Monday, September 24, 2012

What Do You Use Vanilla Sugar For?

So you know I'm having fun experimenting with vanilla beans, yeah? 

One of the ways I've been maximizing my usage is by tossing my "spent" vanilla bean husks into a jar of plain white sugar.  I give this a shake every day to help spread the flavor, and it smells positively amazing.  If you have some spent vanilla, you should totally do this so you don't waste any extra flavor tidbits.  But the question, of course, is what do you do with vanilla sugar? 

You probably don't want to use it in baking.  The flavor's a bit too delicate for that.  Here's a few things I've found to do with it that are great, though: 

-- Sprinkle it over cookies, like peanut butter or shortbread, before baking
-- Stir it into your tea or coffee for a deeper, sweeter flavor
-- Dust it onto homemade marshmallows or other candies
-- Sprinkle it over your cereal
-- Sprinkle some over fresh fruit
-- Use it the next time you make cinnamon toast

Basically, anything that tastes good with a spoon full of granulated sugar tastes extra good with a spoonful of vanilla sugar.  Obviously, don't go out and buy vanilla just to make this stuff...but if you have any husks lying around that'll go to waste, absolutely toss them into your sugar jar.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Concerning MSG

Monosodium glutamate, ie, MSG, is a flavoring agent that creeps its way into a lot of different foods.  Although it's most commonly associated with Chinese food, you can also find it in packaged snack foods like chips or added to frozen dinners.  MSG has a pretty nasty reputation among some people, and it's not too hard to find signs and packages proudly announcing their products to be "MSG free" -- but the question is, what is the stuff, and do you really need to avoid it?

What Is MSG?  

Glutamate, or glutamic acid, is an amino acid.  Amino acids are the basic building block of proteins, which are in turn the building blocks of living things in the form of muscle and tissue.  Monosodium glutamate is a salt of that acid -- basically, sodium combines at an atomic level with glutamate to form the salt.   This is the same as how table salt is a combination, at the atomic level, of sodium and chlorine.  So far so good? 

Glutamate occurs naturally in your body, where it helps keep your neurotransmitters firing efficiently.  If you end up with extra glutamate in your system, though -- or any other amino acid -- it becomes processed by your liver so that it can be stored for other things.  If your liver and immune system work properly, this process shouldn't cause any problems.  There can be some complications, though, if everything doesn't work the way it should.  One of the most common is an allergic reaction.

Although glutamate occurs naturally in the body, monosodium glutamate has to be manufactured.  There's two basic ways to accomplish this.  The first is hydrolizing vegetable protein.  The second is fermenting certain starches.  Most MSG you find in food is manufactured, but it does occur as a natural by-product in some fermented foods like soy sauce.  

What Does MSG Do In Food?

MSG was most likely identified in the foods where it's naturally produced -- ie, fermented foods like soy sauce or worcestershire.  There it creates that hard-to-pin-down flavor profile, umami.  You're familiar with salty, sour, sweet and bitter, right?  Umami is that delicious "savory" taste that helps complement other flavors and make food taste better. You know, the flavor you get when you eat something protein-filled like a well-cooked piece of meat? Glutamate is pretty much solely responsible for creating that flavor.

If you know anything about processed food, it really shouldn't shock you that "flavor that makes food taste better" is something that food manufacturers are eager to pump into their products.  

This is why you find MSG in so many processed foods.  It's way cheaper to put a little MSG in something than it is to put actual protein in there.  So, for example, canned soup or Ramen Noodle packets can taste meaty and delicious even if there isn't actually any meat in them.  Cheetos can taste cheesy despite there not actually being any cheese.  

Is It Harmful?  

Your taste buds work pretty hard to make sure that the things you put in your mouth are nutritious.  Different foods have different tastes, and giving you a preference for certain flavors helps make sure you eat what you're supposed to.  In the case of glutamate, your body recognizes the umami flavor and says, "hey, this is full of delicious protein!  eat up!"

Except, of course, if the glutamate is added to the food and there's not actually any protein in it.

