts clinging to them so they weren’t exactly appetizing. My SO loves pumpkin seeds and I couldn’t very well waste four pumpkins’ worth of seeds, so I set out to make them more like what you’d find in a store. In my googling, I found recommendations of boiling the seeds in salted water before roasting them, and as I’ve made brined food before, it made sense.

I soaked the seeds in the sink to remove the bits and pieces of pumpkin guts, then put them in boiling salted water in my stockpot. I eyeballed the salt; I’d say I used a gallon of water and about 1/4-1/3 cup of kosher salt. I boiled the seeds for 10-15 minutes, stirring constantly with a skimmer which helped me take out any remaining pieces of pumpkin. After straining them and drying them for a little bit on paper towel, I put them on a cookie sheet and drizzled them with olive oil.

Here’s where it gets dicey. Google recipe results varied on temperature and baking time. Most said to bake around 300 degrees for 15-20 minutes, but some said for higher temperatures and less time. My aim was to dry out the seeds more than actually bake them; I figured it was the best way to get that crunchy consistency. My oven was set at 275 degrees and the seeds were put in for the long haul. I would stir them around every 10-15 minutes, and I think the total cooking time was around two hours. It’s a matter of knowing how crunchy you want the seeds, and you’re only going to find out by trying one every time you stir. After all the work, the two carving pumpkins made about 5 ounces of finished seeds. The SO made another batch when I made the pumpkin puree (mostly because I was so sick and tired of pumpkin) and he attempted a cinnamon honey roasted version. However, they didn’t quite turn out because he brined them like I did which made them much too salty for the sweetness of the honey to come through.

I’m glad we only carve pumpkins once a year because even though it was a lot of fun to begin with, by the time I got around to the fourth day of pumpkin-related activities, I wanted to stab my pumpkin until it was dead.

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“Italian for meatball, they are usually eaten as a main course or in a soup. Every Italian kitchen has its own recipe, but the typical meatball is made of ground pork or beef, breadcrumbs, eggs, cheese, garlic and onion.”

The size of a meatball depends on its region of origin. Usually, they’re mixed and shaped by hand to the size of a golf ball; in Abruzzo, they’re the size of marbles and called polpettine. I saw a cooking special with Rocco di Spirito when he helped make meatballs about the size of a hacky sack. This week, I chose meatballs as my Saturday Football Game meal. The SO and I were out and about running errands and on our way home, we stopped at the grocery store to pick up beer. I wandered over the meat counter to look for inspiration.

Not to get on a tangent, but I will never buy fish for as long as we live in Southern Great Plains State. Every fish counter I’ve ever walked past in this state has smelled so strongly of ammonia and fish that even if I did cook fish, I wouldn’t touch those fish counters with a ten foot pole.

Anyway, when the natural ground sirloin caught my eye, I knew what I was going to make: meatballs. Meatballs are pretty simple but to make them special, I went to my butcher at Artisan’s Pride and got his special Meatloaf Mix (I felt like I would be cheating on him if I bought ground beef someplace else). It’s 50% beef, 30% pork, and 20% veal. I’ve seen it many times and heard how great it was, and finally had the occasion to buy it.

Ingredients: Meatloaf Mix, minced garlic, dried basil, dried ground rosemary, grated Parmesan cheese, Italian breadcrumbs, and an egg.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Most recipes will pan fry the meatballs and then finish their cooking in a vat of red sauce. I deviate from this by baking them (details later). Another way to reduce the fat content is to use ground turkey but if you use extra lean, you’ll have to add a dab or so of olive oil… otherwise, they’ll turn into inedible dry little marbles.

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. I used freshly grated Parmesan (is there any other kind?) and Progresso Italian breadcrumbs which are nice because they have extra seasoning. I have seen recipes that call for stale bread soaked in milk, then wrung out and added to the mix instead; I want to try this variation whenever I have stale bread on hand. You’ll need a whole egg which acts as the glue to the mix and adds some moisture. I used dried basil and a ground rosemary that I bought at Savory Spice Shop in Boulder, Colorado when I was there two years ago. I know, cooking sensibility says that I shouldn’t use spices that are that old- especially ground ones- but it’s still good and I’m not wasting two ounces of organic rosemary!

