Tag Archive: onion


I have mentioned before that one of the most supreme delights of cooking alone is the absence of mystery. I know what I like. I know the amount that I like things in. My only dietary restrictions are the obligatory exclusion of olives (of all sorts) and mayonnaise (except for dill mayonnaise, which is perfectly acceptable). When I go into a kitchen to cook for myself, the only question I have to ask myself is what I’m in the mood for. Sometimes, I have a stare down with everything in my cabinets. At others, ideas simply bubble to the surface of my consciousness like perfectly cooked ravioli. Admittedly, cooking is probably my greatest form of self-love, and for someone who spends so much time thesising, reading, writing, and working at the Writing Center that they have become known to their undergraduate friends/coworkers as “the vampire” (all in good fun, I have been assured, though the label is in part due to the darkness of my apartment and mostly due to my resulting pale complexion), a hot meal is the knife that cuts through the cold, buttery stress of my crazy day. It is how I survived graduate school.

Exam week is always interesting to witness, especially from my standpoint. My father once told me to run the race of life like it’s a marathon, but even during the first few weeks of the semester, I typically find myself sprinting through hundreds of pages of reading daily, scrawling short papers at an alarming rate.

Much like the rainy, cold weather of this southern Michigan June, the conditions of my final semester were not favorable to sprinting. For once, I had to run the marathon. My weekly writing and reading assignments were completed a mere day or so before they were due. Add in finishing my thesis, and you are guaranteed a recipe for at least some chaos, sort of like slicing one too many onion in a saucepan that is already three sizes too small. Toss it wrong, and on top of still having to cook dinner, you have to clean up your own mess.

As with most things I have finished in my life, I don’t really think about how I do them. I’m not really sure how I wound up with a job in Japan. Was it luck? Hard work? A combination? Some cosmic force guiding me like a lost lamb or dragging me along on strings, a limp puppet? It is the same with graduate school. Trials are often the hardest when you are neck-deep in them, just ready to sink below the surface. Then, there is the obligatory breaking point. After days of being sliced at by everyday rigors, the right knife–still sharp enough to cut but dull enough to lack the poise of its sharper cousins–cuts you deep. For me, this was April. The conclusion of the thesis. I had to get it right the first time. Time–it was running out. My hideous lime green wall clock was ticking, ticking, each passing second a derisive laugh, a reminder that my best was not enough.

The e-mail came back, and beneath the constructive criticism, I forced a message into it. I was a failure.

It was over. There was nothing left to do but weep. Weep openly at my keyboard. This was it… my one chance, and I blew it. Surely, this would send my life spinning off into a catastrophic black hole from which I would never emerge. But this is the real test of dedication. In a moment when everything was eroding around me, I dried my eyes after letting myself have five minutes, engaged in a phone conversation with Melissa to take my mind off things, dusted myself off, heaved myself up at the keyboard, and kept going.

This thesis was not going to beat me.

It was fitting that I should experience this three weeks prior to my thesis defense, three weeks before most of my coworkers and peers were going through the same slump of not sleeping, skipping meals, drinking gallons of coffee, and neglecting themselves entirely for the sake of their studies. Sadistic as it is, I almost see more self-love in this than I do in cooking. The enduring dedication, even in moments of doubt and despair, and even at the cost of almost everything, opens doors that we sometimes can’t see when standing smack dab in the middle of a dark and empty labyrinth of everyday rigors. The subject of my thesis was Victorian literature, but what I learned in the process was so much more than that–and certainly a subject to explore in another blog entry. Empathy was my constant companion during exam week, when I finally caved to  my complete and utter lack of motivation and exchanged my pen and pages for a pot and a wooden spoon. Instead of reserving these tools solely for myself, I share them–and their delicious results–with those still immersed in the rapid boil of finality, a prelude to some well-earned decompression.

When I dug out the eight-quart stainless steel soup pot after fourteen weeks of neglect, I knew immediately that I couldn’t approach it the same way as I did when I cooked for myself. This soup was not for me; it was for my creative nonfiction class, the class that made me a blogger, which meant I had to deal with not just my own idiosyncratic palette but those of nine fellow students and one instructor.

And then, there were the dietary restrictions.

Some people choose not to eat different things for ethical reasons. Others cannot eat them because of medical conditions. They respect my dietary decisions and/or my lack of food allergies, one that I return, and one that I show by taking things like this into consideration when I find myself staring at my own distorted reflection in the bottom of my soup pot. Of course, it is a challenge. How can I possibly accommodate for a vegetarian and for someone who is gluten intolerant?

Italy provides the answer.

In my early days of exploring soup, I fell for Minestrone. As my tastes continued to develop, we grew apart. The challenge of feeding a class gave me a reason to get back in touch with my old favorite.

What happened afterwards was nothing short of a feeding frenzy of graduate students.

Some may consider it fortunate that I only got two bowls. I consider it a mission accomplished, an opportunity to give back to those who have given me such amazing criticism, those who have contributed to my development as a writer. It’s impossible to forget the taste of something so savory.

