Polar bears don’t like to be kept inside when it’s cold and snowy outside.
I must be a polar bear. It’s the only way to explain why, on a night when the ambient temperature was in the negative digits, and the wind chill ten or twenty degrees below that, I just had to walk home from work. There are only so many days a girl can skip her daily walk, and I think by “so many,” I mean one. After a long week at work and frustration on both ends between my advisor and me, my soul was feeling rumpled and deflated, like it hadn’t been stretched and aired properly. The only real answer to this predicament is to walk and breathe. Outside.
So I put on my polar bear suit and went outside for a romp. It was certainly cold—that wasn’t a surprise—but the wind was silent and the air felt crisp and clean, like it was just waiting for me to inhale it in big, happy gulps. The stars glittered and winked in a dreamy velvet sky, and as I made my way home, one booted step after another, I began to feel like myself again. I felt better.
The daily walk is perhaps one of the most misunderstood forms of exercise. My parents are daily walkers, although my mom is a little skittish of the snow and the ice since she feels like a bad fall is imminent in those conditions. On Christmas Eve, my dad and I tackled the heavily snowed-over sidewalks to take our daily walk together, a treat if there ever was one considering I see my dad about once a year. The daily walk is a multipurpose event. I love it fiercely. It is great exercise for your body, certainly, and I’m convinced it is the reason my weight is so stable. But beyond calories and muscles, the daily walk is great exercise for your soul. Walking outside, underneath that big starry sky, I feel the same way that I imagine others feel when they pray. I feel small and secure, like I am just one tiny part of a whole too large to comprehend. Walking lets me do the thing I love most without guilt: it lets me daydream, forgetting about the crush of responsibilities. Best of all, it lets me plan what I’m going to eat for dinner.
It turns out that I’m not exactly built like a polar bear. I’m rather short and compact, a lot of muscle packed onto a small frame. I weigh more than people think, although to be honest, I can’t even tell you what I weigh now because I don’t know. Without polar bear-like body fat, not to mention that thick white fur coat, my metabolism needs a little something extra to keep up with all this running around in the cold. I think a polar bear’s best bet is to maintain, at all times, a well-stocked pantry of food. A lovingly filled fridge is particularly nice, as one can prepare vats of homemade soup and then tuck them away for practically instant lunches and dinners that will warm you right up. Soup may be my top pick for essential winter pantry foods, but there are lots of nibbles that you really ought to consider for your polar bear’s survivial kit.
* Let us begin at the end: dessert! Even polar bears have a sweet tooth, or at least this one does. I love simple desserts like brownies and cookies. These Excellent Brownies freeze really well. In the winter, my favorite way to eat them is to pop them, still frozen, in the oven in a ramekin for a few minutes until they get all warm and gooey. Eat straightaway. If you stock your freezer with a couple of brownies, you’ll never be without a weeknight dessert.
* Another dessert item that comes in handy in the winter is frozen cookie dough. I find that most raw cookie doughs freeze nicely. When I’m really craving fresh, homemade cookies, I fish the dough out of the freezer, let it thaw on the counter for a while, and once it has thawed enough to shape it into balls, I prep my cookie sheet and go. I’ve had good results with frozen cookie dough for Toasty Oatmeal Cookies and Ian’s Thumbprint Cookies.
* I am convinced that eggs are the perfect food. They are compact, nutritious, perform amazing tricks in baking, and can be served in a thousand-and-one different ways. My newest favorite egg trick is baking them, shell-less but otherwise whole, in a ramekin that’s been lightly greased. Mollie Katzen gives thorough egg-baking instructions in her treat-of-a-cookbook, Sunlight Café. I just make a baked egg for one and I’m all set.
* A pantry without homemade granola is a sad place indeed. For me, the question is never, “Should I bake granola?” but rather, “Which granola should I bake?” I have a feeling that the granola gallery on this site (see the right-hand side bar) is just going to keep getting longer…
* Real polar bears don’t eat citrus fruits, but for us fake polar bears, there is no better time to eat citrus than right now, in the depths of winter. I think I’m behind on my orange-eating quota, but I’m hoping to catch up ASAP. I will confess that my dessert collection is lacking in lemon-based recipes, but give me a lemon and I’ll make you a pot of Greek Avgolemono Soup. After dinner, we can cheat on dessert and pop some frozen brownies in the oven.
* At no other time of year do I crave tomato soup ALL THE TIME. It’s a little ironic since tomatoes are a summer crop, but is there anything more heartwarming than a bowl of tomato soup? I feel better just thinking about it. I’ve been on the hunt for another tomato soup recipe to add to my collection for years, and until just recently, my search had come up empty. I wanted a soup that was unequivocally a tomato soup, but I didn’t want it to taste like I just dumped some canned tomatoes in a pan and heated them up. A while back, I tried a Rachael Ray recipe that called for adding fresh basil pesto to a soup made with crushed tomatoes. The soup seemed so promising, rich with summery tomato and basil flavors, but the whole thing fell flat on its face. The tomatoes were just too much, and the basil was impossible to taste. The whole thing was a sort of muddy reddish brown, so it looked as good as it tasted. No, thank you. I won’t be having seconds of that soup.
But Leanne Ely, my Saving Dinner heroine, came to the rescue. I’ve written about Ms. Ely once before, and I always intended to come back to her because I do love flipping through her book Saving Dinner the Vegetarian Way, an impromptu gift from my sister-in-law, Amanda. Right this moment, my copy of the book has four post-it notes, one of which marks the recipe for Chunky Tomato Soup. I have never made the soup as written; instead, I used it as a template to make another run at a tomato soup worthy of eating again and again. I’m happy to report that I’ll be adding this soup to my polar bear’s survival kit. It’s good enough to make me wish winter was a little longer…on second thought, maybe I’ll just keep making this soup while I welcome spring with open arms.
Tomato Vegetable Soup with White Beans
Adapted from Saving Dinner the Vegetarian Way by Leanne Ely
This flavorful soup is a hearty tomato number, jazzed up with some chopped vegetables, a bit of dried basil, and a BOATLOAD of garlic. I was very grateful to have a garlic press when I first made this soup (thank you, Matt!). The white beans provide some chew, as well as protein and fiber.
It is the ultimate challenge to make a tomato soup that is deliciously, decidedly tomato without being too acidic or one-dimensional. This soup solves that problem by using a flavorful vegetable broth in addition to some potent herbs and spices. My homemade vegetable broths tend to be sweet from lots of carrot scraps, so they add a vegetal sweetness to this soup. If you find your soup to be too acidic, you can add a teaspoon or two of sugar and then taste again. Repeat as needed.
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
6 cloves of garlic, pressed
1 1/4 tsp. dried basil
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
4 cups tasty vegetable broth, preferably homemade
1-2 tsp. sugar or to taste, optional (see headnote above)
1 16-oz. can white beans, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
1) In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and carrots. Saute until the onion is soft and translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and basil and saute for another minute until everything is fragrant.
2) Add the crushed tomatoes and vegetable broth. Bring everything to a boil, and then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Taste the soup and adjust the sweetness as needed with sugar. Add the white beans and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot in deep bowls, preferably with good bread and cheese.