the people’s three-lentil soup

Since September, stories of the economy seem to have been dominating the news scene. Bail-outs, foreclosures, and mass layoffs paved the way for a bit of a doomsday new year, even with the welcome change in political powers that be.

There comes a time, however, for whining to beget action.  After all the dystopic superlatives have been said (sky-high unemployment rate, all-time lows in stock market confidence), a person still has to eat.  Perhaps it’s callow of me to bend a very real tragedy into a post on soup, but as a recent survey of eating patterns in Canada shows, some people see hope in bowl too.

The survey* revealed that many Canadians at least want more home cooking on their plates. Of those surveyed, 88% said they will try to choose the dining room over the restaurant booth in future meal decisions. As if that wasn’t enough to make this prairie girl proud, the survey also found that men are becoming more involved in food preparation and planning.

Despite how things may seem, there are people throwing creativity at widespread malaise. There are groups quietly cheering on the sidelines of grumble. There are people turning back to older, simpler ways: making their own morning latte, eating together, or planting a garden.

I was lucky enough to grow up with a family who kept their meal times sacred. While I will be the first to champion a meal out at a great restaurant, for everyday eating, I prefer my meals around a familiar table.

And so, in full acceptance of the dismal spirit of the times, I made a big pot of lentil soup and picked up The Grapes of Wrath. Five litres of meaty, multi-colored lentils and some good Depression literature should do it, I thought.

Cheap, loaded with protein, and endlessly adaptable, this soup surpassed my expectations. So many of the lentil soups I’ve tried are mushy and bland. This one is bright and chunky. I whipped up some saffron yogurt too — for a sunny, indulgent reminder that better times will come.

But best of all, sitting around a coffee table on a snowy Saturday evening, I got to share it with people who remember how to delight in the simple things. Enough truly is a feast.

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a few small threads

It may not feel much like spring, but eating flowers might be a provisional substitute for smelling them. It will do, for awhile. This flower, or rather its papery crimson stigmas, has been sitting in my cupboard for almost a year now, summoning me to release its captive aromas.

It is the rare and venerable saffron of which I speak. An exquisite and expensive spice that, were it not for a trip to India, might have never wound up in my hands, let alone my dinner.

Finally it was time. I reached behind the basil, cayenne and turmeric into the shadows of my spice shelf where the clear case sat, modest as a box of matches. Almost one year ago now I carried that tiny treasure chest all the way home from a spice stall in a Jodhpur market. The experts say I should’ve used it by now, but sometimes I forget what good things I have and how to best appreciate them.

I knew I had tasted saffron before, but could not recall its particular feel on my tongue or the way it whirled madly between nostrils and tastebuds. I wanted to use it right, and I was afraid. The delicately canvas of rice, or something more complex? Would sweet or savoury best highlight its essence? Would meat overpower? Which vegetable would be most companionable?

And then I stopped worrying and remembered that when a dish is born out of a desire to celebrate and create, it matters not that it’s perfect but that it brims with pleasure. As I tossed a pinch of this valuable spice into a pan of humble chickpeas and tomatoes simmering gaily on the stove, it just seemed right. The noble saffron threads kissed the peasant stew, and I bent over the aroma expectantly. My Kashmiri saffron would taste just fine, while reminding me of the rare things in this world: from love and camaraderie to being able to taste the threads from a crocus that grow only three per flower.

 

Served with basmati rice, it may not have been authentically Spanish, but with some crab cakes leftover from a great party on the weekend, it made a simple and nourishing meal. In the future I might crown it with some grilled prawns or scallops. With my last bite came a wave of anticipation for weaving those frail red threads again and again.

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