Vegan Gluten-Free Minestrone
(Based on this recipe)*

Finished Product

(For anyone wondering, I was in a super-mega hurry to take this picture… ^_^)

Ingredients

  • 4 cups gluten-free reduced sodium vegetable stock
  • 1 can reduced sodium tomato sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
  • 2 small onions (or 1 medium one)
  • 2 tbsp garlic
  • 2 zucchini, diced
  • 1 yellow squash, diced
  • 1 can northern great northern beans, rinsed
  • 1 cup kale, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
  • 2 springs fresh rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 8 oz brown rice pasta

Directions

  1. In 8-quart pot, sauté garlic and onion in olive oil for about 5 minutes.
  2. Add stock, tomatoes, and spices to pot. Simmer for about 20 minutes.
  3. In a separate pan, cook 8 oz pasta in slightly salted water according to package directions.
  4. Add veggies and pasta to soup. Simmer for another 10 minutes.
  5. Add tomato sauce and water if needed to create more cooking liquid.

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*Note: If any of my readers know about cooking gluten-free, then they will probably tell me that I screwed up big time, the reason being that both wood (like the spatula I used to stir) and plastic (like the cutting board I chopped the veggies on) are both porous enough to absorb gluten and retain it even after being washed. FORTUNATELY, the person I mentioned earlier does not have severe reactions to small amounts of gluten. Otherwise, I would have felt guilty enough to pay the hospital bill.

When cooking for people with celiac disease, they are the best sources of information. The internet and prior experience tie for second. Asking around an organic grocery store to get some ideas could also help if you’re in a pinch. ^_^

http://madamegluten-freevegetarian.blogspot.com/2011/03/gluten-free-minestrone-gluten-dairy.html

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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Sometimes, a soup receives a name, and sometimes, a soup names itself.

There comes a time in every sole chef’s life that they realize they have purchased a little too much at the grocery store. It is admittedly difficult for someone to buy food just for one person, particularly when his or her appetite fluctuates so greatly. One week, I will be chowing down on everything in sight. The very next, I will be averse to the mere thought of victuals. Since my departure date is pending and will be no more than five months away, I have to be extra careful about what I buy and in what quantity because I doubt I can transport a freezer full of food home even with my parents’ help. Even more pressing still is the absolute fact that my tastes vary greatly from my dad’s. My love affair with lentils and soup and chicken are all inexplicable to him; on most days, he would rather have beef or pork, both of which seldom occupy any space in my fridge or in my stomach, even when I decide not to cook. And don’t even get me started on curry. I could probably eat curry every day, but I refrain for the sake of variety. Good thing I have friends who appreciate it as much as I do, willing participants in my culinary experiments.

Unfortunately, the number of friends I have who appreciate vegetables is significantly lower, and I am thankful for those that do. It gives me a reason to use an extra onion in the stir fry or an extra few stalks of celery in the soup, because celery is horribly volatile and goes bad quickly despite its necessity.

Bottom line: I opened the fridge when I got back from my visit home to find the red bell pepper I had bought a couple weeks before and thought, “I need to use this.” The same went for the celery I had just purchased, volatile but absolutely necessary for my cooking endeavors, and the carrots, which I had just bought more of due to a cognitive slip at the grocery store and my failure to generate a list beforehand. I followed the trail to half a pint of half and half, an open box of chicken stock, and finally to the freezer, where there lurked all manners of frozen vegetables that were just begging to be used. The trouble was getting this mish-mash of ingredients to cooperate with one another in a dish. I was daunted by the impossibility of making these ingredients work with one another. How would I turn this discord of ingredients into something palatable enough to be exposed to the public eye and tongue?

The solution rested in an old British ballad and a quartet of spices.

Several days after my culinary adventure, I was having a conversation with my most loyal reader, who never fails to comment on my posts… never mind the fact that I may or may not have bribed her with soup. “What are you doing?”

“Eating leftover soup. This week, it turned out really well.”

“Really? What kind of soup is it this time?”

“Chicken and Rubbish soup,” I answered. “Though I’m a little hesitant about the name.”

“Why?”

“Well, I called it that because I basically used everything in my fridge that I would have thrown away otherwise. Still, the word ‘rubbish’ might throw people off. It has a bit of a negative connotation.”

“Well, I like it. I think it’s funny.” She would, too, since we have practically the same sense of humor. We are the ones who needed nine rounds of rock-paper-scissors to determine who got the first slice of pizza because of eight consecutive ties. “It’s a good selling point. It will make people wonder what’s in it.”

“In other words, it’s good advertising?”

“Exactly,” she answered.

When the idea for this soup first came to me, the nascent conception of this dish told me exactly what it would be called. It was not a matter of determining a more euphemistic term but of taking a risk on a word that could either revolt or charm and combining it with something canonical enough to convey the right meaning.