So you're happily shoveling away food that your body thinks is nutritious and delicious when, in fact, you could be eating the nutritional equivalent of cardboard sprinkled with MSG.  This is no different than the way processed foods trick you with added salt, sugar, and fat.  The added flavors make fake food taste like yummy real food instead of tasteless fake food infused with artificial ingredients.  

MSG has a few other issues.  A small portion of the population is allergic to it, and you can develop a sensitivity to it if you eat a lot of it.  There's also a bunch of genetic problems that can increase your glutamate sensitivity.  For people with a genuine MSG sensitivity, excess glutamate can cause some serious medical problems, including neurological damage -- but this is a tiny portion of people.  To so-called "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" isn't nearly as widespread as people think it is. 

Why Should You Avoid MSG?

It's true:  A small percentage of people in the world have an MSG intolerance that leads to headaches, nausea, fatigue and other nasty problems.  That doesn't mean that MSG itself is necessarily bad any more than peanut allergies mean that peanuts are unhealthy.  If you have a diagnosed MSG intolerance, then you absolutely should avoid glutamate.  If you don't, though, glutamate isn't going to hurt you any more than, say, wheat gluten hurts people who don't have a gluten allergy.  So all of the fear-mongering about MSG is, to put it lightly, inflated.  It's not going to cause cancer or give you birth defects or make your eyeballs explode or anything.  Relax, eat some soy sauce.

The real reason to avoid MSG is because its presence in your food is probably a really good sign that the food isn't something you should be eating.  Remember, glutamate occurs naturally in foods.  But it doesn't show up in the ingredients label that way.  It only shows up in the ingredients if someone actually put the MSG in there.  Which means that the food is obviously highly processed, and thus probably not something you really want to put in your mouth. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Homemade Chocolate Pudding

My first use of the vanilla beans was quite conservative: Chocolate pudding.

(I was going to take a picture of it, but then I ate it all instead....oops)

The wonderful thing about vanilla is that it lifts up and enhances other flavors that come close to it, and vanilla makes chocolate taste positively divine.  That said, if you'd rather have straight-up vanilla pudding, you can use this same recipe and just omit the cocoa powder.

Recipe adapted from Alton Brown:

- 1 vanilla bean, split and with seeds scraped out
- 5 cups milk and 1 cup cream (you can use all milk, if you want)
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 3/4 cup cocoa powder
- 1/2 cup corn starch
- pinch of salt
- 2 tbsp butter

Pour five of your six cups of liquid into a pot and add the vanilla bean.  You can toss in the whole pod if you want, or you can just put in the scraped-out seeds.  Let this simmer until it starts to steam, then mix in your sugar and cocoa powder.  Mix your remaining cup of milk with your 1/2 cup of corn starch until the starch is completely dissolved, then pour that into the mixture on the stove.  Add your salt.

Let this cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently.  It might start to get lumpy; that's OK, just whisk the lumps until they break up.  You'll know it's done when the pudding coats the back of a spoon.  Take it off the heat and mix in your butter until thoroughly melted.  If you're using vanilla extract instead of whole vanilla, add it at this point.  Strain the pudding off into a bowl or individual serving cups -- whatever you want -- and chill for a couple of hours to let it set up.  If you don't mind pudding skin, you can chill uncovered; otherwise, you'll want to cover it with plastic wrap touching the top of the pudding.  This makes about 6 cups of pudding.


There's a lot of things you can do with this pudding if you want.  You can make it low-fat by using 2% or skim milk, but it won't be quite as thick and rich-tasting.  You can play around with the flavor profile and add various other extracts, like mint or coffee or rum.  You can use flour instead of corn starch to thicken it, but the texture will be a bit more grainy. 

The finished product can be eaten as-is or incorporated into cake.  You could make eclairs and stuff them with the pudding.  You can freeze it to make some really excellent fudge pops.  You can tweak the type of milk you use to make it richer or more low-cal.  I suspect you could add more starch or some gelatin to make a pie.  You could probably make vegan pudding by using rice, almond or coconut milk, but I've never tried it.  You can also mix up all of the dry ingredients and keep it in a jar in the cabinet to make single-size servings of pudding whenever you want.

