Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Leftover Project: Easy Pumpkin Soup with Exotic Spices (Can be vegan)

images[2]You know how leftover holiday ingredients lurk in the back of your pantry? Well, today is Halloween, and I was craving pumpkin soup, but not badly enough to go the store and buy the fresh sugar pumpkin and heavy cream that most recipes call for. What I did have was a can of pumpkin puree, left over from last year’s holiday baking. All righty then! But what to use to replace the cream? How about a few potatoes for thickness, and some canned “lite” coconut milk. That’ll do nicely! Here’s what I did – no picture this time, because the finished soup is a muddy tan color, but oh-so-tasty. Want it more orange? Perhaps add more carrots.

You’ll need a stick blender for this one – I maintain that it’s too much trouble to ladle hot soup into the blender, but suit yourself. I love my stick blender for making velvety soups.

Into your large-ish soup pot, throw in one onion, a big stalk of celery, and a few peeled carrots, all roughly chopped. Sweat them in a tablespoon or so of olive oil, stirring from time to time, over medium heat. I like to put the lid on the pot between stirs to hasten the process. You want the onions to be nice and glassy – sautéing the veggies before you add the liquid results in a deeper flavor.

Next, I added about a liter and a half of chicken broth. I use the low-sodium stuff from a carton. If you wanted to make a vegan soup, you could easily substitute vegetable broth. I threw in a few medium potatoes, diced. Then I stirred in a bit more than half of a large can (29 ounce size) of pumpkin purée – NOT the presweetened pie filling, just the plain purée. I also added two cloves of garlic, minced. But what to season this with? Many recipes I looked at called for basically the same spices you’d use for pumpkin pie, and I did not want my soup to taste like pie! Lo and behold, I find at the back of my (overstuffed, disorganized) spice cupboard a tin of garam masala. A warm-and-fragrant-but-not-hot blend of Indian spices, it does contain cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, but does not smell like pie – it smells like an exotic spice market. And so I dumped in a few teaspoons of this stuff – what a wonderful smell!

I brought the pot to a boil and then lowered the heat, leaving it to simmer for 30 minutes or so. When the potato cubes and carrot bits were tender but not mushy, I pureed most of the soup with my stick blender – just stuck that sucker right into the pot and swirled it around until most of the soup was smooth. I like to leave a few chunks of potato and veg. – that makes the soup more interesting, I think.

But the soup still lacked something. Ah yes – in went half a can of “lite” coconut milk, well shaken, of course. A few more minutes of simmering, and wow! This is really tasty soup, a little different than the usual versions, very quick and easy, and a good way to use up leftover canned pumpkin. And it’s quite low in fat and calories!

But wait a minute – now I have about a cup of canned pumpkin and a cup of coconut milk. I’m thinking pumpkin pancakes, or maybe muffins. Do you have a suggestion?

Inspiration Abounds

Diane Nash

Since retiring from my teaching job in Germany and returning to the US, I’ve had the good fortune to meet many older women who inspire me with their achievements in the arts, in fitness, and in community activism. I don’t have to look far to find role models for my retirement years. But recently, I had the privilege of meeting a lady who truly inspired not only me, but an auditorium full of students.

Last week, at Tacoma Community College, we were honored with a visit from a pioneer of the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Diane Nash, then a student at Fisk University in Nashville, was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a leader of sit-ins that resulted in the desegregation of Nashville lunch counters, a leader of the Freedom Riders movement and of the Selma Voting Rights Movement campaign. She was arrested many, many times, spent time in solitary confinement and, like Henry David Thoreau, refused to post bail when arrested for breaking unjust laws. She is now a gracious, soft-spoken lady of 74, and she spoke to the students of TCC about her experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and how the principles that inspired her then can be used by young people today. I was struck by her gentle sincerity, and I did my best to scribble down the many gems of wisdom that she shared with the gathered students.

