Taking Stock: Vegan Minestrone with Umami to Spare

Taking Stock: is a series focusing on soups and stews. Look for others coming soon: Chinese Black Chicken Soup; Curried Kuri Squash Bisque; Karwendel (Lentil & Kielbasa) Soup. Basics of making stock will also be covered and don't forget this tip sheet on buying a stock pot from my Essential Kitchen Equipment Series. 


This week in Taking Stock I'm going to talk about Minestrone. Minestrone or “big soup” in Italian, like many of my favorite dishes, was most likely borne of frugality. Humble cooks in any culture know how to make a delicious meal from whatever is on hand. An admirable skill, in my opinion.

I am working at developing a new habit: weekly meal planning. One of my goals is to bolster our newish habit of at least one meatless meal per week. Another goal is to incorporate whole grains at least twice a week. For Monday's Meatless Meal, I decided a big pot of Minestrone would be great. I had some wheatberries to use, some great beans. I began looking for a recipe that looked good even without the seemingly critical ingredient: Parmigiano Reggiano.

After searching all over I found a startling paucity of options. Recipes which I could tell by reading would taste like a bowl of veggies in water. Or, recipes that came up in a search for “vegan” turned out to be “vegetarian” which is fine for most of us, but not if you’re allergic to dairy, as I am. The challenge is to make a vegan soup that packs the same umami flavor, savory, satisfying flavor without the Parmigiano Reggiano, bacon or pancetta.

Vegan Minestrone Soup

I knew the secret to my vegan version of this favorite soup would be building layers of flavor and relying on umami from non-meat sources. Two things are commonly found in the base of Minestrone: bacon or pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano. Both are umami rich foods. My goal was to create a rich and satisfying soup without these easy shortcuts - the fat, salt, & umami that comes with meat or cheese.

There are two main ways to build umami in your cooking: one is selecting umami rich ingredients, the other is to use umami building technique.

One of the reasons many meatless meals can be found lacking is that meat is one of the prime sources of umami. Umami is that mouth-coating, savoriness, the “fifth taste” discovered by Dr. Ikeda in the 1920s. It is a flavor we are hard-wired to crave. This is not to say that things like vegetables are lacking in umami. To learn how to create umami without animal sources is not hard. Let’s take a look at our umami arsenal. You’ve probably got it in your cabinets, fridge or pantry already and you may not even know it.


My Plan: 

  1. Building flavor by sautéeing vegetables first to develop fond (“foundation”) those browned-bits on the bottom of the pot created by Maillard reaction - browning that creates flavors - think of browning bread, or searing meat. (This process is often confused with "caramelization" which is something that develops the sugars but not the amino acids of Maillard, and caramelization happens at a much lower temp.)
  2. Knowing what common kitchen items contain umami and how to pick the ones that fit the flavor profile of the dish you are making, is important. In this case, umami rich foods appropriate for an Italian soup would include: Parmigiano Reggiano (not for dairy-free) , maybe anchovy (not for a vegan version), roasted, ripe tomatoes, spinach, kidney beans.
  3. Soy sauce, miso, nutritional yeast, porcinis - all of these help build a strong umami profile.


Umami Rich Vegan Minestrone

This "big soup" does indeed have a lot of ingredients. It's also good with fewer, so don't let a missing ingredient or two stop you from starting.

Grains: wheat berries are nutritious and delicious. They lend a toothsome pop and add heft to the soup. You can cook them ahead of time in water or vegetable stock then freeze in 1 C quantities. I soaked what I had on hand the night before, then boiled in stock while I chopped veggies. To quick-soak, pour boiling water over dried wheat berries and let soak for an hour.

Pasta: I par-boiled shells for this batch while I prepped veggies.

Chop veggies in dice roughly 1/4" so that you can get a good variety in each bite, but they're large enough to be distinguishable.Feel free to use different seasonal vegetables throughout the year. Zucchini, eggplant in summer, peas in spring, cabbage in winter. It's a template more than an exact recipe.

