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Almost without trying, I’ve created a ritual I savor: making soup every Sunday. Call it my religion, at least while it’s cold outside. I went from being intimidated by soup to experimenting—the basics being, well, pretty basic. While there is no shame in following recipes, I’m more inclined to make soup if I’m in a soup mood, and then create something from what is available. Cooking moves us all in different ways (and some of us not at all). It’s fun to arrive at cooking intuitively. To get there, you have to just do it, usually by following enough recipes first.

My ritual involves soaking beans in a bowl of water on Saturday. Come Sunday morning, as I’m having coffee and listening to NPR, I start chopping vegetables. As the soup simmers, I do chores, and before you know it, there’s a pot of soup.

I plan to post a weekly Sunday Soup recipe. This week is White Bean Fennel. You’ll also find Asian-Inspired Butternut Squash in an earlier post.

Here are some tips:

Make your own stock. Vegetable is the easiest. Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone has a brilliant stock section that I refer to every time, the soiled pages to prove it. It is an all-around excellent reference, not just for vegetarians. Brin Eats was kind enough to post Deborah’s stock tips. Making your own has several benefits. It’s cheaper than buying chicken or veg stock. It tastes better than water. It recycles unused veg. You can make it while you cook other things (or save veg trimmings in a ziplock to make stock later).

At its most simple, better-than-water stock takes only some onion, garlic, celery, carrots and salt. Possibly a potato. A few mushrooms. Maybe some herbs. More stuff tastes even better—parmigiano rind, the ends of winter squash, fennel bulb trimmings, to name a few. Saute them, add water, simmer, strain, enjoy.

Keep a supply of dried beans and grains. Not only do they look pretty if you have a place to display them in jars, but available staples makes you more likely to make soup. White beans, black beans, barley, rice, etc. I go to Goodwill every so often to find inexpensive jars, slowly replacing all my plastic.

Always have carrots, celery and onions in the fridge. These three ingredients start nearly every soup. They also happen to be the backbone of your veg stock.

Have a good stock pot. No need for anything fancy. Just have something big enough for your ingredients and about 8 cups of water.

Use what’s in season. Need inspiration? Just wander the farmers market or your local organic grocery store. Buy a head of cauliflower if it looks good. Bring it home. Look up a recipe. In that order. Finding a recipe in one of your many cookbooks (and then going and buying ingredients) is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Instead, work in reverse. This method forces you to try a new recipe. Making your favorite minestrone over and over is wonderful. But pushing yourself has its rewards. Enter your market finds into a site like Epicurious plus the word “soup” and see what you come up with.

Invite friends over. Warm soup is a humble and unfussy meal to feed to friends along with bread and salad. Soak your beans on Saturday. Make soup on Sunday and feed your friends during the week after the flavors have been able to meld.

Don’t forget to make enough for leftovers! Depending on how much space you have in your freezer,  you can squirrel away enough soup to last you all winter.

Not that squash soup recipes don’t proliferate now, but I had intended on posting this well before Thanksgiving. Years ago, while still living back East, I was making my first pumpkin soup in my very small kitchen. My mother once marveled at how I managed to cook as much as I did in such a teeny space. You make do by teetering cutting boards on top of the trash can.

I was using a cookbook with gorgeous photography that I bought used in Houston, of all places. I say “of all places” because this was the second of only two good things about Houston. The other was the cavernous grocery store with aisles upon aisles of international food and still-hot packages of fresh tortillas. I had yet to move to Portland, Oregon, a paean to food and great grocery stores. But I digress.

While I cooked, I listened to an NPR program with door-bell ringing and foot-stepping sound effects as if famous chefs were arriving at someone’s house. Each chef announced the dish they brought and then described the recipe. It reminded me of a Three Stooges record album I listened to over and over as a kid, clanking buckets and slamming doors, your imagination filling in the rest.

