give peas a chance

One of my fondest school days memories is a grade four geography project. Our teacher put us in teams and gave each team a country to research and report on. At the end of the unit, we put on a cultural fair for our parents and other classrooms. Each team hosted one of the booths set up around the perimeter of the classroom.

What country did I get assigned to? France. Trying to ignore pangs of jealousy for the kids on the African, Asian, and South American teams, we began to brainstorm. One thing on the list was which French food we would provide samples of. My vote for fries was quickly bulldozed by the safety issues of a deep fryer in an elementary classroom.

The next best thing? Pea soup. As if France wasn’t bad enough. Now nobody would come to our booth.

I was a naive child. In the end I was proud of us, decked out in berets. I was also proud of the booth we ran, with its red-and-white checkered tablecloth and café atmosphere.

But oh, the soup. I can’t remember whose mom made it, but it was silky-smooth and a bright crayon-green. Sweet, with a gulp of robust legumes. Fresher than chili but more satisfying than your average, pedestrian vegetable soup. Parents were passing up  chow mein and strudel for our soup.

I don’t know why, but I didn’t eat pea soup again until a few months ago at a friend’s house. It was one of those simple suppers — one I’d never think of making, but that delighted me with every slurp. Pea soup went back on the back burner.

And then I bought a cookbook that convinced me to try it for myself. With one success down, I decided to go for it. After all, the first day of spring passed on Friday with nary an offering from me—how could I be so ignorant? A new season, one of my favorite things, and a warmer, friendlier one at that.

To you spring, I offer this bowl of pea parmesan: surpassing my expectations with its richness, the heartiness of a passing winter and the freshness of new green.

Good thing seasons don’t eat soup, because I’m a selfish sparrow.

bracelet2*bracelet by Rachel Sudlow

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run for it green chili

On an afternoon last month that could have frozen a habanero, I sipped coffee with an old friend. She’s a loving and assiduous mother, and one of the most compassionate peopleI know. She’s one of those friends who makes you miss have friends near who know you like that. One of those friends who makes you wish coffee was free and decaf better-tasting and diamond-clear Winnipeg afternoons 3 hours longer.

One of those friends whose hunger for your company makes you feel like the most interesting person in the world.

It was almost January. The promise of a new year had filled us with hope — however negligible these flips of the calendar are. Gingerly, she placed her own goal onto the pile we’d amassed between our white mugs: she was going to start running. I was instructed not to tell the world; she wanted to do this in small, private steps, until she’d proven to herself that she could.

The other day we spoke again, this time over the phone. It had been a month, and unlike so many other hopeful new runners, she’d stuck with it. She’d joined a new runner’s group, and day after fridgid -30 day, melted those snowy roads with perseverance.

We caught up. We talked about things friends talk about: love, mornings, naps, looking ahead and looking back.  Oh yes, and running. I did my best to respond to her questions. Good shoes are indispensable. Everything’s better in the spring. Pain is normal, but also a red flag. You’re in control of your form, your stride, your attitude. Make sure to get enough protein.

I told her I would dedicate my next recipe to that last one, and here it is.

From a cookbook I picked up the other day (when I was supposed to be buying a textbook), this soup is the perfect chili-soup hybrid. It roils with the taste of crushed coriander and cumin seeds, punctuating this grey season with its four-fold green. Whether you choose the original or a vegetarian modification, this soup delivers protein in at least two delicious forms: with quinoa, beans, and chicken (if you choose) you athletes out there really can’t go wrong.

When friends are too far to measure out afternoons in coffee spoons, soup spoons are a worthy substitute.

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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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curried pear and butternut soup

Before you quickly click away from this post muttering squash, AGAIN?? please humor me. If there’s any time of the year I’m allowed to indulge my love of all things gourd, it’s fall.

On Halloween evening I biked to the grocery store to procure a baguette. We were going to have it with Mark’s delicious Punkin Ale rendition of this Beer Baked Beans recipe. I rode home with my baguette sticking out from behind me, feeling like I was headed to a dinner party in Montmarte.

The best thing about that little jaunt though were the pumpkins. Dotting front stoops like jolly orange goblins, glowing as if they had invaded the streets of Syracuse, the rotund globes guided me all the way home. There’s something about a carved pumpkin that makes me smile every time.

Leaves crackled under my bike tires as I passed people in lawn chairs doling out candy. My twilight ride wove through neighborhood streets that grew more festive as the sun sank.

But my recipe today doesn’t have to do with beans, baguettes, or pumpkins, but another type of squash. I’ve posted about the silky, meaty butternut once before, but today it’s back, pureed into a low fat soup with pears and curry powder. Here it is pictured with a swirl of sour cream.

Some friends and I made this soup a few weeks ago as part of our newly founded “Estro-cook” nights. The semi-weekly Sunday evening cook-a-thon was named after a Winnipeg Folk Festival workshop called “Estro-Jam,” where women from different bands teamed up to play a daytime stage.

I just love how this picture shows off the sunny October afternoon I enjoyed it on. Having soup in the freezer is one life’s easiest pleasures.