Ms. Nash explained how she and her fellow student activists used “agapic energy,” a term taken from the Greek word agape, meaning a love of humankind. She prefers this term to “nonviolence” simply because nonviolence is a negative term, signifying the lack of something, whereas agapic energy refers to applying the power produced by a love of humankind – very positive indeed. Her goal during her struggles for civil rights was to wage war using energy produced by love instead of energy produced by violence. According to Ms. Nash, Mohandas Gandhi developed a technique for thousands of people to focus their combined love energy on their opponents, and she and her fellow activists applied this same technique to achieve desegregation in the South. Ms. Nash explained to us that agapic energy helps teach or heal the opponent. This first principle of agapic energy particularly struck me: “People are never the enemy. Unjust systems, attitudes and actions are the enemy, but people are not. The proper attitude toward an opponent is, ’We love and respect you as a person, but we won’t tolerate what you’re doing.’” Wow – I don’t believe that many partisan politicians share Ms. Nash’s views, but imagine what our government could achieve if those partisans focused agapic energy on educating and healing their opponents.

According to Ms. Nash, “Oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed. The only person you can change is yourself. And when you change yourself, the world has to fit up against a new you. Very often we give away our power and waste a lot of energy trying to change other people.” So simple, so true. Dear reader, will you permit me a personal example? Thanks for your indulgence: I could not change a family member who was bent on making me feel as lowly as possible, and the effort exhausted me. But when I instead focused on changing myself, well, my life became a lot better. I’ll bet you have a story like that as well. So – Amen, Ms. Nash, and thank you for your elegant simplicity.

Alas, my notes became pretty garbled, since I hadn’t thought to bring along a notebook. Here are some of the legible bits from the tangle of notes I took on the front cover of the Weekly Volcano (newsletter of hipster happenings in Seattle):

“History’s most important function is to cope with the present and the future.” We educators are encouraged by our – er – leaders in the field to make the subject matter relevant to the students. Brava, Ms. Nash.

“Voting is important, but it is not enough.” “If we had waited for elected officials to desegregate lunch counters, 50 years later, we’d still be waiting. “

“The most critical question is, ‘What can I do?’ For anything to work, you must do it.” Ms. Nash reminded the students that, although Dr. King was an outstanding spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement, it was not his movement – it was a people’s movement. Any campaign for social change must be a people’s movement.

“Freedom is not something you get, and then you’ve got it; it’s a constant struggle.” Does that ring true, ladies?

And finally, her parting remarks: “I’d like you to know that, although we hadn’t met you [referring to the students in the audience], we loved you. Future generations are looking to you to do the same for them.” What an inspiring challenge! Here’s to the students of TCC, and to their fellow students across the country. May we find inspiration in the words of this great lady, and may we direct agapic energy toward building a better future for ourselves, and for future generations.

The Leftover Project: Curried Chicken and Rice Soup

Autumn tree in Jefferson Park  When autumn leaves begin to fall and noses begin to run, it’s time for chicken soup! In the spirit of frugal fun and saving money for the things that matter most, I continue my efforts to eliminate food waste by using up leftovers in creative ways. Today is a glorious autumn day in Tacoma, alternately bright and rainy, with a stiff wind that sends the clouds scuttling across the sky as if being chased by the frost-breathing wolves of winter. Autumn days like these call for soup. Here’s what I had:

  • Homemade chicken stock made from the carcass of a roast chicken that I’d saved in the freezer, (See below if you don’t already know how to do this, but you probably do.)
  • some chicken meat left over from the aforementioned roast bird, including the meat I’d picked off the bones after making the stock,
  • half a bag of “baby” carrots that were past their prime,
  • a few stalks of celery, also fading,
  • half an onion,
  • half a zucchini,
  • half a tomato,
  • about ½ cup of whipping cream left over from a previous recipe, (poireaux à la crème – leeks in cream sauce)
  • some Uncle Ben’s rice – the seasoned kind in the orange box, white rice and wild rice mix, and
  • curry powder.
  1. I diced up onion, carrots and celery, and sweated them in just a bit of olive oil in a medium saucepan with the lid on, stirring from time to time, until they began to soften – about five minutes.
  2. I added about 1 tsp. of curry powder and stirred that for a moment, then threw in the diced tomato and zucchini.
  3. Next, I added about four cups of the homemade chicken stock and stirred it well to scrape up the curried goodness from the bottom of the pan. In went the shredded chicken, about a cup and a half, about the same amount of cooked rice, a few cooked garlic cloves that had been in the cavity of the roast chicken, and the cream. After simmering for ten minutes, it was done. Delicious! Not heavy, despite the cream, with just a hint of spice from the curry, and very flavorful thanks to the homemade stock – perfect for an autumn day.