Anyway -- chocolate pudding = amazing. 

I put my scraped-out vanilla bean stalk into a jar of sugar in the pantry.  It should infuse it with flavor and make some really yummy vanilla sugar that can then be used to sweeten tea, sprinkle over cereal or baked goods, whatever.  I'll buy some liquor this week so I can make some vanilla extract, too. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Vanilla Beans: Incoming!

A good friend of mine and fellow urban homesteading nerd ordered bulk vanilla beans to make homemade Christmas presents.  After discovering that she'd ordered entirely more than she knew what to do with, she sent some to me as a blog project.  They arrived in the mail today, and let me tell you-- they smell amazing

Knowing that I have quite a bit of vanilla to work with, I decided it would be a good idea to research it a bit.  I admit that, for most of my life, "vanilla" has been a sweet smelling but often flavorless brown liquid you pour into things because the recipe told you to.  I definitely grew up on imitation vanilla, and as an adult I often leave it out of recipes because I can't be bothered to buy more. 

The fresh stuff, on the other hand, is a whole different animal (er, plant). 

What is Vanilla?

You're probably familiar with vanilla from its smell, which is very distinctive and sweet.  What you might not know is that it's a relative of the orchid.  In fact, it's the only fruit-bearing orchid in the world, and the "vanilla bean" is really its fruit.  It grows native in Central and South America, but it quickly migrated its way throughout Europe thanks to being brought home by the Conquistadors.  The French were especially fond of its flavor, and vanilla has worked its way into a side variety of dishes. 

Vanilla can be a bit tricky to grow.  The plants don't mature until they're about three years old, and they only bloom for one or two days.  In its native home, it's pollinated by a specific species of bee.  Elsewhere in the world, where that bee doesn't live, the plant must be pollinated by hand.  Furthermore, the beans must be picked while green and cured before they become edible.  This curing process takes months and is quite laborious. 

All of this is why you're often hard-pressed to find real vanilla in the store, and why real vanilla beans are so expensive.  But the question is: Are they worth it?

What's in "Imitation Vanilla"? 

Vanilla is an easy flavor to imitate, which is why it goes into so many foods (and, consequently, why it's become synonymous with "plain"), but the imitation doesn't come close to the subtlety and sweetness of the real thing.  You'll notice this very fast if you taste a little pure imitation vanilla.  It actually tastes very bitter and definitely smells more appealing than it tastes.  What's in it, anyway? 

As it turns out...a lot of things you probably don't want to eat. Basically, scientists identified the specific chemical that causes its flavor, vanillin, and found ways to get it out of non-vanilla sources, like wood pulp.  While I appreciate the spirit of recycling wood pulp from paper plants back into my diet, I think I'll pass. 

Oh, and here's a fun fact for you:  Many of the items made with "real vanilla" are still flavored predominately by imitation vanilla or vanilla extracts (which contain a lot of chemicals that are synthetically produced or, uh, not vanilla).  The characteristic brown flecks often actually come from beans that have already been used to make extracts.  In other words, all the flavor has been leached out, leaving behind a very impressive-looking but ultimately flavorless trail.  

So What's In Store for The Vanilla Beans? an excellent question!  I'm certainly going to make some real vanilla extract to have on hand, but other recipes are open to suggestions.  I have several beans, so I can go in a few different directions with them.  Anybody have any ideas they want me to try out?  Leave your vote in the comments below!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What to Do With an Old Cell Phone

If you're like most people, you probably have a few old cell phones lying around gathering dust.  Every time your cell phone contract renews, you end up with a shiny new phone to replace your old phone, and the old phone ends up in a drawer somewhere -- or, worse, the trash.  In fact, thanks to the relentless forward march of technology, about 130 million cell phones or 65,000 tons, are thrown away every year in the U.S.  Not only does this take up a lot of space, it poses an environmental risk because electronics like phones and computers have a number of dangerous chemicals in them including arsenic, cadmium and lead.  These inevitably end in the water supply, where they can kill wildlife and cause birth defects. 