Here’s where I’d like to extol the virtues of minced garlic in a jar. Most professional chefs would beat me if I said minced garlic in a jar is a good product, but hey, I don’t really care what they say. I like using garlic in my cooking, but what I don’t like is buying a whole bulb of garlic only to find out that all of the cloves have sprouted green shoots and are unusable (which happens frequently in SGPS). I started using minced garlic in a jar after I found out that my future mother-in-law uses it, and I haven’t looked back since. It lasts forever in the fridge, but it’s usually gone before too long. Plus, if I’m feeling extra adventurous, I’ll use a little garlic juice from the jar in my recipes.

When mixing meatballs, lots of people will use their hands and squish the mixture to death. While using your hands is the best way to mix meatballs, squishing it into an unrecognizable mass of meat is not. You want to loosely combine the ingredients with your fingers, almost like tossing a salad. It might take a little longer than if you mixed it like a toddler with Play-Do, but you will be rewarded with a better texture. A key step after combining the ingredients is shaping the mixture into a large ball and allowing it to rest for 30 minutes. This lets the flavors combine and meld and some people let the mixture sit in the fridge for a night before making the meatballs. I had never done this before and I think it really helps.

I am a stickler for uniformity. It’s a curse of having an OCD personality type. This causes me to use a tablespoon to measure out my meatballs whereas others would just eyeball it. I used a slightly rounded tablespoon of meatball mix and shaped it lightly with my hands (again, not squeezing it to death). Out of this batch, I made 27.5 meatballs; yours should yield about 25-30.

I baked them on a cookie sheet for 25-30 minutes, then drained them on paper towels.

While the meatballs baked, I prepared my red sauce. This past summer, I made about two gallons of red sauce out of Roma tomatoes, Dadi broth, and garlic and froze them in quart bags to use later. It’s nice because I’m not committed to making the same sauce over and over. I can customize it however I want and in this recipe, I sauteed diced onions low and slow until they were soft and translucent (around 25 minutes).

To them, I added a healthy tablespoon of tomato paste and thinned it out with red wine. Then I added the quart of thawed red sauce, salt, pepper, basil, and oregano. Once the meatballs were done and drained, I put them in the red sauce to simmer while the pasta cooked.

Et voila. Spaghetti and meatballs.

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The Big Soup

“Minestrone is the name for a variety of thick Italian soups made with vegetables, often with the addition of pasta or rice. Common ingredients include beans, onions, celery, carrots, stock, and tomatoes.”

I have to admit something: I do not have a very developed palate. I’ve been with my Italian SO for almost six years now and I have just now, within the last month or two, started to eat cooked onions and chunks of tomatoes. Imagine how embarrassing it was to pick around tomato and onion chunks when I was in Italy this summer with his family. I still will not eat raw onion or tomatoes or big chunks of the latter, but if the pieces are small enough  and cooked enough, I will happily shovel them into my mouth.

Here in Southern Great Plains State, we finally have weather that somewhat resembles autumn. We had rain all weekend and I decided on Friday to make minestrone soup. There is a lot of information regarding the origins of minestrone. It has an obviously Italian origin and a version of it featuring ingredients such as farro, chickpeas, and fava beans was a staple of the Roman diet. Minestrone as we know it probably arrived on the scene in the 16th century when tomatoes and potatoes were brought to Europe from America. Modern-day minestrone belongs to the tradition of cucina povera which literally means “poor kitchen”, meaning it has rustic, rural roots. It is one Italian word that corresponds to the English word ‘soup’; it means a very large and substantial soup but we usually use the word to describe the specific soup.

I totally agree with its classification of cucina povera. Since I am a teacher, I get paid once a month and as of last Friday, I was down to less than $5 in my checking account. I had most of the ingredients for the soup, but I still needed a small pasta, celery, an onion, and spinach which are not very expensive items by themselves but to someone that is down to her last $5, I might as well be buying black truffles and foie gras. Thankfully, the SO came to the rescue and I was able to buy everything I needed; interestingly enough, my purchase totaled less than $5.

Ingredients, from left: frozen spinach, kosher salt, black pepper, zucchini, carrot, celery, dried thyme and basil, onion, Great Northern beans, acini di pepe pasta, miced garlic, bacon, petite diced tomatoes, Dadi bouillon cubes, and a can of Swanson’s chicken broth.