Scarborough Fair Chicken and Rubbish Soup for the Sole

The Eighth Bowl

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken fingers, frozen
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • ¼ cup carrots, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • ½ red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/8 cup flour
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp parsley
  • 2 tsp sage
  • 2 tsp rosemary
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/8 cup frozen corn
  • 1/8 cup frozen green beans
  • 1/8 cup frozen peas

Directions

  1. In a three-quart sauce pan, sauté onions, carrots, celery, and spices in olive oil for about 5 minutes.
  2. Add butter and flour. Make a roux.
  3. Whisk in chicken stock, lemon juice, and half and half.
  4. Add frozen chicken fingers. Cook for about 30 minutes until chicken is done.
  5. Remove chicken and shred. Return to pan.
  6. Add bell pepper and frozen veggies. Cook for an additional 10 minutes.

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About two months ago, just before beginning my creative nonfiction course, I began to notice something strange with my vision. I was seeing the world a little differently than normal, and not just because I had been living alone for over a year. It had nothing to do with the fact that I had successfully completed an interview for a job in Japan or the fact that I was looking at the world differently to meet my daily quota of haiku.

I was coming back from a visit home over Christmas when I noticed the road signs doing some odd things. The white lettering on the green background started shifting in ways that I instinctively knew was not normal. Looking back on things, I had probably been experiencing similar things since August of 2011, but I had simply been to busy to sit down and take notice. Things in the distance started shifting in the same unnatural way wherever I was, whether I was looking the gridded window panes or the Max and Emily’s menu. Letters seemed to occupy an infinite number of places at the same time, all centered around a concentric line of points that surrounded the center point where they rested. My eyes weren’t watering because of onions, but the same fuzzy effect of tears lingered, at least for a few seconds, whenever I shifted my eyes from the computer screen to the distance or from the page to the horizon.

Something must be wrong. That was my first thought. And what better time to figure that out than a trip home for Spring Break, where the vision insurance actually covers most of the exam?

By some miracle, I called the place both of my parents went when they started having vision problems and managed to get an appointment the next day. I pulled into the office and approached the front desk. “Are you here for an appointment?” the receptionist asked.

“Yes, ma’am, at 12:40.”

“Alright. Our computers are actually down right now. What’s your name?”

I told her.

“Alright. We’ve got some paperwork for you to fill out.”

So began the gauntlet. I filled it out hastily. “We’ve got two ways to check the backs of your eye,” she explained. “We can either use the drops or a scan. Now, these scans aren’t covered by your insurance, but they start at $39…”

“I think I’ll stick with the eye drops.” Having just returned from a trip to Chicago, I wanted this trip to have as small of a financial impact as possible.

Michelle, the optometrist’s aid, had the same color of hair as the receptionist did: blonde. It jumped unnaturally as she got further away. She ran me through a gauntlet of exams that left my eyes feeling achy and irritated, particularly the drops. She had threatened me with pain beforehand, jokingly, and I had thought she was serious. “Oh, no… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you… there isn’t any pain.” She then proceeded to drip what I still firmly believe was onion juice into my eye. “Oh, I forgot to warn you… the drops sting a little when they go in. The doctor will be with you shortly.”

The overly happy optometrist appeared before I can return to Bleak House. He shook my hand in his vice-like grip and introduced himself.

“Alright. We’re going to run one more test.” He started flipping through lenses, asking me which one looks clearer. In the space of two minutes, about 20 lenses, and my best guesses at clarity, he has identified the issue.

“Well, the good news is you’re 20/20 in both eyes still. Your cones and rods look excellent; I expect your eyes will be healthy forever. What you have is a spasm of accommodation.” He drew me a little diagram to explain the issue, and I watched him draw what I thought looked like a cored bell pepper. “You have this lens in the back of your eye that automatically adjusts when going from distance to close-up. It’s supposed to go 250 both ways. Yours is only going 175 out and 100 back in. That’s what’s causing the words to look a little jumpy. Now, the causes of this are stress, anxiety, and fatigue. I’ll bet you have all of those as a grad student.”

“Yeah, and then some.” We shared a laugh.

“Now, all you need to do are these eye exercises. Hold this pencil with words on it close to your eye, just before the text starts to blur, then focus on the text on the wall. Do ten reps for each eye twice a day. Oh, and reading glasses would also help. You need +0.75s.”

“Awesome. I think I’ll just do the exercises for now.” Talk about duplicity. I asked the receptionist for some insurance information, and the figures drive me so close to weeping that I resolve to hunt them down elsewhere. Unfortunately, I met with a rather annoying spasm of accommodation: my grade of reading glasses is too small for any store to carry. Thankfully, by the power of the internet, I have managed to exercise some buying power that will hopefully help correct this spasm at a much lower cost.

Looking back on my life, I realize I have met with many spasms of accommodation, not all of them effecting my eyes. The biggest one so far was moving out on my own. The adjustment took three weeks, during which I experienced a variety of panic attacks and related illness. Soup did nothing to cure my tremors. I simply needed to tough it out. Things got better once I learned how to fill the empty hours with labor of all kinds.