So instead of throwing away your old cell phone, here's a few ideas for things you can do with it: 

  1. Use it (and avoid paying a phone contract ever again). Here's a win-win for you.  You can save money and avoid being tied down to a contract by using your old phone.  There's a few options for this.  The easiest is to use a prepaid provider and load up the phone with minutes or a data plan.  You can also connect to WiFi from most smart phones and use Google Voice or Skype to make the phone totally usable from anywhere with an Internet connection. 
  2. Re-use it as something else.  Even if you don't use the phone to make calls, you can still use all of its other nifty features.  Use it instead of a Kindle to read e-books.  Play games on it; you can download an emulator and play various other console games on your phone very easily.  Ir you don't want it, give it to a kid in your life.  A used smart phone pre-loaded with apps is a fantastic way to satisfy their hankering for a smart phone without needing to actually give them a fully-functional phone.  If your phone doesn't work at all, you can give it to a younger child to use as a toy; just be sure there's nothing that can be swallowed or anything before you hand it over.  
  3. Recycle it. When you think of recycling, the image that pops into your head is probably plastic bottles.  But in truth, electronics are some of the most important items to recycle and dispose of properly.  You can drop off your phone at a recycling point at most phone and electronics stores, or you can even mail it in.  Depending on the model of your phone, you could even be paid for recycling it.  
  4. Donate it.  Some recycling bins for phones have a separate compartment for cell phones that are still in working order so you can donate them.  Some charities even accept donations of non-working phones.  Check with your favorite charity to see if they need phones.  For example, some women's shelters use old cell phones to give women a way to call for help.  A charity my friend works for, Water for the People, uses modified old cell phones as GPS trackers to help them navigate developing countries.  There are a ton of cell phone donation programs; just type in "cell phone donations in (your area)" in Google to find one you'd like.  
  5. Scrap it.  You might be surprised at how much a cell phone is worth once you break it up into all of its valuable parts.  Electronics all have a small amount of precious metals like gold and platinum, and these can be re-sold for cash money.  You can also pull out an undamaged SD card and use it in a digital camera or other device.  Be sure to pull out the battery and either re-use it, sell it, donate it or recycle it as many of the worst environmental hazards are in the battery.  
If you want to make a little extra money and help make a difference in the environment at the same time, you can make a side business of collecting and scrapping cell phones.  Advertise your services and go around neighborhoods to collect old phones and other unwanted electronics.  Scrap them for all of the usable pieces and sell the profitable parts, then recycle the rest.  You can also pick up cheap unwanted phones at thrift stores, yard sales, eBay and Craigslist; people will part with them for just a few dollars and you can easily make back your investment. 

Ever since David gave me my new-used Android, he's been learning all about things you can do with old cell phones.  As I learn more, I might post more tips for you.  I'll also see if I can get a guest post or v-log out of him showing you exactly how to set up your phone online, scrap it for gold etc.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

White Wheat: A Quick Tip

I have a really great post planned about the dairy industry, but I don't have the time to get into it just yet -- the day job is keeping me very busy this week as I try to catch up from a slow long weekend.  In the meanwhile, I do have a great baking tip for people who want to start cooking with whole grains. 

Whole wheat flour has a very familiar taste and texture.  It's toothy and heavy and a little nutty, and it's delicious but also a bit too hardcore for many types of foods.  If you're making cookies or cake or something, whole wheat flour is just too heavy. 

Here's the solution:  White wheat. 

No, that's not the same as bleached white flour.  It's a whole wheat flour that's made out of a particular strain of albino wheat.  The wheat is lighter in color and softer in texture.  Dough you make with it has this lovely golden-cream coloration, and you can hardly tell the difference when you make cookies or other things. 

The brand I bought is Prairie Gold, which isn't certified organic but is certified chemical-free and non-GMO.  It was about $4 for a 5lb bag and I am extremely pleased with it.  You can also get white wheat flour from King Arthur, Gold and various other flour-makers. 

