Monday, January 24, 2011

the past, via split peas

After a lengthy hiatus, my friend Rose-Anne and I have tentatively resurrected our tandem posting project this week. We’re starting off easy, with recipes that remind us of people.

For me, there are a few dishes that sum up how I feel about cooking, about food, about what qualities—nutrition, comfort, deliciousness—I want the things that go into my body to have. Actually, they aren’t even dishes, they’re categories: bread and cheese (this can range from pizza to grilled cheese to cheese and crackers), beans and rice (a similarly diverse group), and soup. I could live from these three types of food for the rest of my life, I sometimes think, and die happy and well-fed and content.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, that in the wintertime soup is the clear winner, and oh boy, do I make a lot of it. Potato leek, potato and butter bean, pumpkin and black bean, lentil; creamy garlic—with five heads of roasted garlic, people—cream of broccoli, creamy garlic chickpea kale, sweet potato and chorizo: the list goes on and on. In other words, I love me a good bowl of soup, in no small part because on a chilly grey winter day it makes me feel like at least something good is coming from all that darkness outside.

The thing is, my thing for soup far predates my experience with Midwestern winters, and even my experience with knowing how to cook. In middle school and high school I was a highly OCD-style eater; I would eat exactly the same thing every day, and I had a number of regular foods ranging from specific flavors of ice cream to popcorn to Schwann’s apple flautas. (Good god, my parents loved the Schwann’s truck.) These were all foods I could make in the microwave, and I ate most of them on a daily basis. But aside from these snack foods, one of the things I loved the best was Campbell’s soup; I ate so many bowls of things like Chicken Mushroom Chowder and Steak and Potato Soup that sometimes I’m amazed that I survived into adulthood.

Now, of course, those soups are long gone for me; aside from the fact that I make my own, they virtually all have meat in them. (As recently as a few years ago I was devastated to find out that Golden Mushroom, a soup I loved as an adolescent and which I’d innocently believed to be vegetarian, was in fact full of beef fat. Blech.) But sometimes I get, well, nostalgic for those ready-made soups of my childhood. Recently I was dwelling on one soup in particular, Split Pea and Ham, and thinking to myself that when I made split pea soup it just never has the same clout; it always seemed a little bland, a little too gloppy and nutritious and...pea-y for true enjoyment. It didn’t have any depth and it always left me mildly disappointed, to the point where I just stopped making it. This winter, however, I had a moment of cooking inspiration that has moved split pea right back up to the top of my soup rotation.

The soup that I conceived of and later executed is so far above my previous split peas that they aren’t even in the same ballpark, and I owe it all to Rose-Anne. Last year she posted a recipe for Pasta Carbonara, and because she’s a vegetarian and an innovative cook she replaced the bacon that usually goes into the recipe with caramelized red onion coated in smoked paprika. Smoked paprika is not hard to get--you can probably buy it from your local grocery store if they carry McCormick spices--but it seems to be not often used, and I rarely see it called for in recipes. She and I discovered this spice together a few years ago during a series of dinner parties we used to put together, and I still remember the first time she opened the bottle for me, the intense whiff of smoke, rich and dark, that made me immediately want to put it in everything I ate. I think of her curiosity and excitement in that moment every time I use this particular spice. What, I thought to myself, if I transferred this bacon-esque onion idea to something else, like a soup? And so, Smoky Split Pea Soup was born.

This soup, then, is riddled with nostalgia: memories of good friend, cooking parties past, and gawky adolescents eating bowls of microwaved soup. It warms me to the core.

Smoky Split Pea Soup

Olive oil
1 large red onion, thinly chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 1/2 -2 tsps smoked paprika
4-5 peeled carrots, sliced into coins (approximately ¼ inch thick)
2-3 large or 5-6 small red-skinned potatoes, washed well and chopped into bite-sized pieces (no need to peel unless you want to)
6 cups vegetable broth
6 cups water
2 cups dried split green peas
1 tsp thyme (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large soup pot on low to medium-low heat, use enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot (2-3 tbs, perhaps more—you may need more than you expect in order to coat the onion) until it shimmers. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to brown. Add the garlic, sauté for a minute longer, and then add the smoked paprika. Stir to coat the onion evenly, and let sit for one additional minute. Add the carrots and potatoes and cover, letting them “sweat” for three or four minutes, and then add the vegetable broth, water, and split peas. Turn the heat up to high, give it a good stir, and cover the pot again. Once you hear it start to bubble, you can turn the heat back down to low. Let it simmer for about one hour, stirring occasionally, until the peas have begun to dissolve and the potatoes and carrots are very tender. Add the thyme, salt and pepper, and let bubble for five more minutes. Enjoy.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

lovecraft in tucson

I don't live in Arizona, and I haven't since 2004. My parents and my sister have left the state in the last few months, after roughly twenty years of residency, and I have one truly close friend left there. She's down in Tucson, and her facebook feed was how I heard about the shootings there yesterday.

I've been trying to figure out why I feel so upset. It's an upsetting situation, of course: many people, including a person who sounds decent and forward-thinking and is trying to better peoples' lives, are shot in an act of sudden violence. A child is killed, a federal judge, others as well. These are terrible things. But because of where it happened, I feel my heart twist in an entirely different way.

