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A comforting winter bowl of goodness starts with -- yes -- tomatoes

Recipe: Pantry ingredients add up to a filling meal

Is it stew or soup? Does it matter? This roasted tomato and white bean dish is warm, filling and delicious.

Is it stew or soup? Does it matter? This roasted tomato and white bean dish is warm, filling and delicious. Kathy Morrison

Just because it's not tomato season doesn't mean you can't cook with tomatoes, right?

Tomato-heads like me have a good portion of last summer's harvest stashed away, in the freezer and in sealed Mason jars.  This is the time we planned for: Cold, wet, dreary days, in need of some perking up via those tomato gems.

But if you don't have a tomato stash, this recipe is still within reach. The key is roasting: Even supermarket cherry tomatoes turn into delicious nuggets of juiciness when roasted with oil and spices.

As it happened, my freezer stash included several jars of already-roasted Juliet and Glitter grape tomatoes, so I was able to skip ahead on that step. (Frozen full-size tomatoes can work in this recipe, too, but since there's so much liquid when defrosted, skip the roasting and just roughly break up the tomatoes, then adjust the stew's added liquid. Or find canned fire-roasted tomatoes, such as Muir Glen brand, in the store.)

The rest of the ingredients for this recipe -- which I freely adapted from a New York Times stew -- can easily be pulled from the pantry, the freezer or the backyard herb garden. It can be vegan or vegetarian, too. Use the ingredients you like, switch out others, and be sure to have some artisan bread or rolls to serve alongside.

One more note: The lemon-parsley garnish adds a beautiful brightness, so I wouldn't skip it.

Tomato-white bean stew-soup

Serves 4 as a main dish

Ingredients:

2-1/2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, or a mix

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

Bunch of fresh thyme, or herb of choice (Oregano, sage or winter savory also work. Chop larger leaves.)

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 pound ground turkey or pork (optional)

1 can white beans, such as cannellini or Great Northern, drained and rinsed (Note: use 1 additional can if not using the ground meat)

1 yellow onion, chopped

3 or more garlic cloves, smashed and minced

Large pinch of red-pepper flakes, or more

1/2 cup vegetable or chicken broth

1/4 cup white wine or water

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 cups or more baby spinach leaves, or torn leaves of kale or chard

For garnish:

1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Zest from 1 tart lemon

Grated Parmesan cheese, optional

Additional olive oil, for drizzling

Instructions:

Tomato stew with ladle
Red Juliet and yellow Glitter tomatoes give the
stew its great color.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a bowl, combine the cherry tomatoes, 1/4 cup olive oil and thyme leaves pulled from 3 of the sprigs in the bunch. Add some salt and pepper, then spread the mixture in one layer on a sheet pan. Roast in the oven until the tomatoes have collapsed and started to brown, 20 to 25 minutes.

While the tomatoes are roasting, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a Dutch oven or deep saucepan over medium heat. Break up the ground turkey or pork and brown it in the oil until it is crumbly. Drain off most of the fan, then add the chopped onion. Sauté the onion until limp, then add the garlic and red-pepper flakes, and cook 1 minute more.

Stir in half the rinsed beans, the 1/2 cup broth and 1/4 cup wine or water. Smash the remaining beans gently, with a fork or back of a wooden spoon, and stir those in as well. Strip leaves off at least 3 more sprigs of thyme and stir those into the stew. (Alternately, put whole sprigs into the liquid, but remember to remove the stems before serving.)

Bring the mixture to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and, if desired, more herbs.

When the tomatoes are ready, remove the pan from the oven and allow them to cool briefly. (Leave the oven on.) Then scrape everything including the juices into the saucepan and stir to combine.  Stir in the tomato paste, then the spinach or torn greens, a handful at a time. (The paste is more to color the broth than anything, so leave it out if desired.) Add more broth or water if you'd like a soup consistency as opposed to stew.

At this point, cover the pot and put it in the oven. But if it is not oven-proof, keep it on the stovetop, covered, to simmer.

Cook or simmer for 10-20 minutes until the flavors are fully blended. Taste again and adjust seasonings. Turn the oven off but keep the ovenproof pot inside to stay warm while preparing the garnishes. Or, keep the covered pot on the stovetop on very low heat.

For the garnish, mix together the chopped parsley and lemon zest. Grate Parmesan cheese separately, if using.

To serve, ladle the stew into warmed bowls, and top with some of the lemon-parsley mixture. Drizzle a bit of olive oil on top. Pass the Parmesan cheese at the table.

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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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