And another batch of leftovers is transformed! Tah-daahh!

curried chicken soup

For those who’ve never made stock from the carcass of a roasted chicken, you really must try it. Homemade chicken stock is so much more flavorful than that prepared stuff in a carton, and you can control the level of salt too. Here’s how I did it:

  1. I chopped up the holy trinity of onion, carrot and celery, one to two cups of each. You want to keep the amounts balanced, but you don’t have to be precise. When making stock, it doesn’t matter if the veggies are old and faded, or even a bit desiccated, as long as they’re not moldy or slimy.
  2. Here’s the sinful part – I’d basted this chicken with butter, so the frozen carcass was surrounded by a layer of combined chicken fat and butter. Pure gold! I hacked away at that frozen greasy goodness with a knife until I had enough to sauté my veggies in. Wow! The smell was amazing from the first minutes. Later I added some frozen parsley stems (saved for soup), a few bay leaves, about 2 tsp. of dried marjoram, and about 1 tsp. of poultry seasoning – I have two jars that I need to use up. I also sliced in a few cloves of garlic, and ground in plenty of black pepper.
  3. Next comes the frozen chicken carcass, of course, and enough liquid to cover. In the fridge I had half a carton of store-bought chicken broth – pretty flavorless stuff – so I supplemented that with some concentrated chicken “stock” in a little plastic tub, and plenty of water. I didn’t add any salt because the chicken concentrate is salty. I just added enough to cover the chicken bones – about eight cups of liquid in all. (You could use just water, but using the chicken stock concentrate and/or broth gives the finished product a richer flavor without having to reduce it for hours.) I brought all this to a boil and then turned down the heat to low, just high enough to keep it simmering.
  4. When it’s finished, after simmering for a few hours, the veggies are just cooked down to a sludge, having released all their goodness into the stock. So I drained the stock through a colander into a fresh pot. After 30 minutes or so, I picked the chicken meat off the bones and set it aside. Why is the meat always still hot enough to burn my fingers, no matter how long I wait? I threw the rest of the stuff away – it had done its job and died for a noble cause.
  5. Of course, the finished stock was greasy from all that butter, plus fat rendered from the chicken skin, so I put it into the fridge overnight. The congealed layer of fat looked like swamp sludge – don’t want that stuff running through my arteries. But cooking the stock with the chicken fat really adds to the flavor, even if you remove most of the grease before using the stock, which I did, of course. Just skim it off with a spoon and throw it away.

Happy soup-making this autumn! Do you have a favorite twist on chicken soup? If so, please share!

On Mixed Feelings and Therapeutic Walking

So many changes in such a short time! Since my retirement in mid-June, I have married the most wonderful man, moved back to the US, set up a new home in Tacoma, a new-to-me city, and am now trying to figure out how to live without deadlines and imposed schedules. It’s one thing to list all the fun and fulfilling things I’ll do when I have the time. It’s quite another to do those things once my time is my own. I’ve only had real success in one area, fitness – probably because my favorite classes are offered at a certain time (deadlines!). We’ve become quite the gym rats. My big plans for writing, cooking, entertaining, learning Spanish, and keeping up with this blog – well, it’s early days yet.

For the past three months, I’ve surfed the first waves of homesickness and culture shock, and have mostly kept my sanity. A few weeks ago, while downloading happy German beer-drinking songs for our first Oktoberfest party, I suddenly found myself weeping. That reaction surprised me; it was the first time that  a yearning for Germany really hit me, and it sort of punched me in the stomach. But last week another wave of change knocked me down but good. I’m still trying to blow metaphorical salt water out of my sinuses and catch my breath.

My ex-husband has died. The father of our wonderful daughter, he was a troubled soul, a complicated person, and his passing was sudden though not completely unexpected. I’m sure that some of you have had similar experiences; if a family member is the source of wonderful memories and yet has caused tremendous pain – well, it’s hard to know how to feel when s/he dies. Oh, we’re supposed to say only flattering, kind things about the dead, lest we be accused of – what? Tackiness? Cold-heartedness? Impiety? Well, I’m 52 years old and know my own mind and my own heart. I am going to feel what I feel and speak my own truth. He’s gone, and my feelings about that are – complicated.

