Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Crock Pot Zuppa Toscana

 My dear friend Aimee recently gave me some mustard greens that her and her family weren't going to use. I had many options in mind, and ways I could transform these greens into something delicious, but I decided to treat them as kale. I've been wanting to try my hand and replicating the Zuppa Toscana Soup from Olive Garden, and I thought now is as good a time as any. (BTW: If you have the time and the inclination to stay near your stove you could easily make this soup in about 45 minutes, but I wanted to make it in the crock pot so I could go about my day and not have to worry about dinner.)
   I didn't have a bowl of soup from Olive Garden next to me for comparison, but I think it's pretty spot on. My dad used to make this soup for us when I was little so I always think of him (and Olive Garden) when I eat it. Yummy goodness for sure.
   It's really easy, and it only takes a few ingredients. You might have everything on hand already (I did).

It starts with 1 lb of Italian sausage. I like the ground kind, but if you prefer links or the "hot" variety then by all means, make it with the ingredients you like best! Since I'm cooking for the little ones too, I generally go with the mild variety, and then just add a little red pepper flakes to taste.

I just put the sausage into a large skillet. (No oil, because I'm using pork sausage and it's fatty enough already. If you choose a leaner variety - i.e. chicken sausage - you'll need to add about 1 Tbsp oil to the pan first to prevent sticking.) Also, I use already cooked bacon (1/4 cup of real bacon bits from Costco) in this soup. If you don't have any already cooked, you'll need to cook up about 2-3 slices.)

I break it up with a spoon, but not too small. I want the sausage to be distinguishable in the soup and have a definite presence. I cook it over medium high heat, to get a nice sear on it. (I hear Carla Hall in my head saying, "There's flavor in the brown!" And also Anne Burrell saying, "Brown food tastes good!")

While the sausage is browning, turn your attention to your crock pot. I always spray mine with no-stick cooking spray so that it's easier clean up for my amazing hubby. (Does your significant other do your dishes too? I hope so.)
Then, I chop up one medium onion.

Just chop off both ends, slice it in half and peel off the skin.

Then I make vertical slits,

and then slice against the grain to get nice little dices.

These go into the crock pot. (Sorry the pic is blurry.) -If you choose to make this on the stove, instead of in the crock pot I would just add the onions (and garlic that you see later) to the sausage that's browning.

Next come the potatoes. 3 large (I'm talking Costco sized large) Russet potatoes. Cleaned and unpeeled.

Slice each potato into disks, setting the ends aside.

Cut the disks in half length wise

and then turn the disks and make 3 cuts. Now you should have nicely (pretty uniform) cut potatoes. (If you are making your soup on the stove instead of in the crock pot, you can cut your potato pieces a little smaller. For the crock pot they need to be a little on the big side because they get cooked for so long.)

The end pieces I just cut into quarters.

The cut potatoes get added to the crock pot.

The sausage should be nicely browned by now. Remove it from the grease (remember I didn't add any oil, this is just what cooked out of the sausage), and . . .

add it to the crock pot. - Along with your 1/4 cup of crumbled bacon.

2-3 tsp of minced garlic goes in (that's about 2-3 cloves). This is to taste. If you like a lot of garlic, then add more. :)

Now, if I had thought about making this soup the night before I would have gotten out some of my Homemade Chicken Stock out of the freezer, but this was kind of a last minute meal decision, so I used canned chicken broth instead. You'll need about 4 cups (or 2 cans)

1 cup of water is added, along with 1/2 tsp of Italian seasoning and as many red pepper flakes as you'd like.
 The lid goes on, the heat is set to low and you walk away. (I love my slow-cooker!)

 At some point you will need to prep your greens. I just did it now, so that it would be ready for me later. You'll need 1 bunch of greens. 2-4 cups depending on taste. I believe that Olive Garden uses kale, so that would be my green of choice, but I had mustard greens on hand so I used that instead.

Just remove the stems and roughly chop the leaves. I had about 4 cups.

After about 5 hours I checked on my potatoes, and they were tender so I finished my soup then, It would be fine if you needed to let yours cook longer, just realize that the potatoes will break down a little more. No biggie. :) If you choose to make this on the stove, then check your potatoes after about 20 minutes.

In go the greens. I know, it looks like a lot. It looks like they will never fit. But they will . . .

Just use a spoon and gently push the greens down into the soup. As soon as they hit the hot broth they will start to wilt.

And voila! In literally seconds, the mountain of greens wilted down and fit into the soup seamlessly. :)

The lid goes on and everything simmers together for about 30 minutes or so. (15 if you're making this on the stove.)

When the greens are tender, turn the crock pot off and add 1 cup of heavy cream.

Taste it for seasoning (add salt and pepper to taste), and serve it up. You can grate on some Parmesan cheese like they offer you at Olive Garden or you can eat it as is.

