Tag Archive: pepper


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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Mother nature is a bitch, and I’m not just saying that because my ovaries feel like they’re going to pop out of my gut like an alien. I’m saying that because I finally found that heating pad, and I can’t decide whether my back or my stomach hurts more. I’m saying that because, despite nine hours of sleep and an iron pill, I still feel like I’ve been run over by an entire garage of semi-trucks.  I may also have been influenced by Michigan’s schizophrenic climate, which heard all of the people complaining about how hot it was and decided to throw in (hopefully) one more dose of winter before finally letting Spring take the stage.

I don’t have to look hard for the signs of a budding spring. I can already see them. The tiny appendages that will soon grow into leaves dot the end of each branch, and the cherry blossoms on our tiny trees have already bloomed. In places, they echo the snow that for some reason has left us alone this year. It is 7:30 and full daylight. The day looks inviting… until you open the door and say, “Sweet Jesus! It is only 30 degrees!” It’s enough to send me climbing back under the covers… but I don’t, because there is too much work to be done and too much to think about to waste time sleeping.

Friday alone blew my mind in terms of news. Expecting a phone call about my impending move to Japan, I answered my obscenely old cell at work only to hear a strange voice. “Amanda?”

“What?”

“Amanda?”

“…I’m sorry. Who is this?”

It turned out to be a friend of mine I haven’t heard from in two months.

“I’ve got some news for you.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” She paused. “Guess who’s going to be a Godmother?”

I’ve spent my whole life hating children… namely children that can’t behave, so I guess I’ve really spent my life hating parents that can’t take time out of their busy Farmville schedules to raise their kids. Determined not to have children of my own, I can’t help but look forward to the prospect of being able to sugar what (or is it who at this point?) I now call “the little bean” up and send him/her home to his/her parents. “That’s fine,” the expectant mother told me. “But no noise toys.”

“Exactly. Sugar wears off, but that noise maker will be there for months until daddy ‘accidentally’ steps on it.”

On the exact opposite end of the “awesome” spectrum, my friend lost her cat this past week. Although the cat was ailing, she was not given the opportunity to give her feline companion a fond farewell. Instead, her parents stupidly put the cat down without her input and then acted like it was a big secret. Now, as someone who lost a nineteen-year-old cat just after learning that I obtained a graduate assistantship, I can honestly say that that is grounds for never speaking to someone again. Ever. There are three things people should never come between in life: a woman and her food, a woman and her work, and a cat and its person. People are serious about their cats… and about their friends. Case and point: I am angry, and it isn’t even my cat.

When I was originally planning my next soup, I planned to make potato and leek. I am still working through the leeks, which only come in bundles of three, and I know there is a potato in my cabinet, but all of that changed on Monday, the day of cookery.  By then, I am totally burnt out on my thesis, which I have been notified is in severe need of some connective repairs. Mother nature is cracking her whip, and I’m downright miserable no thanks to the joys of being a woman. What I needed was a hug in a bowl, something comfortable and classic. Something that reminded me of overcoming trials.

The first time I had the pleasure of homemade chicken noodle soup, it was not because I was sick and my mother decided to cook it. I was staying with a friend (the same one who is pregnant) and came down with the sinus infection from hell. She went through the motions of boiling the chicken, of making the noodles from scratch, and even if it didn’t cure the problem, it made me feel like I was swaddled in soup. Best of all, through the dull, woody taste of illness, I could detect the flavor of chicken, and that is the most joyous moment a sick person can have. After a bowl, I comfortably got back to studying, sustained by the savory flavor and its warmth.

Cue big news number four. I got a phone call after cooking my soup, and four days after I expected it. The company offered me a position in Nara-shi (奈良市). Suddenly, Japan seemed very real, not just some far-off exotic place but somewhere that I will actually be going.

I think I might need another hug… and another bowl.