But now, I’m on the cusp of a new spasm of accommodation called culture shock. In five months, I will engage in a 17-hour flight to Japan, where I will begin a job as an English teacher. Right now, I can only question how long it will last, and though I look forward to it, I anticipate the adjustment period to be a little longer, the challenges to be infinitely more daunting, and the jet lag to kill me softly.Worse still, I will have to adjust to an e-reader after a lifetime of paper books… and how will I manage to enjoy anything with the smell and texture of paper, the ever-alluring perfume that drew me down this path to begin with?

Seventeen hours is a long time to fly, but this is what I wanted, and what I still want, more than anything: an opportunity to prove that I can be happy with a Master’s degree in English. It will just take some effort, much like white chicken chili. The first time I made it, I was bitterly disappointed. It was too beery. Not creamy enough. When I re-heated the frozen part, it was so revolting that I promptly ushered it to the trash can. I had eaten good white chicken chili on one occasion, in a soup cook-off at my alma mater. My attempt to match it failed. Someday, though, when I had more experience, I vowed to return to the recipe that had so shamed my cooking skills.

The Chicago trip threw my soup rhythm a bit; the pot of my life bubbled unevenly beneath an onslaught of social opportunities, and the homework remained neglected like the black crust on the bottom of a scorched pan. “I need to borrow the kitchen,” I informed my parents on Tuesday at a local Middle Eastern restaurant.

“Why?”

“To cook soup,” I answered. “Besides, I need to cook you a ‘thanks for the support’ meal.”

“Alright,” my mom answered. “That’s fine with me.”

“What do you guys want?”

“How about some chicken chili?” my dad asked.

Maybe it was just another spasm of accommodation in my life, but suddenly, I was presented with a high-stakes opportunity to trump the soup that once trumped me. Move over, Iron Chef, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Chopped. This is reality, not reality TV; this was my opportunity to impress the man who educated my palette for twenty-three years with my own cooking skills, to show him how much I had grown under his tutelage. Using the barricade of “It’s homework, so stay out of my kitchen,” I managed to throw down a meal without much interference.

“That looks like a mighty small pot of soup. What are you guys going to eat?” my dad asked, giving a hearty laugh. “Oh, you haven’t added the beans yet. Still not sure what you’re going to eat, though.”

“I’m making biscuits and salad to go along with it, so it’ll be more than enough. Just trust me.”

The results are in. I got rave reviews the whole table ’round.

But I respect my readers’ independent streaks. Partly because of some minor resistance to the Japan plan on the parental front, I like to let people make their own decisions.

White Bean Chicken Chili for the Sole
Makes 4 servings… and feeds a family of three with one leftover bowl for dad’s lunch
(Inspired by this recipe, but with 50% more chicken)

The Seventh Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1.5 lbs chicken breasts
  • 2 fresh jalapeños
  • 1 poblano pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 cans cannelloni beans
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • 2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp Mexican oregano
  • ½ tsp onion powder
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 14.5 oz chicken broth
  • ½ cup half and half
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup Monterrey jack cheese

Directions

  1. Dice chicken. Saute with onions, cumin, chili powder, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder, and black pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, or until chicken is cooked.
  2. Dice jalapeños and poblano. Cook for an additional 2 minutes.
  3. Mince garlic. Add and cook for 3 minutes.
  4. Add chicken stock and half and half. Simmer for 35-45 minutes.
  5. Drain and rinse beans. Add to pan, cook for about 10 minutes.
  6. Add sour cream and mix well.
  7. Add cheese and also mix well. Simmer for a final 10 minutes.
  8. Top with black pepper and cheddar cheese before serving. Goes great with a garden salad and some garlic cheddar biscuits (which are like these chipotle cheddar garlic biscuits, except with sharp cheddar instead. I’ve got a couple of pictures in the slideshow… ^_^).

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Today, I spent two and a half hours shopping for a pair of shoes.

Very soon, I will be going back to Chicago for a second interview that could send me packing my bags and engaging on my first ever international travel, not as a vacationer but as an employee. I took a lot of things away from the first interview in November, the one where I applied too early and was thus simply invited back to an interview without having to reapply. Be as direct as possible. Stand so you possess more authority. Japanese students will generally not question the teacher because they respect you too much to. Speak slowly. Don’t wear a black blazer because every other company in Japan does. Oh, and backless shoes are not part of the dress code.

Damn it.

Since this interview is in two weeks and Monday is the new Sunday, I went on a hunt. Five stores and one-hundred fifty minutes later, I satisfy myself with a pair of heels that have textured bottoms and that are just comfortable enough to get the job done without making me want to tear them off.

I am certain that I was “that” customer today.

For those of you who have never worked in customer service, there are customers who simply have an aura of discontent about them. They think everything is too expensive and that nothing is ever good enough. At Pizza Hut, “that” customer was the guy who, five minutes after placing a counter order on a busy Saturday night when we were understaffed, came back for his food, and when told it would be out in another four to five minutes, said, “Lady, I just want my food.”

