Like most mothers, I spend a good deal of time preparing meals for my family. Most mornings find me in the kitchen, making lunches as the sky lightens from deep blue to pink, and so on to sweet orange. Brilliant shafts of sunlight are spilling through the back door by the time I pack the lunchboxes into my kids' backpacks. Honestly, I don't always love this part of my parenting job description. While I want my kids to eat healthy meals, meeting this inexorable human requirement for sustenance can be grindingly tedious. So it comes as a welcome break in the routine when I travel for work, as I did to Nepal last month.
When I travel to developing countries, however, I am always reminded that I actually spend very little time in the kitchen compared to women worldwide. Surveys in a wide range of countries have shown that women provide 85 - 90 percent of the time spent on household food preparation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American women in my demographic spend just over 60 minutes on food prep and just over 30 minutes on cooking every day. Indian women, by contrast, average 191 minutes, while Mexican women spend 373 minutes and Turkish women spend 377 minutes on unpaid domestic work like food preparation and cooking.
The other thing that always strikes me when I return home to the United States is how much food we waste in this country. According to a recent study, Americans throw away forty percent - nearly half - of their food every year, waste worth roughly $165 billion annually. In other words, the average American family of four ends up throwing away an equivalent of up to $2,275 annually in food. It's hard not to feel how wrong that is when you have just returned from interviewing young people who only get one meal a day; a mother who hasn't eaten for 36 hours because she gave her refugee camp rations to her children. And hunger remains a problem right here in our own country. If we reduced the losses in the U.S. food supply by just 15 percent, according to the same study, we would save enough to feed 25 million Americans annually.
This American habit of wasting food is of relatively recent acquisition - there has been a 50 percent jump in U.S. food waste since the 1970s. So this is not a problem created by my Grandma Edna's generation, who survived the Great Depression by saving and using every bit of food they could. (She even saved the bacon drippings, using them to make her Cornflake Cookies.) This is a problem for which MY generation, those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, must acknowledge some responsibility.
There are some good tips out there for reducing food waste in your home: making (and keeping to) a shopping list, buying only the amount you need, freezing things before they go bad (bread, cheese, avocados, bananas), composting, using up leftovers. I do these things, but my major focus is on the leftovers. I make chili with the leftovers from Taco Night, enchiladas with leftover chicken. There's a kind of analytical beauty to finding a repurposing solution, the same feeling you get from fitting all the pieces into a puzzle. But mostly I want to model for my kids the economy, the efficiency, the avoidance of waste when so many don't have enough. What I want my children to understand is that the small personal choices they make, both to act and NOT to act in certain ways, can have an impact on others. Small acts of personal economy are, in fact, a way of showing that you care about the world and the other people in it.
The task of using up leftovers becomes infinitely easier during Soup Season. The sad, wilted veggies on the bottom of the crisper meet old parmesan cheese rinds in Minestrone Soup. Leftover mashed potatoes are transformed into Potato-Cheese Soup (or, equally delicious, Potato Soup with Pesto). Corn is scraped off the cob for Southwestern Corn Chowder. The bottom-of-the-bag salad spinach adds a beautiful green tint to Winter Vegetable Soup (my family's favorite).
So when I returned from Nepal last week to find that the evenings had turned chilly and - consequently -that the kitchen counter was piled high with end-of-summer tomatoes, I knew exactly what to do.
Welcome Soup Season with Tomato-Basil Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches!
Here's my recipe so you can welcome Soup Season, too. Bon appetit!
1/4 cup olive oil
3 medium onions (about 3 cups chopped)
3-4 garlic cloves, chopped or pressed
1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped + up to another 1/2 cup chopped for serving
1/2 tsp salt and freshly ground pepper
3 lbs fresh tomatoes, chopped (including skins and seeds) (can also use canned tomatoes -2 28 oz cans whole tomatoes in juice, cut up)
32 oz container of chicken or vegetable broth
In soup pot, saute onions in oil until golden. Add garlic, basil, salt and bay leaf. Saute another 2-3 minutes. Take out bay leaf and add tomatoes and broth. (If I have any leftover tomato paste, I add a couple of tablespoons here; if I have leftover tomato sauce, I add up to a cup of it, too.) Bring to a boil and cook for 10-20 minutes (use the shorter time if you want the tomato taste to be more fresh.) Let cool for a few minutes and then puree the soup with an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender. When soup is smooth, add additional chopped basil.
Options:Roasted Tomato-Basil Soup: Toss the tomatoes, onions and garlic with olive oil and roast at 400 degrees for 40 minutes. Follow the rest of the recipe.
Pasta: On this particular night, I added leftover cheese tortellini to the soup but sometimes I add 1/2 to 1 cup of cooked elbow macaroni.
Cream: If you like your tomato soup creamy, it works to substitute out one cup of broth for milk or cream. Add cream after pureeing.
Cheese: I have added each of the following depending on what I am trying to use up (but not at the same time): 1 cup crumbled feta, 1 cup shredded parmesan, 4 oz fresh chevre (goat cheese)
Grilled cheese sandwiches: Depends on what is on hand. I've made delicious open-faced sandwiches with artisan bread and aged gouda, but on this night we had cheddar on whole-wheat bread. Until the cheddar ran out and I switched to provolone - which I actually thought tasted better.