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.

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

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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.

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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 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