——–

Evidently, this has been a week of coincidences, and it’s only Tuesday. Monday, I managed to sneak into my thesis adviser’s office for some suggestions, and not a minute too soon since I’m leaving for a conference on Thursday. Today, life threw another curve ball at me, the sudden cancellation of class as a result of the instructor still experiencing another side-effect of spring: allergies. Although I am grateful for the extra time, I am also conscious of how much it sucks  to be sick and soupless, and isn’t it amusing that I just so happen to have cooked the soup to counter the cure this week?

Even in cooking for myself, it seems like I can’t escape being somehow connected.

Chicken Noodle Soup for the Sole
(Note: Also includes leeks, mainly by necessity. If you don’t have leeks, use onions)

The Tenth Bowl

Ingredients

  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • ½ cup milk
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp parsley
  • 1 tbsp sage
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 4 chicken tenders
  • 1 leek
  • ½ cup carrots
  • ½ cup celery
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup egg noodles

Directions

  1. Sauté carrots, celery, and leeks in olive oil for two minutes. Add salt and pepper. Sauté for an additional 5 minutes.
  2. Add remaining spices. Continue sautéing for about two minutes.
  3. Add chicken stock, milk, lemon juice, and chicken tenders. Simmer for about 30 minutes uncovered.
  4. Shred chicken. Return to pan. Add 1 cup water and egg noodles. Cook until noodles are finished, about 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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“To every thing there is a season.”

-Ecclesiastes 3:1

I have a confession to make. I have lived in Michigan for twenty-one years, and I’m pretty sure I hate winter more than I hate politics. Both have nearly ruined me as a human being.

I can never be right in politics no matter how hard I try. Maybe that’s why I quit trying.

Seven years before coming to grad school, in a time when I was a budding academe, I decided to attend my final astronomy lab despite the white-out conditions we were expected to get. I watched the road vanish under threads of snow as I drove. They wound and unwound together with every passing vehicle.

The lab lasted for two hours. In that time frame, the world became an impassable blank screen. My fair-weather drive home was twenty minutes. This time, it took me an hour and a half. I cruised at the speed of twenty-five miles an hour with my teeth clenched and my arms tensely glued to the steering wheel. Every time I hit the brakes, I prayed to God that I wouldn’t skid into the intersection or get rear-ended. Every turn was a white-knuckled tango with old man winter. Four-wheel drive SUVs sped past my 1997 Plymouth Neon and cast a blanket of snow over my slow-moving car. I would have given anything to see them roll into a ditch.

Have I mentioned that my battery light was on the whole way home?

Neons have a few nasty habits, but one of the worst is corrosion on the poles of batteries. A bluish or greenish chalky substance forms around the poles and cuts current to the rest of the car but only if the car isn’t running already. For some reason, it reminds me of cocaine. It certainly cuts the car’s capability to function.

When I got home, my parents told me, “You shouldn’t have gone out in that shit, but I’m happy you’re home.”

I responded, “I didn’t really have a choice, now, did I? I had to turn in my final project or else get docked for being late.”

Our conversation is a real show of values. The way I see it, they have no sympathy for someone who (in a manner of speaking) wades through a bunch of shit to ensure success. My rebuttal says that I value success more than self-preservation.

You would think by now I had learned my lesson, but no… schoolwork comes first no matter where I go. I expect to piss a lot of people off during Spring Break because of it. Then again, they aren’t the ones with the mile-long to-do list mocking them every step of the way.

Ultimately, my season of reprieve will come when I have that fancy piece of paper in my hand, the one that says, “I did a bunch of shit while putting up with even more shit from people who don’t get it. Here’s the document saying I did so with the president’s John Hancock and the official University seal.” Until then, I will be in a perpetual season of work regardless of what it’s doing outside.

I said earlier that I hated winter, but there are things I like about it. No, it is not the damn snow or the laughing children who play in it. It is not building my upper body strength by scraping an inch of ice off of the car or earning my badge of courage by wading through an ice-encrusted campus to retrieve a graded final paper.

Winter is not just snow season.

It is asparagus season.