This soup can even be dressed up with cubes of tofu and green lentils, as this cafe on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast did. I took this picture while I was solo cycle-touring around Vancouver island, and this picture reminds me of those days, spent largely alone, when a bowl of soup and a Moleskine journal could very well be a vagabond’s best friend.

And years later, though I am holed up in Syracuse as the fall wilts to shades of ochre, the dear gourd does it again.

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ramen makeover for one

Tonight is Masters Eve. With two orientations behind me and a year of work ahead, I thought I’d mark the occasion with an “ode to the student life” post. I bring you the quintessential Ramen noodle–with better hair and make-up, or at least nutritional profile.

I ate a lot of meals alone during the month of June. In order to help pad the marital pockets, my hubby and I embraced a mutual separation over the course of last month to go off and make some money. My journey took me to a rural area of New York State where I house and pet sat for three weeks. Having a nicely stocked kitchen and a 24-hour farm stand five minutes up the road helped combat any lurking loneliness.

When it got really bad I snuggled up beside the ice-cream maker. Oh Cuisinart, I’m afraid that you don’t love me as I love you! Yup, it made for some good company.

The problem with eating upwards of thirty meals alone in the span of three weeks is that you can’t possibly savor each and every morsel. Sometimes you’ve just gotta get the job done: food from fridge to bowl to mouth: Hello, Ramen. It’s been awhile.

But I could not respect my body and eat it from the packetquickly reconstituted and slathered with oily seasoning–at the same time. And so I proceeded to try adding vim and vigor to the Old Faithful of undergrad meal supplements. Ramen, meet your new friends vitamins A through D, iron, magnesium and calcium. I know they’re strangers, just give them a chance, ok?

And then, in the great realm of coincidences that is the Internet, days after discovering the possibilities in that shiny crunched up packet of dinner-for-one, Mark Bittman posted this story on how to cut food costs when you’re feeling crunched. There it was, first in a long list of great tips, instructions for revved-up Ramen. Common knowledge by now I suppose.

As one commenter notes on Bittman’s blog, Ramen noodles aren’t very good for you no matter how you slurp ’em. I must agree; there are countless other great noodles out there — refrigerated Udon, rice vermicelli, Chinese noodles, Japanese soba noodles — which are just as fast. Ramen is in fact kind of a rip-off if you think about it, excessively packaged to boot. But we had a cupboard full of it (which I will maintain that I did NOT bring to this marriage!) and I had fun transforming it into something new that I might never eat again.

Yet again, classes start tomorrow…

So if you find yourself lonely, hungry, uninspired and without a Cuisinart to cuddle, bring a pot of water or broth to a boil. Throw in some chopped vegetables (I had carrot, purple cabbage and kale) and cook until tender. Then add a package of miso paste (available at Japanese grocers and much better for you than the conventional seasoning), some chopped green onions, a splash of soy sauce, and a final drizzle of toasted sesame oil.

I was surprised at how satisfying my concoction ended up being. As I dined in a candle lit house all alone, the soup comforted me with plainness interrupted by vibrancy. I even managed to page through Saveur and Gourmet’s sophisticated temptations while I ate, emerging at the other end nourished by simplicity in the face of the refined.

Spoony Sundays #4

Easter is early this year. I barely noticed Palm Sunday creeping up on me until this morning, ushered in by the kids at church swishing green palm fronds in the air as they passed me in the aisles.

Usually, Easter brings a slight renovation of my taste buds (not to mention my health — cheap chocolate and hot crossed buns, anyone?) But an early, wintry Easter like this year’s has caused a tangle in the cravings department. Easter is a fresh green season — the joyous end to a sparse Lent, colour and springtime riding on the coattails of Holy Week. But when Easter sneaks up in March, divorced from new grass and sunshine, my associations get all mixed up. The gray skies and occasional snows taunt me with chili and hot chocolate, while the stores offer up impossibly green asparagus. The lilies look pretty, but out of place. Suddenly I realize how the supermarkets capitalize on the changes of seasons, and even our most beloved holy-days.

For this edition of Spoony Sundays, I followed a comment I received a few weeks ago on this blog. The commenter passed along a recipe for Greek Egg-Lemon Soup, or as we cultured folks might prefer to call it, Avgolemono. On our way to the grocery store however, I realized that I hadn’t copied down the recipe, let alone made a list. To save me from pure frustration upon returning home to cook the soup (“arghhhhh, we don’t have any garlic!?”), I dashed into the books section and grabbed a Reader’s Digest soup cookbook. There it was, my Avgolemono staring out at me from the page with its spartan list of ingredients.

This soup’s velvety richness is enough to warm you through the last grips of winter, while splashes of lemon zest and delicate spinach begin to tickle your tongue with spring. This soup is surprisingly satisfying given its humble ingredients; it’s as lean as a broth soup but twice as filling. I’d never heard of a Greek soup before, and being a long-time admirer of their cuisine, I just had to give it a try.

There’s also a bit of magic in watching this soup come together. Just when you think that all you’ve got in your pot is another boring broth, you whisk in the egg and egg whites and an opaque stew emerges. I can say now that the Greeks succeeded not only at civilization, philosophy, and baklava, but some pretty great things in bowls too.

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