❤ items that include a good dose of umami


  • 3/4 C diced carrots, diced
  • 1/2 C diced celery, diced
  • 3/4 C diced onion, diced
  • 1/2 C leeks sliced thinly
  • 2 TBSP olive oil
  •  1-2 TBSP minced fresh garlic
  • 1-2 tsp oregano
  • Heavy pinch rosemary
  • 1 lge allspice berry
  • 2 dried chilies
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • Pinch fennel seeds
  • 1 C white wine, vermouth or water
  • 1 TBSP soy sauce ❤
  •  1/3 C sun-dried tomato ❤ (pour very hot water over, to rehydrate, then chop and reserve liquid for soup)
  • 1/3 C dried porcini ❤ (pour very hot water over, to rehydrate, then chop and reserve liquid for soup)
  •  13.4 oz carton of kidney beans drained and rinsed ❤
  • 13.4 oz carton of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
  •  1 C (or more) chopped tomatoes ❤ (I like Pomi, or maybe you've got some you canned last summer, lucky you)
  • 1 C wheat berries, pre-cooked  ❤
  • Small pasta, 1/2 box, small shapes such as ditalini, elbows, or small shells, par-boiled
  • 4C veggie stock, I  ❤ Magic Mineral Broth (made with kombu, rich in vitamins, mineral and umami)
  • 4 C water or more
  • Three or four large rainbow chard leaves, stems minced and set aside with celery and carrots, leaves sliced in half, then rolled and sliced cross-wise
  • Handful of fresh spinach ❤
  • Parsley, minced.


  1. Parboil wheat berries and pasta separately, set aside.
  2. While grains and pasta are boiling, chop carrots, celery, onions, leeks, and chopped chard stems.
  3. Mince parsley and garlic.
  4. Measure spices
  5. Rinse beans.
  6. Clean and slice chard, spinach.
  7. Sauté mirepoix (carrots, celery, onion) and leeks in 2 TBSP olive oil. As they begin to soften add garlic.
  8. Add spices, sun-dried tomatoes, porcini.
  9. When the veggies begin to brown, deglaze the pot by adding the wine (or water).
  10. Add chopped tomatoes, beans, soaking liquids from the sun-dried tomatoes and porcini.
  11. Add the stock, soy sauce, water, chard ribbons, pasta and wheat berries.
  12. Cook for about half an hour till veggies become soft.
  13. Add spinach, parsley.
  14. Taste - adjust seasoning as you like with salt, pepper, chili flakes.

Garnishing & Options:

  • Adding faux parmesan - keeps it vegan and adds umami from Nutritional Yeast and Miso.
  • Adding pistou, pesto or even chimichurri you had in the freezer is nice.
  • If you are not concerned about this being vegan, starting with chopped bacon or pancetta is great. Adding a rind of parmigiano reggiano lends great umami, and salt to the pot. If using it, don't add additional salt without tasting first.
  • Wheat berries, spelt and farro are kissing cousins. (Here's a great chart about all sorts of grains.) And a great breakfast of wheatberries. Tuscans make a zuppa di farro, similar to this one. According to Cesare Casella, "locals say one hundred kernels of farro give you all the energy you need for a day and Romans paid their soldiers in spelt.


Vegan Minestrone

Salty Snacks, my Downfall. Until Now. Hello DIY Cheezits Recipe.

I could walk right past buckets of candies and sweets if there were the teensiest pile of potato chips at the end of the line. Yessiree, the salty crunchy thing is what gets me. Between my dairy allergy and having been forced by a cracked tooth to swear off my beloved popcorn, I was adrift. And I was drifting in the wrong direction. If you make it right and don't eat it by the boatload, or covered in butter, popcorn actually qualifies as a whole grain. I'd call it a healthy snack.

But you know, once you see the cost of a cracked tooth, "cheating" on your dentist and ignoring her advice loses a lot of its appeal. So I started on potato chips. Saturated fat and salt and oh, so, delicious. Hep me jeezus, it was a slippery slope. I had to do an intervention when an ENTIRE bag of (not single serve) of Chili-flavored Kettle chips evaporated in my hands.

I have seen the devil and he looks like a never-ending bag of chips.

Back from the Precipice

So it is with much fanfare that I bring you my new favorite snack discovery. [cue heralds and horns, waving of banners, and such] Salvation looks like a crappy processed snack food, but it's not!

Nacho Daddy's Cheezits

Dairy-free Cheez-its








What's a good snack without a pun? A lost opportunity, I say.

So I named these guys the punny name to indicate their dairy-free status. Get it? "Nacho" Not Yo"....okay. Now that I've gotten that out of my system...here's the ÜBER-simple, fast and delicious snack. But first, let's review these additional benefits:

  1. they're salty
  2. they're crunchy
  3. they're spicy (or you can make them not so)
  4. they're dairy-free (you could probably use cheddar if you're not true vegan or allergic)
  5. they're cheesy
  6. I've included whole grains (grainiacs rejoice!)
  7. and they're easy-peasy to make at home

You know you want some, come on.

Nacho Daddy's Cheez-its, Dairy-free








Nacho Daddy's Cheezits

Modified from a couple vegan blogs, but don't let that dissuade you.