Suddenly, the Filet Mignon of vegetables drops in price from an average $3.00 a pound to anywhere between a dollar to a dollar and a half. Aside from the pine trees, it is the only green thing in sight, and as far as soup goes, it is far more valuable to me than a Christmas wreath… unless it were a Christmas wreath made of asparagus. Now, that would be something.

I have assigned my own significance to winter. When the snow hits the ground as it did this past Friday for practically the first time all winter, I had only one thought on my mind.

Curry.

Last year, Michigan was buried under an obscene number of snow storms. Several Tuesday evenings were buried under about nine inches of the white, powdery stuff, and unlike my first institution of higher learning, this one values the lives (and probably wallets) of its denizens. Classes were cancelled for two Wednesdays, and on one, they were delayed until noon.

I woke up at seven-thirty on the first occasion and blinked against the blue-gray stuff that would grow to a white glare as the sun continued to rise. How could the world change so much in eight hours, and how could I be so oblivious to it? Granted, I have been more oblivious to more pressing changes like current events, but the snow reminds me just how blank my days among the books really are.

What could I do to liven things up?

The answer is curry. It is practically always curry. I used what I had on-hand since the roads were impossible and cooked a double-batch. During Snowmageddon: The Sequel, I thawed out the leftovers. In both instances, I devoured a bowl of the luscious, exotically flavored concoction while working on onlines attempting to get a clue about genre analysis, which I’m still not entirely sure I understand despite what my academic record says.

This past Friday was a particularly bad day for snow because I had to trek across campus in backless heels and a dress coat. I was one of six Writing Consultants selected to workshop with students competing in the New Venture competition. “New what?” a friend of mine asked during our weekend phone conversation.

“New Venture. Business students basically pitch ideas for companies. They compete nationwide for the top prize of $30,000.”

“And you had to dress up for this?”

“Yeah… apparently, someone who went last week wore jeans and never heard the end of it.”

“Oh… was the student you worked with dressed up?”

“Well.” I’m loathe to say it. I’m loathe to even write it. “Ironically, he was wearing pajama bottoms and a hoodie.”

I feel like I was duped into wearing those backless shoes. Winter tricked me, so what better way to get back at it than to show it that I have enough control to cope with its shenanigans? I turn up the heat a few notches on Sunday morning and get to work. For the next few days, I will be enjoying curry asparagus soup in the hopes that it will discourage this season enough to stay away until I am safe at home for Spring Break, engaged in doing exactly what I would be doing if I were snowed in at Mount Pleasant.

This bowl is a minor triumph over circumstances beyond my control.

What now, winter?

The Sixth Bowl

Curried Chicken and Asparagus Soup for the Sole

(Based very VERY Roughly on Slightly Plagiarized From Inspired by This Recipe)

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken tenders, defrosted
  • 1 lb asparagus
  • 1 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, separated into 1 tbsp portions
  • ½ tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • ½ tsp garam marsala
  • ½ tsp black pepper

Directions

A Cautionary Foreward: For those of you who have not cooked with asparagus before, the bottoms can get a little, shall we say, woodish. I’m talking “chewing on a Popsicle stick” woodish. Unless you enjoy gnawing on lumberesque substances, I would recommend breaking one stem beforehand and then chopping the very bottoms off. See pictures two and three in the slideshow for a detailed shot.

  1. Dice chicken into cubes.
  2. In 3-quart sauce pan, brown chicken in olive oil. Dice asparagus.
  3. Once chicken is browned, add garlic. Saute for additional 1-2 minutes until garlic is golden.
  4. Add butter, remaining olive oil, and flour. Mix well to make a roux.
  5. Add chicken stock to pan and whisk until roux dissolves.
  6. Add cream, lemon juice, curry, and garam marsala. Simmer 25-30 minutes until chicken is tender.
  7. Add asparagus. Cook until crisp-tender (about 10-15 minutes). Add black pepper to taste.

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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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Last week, I was at a local organic food store with my colleague and friend Elvira. In the one and a half years that I have lived in this town, I have resisted the urge to purchase some red lentils from them. Finding that resistance significantly weaker than in the past, I purchased two pounds of them for use in future culinary expeditions. After filling one of my canisters with them, I reflected on my first encounter with this strange little legume.

