Never Too Muddy for Lentil Soup

We walked up the long winding steps and into the party. Christina carried a wrapped painting as a housewarming gift. The painting was titled “Separate Lives”, but I had a feeling it should have been called “Separation Anxiety” which is what I knew she would be experiencing later in the night. Christina misses her paintings, deeply, when they are gone.

Having been unusually busy over the past year, the party was a Christmas card style reunion. Everyone was a little older, a little more married, a little more settled into a career, a little less fearful and searching. There was no time for gossip, there was simply too many other things to talk about. The new kids, the job, the cooking lessons, the house, the summer vacation, the workout plan. I was in the middle of explaining to Noah how I was thinking about giving up running and finding a new sport. Apparently he had heard this story of mine before because because he looked at me in bored disbelief and said, “yeah, sure, ok..”

“Speaking of running, do you ever see Matt anymore?” someone asked as I stuffed caramel drizzled apple into my mouth. At that exact instant, my pocket buzzed. A text message from Matt. “Funny you should mention” I said. I opened the screen to find a cryptic message [trail run. Tomorrow morning. Early. I’ll pick you up.] Trail running? We never go trail running. I haven’t run a step since the marathon. Adventure is a seductive temptress. Of course I would go.

At 6:30 sharp I found Matt waiting in his car outside, drinking coffee and listening to Sting, which I found to be really funny. I have probably spent thousands of hours running with Matt and up until this morning had no idea what kind of music he listens to. We drove about five minutes out of the city, and pulled up to a foggy parking lot from which began a little trail. I looked at the shiny leaf plastered path ahead

“It’s raining” I said. “and it is dark.”
“I know” Matt said “I probably should have brought a flashlight”.
We set out slowly and carefully through the muddy woods. The chill in the air caused the moon to wrap herself in cloudy blankets, and our trail was a flat shadowless abyss. I bounded with the cheery spirit of adventure, wet leaves clinging to my shoes like toddlers. The rain was not an adversary, but a diamond cut detail in the story of that time we went trail running through the mud and forgot flashlights. We dodged tree branches, hopped over rocks, shimmied down rock ledges and jumped brooks. At times we were climbing vertically through mud paths sculpted by descending water, grasping at branches to secure new heights. The view from the top of these climbs was autumn leaves against a purple sky, breathtaking.

When I got home, I immediately went to the farmers market. It is the last market day of the season. I loaded up on root vegetables, because, like me they were covered in mud. I must have carried 50 lbs of root vegetables up to our apartment, still my expression was that of a 10 year old kid just coming in from building forts in the woods. Christina looked cold in the apartment. The cats looked curious. I turned the oven on and the cooking was magic.

Never too muddy for lentil soup.

1 local ham hock purchased from a farmer who has been thoroughly questioned (your education is a part of the soup preparation)
1 1/2 cups of lentils purchased from the woman who grows only “soul food” ingredients (we are lucky to have such interesting characters at our farmers market!)
5 stalks celery (watch out for the really bushy celery, it is bitter and has ladybugs all over it)
5 carrots sweet enough to eat without peeling (you are already covered in mud, you don’t to be covered in carrot peelings too!)
1 red and 1 yellow onion (for diversity!)
1 clove garlic
3 bay leaves
3 medium potatoes (not the green ones)
1 rutabaga
Salt, muchi curry powder, cumin, turmeric, sweet basil, pepper, 1 chili pepper (if you like it hot).

Fill a soup pot with water and add the ham hock, red onion and celery trimmings. Allow this to cook for about 40 min. Then, in another soup pot, add 1 cup ham hock water, bay leaves and onions. Dice potatoes and add to onions with another cup of the liquid. Add more liquid and the lentils. Add another cup of the liquid and the rutabaga diced. Keep adding your ingredients and the liquid from the ham hock. Season to taste. When you are done simmer uncovered until the lentils are cooked and the potatoes are soft. Adjust your seasonings. Dice up the meat from the ham hock and add to the soup.


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Hopping the Apple Train

I spent most of the chilly morning on Saturday at the Minneapolis farmer’s market. I sat huddled around a propane heater with three lovely Midwestern ladies, we were chatting live on AM950 talk radio. We began the show lined up across a long table under a little white tent, a microphone perched before each of us as though we were announcing at a sporting event. It didn’t take long for our formality to break, and the excitement of sharing trade secretes with fellow vegetable lovers brought us huddled together like a couple of freight hoppers standing over a trash can fire. All of us were heaped with layers of winter clothing and cheeks whipped pink by the wind. Our boisterous chatter was as loud and continuous as a long steam train, heirloom tomatoes leading into spaghetti squash, followed by basil, fresh garlic, and roasted chicken. The caboose came trudging in brimming with seasonal apples, Harelsons, Honeycrisp, Zestar and Golden Delicious!

