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Dinner in Minutes: Minestrone an adaptable Italian classic

Minestra is Italian for soup, and minestrone is a hearty vegetable soup. In Italy, specific recipes are rarely followed; cooks use ingredients they have on hand, including pasta, beans, leftover meat and vegetables.

This meatball minestrone is a one-pot meal. (The recipe can be doubled easily; if you have time, make a large pot and use it for another meal.)

Fennel seeds give the meatballs a distinctive taste. The oval, green-brown seeds from the common fennel plant have an anise-like taste and are used in many liqueurs.

They can be found in the spice section of your market and will keep for six months.

The pasta will absorb the soup liquid if left to sit for any length of time. If you are not serving the soup immediately, cook the pasta in a separate pot of water for 10 minutes. Drain, reserving a little of the cooking liquid.

Add 1/2 teaspoon olive oil to the liquid and toss in the pasta to keep it from sticking. Add the pasta to the soup a few minutes before serving to warm through.

This meal contains 596 calories per serving, with 23 percent of calories from fat.

Herbed Meatball Minestrone

1/2 tablespoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon oregano

6 ounces very lean ground beef

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/2 cup sliced onion

1/2 cup sliced carrots

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 cup canned low-sodium, whole tomatoes (including juice)

1 cup low sodium tomato juice

2 cups fat-free, low-salt chicken broth

2 cups water

1/2 cup acini pepe, pastina, orzo or other very small pasta

1/2 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained

2 cups washed, ready-to-eat spinach

1/2 cup fresh basil, torn into small pieces

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Mix fennel seeds and oregano into ground beef. Add a little salt and pepper and form into meatballs about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

Heat oil in a medium-sized, nonstick sauce pan over medium-high heat. Brown meatballs on all sides, about 5 minutes. They will be cooked through.

Remove to a plate and add onion, carrot and garlic to pan. Saute 2 minutes without browning the vegetables.

Add the whole tomatoes, including juice, and break them up with the edge of a spoon. Add the tomato juice, chicken broth and water. Bring to a boil.

Add pasta, reduce heat slightly and cook gently for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice to make sure the pasta cooks freely in the liquid.

Add chickpeas, spinach and basil to soup. Return meatballs to the soup, stir and cook to wilt spinach, about 30 seconds. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve in large soup bowls with Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.

Yield: 2 servings.

Nutrition per serving: 432 calories (21 percent from fat), 10.1 grams fat (3.5 grams saturated, 4.2 grams monounsaturated), 112 milligrams cholesterol, 34.6 grams protein, 52.8 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fiber, 778 milligrams sodium.

Garlic-crusted Bread

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium clove garlic, crushed

1/2 loaf Italian bread or 2 crusty rolls

Preheat oven to 350 degrees or use toaster oven.

Mix oil and garlic together and brush on top of bread. Warm in oven for 5 minutes or until golden and crisp. Serve with soup.

Yield: 2 servings.

Nutrition per serving: 164 calories (28 percent from fat), 5 grams fat (0.8 grams saturated, 2.8 grams monounsaturated), no cholesterol, 3.9 grams protein, 25.8 grams carbohydrates, 1.3 grams fiber, 341 milligrams sodium.

Linda Gassenheimer is the author of 14 cookbooks including her newest, “The Flavors of the Florida Keys,” and “Mix ’n Match Meals in Minutes for People with Diabetes.” Visit her webpage at www.DinnerIn or e-mail her at Linda@DinnerIn