Growing up, there was no shortage of fresh vegetables in my home. A California native, my mother quickly adapated to growing vegetables in Illinois and our backyard was complete with an enormous vegetable garden. One of my fondest childhood memories is harvesting vegetables with my mother. Some, like green beans or pea pods, never made it inside the house and rather were used as snacks to keep us satisfied while we worked in the garden. As I grew up and moved out on my own, finding space to grow a garden became increasingly difficult. One year I finally had a beautiful backyard where I started from seeds and planted an entire vegetable garden, but a weeks-long illness prevented me from maintaining the crops and they inevitably died. I was finally given an opportunity for redemption a few years ago when I was able to plant a cluster of raised bed garden beds and grow veggies! However, this was short lived as after one year I relocated back to Champaign-Urbana.
As an apartment dweller, I was desperately brainstorming for a way to have a garden this year, even if it was just a couple of herb plants on my front porch. I was granted a stroke of luck when I heard about a local property management company that was offering a free community garden bed near one of their properties. Royse & Brinkmeyer apartments, in collaboration with the U of I Extension and the University of Illinois' Metropolitan Food Supply and Environmental Systems (MFST) program worked together to turn an empty lot into a community urban garden. Located near downtown Champaign, the garden has 21 plots that were offered for free to residents of their buildings and community members wanting to start a garden. The goal of the project is to "provide residents the space, platform, and knowledge to grow their own food, flowers, or herbs at home as well as create a shared community space for people to come together and get to know one another". Every single garden bed is occupied, and it has been really amazing to see how each garden has progressed and grown over the last few months. There are also a few community plots where generous gardeners have planted veggies that are available to be harvested by anyone.
My personal experience gardening this summer has been an immensely rewarding one. Every day after work, I stop by my garden to water, prune, weed and harvest my crops. For such a small space, I have grown and eaten so many vegetables! I was able to grow purple kale, swiss chard, rosemary, basil, parsley, jalapenos, eggplant, summer squash, tomatoes, green onion, romaine lettuce and cucumbers in this 10 x 4 garden plot. There's nothing more fun than giving away home grown vegetables to friends because you have too many.
A few weeks ago, I finally had enough tomatoes to make one of my favorites, tomato soup. I didn't care that it was 95 degrees that day - I was making soup. This recipe is super quick and simple, but is some of the best tomato soup I've ever had. All the tomatoes I used were from the garden, but if you don't have your own we have SO MANY at the Co-op! Any kind would work for this recipe, however I would recommend big juicy red tomatoes or heirlooms as this recipe relies on the juice from the tomato to supplement a smaller amount of broth in the soup. All you really need for this recipe is your tomatoes, a few other veggies that are in season right now, broth, and some milk or cream if you desire.
3 pounds tomatoes, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 red onion, sliced
1/2 jalapeno pepper, minced
2 cups vegetable broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried basil
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup milk or heavy cream (optional)
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese (optional)
Fresh basil leaves, for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Place tomatoes, bell pepper, red onion, jalapeno pepper, and garlic on a large baking pan. Add olive oil and spices and combine. Roast 40 minutes, stirring the vegetables after 15 minutes.
3. While the vegetables are roasting, bring the vegetable broth to a boil. Add the roasted veggies to the broth and blend completely with an immersion blender.
4. If using heavy cream, add now and heat for an additional minute or 2. Ladle soup into bowls, and top with Parmesan cheese (if using) and a garnish of fresh basil leaves. Serve & enjoy!