Soup for the soul

To feel safe and warm on a cold wet night, all you really need is soup.” — Laurie Colwin

As my best friends will tell you, I’m your go-to gal if you need a good soup recipe. Come winter, there’s always something simmering in my slow cooker or on the stove — thick-as-a-brick pea soup, creamy potato porridge, vegetarian chili, or a savory minestrone.

The way I see it, homemade soup is a remedy for nearly everything.

It’s guaranteed to speed the recovery of a neighbor who’s nursing a broken heart or the common cold. It fortifies the friend who just returned home after knee surgery. In fact, homemade soup has a language all its own, which makes it ideal when you’re struggling to find a way to express sympathy to grieving families. It also works to convey gratitude when we need to reciprocate a kindness or a favor.

It’s methodical but soothing — the whole process of making soup from scratch.

I always begin with fresh produce from the market, then I gather the right combo of herbs and spices from the pantry, or, if I’m lucky, from the small potted “garden” in my kitchen window sill.  From the moment I start chopping onions and garlic, every muscle and nerve in my body begins to loosen or unwind. And while I work, I think about the loved ones who’ll receive the first helping when my soup is finished and the flavor has mellowed.

That said, the soup I make at home never tastes quite as delicious as the soup from someone else’s kitchen. So when I’m feeling especially cranky or lazy, I head over to Niki’s, my favorite local diner here in Royal Oak. If you were a diehard fan of the long-running Gilmore Girls TV series, you probably remember Luke’s Diner, right? Well, Niki’s is just that sort of place –a cozy hangout where you’ll likely rub elbows with a neighbor at the counter.

Best of all, the soup at Niki’s is always homemade — and the perfect prelude to my favorite Greek salad on Main Street.

I’ve known Donna, the owner and cook, for so many years that I’ve lost count of all the gloomy winter afternoons I spent in her back-corner booth with my notebook and a pending column deadline. Those afternoons were always warmed by Donna’s chicken noodle, spinach-tortellini, or cabbage soups. I still like to remind Donna that she makes the best soup in town, and that I’ll always be her biggest fan.

Whenever you’re in need of a little home-cooked comfort — and your own mom isn’t around or able to provide it – it helps to have at least one good cook like Donna at the ready. We all need someone who can ladle out the perfect bowl of soul-filling soup, especially on chilly midwinter afternoons.

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My favorite slow-cooker pea soup recipe:

16-oz package of Spartan (brand) green split peas

6 cups of water

1 large onion, chopped

5 or 6 small potatoes, peeled and sliced

4 cloves fresh garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves and/or 1 teaspoon dried tarragon

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup finely sliced carrots

1 cup chopped celery

Use a large slow cooker; set it on high. Add the six cups of water. Rinse the split peas, then add to the water. Chop the onion and saute in olive oil with dried oregano and crushed garlic until onions are translucent and slightly brown.  Add the cooked onions/garlic to the slow cooker and stir; add the remaining ingredients. Cook on high for five or six hours until the potatoes are soft and the soup is thick. (If you’re pressed for time, add a can of sliced/cooked potatoes to the batch during the last hour, instead of the fresh potatoes.) Add salt and pepper to taste, if desired.

I love making this all-day vegetarian soup in the slow cooker; I can leave it alone and let the flavors meld for hours. It tastes even better the next day, and there’s plenty to share. P.S. Prior to serving this soup, I might add a dash of sherry to each bowl, plus a dollop of sour cream, to make it more like a French Potage St. Germain.— CL

Comforts of home


There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.”  ~Jane Austen

My mother was discharged from the Woodward Hills nursing center on Friday. It’s hard to believe it’s been over a month since she was admitted to the hospital for congestive heart failure. Not surprisingly, she missed her familiar surroundings at home, and was often confused during her weeks of recovery at the hospital and nursing center.

She’s very happy to be back home in her condo, needless to add. But now that she is, my hard work begins.

I’m back to dispensing and monitoring her meds, making her follow-up doctor appointments, and driving her to all of her medical visits. Not to mention overseeing a parade of home-care nurses and therapists.

So I’ll be spending a lot more time at my mother’s place until I can determine whether it’s really OK to leave her alone for the long run. While part of me tires out at the very thought of this responsibility, I also remember how glad I was that I’d spent more time with my father in the months before he died. Caring for loved ones helps redefine my priorities.

Yesterday, the visiting nurse discovered that Mom’s blood pressure was dangerously low, prompting an emergency call to the doctor. We were told to change the dosage of Mom’s blood pressure medications. (I cut 14 tiny pills in half.) I’m hoping that the sudden drop in blood pressure explains why my mother’s dementia seemed worse than usual. She kept forgetting what day it was, and the nurse and I suspected that Mom may have overdosed on her morning medications. Earlier that morning, I had noticed an open bottle of pills on the counter, which she’d apparently retrieved from a cupboard. I’ve been advised to hide any pills that I haven’t placed in her weekly pill organizer.