“What are you cooking, dad?” I asked, walking into the kitchen.

“Lentil soup.”

“What in the heck is a lentil?” I shamefully admit that at the age of twenty-one, I had not heard of a lentil.

“It’s a bean.”

“Oh.” If it was a bean, then it was acceptable. After all, I happen to have an affinity for beans. “What else is going to be in it?”

“Well, I’m using red lentils because they have a thinner skin, and I’m going to put some Andoullie sausage in there.” I could tell he was excited because the pitch of his voice had gone up a bit, his eye brows were raised, and his mustache tried without success to hide his smile.

“Sounds good. I can’t wait to try it.” And try it, I did. For years afterwards, I begged him to make another batch, but he never did. He made Italian lentil soup once, which was not quite as good because it contains panchetta and I am not a huge fan of bacon. During one trip home, I finally got the Middle Eastern version of the dish at a restaurant called Ya Halla. There are no words to describe this euphoric bowl of pureed lentils and chicken broth. It had distinct undertones of cumin and coriander. I think there may have been turmeric in it. Whatever the combination of ingredients, I knew there was no going back from that little slice of paradise, found at a table with no one else but my parents. As for my own lentil soup, it had a lot of growing to do. I decided I must pay a true homage to this particular dish, one that I only became familiar with in my early adulthood.

Lentil soup was not the first soup I cooked when I moved out. I tried my hand at it several times before getting the knack of it, adding chicken and kale for good measure, then finally discovering coriander and throwing it into the mix. Batches have gone to sick coworkers and fed a visiting friend from home, and even if it was a relatively recent culinary discovery, I still have an inexplicable affinity for lentils that no one in my family understands and I can’t even properly verbalize. There is just something quaint about these hearty packs of nutrients that appeals to me. I feel akin to them somehow. Maybe it’s the fact that I remember my dad when I eat them even if I happen to be knee-deep in my thesis while I’m swallowing a bowl of it. Maybe I am something like a lentil, a small bean with thin skin who would have no skill in writing if not for my friends holding me up, their thoughts steeling into my head at random times when I’m eating alone. Maybe the lentils represent time, each bean a savory moment that nourishes my mind, or maybe these lentils are my mind–maybe each lentil is a grain of knowledge in my head that, without other grains, is nothing more than a dry and hardened fact. These facts only become something when they are immersed in the stock of experience, combined with a flourish of root vegetables, and seasoned with the smoke and citrus of the everyday.

Or maybe it’s just the simple fact that they taste really good.

Chicken and Red Lentil Soup for the Sole

Ingredients

  • 3 baby carrots, diced
  • ½ stalk of celery (or a few smaller ones), diced
  • ½ medium onion, diced
  • 1 ¼ cup red lentils, rinsed
  • 2 chicken strips, frozen
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp cumin, separated into two 1 tsp servings
  • 1 ½ tsp coriander, separated into one 1 tsp serving and one ½ tsp serving
  • 1 tsp black pepper, ground
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • ½ cup lemon juice
  • ¼ cup water

Directions

  1. Add olive oil to pan. Saute celery, onions, and carrots for about 1-2 minutes.
  2. Add 1 tsp cumin and ½ tsp coriander to vegetables. Saute for an additional 1-2 minutes.
  3. Add stock, water, lemon juice, remaining cumin and coriander, bay leaf, black pepper, and chicken strips. Simmer for 30 minutes or until lentils are thoroughly cooked.
  4. Remove chicken pieces and bay leaf. Puree about 1 ½ cups of the lentil mixture in a food processor or blender (you could also use an immersion blender for this). Add to the remaining soup, turn the burner on low, and combine.
  5. Discard bay leaf. Shred chicken strips with a fork and return to pot. Stir in and simmer an additional five minutes.
  6. Just before serving, add an additional dash of cumin and coriander (because they are excellent).

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