The intrepid Ms. a and I are at it again! This week we’re writing tandem posts; the theme for today is food or recipes that remind us of someone. a’s post, the past, via split peas, can be found on her blog, still life.
* * *
I admit it: I thought I took the easy way out with this tandem post topic. I’ve had a’s Pumpkin Black Bean Soup on my list of things to make for ages, or at least since October when she shared her recipe. It sounded delicious: pumpkin soup made a little exotic with coconut milk and the warm earthy spiciness of cumin; pumpkin soup made substantial by the addition of black beans. For once, here was a pumpkin soup that wasn’t curried, as most of them are, which I find distressing. The seasonings are simple and sublime: the cumin, plus thyme, salt, pepper, and some lime juice, if you’re feeling fancy. One could argue that aromatics like onions and chili peppers are also seasonings, and I wouldn’t disagree. But still: no curry, and for that I’m grateful.
Perhaps more importantly, this soup did not look like it would be sweet. I’m generally not a fan of sweet soups because I find myself wanting more savory and less sweet if we aren’t eating dessert yet. It’s not that soups can’t have something sweet in them—carrots, caramelized onions, a good pour of white wine—but I just find savory soups to be so much more satisfying in the entree position. As much as I have a sweet tooth that I feed every day, I also have a savory tooth that demands some attention, particularly at lunch and dinner.
I started the weekend thinking that I was in the mood for chili, but the more I thought about actually making and eating chili, the more I realized it wasn’t chili I wanted, but maybe something related to chili. A first cousin to chili, perhaps. This soup, with its spices and black beans, is definitely somewhere in chili’s family tree. It lacks that thick stewiness that chili has. It also has a relatively short ingredients list, so it comes together pretty fast—a definite plus in my book. What this soup lacks in thickness, it makes up for in flavorful broth, which means you need some chewy bread to sop up all that cumin-scented, coconut milk-enriched broth.
As I stood in my kitchen, chopping onions and garlic, I thought that the only personal connection I had to this recipe was through a, my kitchen buddy and dear friend. It’s her recipe, so of course I think about her while I’m cooking, which got me thinking about all those cookies we’ve made together, and how our plans to cook together turned ordinary winter nights into memories that we both treasure. Then I turned my attention to the coconut milk. For a long time, I’ve had two cans of coconut milk sitting in my cupboard, both brought to me by Daine, he who gives me green bean recipes and countless other food ideas, some of which I hope to share with you this year. Daine and I worked in the same lab for a while, but then I moved to Texas and our daily conversations disappeared. I miss them, and Daine too.
One of the reasons that I love recipes, even though I don’t follow them strictly, is that they serve as a tangible memory that I can pull into present tense if I buy the right ingredients and follow instructions. Inevitably, when I make a’s Orange Shortbread Chocolate Chip Cookies or Daine’s Mom’s Slow-Cooked Green Beans, I think of that person who shared something special with me: a recipe, a conversation, a love of good food and the way it brings people together. Food is like that: welcoming, inclusive. Food is happiness, despite all the cultural baggage that surrounds the issue. Food makes me happy.
These days, I am facing an enormous amount of change, even though I’m not going anywhere. One of my favorite labmates will be leaving for a new job very soon, another labmate will be following a spouse halfway around the world, back to their country of origin. It’s hard for me to imagine the lab without these two people, whose faces have become a comforting part of my everyday life. Smaller changes are jarring to me too, like the fact that my favorite neighborhood mural was covered up in white paint, as though that’s some sort of improvement, getting rid of the vandalism. Even happy changes are hard for me, like having a new baby in my family. Change makes me nervous. When I saw that Asmodeus had turned off the comments on his wine blog, it just about pushed me over the edge. Why must everything change?
Because. There’s no real answer for all this change, all at once. It’s just because. I thought about all of this as I chopped vegetables and strained soup stock and measured spices on Saturday night. I suppose things often change for the same reason I don’t follow recipes: because we believe the change will make things better. A better life, a tastier soup. It makes me sad, all this change, and I almost started crying because I felt so overwhelmed by this sense of not-the-same that the future guarantees. In my happiest moments, I sometimes wish I could make time stand still so that I could stay in this snapshot of joy. I often wish I could hide from change. But the good thing about melancholy is that it, like everything else in life, is subject to the rule of change. I went to bed early on Saturday, feeling sad and anxious. By the time I woke up on Sunday, those hard feelings had vanished, leaving a sense of peace and possibility in their wake. This change of heart is something I want to remember the next time I’m feeling down. The other thing I want to remember is the soup that I stirred while working all of this out in my head. And so, a recipe.
Pumpkin Black Bean Soup
Adapted from still life
Despite my penchant for tinkering with recipes, I did make this one more or less as instructed. My changes are more like embellishments. First, I recommend sprinkling a chopped scallion on each bowl. I love the crisp, fresh pungency of fresh scallions, and they add a nice textural element that the soup otherwise lacks. Second, bread! This soup demands bread, so don’t forget it. Though I think it might be nice ladled over some hot rice, too (and topped with a chopped scallion!).
1 tbsp. canola or olive oil
1-2 large onions, chopped (if you like onions, use 2 here)
1 poblano pepper, chopped (a uses 1-2 jalapenos; I saw good-looking poblanos at the market and got excited)
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. thyme
1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed
7 cups water or vegetable stock (you can use less—say, 5 cups—if you prefer a thicker soup)
1 can or ~2 cups pumpkin puree (I used canned, as you can tell from my photo above)
2 15-oz. cans black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (13-15 oz.) coconut milk
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh lime juice to taste (I juiced one lime and I thought it added the loveliest flavor)
1 bunch of chopped scallions
1) In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook until they start to soften and become translucent. Add the poblano or jalapenos, garlic, cumin, and thyme, then cook for another minute or so, stirring frequently.
2) Add the sweet potato and vegetable stock/water. Turn up the heat to high and bring the whole thing to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 10-15 minutes, until the sweet potato becomes very soft.
3) Mash some or all of the contents of the soup pot, either in the pot with a potato masher or ladle some into a separate bowl and mash it there. Pour everything back into the soup pot, then add the pumpkin and black beans. Simmer for another 10-20 minutes.
4) Add the coconut milk, some salt and pepper, and the lime juice. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Serve hot, in deep bowls, with the chopped scallions sprinkled on top.