I love where I am from. I've been in Chicago for six and a half years, but I still have an Arizona drivers license. When I was stranded in a doorway in Germany at midnight this past summer, a stranger paused to ask me if I was okay. When he asked me where I came from, there was no hesitation, although I had flown directly from Chicago: "Arizona." (In one of the more surreal moments from that evening, it turned out he was from Lake Havasu City. Small goddamn world.) But it's been increasingly hard for me this year to reconcile the politics of my state with the people I knew there, the people I lived and worked and hiked with, loved and drank coffee with. How can a place where all these lovely people come from, where I come from, vote to essentially legalize racism, to cut multicultural educational programs, to re-elect the governor responsible for these bills who literally believes that God chose her for this purpose? How is that even possible? It creates cognitive dissonance, because the Arizona I hold in my mind is so completely at odds with the Arizona I read about in the news, again and again and again.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, of course. Arizona has always been a conservative state; I just happened to grow up in a smallish hippie liberal bastion and to go to college in a sprawling desert city with an active radical liberal element. I happened to grow up white and middle-class and well-educated. I was sheltered, in large part, from the actual impacts of the whack-jobbery that was certainly going on when I lived there, by who I was and because, frankly, I never made the time to come far enough out of my bubble to clearly see the other Arizona, the one that confuses me so much now. I remember it dimly, but as more and more years pass the Arizona in my mind is winnowed down to what I loved, not what I--even then--didn't.

There are other reasons why the shooting yesterday was so upsetting, of course. Rep. Giffords sounds like exactly the type of person Arizona needs right now, like somebody I would vote for, and those are few and far between there. But then there's also Sarah Palin with her abhorrent gun sight metaphors--Giffords was, of course, one of her "targets"--the feeling that finally, the crazy is going too far. We never seem to realize that until people start dying, and usually not even then.

I'd like to leave with a quote from my friend Erica, about the ways we use metaphor and the dangers of our careless treatment. Much love to those involved in yesterday's shooting, those in Tucson, in Arizona, my friends elsewhere who are mirroring my shock and horror and shame. I wish for better things in the future.

‎"What troubles me most, however, is that such oversimplifications cavalierly assume that when we use metaphor, we do not really mean what we say...metaphors do, indeed, mean a great deal and may, in fact, serve as intersecting points for the various components of experience and action." -A. Kolodny

Saturday, January 01, 2011

morning finds you

New Year’s Eve in Chicago was unseasonably, freakishly warm. When we left the apartment at 9 PM to go to a friend’s house, the outside temperature was fifty-seven degrees, like a day in late April had somehow been transplanted to the end of December. When we left the party at about 1:30, the temperature had dropped and the wind was up and I shivered all the way home, cursing myself for wearing a dress outside in December, and by this morning we were firmly back in the grips of January. Although I can’t say I was exactly happy to learn that it was twenty-four degrees outside (feels like nine! woo) I did feel considerably less disoriented. After all, it’s supposed to be cold.

New Year’s has never been my favorite holiday. I feel like I already spend a great deal of time—too much, too often—lost in introspection, so I don’t really need a holiday to remind me that oh shit, it’s been another year. Also, New Year’s in Chicago is cold (usually) and it’s often felt odd to celebrate rebirth when everything is frozen.

I read a book recently, though, about the absolutely astonishing ways that animals survive winter and extreme cold. Some of it was fairly straightforward, or at least involved concepts I knew of or could guess at—constant foraging, torpor and hibernation—and some was not. Frogs and some insects, for instance, are capable in the right circumstances of freezing solid and then reviving when spring comes. (Just think about that for a minute, seriously.) But what really astonished me was that even the behavior I knew about was positively miraculous. Have you stopped to think about bears’ winter torpor recently? It’s something I learned about as a child in mundane terms, but as an adult it becomes something like magic. Bears, according to what we know about bodies and waste disposal and atrophy, should not survive the winter in good health, but clearly they manage somehow.

That’s what I love the most when I read about biology: real life is freaking magical. The ways that animals wait out the storm of bitter seasons defy my imagination and require biological technology that humans don’t really understand, but they exist and furthermore, they work. Magic. There’s something to be said for the ability to hold the fort, but there’s perhaps even more worth in the ability to wake up, to take back up with the world when conditions allow.

I also feel ambivalent about New Year’s because I don’t necessarily like thinking about the new calendar year as a blank slate, a clean start. Last year was hard in some ways but it’s still part of right now, even though I’m going to be screwing up every time I write the date for the next month or so, and I’m bumbling along just the same way I was yesterday. Sometimes I feel like life is really all bumbling, or maybe bumbling mixed with dancing when we manage to be mindful of the magic of everyday life. But regardless of the date, and even though it’s the middle of winter right now, I feel like I’m actually waking up from my torpor, and last night’s April weather backed me up. It may be winter in Chicago, but it’s also spring. Who says I can’t have both? So hey 2011, nice to see you, but I’ll just be on my way now; there’s soup to make and people to love and cats to pet, and I don’t have time to flip the calendar page just yet.