Archive for April, 2012


The bane of my existence is human error.

I fully and freely admit that I make mistakes all the time. Poor life decisions? You bet. Just this past week, I learned one of my mistakes first hand. A combination of pre-exam stress and PMS led to writing one e-mail that has changed things for the better, but even here, I am not faultless. Putting things off isn’t something I normally do unless the task involves potentially hurting someone’s feelings. I’m lucky to have friends that understand me enough to get that, friends who are honest enough–and genuine enough, or maybe mature is the word–to seek improvement when I have to be the asshole that sends the long and elaborate e-mail explaining the issue in a manner that will not generate conflict. Bottom line: I will become a better person for it. I will correct my past mistakes and be more assertive.

Damn being an English major. I can do things better in writing than I can verbally half the time, and the other half, I can’t do well in either.

Two weeks ago, I handed over my most precious possession: a paper copy of my thesis, all 94 pages. Its intended destination was the desk of none other than the department head; that which I loved like a child was being sent to a paper shredder to be bathed in red ink. Still, it must be done for the sake of timely departure. I gave it to the secretary, clutching it in both hands, and said, “This is my thesis, and to me, it is the most important thing in the world. Please, be careful with it.”

Cue two weeks of insanity, two grueling weeks where I forget that the sun shines, that the world is peopled, that I am surrounded by bars–temples of temptation that beckon me at nearly every turn. I must resist them. I must resist them to finish my coursework. The nights grew long and sleepless. The days are measures not in minutes but in words that slide out of the keys, shifting like hourglass sand that swept me away in its current. There is no rest for the weary. No food for the hungry. No cool and calming water to slake my thirst. I found spare moments of calmness, but it was not until last night, Saturday, that I felt a wave of relief crash down on me. Ten hours of nearly non-stop work, and I had given birth to the final drafts of the documents that would end my classes. One poorly written twenty-page paper and corresponding handout, and one Friday morning, separated me from the finish line I have been dashing towards for two years.

Of late, my dash has become more of a Smirnoff sort of stagger. My vision is touch and go under the additional stress and fatigue. I’ve lost count of how many meals I’ve eaten out this week. The coffee shop has become my house of worship, and I attend mass daily. Hail coffee, curry, and tea lattes, the lifeblood of exam week students! Still, my perseverance has paid off, and I have much to show for my devotion. One class down, one more to go… and my defense is only six days away. I treat myself with a slightly longer than usual break, then sleep. It took me forty-five minutes, but I finally managed to reign Morpheus in.

Sunday morning began at a slow pace. I threw my laundry in, meandered the internet stream for about a half an hour, and checked my e-mail.

Then, human error struck.

My most cherished possession was not only missing in action; it had never come into the hands of the department head. I can only imagine how it deviously sneaked out of eye shot while the secretary was busy with something else, or how, hapless and homesick, some sinister paper mites crept out of the stapler and gnawed it to dust.

Once again, I find myself turning to soup for the answer. The last of last week’s leftovers, also the last in the fourteen-week soup for the sole challenge, is sitting in the fridge. Between page 15 and 16 of an English paper, and after two thoroughly irritated phone calls, one to my parents, one to Melissa, I heat the last bowl and depart to throw my laundry in the dryer. There are some things in life you can help, things like how spicy your soup gets; and then, there are some things you just can’t. Some people deal with it in sighs and complaints. I deal with it using a slew of clauses strung together by frustration… and a shrug. I can sleep easy knowing I’ve done all I can.

After fourteen weeks, the soup is finished, as the thesis will soon be… but it’s not quite the same. I don’t plan to write another thesis, but I plan to keep making soup. My life is made of soup and stories; what good would I be without one or the other?

Chicken Tortilla Soup for the Sole

The Final Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3-4 tbsp canola oil
  • 4 chicken tenders, frozen
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 1 can Rotel tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper, plus another ¼ tsp
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh cilantro
  • 1 fresh lime
  • 1 package of 10 corn tortillas
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • Shredded sharp cheddar cheese to top soup

Directions

  1. Dice onion. In three-quart sauce pan, heat olive oil. Add onion and garlic and sauté.
  2. While onion is sautéing, heat canola oil in a separate pan. Cut six of the tortillas into ½ inch strips and fry until crispy. Remove with whatever cooking implement you have that works best for that sort of thing, and place on a plate covered in a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt and ¼ tsp cayenne pepper. Set aside.
  3. Add chili powder and cumin to the pan. Cook for about 30 seconds to a minute.
  4. Add chicken stock, frozen chicken, tomatoes, and bay leaves. Simmer until chicken is cooked (about 20 minutes).
  5. Remove chicken and shred. Return to pan.
  6. Tear remaining 4 tortillas into bite-sized pieces.
  7. Add frozen corn and tortillas to the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes.
  8. Dice cilantro. Remove soup from heat. Add cilantro, remaining cayenne, and the juice of one lime to the pan.
  9. Top with crispy tortilla strips and shredded sharp cheddar (or cheese of your choosing).