After the show I walked slowly through the aisles of the farmers market, the chill in the air made the public scarce, and the tables were packed with colorful and fragrant treasures. My toes were like two blocks of ice and my nose was in need of a plumber, but I was too exhilarated to care. One of the ladies on the show, the one they call the herb lady, had given me some lovely fresh basil from her farm -Dehn’s Garden-which I carried on my wrist. Another lady from the show, Gwen, took me over to her family farm stand -Smith Gardens.

At Smith Gardens I found some spicy icicle radishes (for Christina), some delicious homemade blueberry and blackberry jam (yum), and a diverse array of fresh snappy apples. If only I had brought a shopping cart! I left weighed down by two giant bags of apples, three of each variety, with the intention of getting to know my local varieties. What is apparent thus far, is that seasonal apples bought from the farm stand can not be compared to their grocery store cousins. A Gala picked from the top of the grocery bin speaks a softer, milder dialect than the sweet and snappy Gala from Smith Farms. My first exploration with the apples involved the assembly of an apple pie with a butter crust.

1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 1/4 stick unsalted butter
cold water

Using two knives, cut the butter into the flour salt mixture until little the butter is pea sized (do not over mix, and do not use hands. The butter needs to stay cool and not completely mixed into the flour for the crust to be flaky). Add cold water slowly, folding it into the flour. When the dough is just wet enough to be gathered, gather into a ball and knead one or two times. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

The filling:
Peel and cut
3 medium Prairie Spy apples: tart, starchy, mild
3 medium Fireside: sweet, a perfect snap (it will be hard not to eat these before they make it into the pie)
3 medium Sweet 16: soft, anise flavored
juice from 1/2 lemon
brown sugar, to taste
pinch salt
a shake of cornstarch (to thicken the juice)

Roll out the dough and place in a pie pan. Add apple filling. Roll top crust over the top and pinch around the sides. Cut steam holes in the center of the pie. Bake at 425 for 15 min, reduce heat to 350 and bake for about 30 more min.


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Soup on Sundays!! Cold Buster Soup

The sun turned on the white painted walls of our 6th floor apartment bedroom. I opened my eyes in the blinding light to the feeling that I was being choked by a very strong grasp. Feeling my neck it became apparent that, overnight, my glands had swollen to the size of golf balls. “I think I am getting sick” I croaked to Christina. I suddenly felt waves of depression and anxiety, which hurled me through a minefield of potential horrors until I fell tentatively to rest on the bank of denial.

Denial, although I find it both shallow and bland, seemed an appetizing option when the alternatives were considered. I ran through each scenario over the span of about an hour before I settled on denial and Christina and I left for the coffee shop.

The discarded alternatives are as follows:
1) reveling in the illness, shuffling around with a pitiful look, channeling the soft weepy eyes of my neediest inner child. I did this for about ten minutes, but Christina was not at all biting at the bait of my whine.
2) conjuring up some anger, at all the people who may or may not have given me their cold. Feeling hostile toward those vengeful souls who had the nerve to sneeze and cough in public. This I decided was not a good option, because I have to go to school tomorrow and today’s self-righteous anger would result in tomorrows self-deprecation.
3) Start in with a dose of self flagellation today! I searched my mind for all the ways I allowed for my immune system to run down. How could I let this happen!! This got old quickly.

After my hour of anger and pity and victimization was up, we cheerfully headed out Starbucks; Christina appeared slightly confused by my polar changes of mood.

On the way home, we stopped at the Asian grocery store to pick up some kaffir lime leaves. The Asian market smelled strongly of fish, and was chilly inside. The aisles were lined with cans of exotic fruit jellies and mochi balls, and cuts of meat that revealed the animal of origin. We walked slowly through the aisles. It gives me a thrill to imagine the unfamiliar flavors and textures. Foreign foods deliver the promise of recreating childhood first food discoveries.
“I wish we had a Chinatown” I said leaving the store, feeling slightly embarrassed about my lack of home city pride.

Making soup is a beautiful form of alchemy. The most tired vegetables revive themselves to a sort of creamy, soothing, liquid gold. The kitchen windows gather steamy blinds, which turn the contrast of day and night to a foggy shade of gray. Making soup puts me in a timeless world, and with the loss of “day” and “night” go “past” and “future”, “depression” and “anxiety”.