She’d much rather live on coney dogs, ice cream, and chocolate-covered cherries.

Another ongoing challenge is helping her shop for heart-healthy food. After unpacking her belongings back at the condo, I took her to shop for groceries at Hollywood Market, our nearest grocery store. I’ve been trying to show Mom how to make healthy choices, but it’s not easy. Oatmeal and low-sodium foods, unfortunately, are not on her list of favorites. She’d much rather live on coney dogs, ice cream, and chocolate-covered cherries. Not exactly what Dr. Dean Ornish recommends for patients with heart disease.

For Mom’s first meal home, I made a large pot of vegetarian chili — enough to stretch for several meals and to share with a neighbor. Which brings me to the topic of this week’s Royal Oak Patch column. “Cooking for Comfort” is my tribute to simple home-cooked meals. The column recounts how I learned to appreciate kitchen work after years of avoiding it. I hope it will inspire you to make a soul-filling pot of soup or stew to warm your winter night.  Please click here to read it. –CL

Bowls of comfort

To feel safe and warm on a cold wet night, all you really need is soup.” — Laurie Colwin

As my closest friends will tell you, I’m your go-to gal if you need a good soup recipe. Come fall, there’s usually something simmering in my slow cooker or on the stove — thick-as-a-brick pea soup, creamy potato porridge, or maybe a savory minestrone.

It’s methodical but soothing, the whole process of making soup.

I begin with fresh produce from the market, then I gather the right combo of herbs and spices from the garden or the pantry. From the moment I start chopping onions and garlic, every muscle and nerve in my body begins to loosen or unwind. Sauteing the vegetables on the stove, I think about the people who’ll receive the first helping when my soup is finished and the flavor has mellowed.

Soup can be a meal by itself — especially if it’s a hearty recipe with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in. I’ll often order soup as my main course in restaurants, and have been known to serve it as an entree at casual company meals. Even the pickiest kid who doesn’t eat veggies will make an exception for vegetable soup laced with alphabet pasta.

The way I see it, soup is a remedy for nearly everything.  It’s guaranteed to speed the recovery of a neighbor who’s nursing a broken heart or the common cold. It fortifies the dear friend who’s just returned from her second hip-replacement surgery. Homemade soup has a language all its own, and it’s one of the kindest ways to express sympathy to grieving families who’ve lost loved ones. And sometimes, when words fail, it also works to convey love and appreciation.

Cooking for my mother, for instance, has become a form of communication — especially now that her dementia is complicated by a serious hearing loss. Even with her hearing aids in place, she struggles to hold a conversation. Living by herself in a condo, she doesn’t nurture herself the way she nurtured her own family many years ago. So I try to bring her a pot of homemade soup at least once a week.  Nourishing the woman who used to nourish me helps to fill a hollow ache inside me, too. I can’t change Mom’s diagnosis, or slow the sad progression of her disease, but I can make soup.

__________

The way I see it, soup is a remedy for nearly everything.

___________

Of course, the soup I make for myself never tastes as delicious as the soup from someone else’s kitchen.

So when I’m feeling cranky or blue or sorry for myself, it’s time to head over to Niki’s, my favorite local diner here in Royal Oak. At Niki’s, the soup is always homemade — the perfect prelude to my favorite Greek salad.  I’ve known Donna, the owner and cook, for so many years that I’ve lost count of all the gloomy winter afternoons I spent hunkered down in her back-corner booth with my notebook and a pending column deadline. Those afternoons were totally redeemed by Donna’s chicken noodle, spinach-tortellini, or cabbage soups.

I like to remind Donna that she makes the best soup in town, and that I’ll always be her biggest fan. (Gotta keep that soup on the burner at Niki’s, especially with the long winter ahead!) But what I really want to tell Donna is something I couldn’t put into words until I started writing about soup this morning. When we’re in need of a little mothering — but our own moms are no longer able to provide it — we need at least one Donna in our lives. We all need someone who will ladle something warm, delicious, and comforting into our bowls.

________

My favorite slow-cooker pea soup recipe:

16-oz package of Spartan (brand) green split peas

6 cups of water

1 large onion, chopped

5 or 6 small potatoes, peeled and sliced

4 cloves fresh crushed garlic

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup sliced carrots

1 cup chopped celery

Use a large slow cooker; set it on high. Add the six cups of water. Rinse the split peas, then add to the water. Chop the onion and saute in olive oil with dried oregano and crushed garlic until onions are translucent and slightly brown.  Add the cooked onions/garlic to the slow cooker and stir; add the remaining ingredients. Cook on high for five or six hours until the potatoes are soft and the soup is thick. (If you’re pressed for time, you can add a can of sliced/cooked potatoes to the batch during the last hour, instead of the fresh potatoes.) Add salt and pepper to taste, if desired.

I love making this all-day vegetarian soup in the slow cooker; I can leave it alone and let the flavors meld for hours. It tastes even better the next day, and there’s plenty to share. — CL