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One of the great things about being a sole chef is that, nine times out of ten, you don’t have to worry about cooking for anyone but yourself. That means you get to make what you like with ingredients you like in the amount that you like. You also get to cook things how you like them. No time to defrost the chicken? Boil it. All you have is a giant bag of frozen chicken tenderloins? Good enough if you like white meat. Want some extra curry? Go for it. Being a sole chef is like Burger King on steroids: you can have it your way, anyway you want. There are no cheeseburger limits. The kitchen is your oyster, the pan your pearl, and the fridge the gateway to possibilities.

But sometimes, admittedly, it gets a little lonely.

I’ve cooked for a lot of people since moving out. Friends, coworkers, classmates. I’ve even been known to throw down enough from-scratch alfredo or shredded taco meat for a small gathering on occasion, but more often than not, whatever is in the pot is for me and me alone. There is a fine line between selfish and solitary. Have I crossed it?

But sometimes, when soup is not enough to keep me going, I rely on people outside the four walls of my apartment. I have to. Even though I am self-reliant most of the time, the undeniable fact is that people need other people, sometimes in their highs, sometimes in their lows.  That’s why I’m glad my friends were with me in Chicago when I got the job. That’s why the minute my thesis defense is done, one of my friends is (hopefully) taking me to a bar to toast to the end of an era. But more than anything else, that’s why my friend panicked and called me when I told her I was about to break down in tears. She missed the eruption by mere minutes, but it was one of those days when all the chocolate in Hershey wasn’t going to fix a damn thing.

“It’s the thesis,” I explained. “And everything else. I’m just tired.”

It would have been mortifying to break down crying on the phone, but luckily, I had gotten that out of my system. I talked in circles for twenty minutes, mainly because it made me feel better, but partly because I was grateful. And as I walked around in my own words, I found enough solace to press onward. There are just some things that soup can’t fix. If fixing my thesis was as easy as chopping it up and throwing it in a pan with a bunch of fancy seasonings, then I would have done it ages ago. I guess a thesis is kind of like that. Word soup, made of blood, sweat, tears, and carpel tunnel.

I, of course, reciprocate this “dealing with the chatter of a very disgruntled and thesisbound graduate student” thing when the time calls for it. Some people simply need to vent about their lives to get through the day. Birds of a feather flock together, I suppose. I’ve taken phone calls for every flavor of trauma and stupidity. Parents, significant others, health issues, coworkers… you name it, and I’ve probably heard it at least once on the phone, and I don’t mind that sort of thing because, hell, I complain about what I perceive as everyday stupidity as well. It vexes me to no end that a bunch of college-educated people still haven’t learned how to use common sense. Every time someone misses a beat, I scratch my head and call people whatever expletive happens to spring to mind. When driving, I’m a little less judicious about bottling up my frustration. Things like my infamous road rage make me thankful that my friends understand I can be a jack-ass because I am ninety percent sure that not everyone would.

This soup actually started two weeks ago in a conversation. “I’m running out of ideas,” I confessed. “I can’t think of anything else to make. I’m saving my favorite for the very end because I’m not sure how well it’s going to work.”

“Make sweet potato, then.”

I confess that I have been leery of sweet potatoes ever since the first time I laid eyes on a canned yam. I don’t consider myself a picky eater, but when something looks so foreign and repulsive, like some sort of alien egg out of a sci-fi movie, even I’m a little put off by it. Irrational, yes, but so is much of what goes on around me.

Not too long ago, around the same time the soup discussion took place, my old coworker Morgan celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday. I hadn’t seen her in three months, so I decided to attend her party. On the menu was, of course, sweet potatoes, but mashed, not canned. Suddenly, I was faced with one orange mound of terror that remind me of all the other fears I had faced over the years. When I was eleven, I faced my fear of roller coasters with my best friend from childhood. A few months ago, I faced my fear of sushi with my friend Korrin and a martini in my hand. Raw fish is now something I’ve been indulging in once a week now. Sweet potatoes, of course, were no exception. Overcoming fears is a part of life, I guess, and if our friends aren’t there to do it, then how will we overcome?