  • 1/4 C Earth Balance butter (cold)
  • 3/4 C Daiya cheddar shreds
  • 1/4 C organic spelt flour
  • 1/2 C organic whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • 1/2 tsp paprika or pimenton
  • +1 TBSP cold water
  • Maldon sea salt flakes for topping, or good sea salt


  1. Place all ingredients but water in food processor; pulse, until you get large crumbles.
  2. Add water by teaspoon till dough comes together in a ball, usually you'll use about 1 TBSP. Depends on moisture in the air and your flour.
  3. Knead for a few minutes, let rest half an hour in fridge. (I have also skipped the rest, with little noticeable result. The dough comes together so quickly, I don't think there's a lot of gluten developed.
  4. Preheat 350 degrees.
  5. Roll out half of dough between waxed paper or on silpat silicone sheet. Leave other half in fridge to stay cool.
  6. Dust with flour to prevent sticking - see tea ball trick.
  7. Roll to 1/8" thick cut with fun smallish cutter (I have a little star cutter that was part of a set.) Or, use pizza cutter to make into squares or diamonds.
  8. Bake 10-15 mins checking often -- remove at the perfect crisp but not burnt stage.


teaball trick

Remember the teaball trick, works for flour and for confectioner's sugar.

Offset spatula may be helpful to transfer to cookie sheets but it's not necessary.

These are so good to nibble and munch. I think they'd be terrific floating on a mug of hot tomato soup. Mixed into my Remixed Chex Mix they could take the place of the Goldfish crackers. Great with a cocktail.

Next batch, I'm going try flax or my pimped up flaxy gomashio. Stay tuned salty-crunchy fanatics!

Recipe for a New Golden Age of Patronage and Some Golden Pumpkin Spice Rolls

This did not come easy, but then, life is not easy. While the downward compression of pay for writers continues, our costs go up. I'm offered fifteen cents a word for a job that last year might have been $1 a word. My hosting service and my newsletter service both cost real money and those costs increase. In fact, the newsletter which has won the All Star award, costs me more as more people subscribe! When I started this writing thing, I resisted adding a "donate" button to the site. "I'm not a charity, I'm a business!" I protested. I'm a freelance writer, published in great places like The Washington Post. I've gotten numerous small awards and much-appreciated nods from editors and writers I admire. Even better, my readers have written me lovely emails indicating how my writing has educated them as well as entertained them. These emails and comments, and the professional recognition, mean a lot.

A better experience for you, costs me

I do a few things differently from other writers and bloggers. You will never see a product advertised here that I don't believe in. I know other writers that make different choices and honestly, I understand why. But do the pennies they earn from those ads, mean more to them than my experience on their site? Maybe they haven't thought of it that way.

I also don't enjoy reading good writing about nourishing our families, while having belly fat or mortgage re-fi ads in my face. I don't like reading about supporting local family family farms and seeing Big Ag ads like Kraft Singles or Hamburger Helper, interspersed in the post.

These choices I make to improve my readers' experience and are a reflection of my desire to publish this blog consistent with my values. But it comes at a cost. As I continue to seek new sponsors, and to be grateful for those I've got, I'm experimenting with a donate button here on the sidebar.

A new Golden Age of Patronage?

I hope you might donate through that button and support my work.  I want to make improvements that I cannot now afford. I know my comment module sucks. I am sorry, but it costs real money to hire a developer to do that work. I'd like to migrate back to Wordpress so I can make changes like this, myself but that site migration costs, too. And it costs a lot.

I hope that the way people have embraced crowd-sourced funding like Kickstarter campaigns and Awesome grants, means that people will not be offended. Maybe we are in a new Golden Age of Patronage? Similar to various Renaissance patrons who supported artists and composers, we now see the growth in opportunities to support artists in various ways. Think of this as a virtual upturned hat and me as a busker playing a really good cover of your favorite song. If 50 people find a post here as valuable as their morning latte, and donate that $3.00 I could pay for the next couple email newsletters. If 500 did, I could fix that damn comment module.

I believe people value good writing, compelling story telling, well-researched information.

I am proud that my readership has reached a level where potential advertisers have contacted me to inquire about ad space here. I am confident that turning down those ads -- ads for products and services that have nothing to do with my core values or my "brand", nothing to do with the things I care about and the things you like to read about -- I believe saying no to them is the right decision. But maybe I'm wrong.

Please tell me I am not by kicking in a few bucks to my upturned PayPal hat. I care deeply about your experience here. I appreciate all the support I've gotten via sponsors and readers, via Tweets and Facebook shares. Keep it up as long as you think I'm holding up my end of the bargain and producing good content. Forward the newsletter to your friends, forward this post to them, especially. Encourage them to read me, too.