Don't forget the garlic bread sticks! (I used about 1/4 of my recipe for No-Kead French Bread. Formed the dough into bread sticks, baked them @ 350F for 15 minutes and then brushed them with a mixture of butter and granulated garlic. They were a remarkable copy-cat of the Olive Garden bread sticks, if I do say so myself. Maybe not as pretty, but just as tasty.)

This is how I like to eat mine. I dunk my bread into my soup. Do you do that to?

This really is so similar to the Zuppa Toscana soup at Olive Garden! (Although mine is probably a little heartier, because I think their potatoes are smaller and they serve you more broth). But I love that I can make it at home and it's so simple!
    I hope you enjoy it too!
Here's the recipe:

Crock Pot Zuppa Toscana (Olive Garden Copy Cat)

1 lb ground Italian sausage (if using "hot" sausage, reduce the amount of red pepper flakes)
1 medium onion, diced
3 large russet potatoes, washed with the skin on, cubed
2-3 tsp of minced garlic  (to taste)
1/4 cup cooked and crumbled bacon (about 3 slices)
1/2 tsp Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (to taste)
4 cups of chicken stock (or 2 cans)
1 cup of water
1 bunch of kale, stems/veins removed, sliced (2-4 cups depending on taste)
1 cup of heavy cream
salt and freshly ground black pepper (to taste)

Break up and brown the sausage. To the crock pot, add the onion, diced potatoes, garlic, bacon, Italian seasoning, and red pepper flakes. Drain the sausage and add to the crock pot. Add the chicken stock and water. Set the slow-cooker to low and cook for 5-8 hours (the longer it cooks, the more the potatoes will break down). Add the sliced kale and stir. Cook on low for another 30 minutes. Turn the heat off and add the cream, salt and pepper. Serve hot with a garnish of Parmesan cheese and garlic bread sticks (optional).

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Special Strawberry Jam

Strawberries were on sale this last week, so I bought a bunch of them with hopes of making strawberry jam. I've never made straight-up strawberry jam before. I usually blend it with other fruits. This is odd because my hands down favorite jam has to be strawberry! Every time there is jam offered, I always seek out the strawberry. I don't know what it is. The alluring red hue, the sinfully sweet smell, and the one of a kind taste always hooks me. I love strawberry jam!!
  I was excited to try my hand at making my own. So, yesterday I went to the store and bought some 8 oz jam jars and some more pectin. (I wasn't sure how much I had at home because I have a few jars left of my blueberry preserves and my Homemade/homegrown Peach Preserves.) With everything ready I was about to start on the jam and realized it's Wednesday. In that house, right now, that means baseball. Princess has practice and Handsome Man has a game. So, instead of spending the next hour prepping and making my favorite jam, I fed the kids an early dinner, packed all 4 of them and everything they needed into the car, and spent the next 4 hours happily cheering on my little sports nuts. :)
  So, today was my dedicated jam-making day. After I got the kids taken care of I turned my attention to my strawberries. I decided to make a couple little tweaks that make this jam more than just your run of the mill strawberry jam. I added some lime juice (to help preserve the fresh strawberry flavor - got this idea from Mormon Mavens in the Kitchen) and a touch of vanilla (to give the jam a depth of flavor that it wouldn't have otherwise). Hence this is my "Special" Strawberry Jam.

First thing's first, when you are making jam you need to have everything cleaned and ready to go. I put my jars and lid rings into the dishwasher and I get a large pot out to boil the lids, tongs, jar lifter, funnel, ladle, and eventually process to full jam jars. I don't have some fancy canner - so I just use a large soup pot. Thank goodness I have two.
 The fruit also needs to be cleaned. I just filled up my colander with strawberries and a lime. (I washed the lime thinking that I would use the zest, but ended up only using the juice.)

Next, I put some strawberries into my food processor (love this thing!). I pulsed it a few times to chop the fruit. DO NOT PUREE. - I don't know why exactly, that is just what it says in the directions inside the pectin box. Just like that. All caps and everything, so it must be important. :) 

If you don't have a food processor, you can just mash the strawberries with a potato masher. There should be visible chunks of fruit.

Measure out 6 cups of the chopped or mashed strawberries and pour them into a large pot. (This is my first soup pot.) The measurement of the strawberries needs to be exact or the jam won't set up right. I think I used about 4 pints to get 6 cups of chopped strawberries. I washed 6 pints, though, so that I would be sure to have enough.

To the strawberries I added the juice of one lime. (You could also zest the lime first and then juice it if you want the lime flavor more pronounced.)

In a measuring cup I added 1/4 cup of sugar and the contents of one pouch of pectin for low or no-sugar jams (Sure-Jell).