If you do a lot of baking, you might also want to spring for the slightly more expensive wheat pastry flour.  This is whole wheat flour that's ground more finely than normal flour, so you can use it in making various pastries, pie crusts, etc. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

What You Pay For When You Buy Organic

Growing up, I always straddled an uncomfortable line.  On the one hand, we were very earth-conscious, frugal and generally healthy eaters.  On the other hand, we were also decidedly working class, and there was always a little discomfort about the "new-agey, Birkenstock-wearing crunchy granola-heads" and the "cosmopolitan, latte-sipping yuppies."  Those people didn't have to work hard, unglamorous and often life-threatening jobs in order to provide for their families.  Those people could afford to shop at Whole Foods and make fruity dishes from scratch every night -- or have their maids do it.  And those people bought organic because they thought they were better than everybody else. 

As I got older -- and my dad retired from his blue collar job -- we started to shift a little bit me toward the "crunchy granola" side of the spectrum, but some of those underlying biases still follow me.  It still bothers me for rich, entitled white people to tell poor minorities how they should eat, and it really bothers me to see rich, well-fed people talk about "suffering" economically as if selling a few stocks to pay the mortgage on your half-million dollar house means a damn thing. 

But that's neither here nor there.  Right now, we're talking about organic food -- and, more importantly, whether buying organic actually matters or if it's just a way for the hipsters to be more superior than the rest of us. 

What is "Organic," Anyway? 

If you want to be scientific about it, the word "organic" simply means carbon-based, ie, alive.  If something was once alive at any point, it's carbon-based, making it by definition organic.  But that's not what "organic" means in the grocery store (unfortunately -- that would make shopping much simpler).  Instead, "organic foods" are those produced without synthetic pesticides, radiation treatments, artificial fertilizers or genetic modification. 

In terms of meat and dairy, organic means that the animal was fed organic feed and was not confined 100% of the time.  It's important to realize that this is not the same as grass-fed or pastured meat.  A cow could be fed a diet of corn and kept on a feed lot and it would still be organic as long as it was organic corn and a big feed-lot.  In order to get good dairy, eggs and meat, you'll want to look for labels that say "pastured" or "grass-fed," and that might be hard to find in a regular supermarket. 

Now, if you spend any time at all in a store like Whole Foods, you'll discover that lots of things are labeled as "organic," including cereal, crackers, yogurt, ice cream, etc.  What's up with that?  That just means that the item was made from organic ingredients.  There are different labeling rules:
  • 100% organic means it's made with (you guessed it) 100% organic ingredients
  • Organic means it's made with 95% or more organic ingredients
  • Made with organic ingredients means that 70% of the ingredients are organic and the other 30% have to fall within certain parameters, like being non-GMO
  • If the product is made with less than 70% organic ingredients, it can't say "organic" on the label, but it can specify which ingredients are organic in the ingredient list
You can read all about organic labeling practices and other information here.  

Is Organic Food Really Better For You? 

It's no surprise that organic food costs more than regular commercially produced food.  The fruits and vegetables themselves also tend to be smaller, which makes it seem like you're getting a terrible value.  And, to be fair, eating any vegetables at all is still better than eating none, so if you absolutely cannot afford organic fresh produce (and I totally understand), buy the commercial stuff and be happy. 

But here's a few reasons why you should really try to eat organically whenever possible: 
  • You won't consume as many pesticides.  In the quantities you'll eat them at, adults usually won't have any problems with pesticides, but they can cause problems for developing fetuses and young children.  If you're really concerned about eating pesticides, you can start buying organic foods by using the "dirty dozen" rule. 
  • You're keeping the water supply cleaner.  Rain water and other types of run-off take things from plants and soil.  All of this ends up finding its way back into your water supply, and usually in much more concentrated amounts. 
  • You're avoiding GMO foods.  I'm actually not opposed to the idea of bio-engineered foods at all, but unfortunately the technology has been put to terrible use.  I'll talk about GMO some other time, but for now just know that it's generally a good idea to avoid them thanks to corporate interests. 
  • The foods will generally have more nutrients.  Natural soil has more stuff in it, and plants that build up their own immune systems usually have more vitamins in them.  So even though the plant is smaller, it will usually taste richer and contain more nutrients.  
So, to sum up:  Buying organic produce is generally a good idea, and you should do it whenever you have the chance.  Organic meat, eggs and dairy aren't necessarily the best choice, though, and that whole debacle will be tackled in an upcoming post.  Organic foods can still be processed, so you still have to read ingredients and decide if it's worth buying the packaged food or if you'd rather make it yourself.  Organic foods are expensive, but they're also more nutrient-dense so that helps mitigate the cost.