I felt my throat loosen in the misty kitchen, and my voice return back to it’s original form. It was like brewing up a magic potion, and experiencing fairy tale voice box transformation from frog to princess (it’s my story, I can say I have a princess voice if I want to!!!)

As the soup simmered on the stove, I looked up some stuff about Tom Kha soup (Tom yum soup with coconut milk). Apparently it is a wonderful natural immune booster and a remedy for colds and the flu. I haven’t checked the research on this, but I am happy to accept the idea based on folk wisdom alone. Tom Kha soup is an easy pill to swallow 🙂

4 cups chicken stock
6 cups water
3 stocks lemon grass (fresh)
6 large slices ginger
1-2 carrots
15-20 kaffir lime leaves (buy fresh at Asian food store in produce section)
1 tsp oil
1/2 yellow onion
4 cloves garlic
1/2 pkg firm tofu, drained (shrimp can be substituted)
a dash soy sauce, miso or fish sauce (fish sauce is the traditional ingredient, I didn’t have any so I went with other high glutamate ingredients. The cells of the immune system are fueled by glutamate)
1/4 cup dried shitake mushrooms
1 can coconut milk
cilantro to garnish

In a soup pot, heat 4 cups of chicken stock and 5 cups of the water with 2 tsp salt. Add lemon grass (peel outer layers, cut tip of bulb and dice bulb until the stalk gets woody texture. Add diced lemon grass to soup pot, then smash the stalk tips and add them whole to the pot (you will discard these later). Add ginger slices, lime leaves, and peeled diced carrots. In a separate pot, saute onions and garlic lightly in oil (with salt) and add cubed tofu. Pour in remaining cup of water and a few dashes soy sauce. Add the tofu mixture to the soup pot and toss in 1/4 cup chopped shitake mushrooms. Add 1 can coconut milk. Season and let simmer to release flavor. Serve with rice.


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Iron Fork Competition Minneapolis 2009

Today I will share my recipe from the Iron Fork competition, In which I was the sole amature competitor against 5 local chefs from some of the great restaurants in the Twin cities. The competition was a fundraiser for Second Harvest sponsored by City Pages. Over a thousand people were watching as we battled to prepare tasty and inventive dishes in one hour featuring one secret ingredient. What an honor to be a contestant!

Before the competition, I got to rub elbows with the chefs. The sous chef from the “Happy Gnome” introduced me to fermented garlic, a black sticky substance with a flavor of roasted garlic and the sweetness of a date. I love it when I meet a new flavor!

The secret ingredient was squash. The “Happy Gnome” chef (who came in second place) made an acorn squash and ouzo cocktail (which I thought was very clever) and a halibut dish that looked amazing! The winner of the competition was the chef/owner of “Saffron”, who let me use his olive oil (imported from Pakistan) in my arugula fennel salad. The olive oil was so wonderful that it made my eyes tear up and my knees go weak. He used his own line of spices in all of his dishes. They were delicious.

I made a tarragon and butternut squash ravioli with fresh lemon zested pasta and a golden beet reduction, coconut cream sauce (our friend Jelena said that complicated layers of flavor are all the rage in restaurants these days, which based on my iron fork experience I would have to agree with!) The side dish was an arugula, fennel, orange salad and a single carrot flower.

The weeks leading up to the competition I was like a traveller in a foreign country isolated by an unfamiliar language. I kept searching the minds of people I came in contact with, for clues as to how to get around in this thing. I looked at every person I met as a potential guide, a messenger placed in my path to reveal some secret which would help me be able to cook something impressive for my moment in the culinary sun. It did seem that angels were appearing in my path that week. The morning of the marathon I met a woman who told me how to make hollindaise without using heat (I decided this would be too risky, I wouldn’t want to give the judges salmonella!) When I got home from the race, Christina and I went out for Thai food at “Ruam Mit”, and the chef came to our table to show us how to make little carrot flowers (which I decided would be Christina’s job for the competition, and she plowed through three bags of carrots practicing!! The things we do for love.)

So here is the recipe, the whole thing takes about an hour. It wasn’t the winner but I was happy with how it turned out!

~2 cups unbleached white flour
2 eggs
1 Tbsp olive oil
lemon zest
1 small butternut squash
1 orange
1 can coconut milk (use the cream)
fresh tarragon
2 golden beets
1 lime
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1-2 tsp cornstarch

The pasta:
Make a volcano of flour with a pinch of salt in it on a sheet of wax paper taped to your kitchen counter (it is less messy if you use wax paper, but you don’t have to). Make a well in the flour and add egg, olive oil, and fresh lemon zest. With a fork, beat the egg and slowly bring the flour mixture into the egg mixture. When the dough begins to come together, knead with flour until smooth (you may not need all the flour). Roll the dough thin with a rolling pin (as thin as you..or your sous chef..can get it!) Cut into squares using a knife or a square cookie cutter (we found a great set at Cooks of Crocus hill on Grand Ave).