And do let me know what you think I'm getting right, what I could do better, and how you feel about the dreaded (maybe only by me?) "Donate" button.

Giving thanks to you, I now share a recipe for your Thanksgiving table:





















The golden color fairly screams Autumn harvest. I think it's perfect to break bread and open this discussion of the new Golden Age of Patronage.

The flavor is pretty subtle, and the texture is definitely dinner roll, not sweet, nor muffiny, nor too flaky, like a Southern biscuit. I've modified this from an old recipe, I think it was in Gourmet. The recipe is pretty simple, not too time consuming, and best of all you can make them now and freeze them. One less thing to do just before the big meal. Take them out the morning of or night before. Warm them in the leftover heat of the oven as your turkey rests or if you have a warming drawer, pop them in there.

This recipe was modified to make it dairy free. You can substitute real dairy if you like. For those with egg allergy, you could brush with milk, soy milk, or just thinned honey.



  • one package active dry yeast
  • 1/3 C sugar
  • 3/4 C So Delicious Coconut Milk or Earth Balance Soy Milk
  • 5 C All Purpose Flour
  • 2 C Organic Pastry Flour
  • 1 generous teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg (throw out that old tin in your cupboard that has long since lost its oomph. Get whole nutmeg, grate as needed. You will thank me.)
  • 1 teaspoon Chai spice (I love Arvinda's if you're in the Greater Toronto area. Or try my friend Raghavan Iyer's new Chai Masala. Alternately, you could add some Chinese Five Spice powder.)
  • 1 1/2 tsp Kosher salt or sea salt
  • 3/4 C Earth Balance Soy butter or baking bars
  • 1 large egg lightly beaten
  • 1 can of organic pumpkin puree (not the pie filling; alternatively you may make your own puree, but various pumpkins and squashes have different sugar levels and moisture levels, I find the good canned variety of puree easier)
  • egg wash: one egg yolk or one whole egg beaten with a TBSP of warm water and 1-2 tsp of honey





  1. Butter a 13x9x2 metal baking pan.
  2. Warm milk to about 110, in a small bowl place one tsp of the sugar, the yeast and the milk. Whisk it with a fork to unclump the yeast. In a few minutes it should look frothy. This is "proof" the yeast is indeed, "active." Hence the term "proofing the yeast." (Don't ask me why it's not "proving the yeast.")
  3. In a large bowl measure the flours, spices, salt, remaining sugar.
  4. Use a pastry blender or two knives to cut in the shortening or butter or butter substitute.
  5. Add the whole egg, pumpkin puree, yeasty milk and stir until it's all well-mixed.
  1. Here is where that tea-ball duster idea comes in handy. Sprinkle a fine layer of flour on that cool counter, then turn dough, wet and dry bits together onto the counter.
  2. Knead about ten minutes until the whole thing comes together in a springy, golden ball. Only dust a little flour if it's really too sticky but if you're not worried about the whole thing, trust me the dough will come together without much more flour. A bench scraper works well here. Scrape the counter to gather all the dough bits together and knead it all into a ball.
  3. Clean out your big bowl, butter it, then turn the springy golden dough ball into the bowl, turning to coat it.
  4. Place the bowl in a warm spot or in the oven on proofing temp if you have that (85-100 degrees)
  5. After about an hour, the dough should have risen to about double in size.
  6. Turn onto that lightly dusted counter, and roll out into a fat log, divide in half.
  7. Roll log out to about 1 1/2 to 2" in diameter. Use your bench scraper or a butter knife to divide in half, then into balls about the size of a lemon.
  8. Do the same with the other log.
  9. Place the balls into the prepared pan, you should have about four rows of seven.
  10. Second rise, cover lightly and return to warm spot for another rise ~ 45 minutes. They'll puff up a bit and fill in any gaps.
  11. Preheat oven to 350.
  12. Brush the rolls lightly with the egg-honey wash. Don't let them get soggy.
  13. Bake about 30-35 minutes. The house will be fragrant enough that your snoozing spouse will lift his head and say "something smells good."
Cool in the pan, then on a rack to cool completely. Wrap tightly and freeze until the day before the big feast. To reheat frozen and thawed rolls wrap tightly in foil and warm in your 350 degree oven about 20 minutes.
These are really good at dinner or for next day leftover turkey, cranberry sandwiches, or in a leftover bread pudding or strada. Most likely, you won't have that many leftover though!
Here's to a new Golden Age of Patronage. Thank you for your readership and your support!