“That’s fan-frelling-tastic, asshole. Sit the hell down and I’ll pull it out for you, but you’d better not bitch that it’s undercooked.”

As much as I’d like to say I said this to his face and then stormed back into the kitchen, I shamefully admit that it didn’t, but it would have made for a great story, wouldn’t it have? Instead, I said, in my sweetest voice possible, “I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve got some new people working the kitchen and we’re really busy tonight. It will just be another few minutes.” He shook his head in dismay and disappeared back into his black pick-up. The other customers waiting at the counter stared at me in amazement, and one or two jaws dropped a little. Here I am, a 20-year-old wearing a work shirt with holes down to practically my waist in the arm pits, a hat that looks like it had an unfortunate encounter with a steamroller, and not one ounce of make-up. By that point in my career, used to juggling “that” customer, who thinks everything in the universe should revolve around him, with the more patient and understanding patrons. I’m glad I could demonstrate the fact that despite my minimum-wage, thankless job, I was more than competent enough to put up with “that” customer while maintaining professionalism.

A middle-aged woman approached the counter to pay for her carry-out order. “I’m sorry he was so rude to you.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it,” I reply. “I deal with people like him a lot in this line of work.”

My journey for the perfect shoes began at Kohl’s. After seeing a rather obnoxious commercial and being cheated out of a pair of sketchers by some rain check error and a lack of communication, I swore I would never go back, but a shoe sale enticed me.

Fact: Shoe sales are terrible ideas. They only occur when the most frequently worn sizes are gone, and for some reason, everyone deems it necessary to bring their screaming kids, which mingle well with neither PMS nor hunger.

Fact: You will inevitably find a pair of shoes you like, only to learn that a) the only pair left is the display pair, which are ALWAYS size 6 to 7.5, b) there is one pair of boots on clearance that, if your foot were only one quarter of an inch thinner, those boots would come home with you, or c) learn that they only come in brown.

There was only one thing to do: pick up and move on to Shoe Sensation, the equivalent of the second circle of Hell. At least here, I found shoes that fit, but they were shoes I could never have… at $70 a pair on clearance. The gentleman who helped me had a lisp like lavender and enough patience to make me regret not buying anything.

Cue stop number 3: JcPenney. I have had good luck with them before, but I neglected to remember that the one in Mount Pleasant, for some unfathomable reason, does not carry wide shoe sizes. Apparently, natives of this town all have skinny feet. But seriously… shoes aren’t like cabbage. They don’t have an expiration date. At the very least, they could carry a couple of pairs in wide for foreigners like me.

On a whim, I stopped into K-Mart. They have nice sandals, so I figured it was worth a shot, but the only pair that fit me was this hideous navy pair that woudln’t really compliment anything I plan on wearing.

By some miracle, I found a sufficient pair at Payless. It is the second time they have saved my ass for an interview of this nature.

Buying shoes is such a damnable task. After spending the day as “that” customer, I sit down to a bowl of the chicken and dumpling soup I cooked yesterday, realizing as I devour the bowl that this soup will always succeed where shoes will fail: it will always be a comfort, and it will always help me stand through any challenge, whether that is a to-do list near completion or an interview that threatens to change my life forever.

Chicken and Dumpling Soup for the Sole

(Based roughly on this stew recipe.)

The Sixth Bowl

Ingredients (S0up)

  • 3 Chicken Tenders, Frozen
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ¼ teaspoon dried basil
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
  • ½ cup baby carrots, cut into round discs.
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, diced

Ingredients (Dumplings)

  • ¾ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 ½ tablespoons butter
  • ¼ cup milk
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons dried parsley

Directions

  1. In a 3-quart sauce pan, combine broth, bay leaves, basil, and thyme.
  2. Add frozen chicken tenders and cook for about 20 minutes.
  3. While chicken is cooking, combine flour, salt, pepper, parsley and baking powder in a mixing bowl. Cut butter through flour with a fork until small lumps form.
  4. Add milk and mix until dough is combined. Set aside.
  5. When chicken is finished cooking, remove from pan. Shred chicken. Add vegetables and chicken back to pan. Cook until veggies are approaching tender (about 15 minutes).
  6. Form ½ inch balls with your hands and a fork/spoon and drop dumplings into broth. Cook uncovered for about 5-10 additional minutes.
  7. Optional: If soup has not thickened to desired consistency, add 1 tablespoon corn starch to cold water. Stir in and cook for an additional two minutes.

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I spent a great deal of my undergraduate days at the food court, a tiny corner in the middle of the main building (actually composed of four halls linked together). They served a variety of overpriced food items that I could make for probably a quarter of the price at home, but convenience and an empty stomach devoured every frugal thought. I needed sustenance. It was for my mind’s sake, and regardless of what dollar amount universalizes append to such things, what surcharges and registration fees and peaceful hours you must relinquish to higher education, you can’t put a price on a well-cultivated mind.