Oh, and one final parting word:  Being "certified organic" is expensive and requires some effort that small farms aren't always able to do.  If you're shopping at a farmer's market, you can just ask the farmer about his or her practices.  They might not be able to claim organic practices, but they can tell you whether they use pesticides or artificial fertilizers.  Don't assume, however, that all local farmers are organic.  It's always better to ask.  

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Falling Off the Wagon

I'm an ex-smoker, and one of the first things I learned about quitting is that whenever you fail (and you will fail), just go right back to quitting as if nothing happened.  It's a valuable lesson to learn no matter what you're doing.  If you're trying to live a healthier lifestyle, it's inevitable that you'll splurge from time to time, and that's OK.  Just don't let yourself think, "Oh, well, I messed this all up, so it's over."  Just go back to eating healthy the next day.

Same story with slipping up and buying things you shouldn't.  Don't make an excuse for yourself -- "Oh, I really needed X, so it's find, but for something else I won't do it!" -- and don't try to justify it or hide it or anything.  Just agree that it happened, it's over, and move on.

Needless to say, we did some splurging this weekend.  It was our anniversary, but I stupidly didn't make any plans in advance.  I sort of did that "psychic girl" thing where I made no plans in hope that my boyfriend would magically pick up the slack and manage to pull off something wonderful and romantic with zero budget and no advance planning, without me telling him that I wanted him to do anything.  Naturally, this did not happen, which led to me being exceedingly cranky all weekend.

We went out to a Mongolian barbecue grill, which would have been perfect if we'd just stopped there.  But then we decided to pick up some stuff to eat while watching movies at home.  I ended up spending entirely too much on baking supplies, but at least I stuck to my guns there -- 100% real cocoa, chocolate chips with no artificial ingredients and whole wheat "white wheat" flour, and all-natural ice cream (that took some searching).

Unfortunately, something in this started a chain reaction of badness, and somehow in the last two days I've eaten Taco Bell, A&W and Cici's pizza.  I am completely ashamed of myself.  All of it was disgusting and unsatisfying, and we spent about $100 this weekend that would have been better spent on....well, just about anything else.

Still.  It's a fresh week, and I refuse to beat myself up over this.  Now, every time I start to get a craving for the crap, I just have to remember how utterly gross and unsatisfying it is.

Soup is a Super Food

The dog days of summer are, slowly but surely giving way to the autumn, and I am so glad.  I've always hated summer -- but fall is one of the best times of the year.  There's bountiful harvests of in-season produce, the weather starts to cool down, my favorite holiday happens...and you can start eating soup without anyone thinking you're nuts.

Soup is one of my favorite foods.  It's cheap, and you can feed a crowd of people with a tiny amount of food.  It's also the first thing I ever learned how to cook and one of the easiest things for people who want to get their feet wet cooking but aren't sure where to start.  I have a lot of friends who don't do much cooking -- so here's a few tips for soup-making. 

Start by making your own stock.  

It's super easy.  By definition, stock requires bones; if you're making a "veggie stock," you're technically making a broth.  Either way, the great thing about stock is that it uses up all of the bits and pieces from other things you cook.  Save all of your vegetable ends, your bones from meat, your shrimp tails, etc. and make stock with them.  Keep it to one type of animal per meat stock -- pork stock, chicken stock, beef stock -- but you can get by with putting several types of fish into a seafood stock.