But my dear daughter is devasted. She’s shown tremendous strength and wisdom in the past week, but she’ll be surfing waves of confusing emotion for a long time to come. I’m glad I was able to stay with her for those first days after she received the news – she lives in California – and I’m glad that her friends are circling the wagons and holding her up as she takes her first steps into life after Dad. Alas, his relationship with her was also complicated, and she has to deal with sorrow, anger, heartbreak – tremendous waves of emotion knocking her off balance.

So, what do you do between phone calls, e-mails, and bouts of tears? How do you pass the time after a death that’s changed your world? We walked. And walked, and walked, and walked.

I remembered San Francisco’s “Indian Summer,” a month or two of clear skies and mild temperatures that begins when school starts. But I don’t remember such heat! We were sizzling by the bay, with temperatures in the 90s. Despite the heat, just sitting on the couch and talking was too painful, so we walked. First all around the zoo, where we watched Magellanic penguins swim madly around their pool, trying to catch the dragonflies that zipped by just out of reach. Most of the animals were hunkered down in the shade, waiting out the heat of the day, but we silly humans just plodded on, talking in small, measured doses about painful subjects, and marvelling at the animals. The two-month-old giraffe baby was beyond precious – such long lashes! Such huge, liquid eyes! His mama watched over him protectively from the shade – smart lady. It was easier to talk about the animals and the heat than about the painful subject on both our minds.

Ghirardelli Square

The next day, we took BART into the city (San Franciscans call SF “the city.” A bit arrogant, perhaps, but it’s quite a city.) We emerged from the cool of the underground station into oppresive heat and blinding sun – something you just don’t expect in a town known for its fog. Between exclamations of “Holy cow, it’s hot!” and other expressions not appropriate for your tender ears, we darted like lizards from shady patch to shady patch. We ate salmon burgers and watched the sea lions battle for the most comfortable spot on the pier. Their cries of complaint sound like a combination of belching and cursing. A French tour guide called to them, “Hey, petit, petit, petit.” Really? These creatures are far from petit – more like overstuffed beanbag chairs, and it’s so funny to watch yet another one try to pile onto the bodies draped across the floating pier. We saw buskers, tourists from many lands, mad people shouting at invisible foes, a very talented spray-paint artist, and a naked toddler spashing in the bay. We visited art galleries where we saw orignial paintings and sculptures by none other than Doctor Seuss! (Check out his “unorthodox taxedermy” here: http://www.drseussart.com/unorthodox-taxidermy-description/ ) And we ended up at that holy temple of chocolate, Ghirardelli Square. I hadn’t seen these buxom mermaids since I was younger than my daughter is now. I love how lifelike they are, with bodies like those of real women – minus the scaly tails, of course. We listened to the musical stylings of a very talented gent who crooned jazz standards and played the clarinette. And, as we munched ice cream, we snuck in a few thoughts about that painful subject. Just a bit, between bites of sweet cold delight, to make the heartache and anger more palatable.

Buxom mermaids

Another day, we walked along the beach. Is there anything more charming that watching little children and dogs romp along the beach? We tried to help a distressed black and russet dachsund that was racing along the shoreline, in a panic because he couldn’t see his people who were surfing just a twenty meters away. He looked so worried, poor little guy. This was yet another good setting for talking about loss and grief – while in motion, while the people were merrily enjoying the gift of sun and sea.

flower children

On the final day, we walked all over Golden Gate Park, one of my very favorite places in the world. It was the last day of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and we wandered from meadow to meadow, sampling performances that ranged from traditional Malawian music to traditional bluegrass to modern country – Rosanne Cash – and folky-rock from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. We swayed under the fierce sun as the crowd sang along to “Mr. Bojangles.” Weaving their way through the crowd were some time-travelers – flower children selling, you guessed it, flowers for your hair. What heat! What a crowd! What wonderful music – and all of it free! There wasn’t much time to talk about painful memories and regrets over all that music – and so much the better for our battered hearts.

I think all this walking helped my daughter; it sure helped me. Grief and sorrow and bitter anger need to be nibbled at, digested slowly, and it’s good to wear out the body with walking when the heart is weary. We sleep better, I think, when our bodies have trekked across a distance. Even the most unquiet mind and the heaviest heart will eventually surrender to a well-earned rest. May my complicated ex rest in peace, and may my beautiful daughter heal and find comfort.