I ordered snacks from this food court on most days: pudding cups with Oreo crumbs and what I think was supposed to be whipped cream, pita triangles with a single tablespoon of hummus. On occasion, I would have a Chicken Sonoma salad, a delectable salad with fresh grapes, strawberries, and almonds, and I would devour these in my fish tank, a tutoring room lined with windows on two sides. But it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me well enough that the main attraction of this food nook hastily became their soup selection.

I fondly remember their chicken noodle. It was, for a while, the closest thing to homemade I got. They used the frozen Reames noodles, which were the thickness of a children’s book and which were always overdone by the time I got to eating them. I remember their tortilla, which to this day I am certain was made with a jar of cheese sauce. If I think hard enough, I can even remember the taste of the turkey and rice, whose gummy grains sustained me through yet another shift at my location of employment, or else a lecture on American literature, which was comparatively worse for a self-proclaimed Victorianist like me.

Although I say all of these seemingly negative things about the soup provided at Cafe de la Alma Mater, I still stand by the fact that for soup that had to be kept at a hot temperature for three to seven hours, it was edible, and it tasted a hell of a lot better than the sandwiches, who were syllabus left to marinate in their own moisture until they were the consistency of a soggy diaper.

Aside from feeding my growing soup addiction, this particular food nook introduced me to someone I now consider a good friend: chowder. I remember our first meeting. It was a cold March day, and there was more snow on the ground than I care to discuss (in my opinion, even a dusting is too much), and as I marched into the building, half-frozen by winter’s insistent grip donning my trusty winter coat and gloves, I started sliding past this culinary corner to nutrition class.

Pause. I am now no longer rushing to nutrition class because I am faced with what sounds like an excellent idea.

My predecessors all select their suppers, mostly composed of pizza that would bring any Italian to tears. “Hello, what can I get for you?” asks the gentleman at the register.

This man is not skinny.

In terms of body language, this means I can trust him.

“I’ll take a bowl of your chicken and corn chowder, please.”

“That will be $2.50.”

The soup comes in six-ounce Styrofoam container with a translucent plastic lid and a pair of saltine cracker packets. I retrieve a plastic spoon and take my bounty upstairs.

The first bite is so euphoric that I would offer winter a bite if I didn’t want every last drop of it for myself. I feel myself getting a little feral, which I tend to do when I feel my food is in danger, and consume the rest with relish. For a moment, I’m not a student approaching a Bachelor’s degree in English; I am the king of the world, and this bowl was made by my private chef. An average dish was made great by novelty and by excellent timing. Perhaps the same can be said of all things average.

I never could have guessed three years later that I would be turning that dish into a soup for the sole with a twist courtesy of parental oversight.

Last weekend, my phone rang at 10:30. My parents had been on the road for a half an hour. My first fear was that something had gone wrong on the drive home, mainly stemming from my own car troubles. Since practically everything else had gone wrong since their first attempt in mid-January, I wouldn’t be surprised if poor luck followed them homeward. They came up to visit me on Saturday for the first time in six months, courtesy of chaos on my part and on my dad’s. One of the main attractions on this trip, a new Greek restaurant, perished before the weather cooperated well enough for them to make it. I checked the building out two weeks ago to find the windows dark, the tables staring mockingly at me from the windows. “See if you ever sit on us again,” they said, then laughed with their legs as I paced away. Instead, I took them to The Market on Main, a new artisan grocery store with all manners of unusual, delicious cheese, meat, microbrews, and the like, all at a price that no grad student in their right mind could afford. My dad made three purchases: a bottle of ginger beer, a wedge of blueberry shifton, and a slightly smaller wedge of chipole cheddar.

Instead of bad news, my dad simply said, “We forgot the cheese.” This isn’t an unusual occurence; in fact, I would call it relatively commonplace, but like my encounter with chowder, this average was of a higher order. The sweet dairy bounty of neglectful neurons was all mine for the taking.

These two average events, by their powers combined, yield this week’s soup for the sole, a tongue twister of a chowder that is much easier to eat than it is to name. I speak from experience: this soup is anything but average.

The Fourth Bowl

Chipotle Chicken Chowder

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken tenderloins, frozen
  • 8 oz chicken stock
  • 2 chicken boullion
  • 1 pint half and half
  • ½ onion
  • 1 giant potato
  • 1 cup chipotle cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • Black pepper
  • Cayenne pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Dice onion and sauté in butter.
  2. While onion is cooking, defrost chicken tenders. Dice potatoes. When chicken is done defrosting, dice chicken.
  3. When onions begin to caramelize, add flour and mix.
  4. Whisk in chicken stock. Add chicken and potatoes.
  5. Add half and half and chicken bouillon. Mix well. Simmer for 45 minutes, or until potatoes are nearing doneness.
  6. Whisk in cheddar in small batches.
  7. Add corn, black pepper, and cayenne pepper.
  8. Serve with chipotle cheddar and garlic biscuits [here is the link, as promised].

