Monday, January 19, 2009

A Polar Bear's Survival Kit

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
Serves 4-6

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.


ttfn300 said...

how ironic!! i used to have a ~25min walk to/from work when i was in philly, but am now awefully close to work here in boston. as i was tromping around in the snow today i was thinking how much i missed my walk!!

baked eggs and granola are still on my list to make. too many things, only so much time! i've always hated that about tomato soup, especialy since i'm not a fan of gazpacho. i'll have to give this a try :)

yasmin said...

daily walks can be wonderful. i'm very impressed though, at your perseverance in these wintry months.

tomato soup is a good idea; i've been thinking of trying a tomato-rice soup recently. i haven't made (or had) tomato soup in quite a while...

ammie said...

You know how much I love walking! People look at me like I'm nuts when I still walk places at this time of year, but I find the cold refreshing sometimes. And recently I read a book by Gary Snyder and he re-affirmed that for me in such a positive way. Here's what i wrote about him in december: "By walking, by giving ourselves up to what we are doing and how we are moving through the world, we come closer to everything outside of ourselves and perhaps allow the line between mind and body to blur." I don't usually (ever!) quote myself, but it seems appropriate for you.
And there are so many tomato soups to try... I've been tending towards creamy soups lately (and I made your somky pumpkin soup lat night, yummy!), but I'd like to get away from that. Maybe this will be my next soup project :)

Rosiecat said...

Hurray for walks and tomato soup! Thank you for all your lovely comments. You guys just made my morning!

ttfn, might I recommend the baked eggs and granola on a night when you want to cook but you don't want to stay up until midnight in the kitchen? That's one of the things I love about both of those ideas--they are so FAST! Normally, I'm not one to go on and on about quick recipes, but I do have a secret stash of them.

I'm also not a huge fan of gazpacho, but one of my colleagues at work makes a really awesome version at the height of tomato season, so I remain open to trying it. I really think the key to good tomato soup is balance.

Yasmin, I loved your post about going for a walk without all your creative supplies--an exercise in being in the moment and trying to absorb as much of that moment as possible. As a little plug, I'll add that this tomato soup is vegan, and I'm sure it would happily accommodate some rice if you want to add some...

Ammie, I remember that quote and that post! I loved both, especially the idea of getting outside of yourself. I feel like this is the essence of prayer or meditation--a desire to feel something bigger and more beautiful than your own tiny self. This, to me, is why walking and yoga are so much more than exercise.

Perhaps you and I need to plan another cooking date with a hot soup recipe? I also like creamy soups, but I kinda like to save them for special dinners.

ammie said...

Let's soup it up! Totally. And I think you would looooooove Gary Snyder, if you ever feel a need to read some excellent essays; he writes at length about meditation and and the sacred and wilderness. He was a Buddhist monk in Japan for a while, and now he's a fantastic writer. So beautiful. Also, check out my friend Erica's blog (linked to mine), we're having a similar conversation via comments.

Rosiecat said...

All right, Ammie, after the cookies tomorrow night, soup will be our next project. Rock on!

Such high praise for Gary Snyder! Any man who talks lovingly about walking and wilderness is a man I could love. Heaven knows it's hard to connect to nature in this urban jungle of ours.

Is there a particularly interesting post from Erica's blog to which you might refer me? I'd love to read a snapshot that reminded you of the conversation we're having here.

ammie said...

I believe Erica once told me (or somebody else, and then told me) that Gary Snyder was the only man she'd ever consider marrying, which is unfortunate as he is already married and also rather elderly, I believe. But the very top entry on her blog right now (titled something about dollars) ended up provoking a discussion on nature and sacredness and the energy exchange between people and places that I had fun with. When I can think a little more clearly I'll probably write another comment on there :)
And yes, soup! I still need to pick another recipe for tonight, but I'm pretty excited about cookies and tofu scrambles!

ammie said...

Oh, and just fyi, I told somebody that you were my platonic cooking soulmate the other day :)

Rosiecat said...

Ammie, I've always had a really strong sense of place, whether indoors or outdoors. I'm very excited to read Gary Snyder--I can't believe you brought your book over last night so I could borrow it! You are amazing.

Indeed, I think we ARE platonic cooking soulmates! Not many people can say they have one of those ;-) Can I tell you that I've been fantasizing about eating one of your orange shortbread cookies all day? Maybe dessert is my favorite course after all. I have such a soft spot for all things small and sweet--cookies, my niece Lydia...