Gifts That Keep On Giving

WORTHINGTON — So far, at least, turning 50 hasn’t been so bad. I haven’t noticed any rapid advances in the graying or wrinkle processes, and my bones aren’t creaking any louder than they were at 49.
For the most part, people respected my wishes for a low-key birthday observance. One co-worker (who thinks I don’t know she did it) liberally sprinkled my desktop with confetti stars, which I’m sure will continue to turn up until the day I retire. But there were no black balloons, no streamers, no gifts of Geritol or bedpans. I did, however, receive a couple hundred birthday greetings via Facebook from friends scattered across the country and the world — a delightful aspect of the social networking site.
Via an Internet video, German friend Andy regifted a wonderful trombone video composed and performed by two of his fellow band members, also of our acquaintance. There were a couple of other very special gifts that were much appreciated.
In my mailbox at home came greetings from several longtime family friends. One such card, sent by Bertha Anderson, even included a recipe, much to my delight.
“A good potato recipe — easy, too,” noted Bertha on the enclosure. “Made with no canned soups, so it’s gluten-free, too.”
Since potatoes are one of my favorite foods, I’m sure this will be on our dinner table sometime soon.

Rosemary Au Gratin Potatoes

¼ cup butter or margarine
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 cups half-and-half cream
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
3 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch slices
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in flour until smooth. Gradually add cream. Bring to a boil; cook and stir for 2 minutes, or until thickened. Remove from the heat. Stir in the rosemary, garlic, salt, pepper and potatoes.
Transfer to a greased 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Uncover and bake 10 to 15 minutes longer, or until potatoes are tender. Makes 8-10 servings.

Bertha’s enclosure wasn’t my only culinary-related gift. I also received a cookbook, “Ten Dollar Dinners: 140 Recipes and Tips to Elevate Simple, Fresh Meals Any Night of the Week,” by Melissa d’Arabian, from brother Marty and sister-in-law Pam. Now, for past birthday gifts, I’m pretty sure it’s been Pam who has done most of the shopping, but this time around, it was Marty I have to credit with finding my birthday gift. He waited in line at a California food show he attended for work to get an autographed copy from d’Arabian, the Season 5 winner of “The Next Food Network Star.”
During my initial perusal of d’Arabian’s book, I was drawn to the soup section because of the predicted return of colder temps this week. She touts this soup as an economical way of using up perishable vegetables.

Creamy Any Veggie Soup

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
½ teaspoon dried thyme
Squeeze of lemon juice
1½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
4 cup vegetables, such as bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, leafy greens and tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 small potato, peeled and roughly chopped
1½ cups chicken broth
3 cups water
3 tablespoons heavy cream or 2 tablespoons sour cream
Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it starts to soften, 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the thyme, lemon juice, ½ teaspoon of the salt and the pepper and cook until thyme is fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the vegetables, potato, broth, water and remaining salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until the vegetables easily mash against the side of the pot, 20 to 25 minutes.
Transfer half the soup to a food processor or blender and puree until smooth, then pour into a clean pot. Repeat with remaining soup (leave some vegetables unblended for texture, if you like), pouring it into the same pot. Heat soup over low heat for 2 minutes, add heavy cream or sour cream, if using, then serve.
D’Arabian suggests these soup mix-ins: add a dash of curry powder or smoked paprika when sautéing the onion; mix dried spices or fresh herbs, such as basil, cilantro, mint or parsley, into the sour cream for serving; add 1 to 2 cups cooked beans or lentils to the soup after blending; roughly tear up stale, good-quality country style bread, toss it with some soup and bake in the oven dusted with Parmesan cheese for a Tuscan-style soup and bread meal; stir in cooked shredded chicken and browned sausage and serve over rice.