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Live it!: Three classics to ring in spring

Who needs boxed macaroni and cheese when you have this creamy, easy-to-make substitute. (LIVE IT! MAGAZINE)

When the trees are bare and the air still cold, there nothing is quite so warming as comfort foods.

The labor of preparing a homemade soup or casserole, the aromas of simmering, sautéing and baking that fill the kitchen, the anticipation as you sit down at the table — all of these are nourishment for the soul as well as the stomach.

This trio of favorites includes a soup that’s time-consuming (but satisfying) to make, a simple and relatively speedy casserole, and a stew that’s a combination of some up-front preparation followed by hands-off simmering.

One, or all, of these dishes may be destined to become your wintertime favorite too.

Minestrone soup

2 medium onions, diced

1 medium carrot, peeled and diced

1 medium potato, diced (peeling optional)

1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into ½-inch lengths

2 medium zucchini, diced

2 large kale leaves, finely chopped

1/2 pound tomatoes (about 3), peeled, seeded and chopped

1 slice bacon, finely chopped (use pancetta if it’s available)

1 slice good-quality salami, minced

1/4 medium Savoy or green cabbage, diced

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1½ cups cooked pinto beans, half of them pureed in a food processor

1/2 cup small pasta such as orzo

1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs -- sage, Italian parsley, basil

salt and pepper

olive oil

In a 6-quart soup pot, combine two-thirds of the diced onion along with the chopped potato, beans, zucchini, kale and tomatoes. Cover with water, add salt and pepper to taste and simmer gently for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, film the bottom of a 10-inch skillet with olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add the carrots and remaining

onions, the bacon, salami and a handful of the cabbage and saute until mixture begins to turn golden brown. Add garlic and half of the chopped herbs; cook for another minute.

Add sautéed vegetables to soup pot, along with the remaining cabbage, the beans and their puree. Cover with water by about 1 inch. Simmer gently, partially covered, for another 45 minutes, until the vegetables are well cooked and almost beginning to melt into each other. While soup cooks, add more water if needed; the consistency should be like a watery stew.

Season with more salt and pepper to taste, stir in the pasta and remaining herbs and simmer until pasta is tender, about 15 minutes.

Season at table with freshly ground pepper and a swirl of olive oil or sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, to taste.

Classic macaroni and cheese

Set aside the boxed macaroni and cheese and try this creamy homemade version instead. For a more grown-up look, use penne pasta instead of elbow macaroni. Choose a good-quality sharp cheddar cheese. You can skip the crumb topping if you wish, but we find that it adds a light crispy counterpoint to the smooth texture of this suppertime classic.

2 cups uncooked elbow macaroni

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

dash of pepper

2 cups milk

2 cups (8 ounces) graated cheese

Cook pasta in boiling water as directed on package; drain.

In medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Blend in flour, salt and pepper. Heat until bubbly. Slowly add milk, then heat until mixture boils and thickens, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add cheese, stirring until melted and well blended. Combine cheese sauce and pasta and pour into greased 2-quart casserole. Top with crumbs. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes, until hot and bubbling around the edges.

Crumb topping

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 cup dry bread crumbs

Melt butter in small skillet over medium heat. Add bread crumbs, stir to coat, and saute until lightly toasted.

Lentil and sausage stew

Paired with rustic whole-grain bread and a glass of red wine, this makes a hearty winter meal reminiscent of supper in a French farmhouse kitchen. Although any type of kielbasa will do, turkey sausage is especially good, as well as being lower in fat. This stew has the added bonus of freezing well.

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound kielbasa, cut diagonally into 1-inch slices

1 onion, diced

2 medium-sized carrots, pared and cut diagonally into ½-inch slices

6 garlic cloves, chopped

3½ cups lentils (about 2 pounds), rinsed and sorted

2 cups chicken or vegetable broth

3½ cups water

1 dried bay leaf

3 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

salt and pepper to taste

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until hot. Add sausage slices and brown on both sides, about 6 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Lower heat to medium. Add onion, carrots and garlic to pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. You may need to add a bit of water if they brown too rapidly. Stir in the lentils, broth, water, bay leaf, 1 teaspoon rosemary and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season to taste with salt. Turn up heat and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until lentils are tender but not falling apart, about 50 minutes.

Return sausage slices to pan and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir in remaining 2 teaspoons rosemary. Season with salt and pepper.

Anne Polta is Live it! Magazine's resident foodie. Anne may be reached at or follow her on Twitter @AnnePolta

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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