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Endnote: Chipotle cheddar is admittedly hard to find, not to mention it isn’t very cost effective. The average treated me kindly this time, but it may not do the same for you. This recipe would actually be good with regular old fashioned sharp cheddar (I have made a non-sole version of this recipe that utilized sharp cheddar). To get the chipotle flavor, a couple of canned or dried chipotles should do the trick. To preserve tonsils and lining of the stomach, make sure your chipotles are seeded. Consider it friendly advice… I know this from experience.

This week, I took an unplanned trip to nostalgia… and Midas.

When I was six or seven years old, my dad began preparing his own Chinese food. Takeout could not compare in the least. I remember sitting at the table with my mom and talking, about what I don’t know, but the air was full of steam and ginger.

There wasn’t a single unappealing dish on the table. The ribs were marinated to perfection. The pork loin was moist, and its accompanying dipping sauces were the closest to heaven a six-year-old could get. The fried rice… well, it could admittedly use a little work, but it was still delectable.

And then, there was the soup.

For me, it was the crowning achievement of the dinner table, a bowl of what my father refers to as “Long Soup.” There is nothing remarkable about this soup. It’s got strips of pork and some kind of noodle. There are water chestnuts and cabbage and scallions. All of this is immersed in chicken broth flavored by ginger and splashed with a bit of soy sauce and toasted sesame oil just before serving.

It tasted exotic.

I’m sure it has been over a decade since I have had a bowl of that particular soup, one that takes me back to childhood. Over time, the table became too crowded with other delectable Chinese dishes to harbor even one iota of space for something so negligible as soup. The ribs in black bean sauce, the stir-fried noodles, the beef and broccoli… the usual rotation kept reappearing, but the soup seemed forever absent, almost as if the soup itself had turned to steam and fogged the windows.

My father once confided to me that it was in part a time constraint. “There’s so much food already,” he would say when I voiced my disappointment. “And besides, I spent so much time wrapping egg rolls that I just ran out of time.”

He made plans repeatedly, only roughly hewn but balanced in their own right, beautiful and ornate. Life simply shrugged before casting that orderly dish onto the floor. Did he cut his hands when he tried to pick up the fragments? Did the rough edges of ceramic bite into him on some level I can’t see? If I had to wager a guess, I would say no. He is more Taoist than he knows, letting the flow of life simply sweep him along without resistance, whereas I am constantly swimming against its current and half drowning on my own shattered plans.

I had a plan. I swear I did. As of two days ago, my Monday was reserved for nothing but homework. That was before the rear brakes on my car needed attention, before I had to spend nearly five hours sitting at Midas waiting for the repairs. As of two years ago, I was going straight to a PhD, but that was before I realized I was not seasoned enough. My life wants a little spice, maybe not to a Kung Pao Chicken level, but certainly a hint of ginger wouldn’t hurt. Last night, I was supposed to get eight hours of sleep, but I only got six. And this afternoon, I was supposed to write a semi-decent blog post, but for some reason, the day has overbeat me to a stiff sort of grogginess that makes the edges of every object seem less than real. I’m about ready to collapse like a roughly-handled soufflé, but here I am tenderizing my keyboard once again.

Yesterday, I was supposed to make soup, and I did… but it wasn’t supposed to have quite so many noodles. No matter, though, since they are the centerpiece of this particular soup, the slightly warped dish that came out of my careful planning. It is more stuff than broth because that is precisely what I have become.

My only consolation is that a bowl of nostalgia is waiting for me, waiting to ease away all of these rigors and, in the process, dissolve what remains of my plans to resist the current.

The Third Bowl

Chinese-Inspired Chicken Noodle Soup for the Sole

Ingredients

  • 3 frozen chicken tenderloins
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 tsp fresh ginger
  • 1 tsp fresh garlic, minced
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 can water chestnuts (8 oz)
  • 7 0z rice noodles
  • 2 heads baby bok choy
  • ½ bunch green onions, chopped

Directions

  1. Defrost chicken tenderloins for three minutes in the microwave. Cut into small strips. Dust with salt and pepper.
  2. In a 3-quart sauce pan, heat canola oil and fry chicken strips until they are golden brown.
  3. Add garlic and ginger. Sauté for additional minute.
  4. Pour chicken stock and soy sauce into pan. Add water chestnuts. Simmer for 30 minuets.
  5. Cook noodles according to package directions. Rinse under cold water.
  6. Chop bok choy and green onions. Add bok choy and noodles to pot. Simmer for 5 minutes.
  7. Add green onions. Simmer additional two minutes.
  8. Just before serving, add sesame oil and stir.