I mixed them together well

and then added the sugar/pectin mixture to the strawberries and lime juice.

I stirred it all together and cooked it over medium high heat.

I also added a smidgen (about 1 tsp) of butter to help the jam not foam up as much. I cooked the jam until it came to a rolling boil.

While the jam was cooking I got out  my second soup pot and filled it about 1/2 way with hot water, and put it over medium heat to come to a boil. I then added in my tongs, jar lifter, ladle, funnel and lids (the lids should only be in the hot water for about 5 minutes so you don't ruin the seal, so add them last when the jam is almost done).

When the strawberry jam is at a rolling boil (it can't be stirred down), add 3 3/4 cups sugar (exact measurements please).

Stir everything together and continue to cook, until it comes up to a rolling boil. When it does, boil it for 1 minute (I set a timer), stirring constantly. 

Make sure to have your warm, clean jars ready to be filled. I always lay mine out on a towel. It keeps them from slipping and sliding and it makes for easy clean up later.

After the 1 minute of constant boiling and stirring, turn the heat off. Add a touch (about 1 tsp) of vanilla, and stir.

As quickly, and neatly as possible, ladle the jam into the prepared jars using the jar funnel. Fill the jars to about 1/4 inch from the top.

Wipe the rims with a paper towel, to remove any jam that may have gotten on the edges.

Now the lids come into play. I carefully retrieve them from the hot water with a pair of tongs. I gently shake off the water . . .

and carefully place the lids onto the awaiting jars.

 I tightly screw on a ring (that has been cleaned in the dishwasher) onto each lidded jar.

Now the jars get put into the second soup pot (the one with boiling water in it), to process for 10 minutes. (If you live at a high altitude you'll need to process your jars longer (check the chart on the directions in the pectin box).

I put the lid on and the timer on. Boil the jars for 10 minutes.

When 10 minutes is up, I take out the jars using the jar holder. (This tool is invaluable. I've tried canning without it, and it was nearly a disaster. The jars are extremely hot and slippery so invest in this kitchen tool. It only costs a few dollars.)

Carefully place the jars where they can sit undisturbed for the next 24 hours. You will immediately begin to hear the "pop" that the jars make as they suck the lids in on themselves and seal tight. If any of the jars have not sealed after 24 hours they should be refrigerated and used.

The recipe makes 8 cups, but whenever I make jam I always seem to have about 1/4 cup left over. It never goes to waste. I just put it in a jar and in a matter of minutes it will have disappeared.

My Handsome Man was the first one to take a bite. He had been in the kitchen since the beginning, asking every 5 minutes, if the jam was done yet.  He was more than thrilled when I finally said yes. :)

Don't you want to take a bite? It truly is heavenly for a strawberry jam lover like myself.

Aren't they pretty? Like jewels. Lovely, edible, spreadable jewels.

Handsome man made a silly smiley face when I said I was done taking pictures. Silly boy. :)
This jam really is something special! I hope you love it as much as my family and I do. :)
Here's the recipe:

Special Strawberry Jam

1 pouch of Low-Sugar Pectin (Sure Jell)
6 cups chopped or mashed strawberries
4 cups sugar, divided
1 tsp butter
juice of 1 lime (and zest too if you wish)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Wash 8 1-cup jars and the lid rings with hot soapy water (I do this in the dishwasher). All other tools (ladle, tongs, jar lifter, funnel and lids) can be sanitized in boiling water on the stove. Have the warm jars and clean tools ready. Sanitize the lids when the jam is almost done (about 5 minutes is all they need in the hot water). Have a large pot or canner ready with boiling water.

In a large stock pot add the strawberries, and the lime juice (and zest if using). In a small bowl, mix together the pectin and 1/4 cup of sugar. Add the pectin mixture to the strawberries. Stir and cook over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a full rolling boil (can't be stirred down). Add the remaining 3 3/4 cups sugar. Stir and bring the mixture back up to a rolling boil. Boil for exactly 1 minute and then turn the heat off. Stir in the vanilla and then quickly and carefully ladle the hot jam into the prepared jars using a jar funnel. Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean paper towel.
  Using your sanitized tongs, carefully remove the lids from the hot water, shake off any excess water, and then place the lids onto the filled jars. Tightly screw on the rings. Using the jar lifter, gently place the jam jars into the pot or canner containing the boiling water. Put the lid on and boil the jars for 10 minutes (longer if you live in a high elevation - check the directions inside the pectin box). After 10 minutes, use the jar lifter and carefully take the jars out of the hot water and place them in a place that they can sit undisturbed for 24 hours. You should start hearing the jar lids "pop" and seal.
   If any of the jars have not sealed after 24 hours they need to be refrigerated and used. The sealed jars can be stored for up to 1 year.