The way I make my stock is pretty simple.  Take a big pot and chop up some onions, carrots, garlic and celery.  If you have other vegetable "bits" floating around, put those in too! Toss that in the pot and start heating it.  Add your bones -- if they have a bit of meat on them, all the better -- and then cover it with lots of water.  Add some salt and herbs.  Cook this at a bare simmer for a few hours.  Even better, put the whole concoction into a crockpot and forget about it overnight.  Then just strain off the stock and put it in the fridge.

The fat will rise up to the top.  You can peel this off to use in cooking if that's your thing, or just toss it.  The rest of it can be frozen.  Freeze in an ice cube tray and them dump the cubes of stock out into a big plastic baggy.  That way you always have just the right amount of stock on hand. 

Tips for Making Soup

Once you have a nice, homemade stock to work with, you can make just about anything taste good.  You don't need stock in order to make soup, of course, but the stock does add some richness and depth of flavor.  Here are a few really simple soups to start off:
  • Make chicken noodle by combining chicken stock with chunks of fresh chicken, fresh vegetables, and noodles.  You can make homemade noodles if you want, or substitute noodles for rice, barley or some other grain.  Carrots are essential.  For flavorings, I like to use salt, pepper, marjoram, thyme and rosemary.  Seasoning salt is good too.  
  • Make a wholesome vegetarian minestrone by combining a big can of stewed tomatoes with veggie stock, beans (I like white beans like cannelinis, or chickpeas) and vegetables (I like corn and green beans in this a lot) and either some pasta (shells or macaroni is my favorite).  Finish it at the end with a splash of red wine vinegar to kick it up a notch.  
  • Make a super simple chili by combining a can of crushed tomatoes, two small cans of tomato sauce, a cup or two of beans and chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper and garlic.  You can add the meat of your choice if you want.  Use the leftovers over pasta or rice. 
  • Want a stupidly simple, shockingly delicious soup?  Boil some potatoes (the little white or red ones are best, but any will work) in fish or veggie stock.  Poach some fish (something fairly sturdy - I like perch for this) in the same stock after the potatoes are softened.  Add some salt to the broth if necessary.  Finish it off with an ample squeeze of lemon.  Trust me when I tell you that this is amazing and has saved my hide on nights when there was essentially nothing in my pantry that I could eat. 
  • One of my favorite soups is to combine stock or water with crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce, fresh onions, bell peppers and jalapenos, chili powder, cumin, garlic, salt and pepper, corn and any other miscellaneous veggies I have on hand. Finish it off with a fresh squeeze of lime.  
  • Make a super easy chowder by combining potatoes with stock and slow-simmer until the potatoes are softened and mashable.  Even better, upcycle leftover mashed potatoes.  Add broccoli or corn and cheese if you wish.  Finish off with some milk or cream at the end of the cooking process.  Season simply with salt and pepper, or put in just a smidge of mustard to bring out cheese.  You can boost the nutrition and lower calories by replacing some of the potatoes with cauliflower.  
  • Around Halloween, I like to do a hearty pumpkin soup.  Sweat out some leeks in the pan, then combine pumpkin and stock.  Add salt, pepper and a bit of nutmeg.  Blend all of this, then add some currants or raisins at the end and garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds.  
I could go on and on.  Just suffice to say, it's pretty hard to screw up soup.  You can even toss everything into a slowcooker and neglect it for several hours and it'll still turn out delicious.  Here's a few tips for rescuing a soup that's suffering:
  • Add some salt.  Do it in small quantities, so you don't get overwhelmed, but you'd be amazed at how much it fixes flavor.  You know you have the perfect amount of salt when the food tastes suddenly better without tasting salty.  
  • Add a splash of vinegar or lemon/lime to brighten up flavor
  • Add tomato to basically any brothy soup to make it taste good
  • Add cheese to basically any creamy soup to make it taste good
  • If you add too much salt, just dump in more of everything else and make a double or triple batch.  Freeze the excess.  
  • You can cook pretty much any grain in soup.  Don't try to cook beans in soup, though, because they won't absorb liquid properly if there's any salt in the liquid.  
So there you go.  I hope you're inspired to make some soup once the weather starts cooling down.