Can gratitude be expressed in soup? To me, that seems like a culinary experiment worth trying just once.

Chicken and Sweet Potato Soup for the Sole
(Based roughly on this recipe)

The Penultimate Bowl

(Dedicated with gratitude to my favorite respiratory therapist… never mind that she’s the only one I know)

Ingredients

  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 3 chicken tenders, frozen
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp freshly ground ginger
  • 1 tbsp garlic
  • 1 tbsp curry powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp garam marsala
  • A little over a pound of sweet potatoes
  • 1/4 cup baby carrots, chopped
  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped

Directions

  1. Saute onions in olive oil for 5 minutes.
  2. Add garlic and ginger. Saute additional 2 minutes.
  3. Add curry and garam marsala. Saute for another minute.
  4. In the interludes between steps 1 and 4, chop carrots and sweet potatoes.
  5. Add 3 cups chicken stock, chicken tenders, carrots, and sweet potatoes. Simmer for 20-3o minutes, or until sweet potatoes are tender.
  6. Remove chicken tenders and shred. Let cool for about 10-20 minutes.
  7. Using a food processor that is hopefully better than mine, puree carrots and sweet potatoes.
  8. Return to pan. Add remaining cup of chicken stock and shredded chicken breast. Heat 10 minutes.
  9. Chop green onions and sprinkle over the bowl.

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Sometimes, life throws little surprises your way.

Here’s the thing: I hate surprises. Mostly.

Up until about a month and a half ago, my entire life and future were nothing but chaos. I couldn’t clearly see what I would be doing in the upcoming year, whether or not I would be employed, whether or not I would even be done. And I hate that. I hate it because I’m a planner. I hate it because I get pressure from all sides about what I’m going to do with myself when I’m finally done. I hate it because it is the unknown, which I’m pretty sure irritates me more than anything else.

Then, suddenly, things started coming together.

There is nothing so delicious as proving people wrong, as triumphing over negative expectations and showing that, yes indeed, you can have a degree in English and get what you want… even if what you want changes quite a bit along the way. My original plan was to go straight to a PhD; I never gave the real world a thought—the only thing I wanted was to learn more, write more, read more. Then, quite suddenly, one negative experience blew the lid clean off of the pan and splattered tomato sauce all over the back of the clean range.

It took me two months to wake up to that reality, and when I did, I wanted to go right back to sleep. I had decided on this course five years ago, so why was it changing now? Then again, that begs another question: when exactly do people ever really know what they want? The truth is that the conception of something is usually so grandiose, so flawless, that the reality of it just stings like a steam burn. Maybe it’s only like that for me. As a perfectionist, I like to think things are perfect, that they really are as good as I think they are and that I’m the one who’s flawed so I have to work that much harder to make them better.

I’ve had the epiphany at least forty times by now, and it will be forty more until I get on the plane, but this morning, I woke up to the thought that I had a job. It wasn’t a sharp realization like it was at one-thirty in the morning a few weeks prior. This one was gentle fingers of steam prodding me into consciousness. No… today, my abrupt realization was that, after nearly a year and a half, I had a full and finished draft of my thesis, ninety-four pages long, and that if anyone hacked, maimed, or otherwise jeopardized the well-being of my computer, I would more than likely try beating them to death with a ladle.

Everything came together, just like that. Thesis, job, and all.

This has nothing to do with soup—or does it? Because if there is one thing I have learned during all of this blogging, it is that soup has a way of coming together just at the last minute. A dubious line-up of ingredients that, at first glance, may raise some eyebrows, but with a little work, a little effort, maybe some tears from chopping the onion, they come together. As someone who likes to be mystified at the goings on in the world, I don’t question why or how. I just savor my soup in gratitude.

I celebrated the end of my first semester in a rather unique way. While everyone else was drinking alcohol, I decided to make soup. Tortellini soup. I’m not really sure where the idea struck me, but I thought I should give it a shot. I assembled my ingredients, and when the last tortellini floated to the top, I served myself a bowl. I have probably made tortellini soup more frequently than anything else since moving out, possibly with the exception of paninis, but those hardly constitute as cooking. Maybe curry beat it out. I’m not quite OCD enough to pay attention to that sort of thing. In any case, I told my dad about it, and he eventually altered the recipe to his own specifications, substituting the type of tortellini, the broth used, and several other ingredients.