The filling: Boil a pot of water. Peel the skin off of a medium butternut squash and scrape out the seeds (you can toast these and use as a garnish). Add the squash to the water and boil until tender (~20 min) remove the squash and mash with a drizzle of coconut milk, orange juice and fresh diced tarragon using a food processor (or a fork if you prefer rustic squash) Salt, pepper and thyme to taste.

Assemble the ravioli by filling one square, lining the edges with a wet finger, and then adding the other square.

The sauce:
Peel and cut 2 golden beets. Place in ~1 1/2 cups water and boil until the water gets yellow. Remove beets (you could have as a side dish, but we did a crisp salad instead) and continue to cook liquid down, adding a few Tbsp coconut milk. Cook your ravioli in this liquid (about 3-4 min). Remove ravioli and set aside. Add 1 Tbsp brown sugar and the juice from 1/2 lime to the sauce. Remove some of the liquid and mix with a little corn starch (1 tsp) then pour the cornstarch liquid into the sauce and cook to thicken. Put the ravioli back in the thickened sauce. When you are ready, plate your ravioli and garnish with an arugula, fennel, orange salad (olive oil, garlic and orange juice dressing) and a bit of orange zest and sugar over the top!


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Meeting Winter

Last weekend I tucked away my journal articles, I left the dirty dishes and the carpet covered with cat hair, I packed up my computer and I drove four and a half hours North through the golden leaves to meet Winter on his journey to Minneapolis.
It had been so long since I had seen the quiet and mysterious blue of Winter that walking out into a snowy dawn felt somewhat like discovering the tracks of a Bigfoot. Friends in the cities widen their eyes in polite amazement when I tell the story of waking up to run the Whistle Stop marathon in Ashland, WI and discovering an October snow.

The reality of winter is just as elusive to them as it was to me. Winter painted slowly over the long summer days is a gentle creature, with soft fur and rosy cheeks and a warm chocolate laugh. Winter painted in the eve of February is a viscous unforgiving beast, with heavy eyelids, scratchy wool and a runny nose. Last Saturday morning my lungs drank their first sip of cold air while I stood smoking my breath in the society of a thousand runners who wore numbers and arm socks. We all danced a few hundred precious calories away just waiting for the start, and we stood awkwardly close together, desperate to absorb some heat.

The trail on which we trotted, scrambled or scuffled the entire 26.2 miles was not the soft, forgiving, yet compact ground I had been dreaming about. Recent rain and joyriding tires of teenage four wheelers had made a loose beach out of our route. We filed into the tent at the finish line, one by one, collapsing onto the shoulders of those whose faces we would never remember. I sat on the pavement by one of the tent posts, and a woman rushed to my side.
“Are you okay??” she asked.
“Yes” I said.
“Then would you mind sitting on this bucket?” Out of nowhere, a giant white bucket, with dirt stained circular rings was hovering inches away from my eyes.
The woman’s features were large and distorted. She looked worried. Was she worried about me? No,the tent. She feared I would knock down the tent. I must not lean on the post. I must…but it feels so good to lean..just a little…Suddenly I came to my senses. I pulled myself off the ground and reached for a sugar cookie from the table. I decided I needed to focus on something besides my own pain.

“HI!” I said, in a half manic shout fueled by false energy to a group of older masters runners sitting on buckets. “I’m Emily” I said, popping a miniature doughnut into my mouth. “Am I hallucinating or is that a heater you are sitting in front of?”

“wha?? I didn’t even notice the heater haha” one of the runners said. “Please, pull up a bucket!”

The rest of the afternoon flew past. I forgot about missing my goal of running a sub 3:15 marathon while reveling in the joy of the 60 year old man who had just qualified for Boston for the first time. I listened to the sad story of the woman who had to drop out, regretfully, at mile 18. Fueled by the desire to achieve goals, I had become rigid with expectations. Their stories set me to thaw. Their stories were my stories. I was sitting on a bucket, in a tent, laughing and crying at myself in various caricatures. There was the time gave up, the time I succeeded, the time I just came to have fun. There was the first time, the best time, and then their was this one. This was the time that it was never easy, not even for a moment. The story falls delicately among my shuffle of persona’s collected over years, which are stacked like leaves and stored like costumes perfectly fit for that one occasion.

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