One chef brought pumpkin soup, only his contained crab meat. I shut off the gas, ran downstairs, hopped over the back fence and minutes later I was back in the kitchen with rather expensive lump blue crab meat. It helped living behind a Safeway. The soup was delicious but it was also the last time I splurged on crab meat, probably the result of a not-grateful-enough family member. Perhaps I’ll try it again but this time with dungeness. But what I have loved every since is how versatile this soup can be with a little experimentation.

marketsquashesThe farmers markets, and even grocery stores, are awash in gorgeous gourds. Hubbard, delicata (at left, oblong off-white with stripes) and butternut are all good options for soup. Delicata is my favorite for its rich, nutty taste. Both it and butternut will peel with a sharp vegetable peeler. If you thought you first had to roast the squash, think again. This is easier and perhaps will prevent you from using canned pumpkin.

I strayed from my original recipe and added curry powder, which quickly became a hit. My non-cooking mother has turned my soup into a tradition, making it when I’m not around. We are a family not terribly inclined to tradition. So this, and the fact that my mother largely shuns cooking, means this soup is kept alive against all odds.

Where I start with sauteed leeks, Cathy Whims, chef of Portland’s Nostrana, turned me on to beginning with a soffrito. This is essentially chopped vegetables that are the base of many Italian soups. The difference is pronounced and adds a greater level of depth. She used a few small hot chilis that were removed before pureeing the soup, and then crumbled almond cookie on top, finishing with a peppery drizzle of olive oil. Superb.

My recipe below is a very uncomplicated, semi-Asian style soup. A friend goes all out with lemongrass, fish sauce and other ingredients for a full-on Thai experience. But you can start here and then take it where you will. The potatoes make for a creamy soup and is a good option if you want to go vegan, as many squash soups call for some cream.

thai-squash-soup1

Recipe: Asian-inspired Winter Squash Soup

1 carrot, chopped

1 celery, chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

1/4 t hot red pepper flakes

2 T olive oil

1 1/2 to 2 lbs. winter squash (delicata, butternut or your favorite)*
or about 4 or 5 cups cubed squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 small to medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (yukon gold work well)

1 1/2 T fresh grated ginger

1 to 1 1/2 t salt, or to taste

1/2 t cumin

boiling water or stock*

1 cup coconut milk

Optional: mix juice of half a lime in 1/2 cup of sour cream or plain yogurt for garnish.

Directions:

Heat the oil in a stock pot and add the carrot, celery, onion and red pepper. Saute on low heat for about 10 minutes till soft. Add the squash and potatoes along with grated ginger, salt and cumin. Pour in boiling water or vegetable stock to just cover squash. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 20 minutes or until squash is soft.

Allow the soup to cool a bit. Then, working in batches, puree the mixture and return it to a soup pot. If the mixture is too think to easily puree, add a bit of hot water or stock. Once the soup is returned to the pot, stir in the coconut milk and simmer a few minutes more. This soup is best made a day ahead to let the flavors meld. Adjust the seasoning if necessary. Drizzle the lime/sourcream on top and serve.

Download a PDF of the recipe.

In my haste to set up a blog, once I realized it didn’t involve the effort I thought it would, I wasn’t aware I’d be asked to create a blog name. It makes sense, of course. I got up to get another cup of coffee and asked myself “What is this about? What will be the common thread to my posts?”

I also asked myself “Who cares what I think? And does the world need another blog?”

The phrase “Life Lines” popped into my head. Hardly original, but I decided to practice a couple things that are increasingly important to me: following instincts and leaving well enough alone. A lover of word play and double meaning, I decided to stick with it.

Sadly, not a moment after the phrase popped into my head, I thought of Tina Fey’s rendition of Sarah Palin being interviewed by Katie Couric. Palin asked if she could use one of her life lines when she was unable to answer a question for herself.

And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.

Incidentally, he and I share a birthday. I’ll do my best to channel him but don’t hold your breath.

These days everyone has something to say. Despite my increasing foray into writing sort-of fiction and personal essay, I lack habitual writing. The stories for my writing group are focused, where all effort is crammed into one time frame. The immediate and public realm of a blog might force me to write more regularly.

A blog, however, invites additional computer face time into a life that already has too much of it. It seems that with every new gadget or device that enters my life, I veer away in equal amounts to activities that are the antithesis of the electronic realm. This, of course, is called balance. But there are only so many hours in a day.

I see it as a challenge to question what I value, hone my writing skills and, perhaps most important, reduce the amount of time I am reading the Huffington Post for the latest election soundbite.

Peace.