“Why did you use beef tortellini instead of chicken?” I asked him. It wasn’t a complaint; more like an inquiry so that, for once in my life, I could get a glimpse into my father’s psychology.

“Because I like beef better.”

Fair enough. To this day, I find it a little vexing that he wouldn’t accept the same answer for the reason that I chose English as my major over engineering, but I suppose he and I have such divergent tastes that it really doesn’t matter. In the soup of life, things come together at the drop of a spoon.

And on the rare event that they do actually come together, I tend to like surprises.

Chicken-Herb Tortellini Soup for the Sole

The Twelfth Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 ½ tsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 can Italian tomatoes
  • 1 can vegetable broth
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 10 oz chicken-herb tortellini
  • 8 oz frozen green beans

Directions

  1. Saute onion in olive oil for five minutes.
  2. Add garlic and herbs. Saute additional 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add cooking liquid and tomatoes. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  4. Add tortellini and green beans. Simmer for 10 minutes.

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My Microwave, RIP.

Sir Nukesmysoup
Born: 1999-ish
Died: April 9, 2012, 1:37 p.m.

Today is a sad day in the kitchen, and not just because thus far, my soup plans have gone awry. Today, I say farewell to an old friend of mine who has been with me since I moved up north.

Sir Nukesmysoup came into my life in July of 2010, a hand-me-down from a college friend of mine. From my understanding, Sir spent a lot of time traveling Ohio after he was born in China and imported to America. He finally settled in Sylvania but found that his services were no longer needed after my friend’s father closed his business. He was thinking about retiring, anyway, but after a couple years of sitting in a musty garage, he decided it was time to re-enter the labor market. He found his way to me, and I hired him for one thing: to heat my leftovers to perfection.

Although Sir was old when I met him, he still had some spunk left. Slow but steady, he took three minutes to heat a bowl, but I never once complained. I’m pretty sure one day I’ll have him to thank for getting cancer since the paint was peeling off the top of his insides when I hired him. Sometimes, I wonder how much of it he dropped into my food. He was a crotchety old thing, Sir, but he was willing to put up with me using him as a storage space for the small appliances I didn’t have any room for on the counter. He held my vitamins in plain sight, and the oversized coffee mug I got in Disney World the summer I met him. The funny thing was, once I gave him something to heat up, he was loth to let it go. He would cling to it with the same tenacity with which he clung to life. His door stuck constantly.

The first time I used Sir, I was mystified by my inability to successfully heat a plate of pasta. I hit the “Start” button about seven or eight times and failed to produce even the slightest signs of life. He was sleeping, anyway, so I didn’t want to disturb him since he would be around for the next two years. With a sigh, I decided to eat the pasta cold. It was a hot day, anyway.

On my second attempt, I’m not sure what prompted it, but I pressed the middle of the button. Sir sprang to life with a mechanical whir that meant he was heating my food. Suddenly, my life away from the home I missed so much looked a little brighter, all because Sir was willing to work with me instead of against me.

For two years, Sir and I have worked together to get rid of leftovers, him heating them, me eating them. Of all the things in my kitchen, I have probably turned to him more often than practically everything, maybe with the exception of the dishes and George Foreman. When I was down, only Sir could heat my soup, and on more than one occasion, he also heated my tea. He cooked my popcorn to perfection and burnt the bottom pieces every time, but still… still, I couldn’t part with him, not since he was struggling so hard.

During my time as a sole chef, I’ve learned that I can live without a lot of things. I’ve realized the superfluity of owning a matching set of dishes. I’ve found ways around buying a rolling pin and a knife sharpener. I admittedly have way too many coffee cups and tupperware containers, and in my time of need, when Sir let me down, when he said quite clearly that he had heated his last bowl by giving me a cold leftover taco, I learned that a microwave was an absolute necessity.

Am I bitter? No. Sir Nukesmysoup lived a good life. He made sure my meals were heated for two years, and even if it wasn’t to perfection, it meant something. It meant I didn’t have to eat another meal out. It meant comfort and sustenance and creative ways to get through the night on caffeine highs. The counter feels a little emptier without him. I take solace in knowing that he would approve of his replacement, who may well perform his job better than he did but who will never quite occupy the same high standing that Sir achieved. A first microwave does that to a person, no matter how many hands it has gone through. One thing is certain: these hands will not forget.

