Updated: Mar 6
Velvety, hearty, and spicy, this recipe for zuppa toscana (a la Olive Garden style) is sure to warm you up in the form of a big 'ole bowl of comfort food! And I don't mean comfort food in the sense that it's "bad" for you and made magically healthy in a veganized version (hardly!) I mean comfort food like nostalgia. Nostalgia is a "wistful affection for the past, typically a period or place with happy personal associations." Olive Garden (believe it or not) brings about nostalgia, and so this soup is to me, a comfort food.
Growing up, sit-down chain restaurants (like Olive Garden) were more for fancy or special occasions. Places that we would not frequent, but when we did go, were truly special. Especially, the Olive Garden because it was a meal / food type that a) we didn't eat much at home (we were very much "American" fare), and b) had elements of "fancy." Back-in-the-day (so they say), Olive Garden had fabric table cloths, fabric napkins, large rolling chairs, and candles on the table. There were real plants in the corners, and dim lighting glinting off the tall ice cold glasses of water sweating in front of us. Waiters and waitresses flitted between the tables bringing steaming hot plates of food with training, poise and class. Food that was unbelievably fresh, and truly delicious. In short, the restaurant was authentic and somewhere you wanted to go.
Fast forward from 20 years ago; I haven't eaten in an Olive Garden since before I was in college (long before I became a vegan). Why? Because it became commercialized and unsustainable; it is now "Fast Casual" vs. a true sit down restaurant. Now, when you go to the Olive Garden, you sit in booths and hard-backed chairs in a brightly lit space. The waiters and waitresses all have the task of "turning over" the tables. Meaning, push along the meal so it is paced for maximum flow through of guests for profitability. Gone are the cloth anything and even the bread baskets and salad bowls are all plastic vs. the metal and glass. Why? Because it makes cleaning the space easier (again, turn over that table!) and it's harder to break plastic plus, cheaper to replace even if it does manage to be broken. Paper napkins can just be thrown away along with all the food waste. Most of the meal utilizes limited (to no) fresh ingredients to cut costs (i.e. - mass produce, freeze and ship limits food waste from fresh ingredients) and get the food out to you faster.
I'm just using this restaurant brand / chain as an example of what has happened to food in America. We (the consumers) have asked for cheaper meals while the cost of ingredients increases for the buyer and the restaurant. We have asked for faster preparations so that we can move on the "next" thing instead of enjoy our dinner out fully with friends and family so the restaurants have gone to "pre-prepared" meals so we don't have to wait. We have asked for more "sanitary" dining experiences so papers, plastics and other non-reusable (throw away) utensils and cutlery have replaced reusable metals and glass.
This Sustainability Spotlight is about recognizing our role in "how we got here" with our choices, our demands, and our consumer lifestyles for the restaurant industry. Many Americans want to complain about corporations and how they have tried to remain profitable and are "greedy" with their swaps and changes. I give you this "case study" as an example of how that may be a part of the story, but to show you the other side. Show you how you, me, and the rest of the world have contributed to the choices those corporations must make to be profitable. And it's not "corporate" greed folks; guess who are shareholders of these restaurants and corporations. The average American either directly or indirectly through mutual funds in 401Ks are gained or losing with the profitability of these corporations. Do you see how cyclical and congruous all our daily decisions are on the sustainability of how we manage our modern era? I hope so; that's the goal of this blog on sustainability. How every day, small decisions impact us all. How changing those small decisions, like eating at home and making your restaurant favorites vegan, we can increase our sustainability and lead to real change.
1 tbsp avocado oil
1 package Beyond Sausage Hot Italian (diced - do it fresh from the fridge for ease)
1/2 large Spanish onion (diced)
3-4 garlic cloves (cided)
1 zucchini (chopped)
1 lb creamer potatoes (fingerling) cut into bite size pieces
1 tsp smoked pepper flakes - if you can't find smoked, red is fine though I highly recommend smoked pepper flakes to get the bacon-like flavor of the original soup.
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
Dash of ground black pepper
4 cups vegetable broth (or stock) - divided
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1/2 cup cashews (raw & unsalted) - soaked ~2 hours or overnight & drained
3/4 cup filtered water
2 large handfuls baby spinach
1 small handful fresh parsley (chopped)
1 handful fresh basil (chopped)
Heat a large dutch oven over medium high heat; add oil and swirl to coat. Once it shimmers, add the sausage pieces and saute for ~2-3 minutes (or until starting to brown).
Next, add the onions, garlic cloves, and zucchini and saute another ~5 minutes until onion starts to become golden and zucchini begins to brown.
Now add the potatoes, smoked pepper flakes, oregano and salt; stir to warm the spices (~1-2 min)
Add 1/4 of the vegetable stock to de-glaze the pan and scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Go ahead and add the rest of the vegetable stock and bring to a boil.
Cover your oven and simmer the soup for ~20 minutes stirring occasionally (or until potatoes are done and can easily be pierced with a fork).
Meanwhile, add your nutritional yeast, cashews and water to a high-speed blender and blend on high for ~1 minute (Vitamix) or 4-5 minutes for other blenders scraping down the sides and using a tamper as needed. Mix should form a cashew cream (liquid with no "bits"); set aside until soup is ready.
After the simmer time, remove the lid on the soup and pour in the cashew cream. Now, add the spinach (one handful at a time) and stir continuously to wilt the greens.
Remove soup from heat, and stir in parsley and basil. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
Serve in large bowls with extra herbs as desired.
With love & hope for a better future for all of us - Jamie