Souped Up

Story and photos by Brandon Matzek

One of my favorite times of the week is Saturday morning. Brimming with produce, the tote bags I bring home from the market exude freshness on my kitchen table. Gorgeous globes of fiery red tomato. A whispy tangle of grassy cilantro. Two fat leeks with bits of dirt clinging to their root ends.

I enjoy the act of unpacking my produce because I know that this bounty of beautiful fruit and vegetables will eventually turn into some seriously tasty meals throughout the week. These vegetables, in particular, were destined for this Tomato and Farro Soup, a recipe I designed for Meals-on-Wheels Greater San Diego.

By 2013, the largest age-segment of the U.S. population will be seniors, representing one in five citizens. For more than 50 years, Meals-On-Wheels Greater San Diego has been devoted to providing healthy meals to San Diego seniors, delivering almost 400,000 meals in 2011. However, the meat-and-potato generations are dwindling, and seniors are now looking for more diverse cuisine, including vegetarian, multi-cultural flavors, organic and gluten-free.

In the past year, Meals-On-Wheels Greater San Diego has received several grants, allowing them to develop diverse menu items and break ground on a much-needed full commercial kitchen in which to prepare these hot foods. New menu items need to be low-sodium, low-fat, RDA (recommended dietary allowance) compliant and, most of all, flavorful.

This Tomato and Farro Soup definitely qualifies. Fresh wedges of ripe tomato are blended with toasted spices, aromatics and nutty farro. Finished with a drizzle of coconut milk, golden almonds and chopped cilantro, this soup is bold, well-balanced and packed with texture. Not just for seniors, this healthy soup would fit in well at any late-summer soiree.

Several techniques used in the recipe can be applied to your weekly cooking endeavors to boost flavor without negatively

impacting nutrition:

--Fresh herbs provide big flavor without adding calories. If you are preparing grains, seeds, whole wheat pasta or legumes, try adding the herb stems to cooking water for an extra layer of flavor. Sprinkle chopped leaves on your dish at the last moment to keep their grassy flavor in tact. --Purchase small potted herbs as an inexpensive way to keep your favorites accessible.

--Toast certain spices to unlock complex flavors. Whole spices like cumin, coriander, peppercorns and caraway benefit from a light toasting. --Cook in a small pan just until fragrant. Ground spices can be cooked with aromatics for one minute to develop more flavor.

--Ancient grains and seeds are great sources of nutrients. Substitute rice with quinoa or farro (wheat available online or at Specialty Produce,

) to add a big hit of protein to your dish.

--Produce tastes better when in season. During the summer months, cook more tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, corn and berries.

--Nuts are packed with good fat, protein and fiber. They also add a textural note to your dish. Toast until golden and fragrant to add complexity.

According to Luanne Hinkle, director of development for Meals-On-Wheels Greater San Diego, the new menu items could potentially be rolled out to all Meals-On-Wheels organizations across America. These meals would reconnect participating seniors with two things I value the most in the kitchen: home-cooked flavors and local produce.

Tomato and Farro Soup

Makes 4 servings


1 1/2 cups farro, rinsed

Fine grain sea salt

6 sprigs cilantro, stems and leaves separated

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 garlic cloves, sliced

2 fat leeks, white and light green parts only, rinsed well, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced

3 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon chili flakes

3 1/4 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into wedges (or two 28 oz. cans of whole tomatoes with juices)

1 cup light coconut milk

1/2 cup slivered, blanched almonds, toasted

Additional cilantro leaves, chopped

Lemon wedges

Prepare the farro. Bring 4 1/2 half cups of water to a boil in a large pot. Add farro, 1 teaspoon sea salt and 6 cilantro stems, stirring to combine. Bring mixture back to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer until farro is al dente (soft on the outside, some bite left on the inside, about 25 minutes). Drain farro and set aside.

Cook the aromatics and spices. Warm olive oil in a large, heavy-bottom pot over medium heat. Stir in sliced leeks and cook for 5 minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook until leeks are soft, but not caramelized (about 5 minutes more). Add curry powder, coriander, cumin, and chili flakes, stirring to combine. Cook until spices are fragrant (about 1 minute). Stir frequently to keep the spices from burning on the bottom of the pot.

Cook the tomatoes. Add tomato wedges and 6 cups of water, then bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until tomatoes are fall-apart tender (about 30 minutes). Blend tomatoes into the soup until smooth using an immersion blender or in batches with a regular blender. Add half of the farro and blend until the grains are broken down and the texture is somewhat chunky. Stir in the remaining farro and season to taste with sea salt.

Garnish and serve. Ladle soup into bowls and top with coconut milk. Finish with a sprinkling of toasted almonds and chopped cilantro. Serve with lemon wedges.