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

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

Recipe for balance

Be aware of wonder. Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” — Robert Fulghum

This year I’m trying to strike a healthy balance between living creatively and being consumed by creative work. All too often, when I’m immersed in an art project or engrossed in a piece of writing, it’s as if I’m living on another planet. I neglect other things I care about. I might forget to brush my teeth or return phone calls or feed my family.

When I first started writing weekly columns, for instance, everything was potential fodder for the newspaper. I couldn’t watch a new TV show or shop for toilet paper without thinking I should scribble some commentary about it. For weeks I carried a notebook everywhere, and would even jump out of the shower to jot down ideas for a column. Thankfully, that ridiculous phase was short-lived. As a photo-journalist friend reminded me: We need to ask ourselves if we’re living from the depth of our lives or merely documenting them.

Then there was the time I slaved for weeks on a book manuscript. I got into the habit of working until midnight, then rising at daybreak to revise or proofread what I’d typed the day before. My husband worked full-time then, so we grabbed most of our meals at local restaurants. Our son was away at college, and I was living the life I’d dreamed about for years — working 24/7 on my writing.

That’s when it hit me: My dream life wasn’t quite as satisfying as I’d imagined. I was exhausted and vaguely disappointed.  Something essential was missing. And it’s not that the work wasn’t going well. For the most part, my writing was getting published in places I was proud to list on my resume. With my nest was empty, I’d even found extra hours to teach writing.

And there was problem, hidden in plain sight. Given my newly won freedom from parenting responsibilities, I’d become a woman obsessed. My whole life was about writing, writing, and more writing. I’d become so one-dimensional that I bored myself.

Kitchen lessons

The thing is, I’ve always believed the “good life” is a balanced life. A richly textured, multifaceted life.

After my epiphany, I made a list of “ingredients” that remain as essential to my happiness and well-being as writing. The list includes long talks with my husband and friends; gardening; keeping house; reading for pleasure; volunteering in my community; making art; visiting museums, and more. Of course, I’ve always enjoyed cooking (and reading about food) but my love affair with my computer left little time for the sensual pleasures of the kitchen.

And so, after putting my book project aside for a few days, I spent my first free morning poring over my cookbooks. Shopping for groceries later, I found even more inspiration in the colorful produce aisles at the local market. I couldn’t wait to get home and start cooking again. My mood lifted as I chopped and sauteed onions and red peppers, crafting a simple but satisfying meal with my hands.

“Real nourishment involves our whole being,” writes Anne Scott in Serving Fire: Food for Thought, Body, and Soul (Celestial Arts). “The search for it takes us on a journey into ourselves, confronting us with our inner hunger.”

In other words, my soul had been starving for something more than words and ideas heaped on a page or a computer screen. I was tired of living in my head, and kitchen work provided the physicality I’d been missing. For me, the ordinary arts of daily living are not optional — and I try to remember that whenever I’m off-kilter or obsessed.

Even if cooking isn’t your thing, you have your own list of pleasures to draw from when you need to feel balanced and whole.

“Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance,” advised the philosopher Epicurus. In the Epicurean view, the hallmarks of the good life include tranquility, freedom from fear, a variety of experiences, and the pure enjoyment of simple pleasures.  Easier said than done, of course, but worth aspiring to. — Cindy La Ferle

— Kitchen photos (our kitchen in Royal Oak) by Cindy La Ferle–