Acini di pepe is a small pasta that looks like spaghetti with a hole in it. Any small pasta, or even brown rice, would work very well. The recipe I consulted called for pancetta, which is an Italian unsmoked version of bacon that is dry cured with salt and seasoned with spices like nutmeg, fennel, pepper, and garlic. I did not have pancetta but the bacon I had was a perfect substitute. Lots of minestrone recipes (including the one I used) called for borlotti beans; I actually shelled fresh borlotti beans while I was in Italy and didn’t know what they were called. Anyway, I used Great Northern beans but you could use any white bean. The Dadi bouillon cubes are a very popular brand of bouillon cubes in Italy; we picked some up while we were there and now I will never use Swanson’s broth.

Phase one: LOTS of chopping.

Phase two: Soffrito, meaning underfried. The bacon, onion, carrots, celery, and garlic are sauteed together to develop a flavor base for the soup. I later added the thyme, basil, salt, and pepper while the vegetables and bacon sauteed. One change I would make is to cook the bacon for a little while first to render some of the fat off.

Phase three: Enter the Dadi, tomatoes, and beans.

Four cups of Dadi broth and the extra can of Swanson’s broth. Also, one can of petite diced tomatoes. Make sure you rinse the beans well before adding them, it will reduce the sodium.

Phase four…. (enter South Park reference here)

Phase five: Minestrone!

After the soup simmers for about an hour, I added the zucchini, pasta, and thawed spinach. It’s important to squeeze the extra water out of the thawed spinach; I used a fine sieve and a spoon but I know some people will put the spinach in a tea towel and squeeze it over the sink. The pasta absorbed some of the cooking liquid and I think if I had to do it over again, I would have added the zucchini first and let it cook longer before adding the spinach and pasta because the zucchini was a little too firm.

This was an excellent soup to reheat. We had plenty of leftovers and we ate some on Monday. The pasta got huge after sitting over the weekend and absorbed a lot of the liquid, so while I was at physical therapy, my SO had to add about six cups of Dadi broth to increase the amount of soup liquid. He made some sourdough croutons which were super sour and a delicious addition. It was a really great soup and I will keep it in mind for Lent because if you remove the bacon, it’s a completely vegetarian dish and the beans keep the protein count high. As evidenced by the leftovers we still have in the fridge, it’s definitely the Big Soup.

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Culinary Adventures in Squash

“Butternut squash and Acorn squash have been known to cause an allergic reaction called contact dermatitis in many individuals, especially in food preparation where the squash skin is cut and exposed to the epidermis.”

Contact dermatitis is what happens when you come into contact with plants like poison ivy and poison oak. Apparently, this can also happen when squash skin is cut and peeled. I didn’t know this before I made my baked acorn squash or my butternut squash puree, but that’s okay. I didn’t end up getting dermatitis even though I aggressively (and without gloves) peeled both of those squashes. By the way, it is very difficult to peel an acorn squash due to its washboard-like structure. A paring knife, regardless of how sharp it is, will only go so far and a peeler is useless. Butternut squash is slightly easier mostly because it does not resemble a washboard, but its bottom curve does render a peeler pretty useless.

I cooked both of the squashes similarly. I cut them into pieces and tossed them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. They were baked on high heat and flipped with a spatula halfway through baking. With the acorn squash, I sprinkled dark brown sugar over the chunks after I turned them. It was served by itself as a side dish alongside steamed broccoli and a grilled pork tenderloin.

Other than salt and pepper, the butternut squash was unseasoned. My intent was to use it in a risotto, so after I baked it, I pureed/mashed it. I’d like to say that even though my blender has a “puree” button, it doesn’t puree very well so I had to mash it quite a bit with my rubber spatula. I am in desperate need of a food processor that holds more than one cup for this very reason. While the butternut mash cooled, I made my risotto. Once the rice was cooked, I added in about 1.5 cups of butternut mash before adding the Parmesan cheese. The risotto had a great hearty texture with the addition of the squash, not to mention a great creamy orange color. I served it, again, with grilled pork tenderloin (which, by the way, I’m getting pretty good at making). I regret not taking a picture of it because it was very gorgeous; I do recommend cooking squash as a side dish and look forward to growing it on my own next summer.

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