Did you ever wonder why hot dog buns come in packs of eight and hot dogs in packs of ten? I’m pretty sure it’s for the same reason that leeks only come three in a bunch at the local Kroger: to force people who hate wasting food, people like me, to get very creative with their cooking.

With hot dogs, the solution is easy. So you’ve got ten hot dogs and eight buns. You serve eight at a party, and cut the other two up and eat them for breakfast. It’s that simple. With or without beans. If you’re feeling creative, you can make little octopus wieners and draw little faces on them with ketchup or mustard. But because I made the mistake of reading the label once, I no longer face this dilemma. Hot dogs will not cross my threshold, and for a good reason. Kosher beef is an option, but how the heck would I make soup out of hot dogs, and how would I go about spinning kosher beef into a blog about chicken soup? It’s best for me to stick to those bags of frozen chicken breasts, which have significantly less fat… at least before I stick them in a cream-based chowder.

Leeks are slightly more difficult. I usually only cook once a week, and when I do, I go through the motions of cutting, peeling, dicing, slicing, sauteeing, and simmering. I do it with a smile or while singing slightly off tune, and I do it so I know I’ve got something good waiting for me at the end of the day. I’ve got this paranoia of illness. At this point in the semester, I know that catching anything will spell sudden death, so if I want to stay healthy, I feel the need to eat healthy, hence the soup.

The trouble with leeks is this: they are slightly more volatile than your everyday hot dog, and you can’t just fry a leek up and eat it (well, you probably could, but I would personally prefer to pair it with something… pasta maybe?) any more than you can just hack it up and put it on top of a salad (now that I think of it, that’s not a bad idea… I’ve never had a raw leek. I’m not even sure if they’re edible). This presents a troubling impasse of options for someone who wants a leek and hates to waste food, and the solutions I’ve come up with hardly seem adequate.

  1. Buy the leeks and throw the ranky ones away. It’s worth it for soup, right? Not at $3.00 a bunch, it doesn’t.
  2. Over-leek the soup. Of course, given the constraints of my personal challenge, this creates a bit of a problem. Over-leeking might create bigger problems.
  3. Get really sick of leeks by week 3. Grin and bear it… and make just one more recipe with leeks. Once the soup is done, proceed to the fridge for a celebratory shot of gin, maybe two. Completely lose the desire to think about leeks until you realize that you haven’t updated your soup blog in a timely fashion. Cuss. Cuss again because there’s simply too much shit to do. Grin and bear it. Write a blog entry and put leeks to bed for good… or at least for now.

I’m ready to leave leeks behind. They really have tested my creativity as a cook, pressed it to its utmost limits. I’ve had to grapple for solutions, altering one old recipe just to use one, then finally getting rid of the last one with an excellent fallback, once again from childhood, and once again because of my father. I was eleven when I was presented with what looked and smelled like an oversized green onion. “What exactly is this?”

“A leek.”

“A what?”

“A leek. It’s like a green onion.”

“What are you going to do with it?” I had just eaten lunch, but I was intrigued by this strange piece of produce.

“I’m making potato and leek soup.”

I knew what a potato was, so I had no doubt that it would be delicious, and I was not disappointed. My expectations were met and then some. I gave my compliments to the chef.

Maybe it’s his fault that I had a leek craving three weeks ago and had to go through the pains of finding really creative ways to use them up. Fortunately, this is the end of it. I am happy to report that the leeks are gone and that the cause of my cravings, in a roundabout way, prompted the solution to my problem. As I sat down with the first bowl, I thought of my dad, whom I would soon be seeing because of an impromptu Easter trip home, took a bite of my own efforts, and smiled. Even in the face of a hellishly busy week, I was happy to find that I was still happy to enjoy the little things in life.

Chicken, Potato, and Leek Soup for the Sole

The Eleventh Bowl

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken tenders, defrosted
  • 1 leek, washed and diced
  • 2 stalks celery, washed and diced
  • 1 mammoth potato, washed and diced
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups half and half
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1/8 cup flour

Directions

  1. Combine olive oil, spices, chicken, leeks, and celery in a pan. Sautee for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add flour to magical magnificent puddle of water from leeks, etc. Combine well.
  3. Add half and half. Whisk like the devil.
  4. Add chicken stock and continue whisking vigorously until all lumps of flour are gone.
  5. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

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