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I went to Panera Bread for the first time as a freshman in high school with a friend of mine and her mother in the days before I understood that restaurants would customize your order. When I first saw the menu, I had no idea what to buy. I hated mayonnaise with a passion (and still do with few exceptions), and practically every sandwich on the menu utilized one form or another as a condiment. Worse still, practically everything had tomatoes, a food that, in its raw form, is only just now becoming tolerable to me at the age of 24. I gave the menu one of my blankest looks, much like the one I would give my calculus text book three years later. I had been ordering for myself at restaurants for probably six or seven years at that point and cutting my own meat for a year longer, but thus far, I never had to make such a life-altering decision in my brief and sheltered existence.

“The broccoli cheddar soup here is really good,” my friend insisted.

I confess I was dubious. “The problem is I don’t really eat a lot of raw cheese, so I’m not really sure if I’d like a soup with a cheese base.” I associated any sort of “cream” soup with the milk and roux mixture we served at home. Chunks of potatoes or broccoli floated around in milk broth, but I canned up my complaints about the flavor to avoid offending the chef, whether that was my mom or my dad. Uttering one word of disdain was like cranking a pan full of spaghetti sauce on high and simply walking away from it: if I spawned more heat and threw off the equilibrium, the white stove top of a calm evening would look less like an appliance and more like a massacre. Of course, I only mean words, but as the only child, I tried to keep parental perturbation down to a minimum.

I wasn’t seeing any other solutions to the problem, and the menu wasn’t responding to my glances. “Get it in a bread bowl,” she suggested. “At least try it.”

Fortunately, this was before Panera became less restaurant and more madhouse. There were only a handful of customers already dining, and we were the only ones in line. It was about 11:30. Nowadays, there aren’t even any tables left at 11:30, and the line of diners stretches helter-skelter towards the door. I placed my order and got a glass of water to accompany my lunch.

If I had to choose one word to describe my first encounter with that soup, it would have to be euphoric. I became more attached to it, ordering the dish every time we visited the restaurant (until I discovered the Sierra Turkey sandwich; then, I began alternating between the two).

A few years ago, this friend added a little too much heat to my stable existence, and I simply rammed her into the back of my subconscious, relegating her to the bottom shelf and cutting all ties. The problem was that as we grew older, I aged like a barrel of wine: I was cumbersome and still had a very limited perception of the world, but my flavor was developing, changing, growing, and (hopefully) improving. I began to see the world through glass that was not rose-colored. I labored at a Pizza Hut, tolerating my menial minimum-wage job, disdaining my slacking coworkers, and at times wanting to toss a full vat of sauce on the customers. People were not all nice, and life was not easy. Conversely, she aged more like a Twinkie. As another only child, she lives in a smaller container than I do, a plastic wrapper where she sees the world not quite as it is but how she wants to. She was preserved by an abundance, and maybe an overabundance, of affection. I saw ugly sides of her that I will never share with anyone else, and those sides reminded me that unlike her, I had to earn my gas and spending money. She got sizable handouts of money from her parents regularly, but for me, every dime was a drop of sweat, every quarter a rock of the knife on the board, every dollar a spot of hot oil singeing my flesh and leaving small, white, dalmatian-spot scars.  She still appears in my dreams sometimes, usually as an antagonist, and when I wake up on mornings like that, I find myself wondering if she ever changed.

Although my relationship with this particular friend came to an abrupt end and I no longer frequent Panera, my bond to broccoli-cheddar soup grew infinitely stronger when I found this recipe and began making my own. I actually prefer my own broccoli-cheddar soup to Panera’s because the broccoli is chunkier and never overcooked.

Mount Pleasant is rumored to be getting a Panera Bread in the next six months. I jokingly tell people that the reason they don’t have one already is because I can make their broccoli-cheddar soup better than they can. It seems odd to me that Panera is just now coming here when I’m getting so close to leaving, so maybe there is some truth in this.

But it’s probably just a coincidence.

Chicken and Broccoli Cheddar Soup for the Sole

Ingredients

  • ¼ onion, diced
  • 4 baby carrots, diced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 2 chicken tenderloins, frozen
  • 4 oz fresh broccoli, chopped
  • 2 tsp butter, separated into 1 tsp portions
  • 1 ½ tsp flour
  • 1 pint half and half
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • ½ tsp nutmeg

Directions

  1. In a three-quart sauce pan, melt 1 tsp butter. Add onions and cook until onions are caramelized.
  2. While onions are caramelizing, defrost chicken tenderloins in microwave for 3-4 minutes.
  3. Melt the remaining teaspoon of butter and mix with flour. Cook for 1-2 minutes until flour/butter mixture is pasty and golden.
  4. Add chicken stock to the pan and whisk until roux is fully dissolved. Add half and half. Lower heat to a simmer. Dice chicken and add to pan. Simmer for 5-10 minutes.
  5. Add carrots and celery. Simmer for an additional 15 minutes.
  6. Add broccoli. Simmer for another 15 minutes.
  7. Add sharp cheddar in ¼ or ⅓ cup batches. Whisk each batch until it is fully melted and combined with the cooking liquid.
  8. Add nutmeg and black pepper. Serve with crusty bread.

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