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Mexican Adventures, Coming Home and Tortilla Soup

     The signature recipe at our house has become “Tortilla Soup” and for me it signifies coming home. Just the words alone immediately bring to mind the joy of being surrounded by family and friends.  Tortilla Soup has become the recipe we fix every time the kids come home from college, the recipe we choose to greet travelers after a long flight, the one we choose when we want a new friend to feel relaxed and comfortable at our house. It captures, for me, the quintessential essence of peasant cooking at its best–not exactly stone soup, but a kind of “condiment” soup (with all sorts of extras that can be added according to the tastes and desires of the tastee)–and of course there is always the fact that it comes with a Mexican flair!  
     Mexico comes with somewhat of a bad rap these days, but for not for me. Mexico is near and dear to my heart.  I’ve been to Mexico over 20 times and many of them have been wild and wonderful adventures. Making Tortilla Soup for me is an opportunity to choose from a collection of memories (sort of thought condiments) to flavor my day–which ones do I want to taste and smell and remember today?
     If I am very relaxed I might remember the summer I met my husband and we drove down to San Carlos and camped on the beach.  I learned to spear fish and caught my one and only fish on the first try–mostly to prove I could do it–after that I always seemed to subtly jerk my hand at the last moment and miss . . . I remember that while driving back home on that trip my car broke down in Tijuana and in the space of an instant, I completely panicked, convinced we would never make it back home – we’d become destitute living on the streets of Tijuana – we’d end up in a Tijuana jail (you know how the mind gets going sometimes. . .) Jay said he’d never let that happen; he would make sure we found our way home even if he had to push the car all the way back over the border.  I believed him 100% and probably fell in love that day. 
     I might remember another time, like when we drove from Washington State to the Yucatan Peninsula in an old Toyota truck with an orange wooden canopy – the thing required us to change the spark plugs about every 100 miles and looked so bad even the Mexicans felt sorry for us . . . but we had treasures hidden beneath the scruffy exterior (kind of like we all do) including scuba gear, an air compressor, an inflatable boat and engine.  We made our way across the country to “La Playa Mas Bonita Del Mundo” – the most beautiful beach in the world — where we built a hut on the beach from driftwood and palm fronds, and spent days scuba diving and living off our catch.  It was paradise . . . until I got barracuda poisoning . . .
     In later years, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a mid-life crisis and decided to escape what we saw as the rut and rat race of suburban living and move with our four and seven year old girls to a remote fishing village in Mexico, called Yelapa.  I always thought living in Yelapa was something like life as described in the Little House on the Prairie books.  There were no cars, no phones, no electricity . . . we walked everywhere and our days were divided between walking to the big beach for fun and entertainment – a twenty minute walk away one way– homeschooling, and walking to one of the three tiny little grocery stores to pick up food for that day’s meal – oh and checking for scorpions  . . . I could write a book about our experiences living in a Palapa in Yelapa . . . but suffice it to say, it was there we came to fully appreciate Mexican cooking: handmade tortillas picked up fresh from a local woman, young coconuts for drinking pulled right off the tree, papaya sprinkled with lime juice, mangoes, black beans, cheese, cilantro, rice, tomatoes, jalapenos, fresh caught seafood . . . oh Yum!
     My Tortilla Soup condiment thoughts can just as easily transport me to the quiet space of a meditation retreat, for we traveled many times to partake in one that took place in an enchanting old hacienda hundreds of years old set in the hills above Taxco.  It was essentially a mini village with cobblestone roads, its own church, a swimming pool, multiple impressive stone edifices, mysterious ruins up vine covered trails, and abundant loquat trees–it was pretty much like being on a Harry Potter set–so magical and the people so wonderful and the ashrama so still.  Our teacher used to say that the Mexican people were the closest to God and Mexico was the heart of the World.
     That is certainly true for me, for it was in Mexico–on a women’s journey led by a toltec shaman and a Mayan priestess and with women from all over the world, that the veil–the one that keeps us from fully experiencing the astonishing sacredness of life–lifted, and I found my way home to my own heart . . .
     It was immediately after this sacred journey to the heart in Mexico that we were moved across the country to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and it was there that I learned to make Tortilla Soup.  Luckily for me, the heart of Chapel Hill was Whole Foods, which was located a convenient 6 minutes from my house.  Whole Foods became the source from which I would try to re-establish a feeling of home for our relocated family, who were all missing the companionship and comfort of extended family and friends. 
     During this time, I would wander through the aisles of Whole Foods in bliss–all the beautiful vibrant produce seemed to be glowing–and all our food sensitivities were easily accommodated with healthy and interesting options! I loved going to Whole Foods.  It became the center of my day.  It wasn’t long before I purchased the Whole Foods Cookbook and discovered their recipe for Tortilla Soup. I have copied below the page from the original Whole Foods Cookbook I bought nine years ago.  You can see it is a well-loved page.  I’ve added a few of my own touches, but not too many.  Tortilla Soup has become our family’s comfort food, a symbol of being home, and to this day it regularly graces our table.
     Well, it seems like it is time to let loose the memories and get on with joy of cooking itself . . . We have an old friend visiting, one that co-incidentally also visited us when we lived in Yelapa.  He is a vegan and this recipe is very easy to make vegan.
     Today is a Tortilla Soup kind of day . . . (but my daughter warns me another one better be just around the corner because she is coming home next week . . . .)
Tortilla Soup (adapted from the Whole Foods Market Cookbook)
Original Spicy Chicken version:                      Vegetarian/Vegan substitutes and
other alternatives I use:
 1/8 cup canola oil
(I usually use olive oil)
1 medium red pepper, seeded and chopped
Note:  I use whatever color peppers I have and often add orange and yellow peppers because it looks pretty
1 medium green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 medium red onion, chopped
Note:  I usually use a sweet white onion instead
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp dried oregano or 1/8 cup fresh
1 tsp cumin
Note:  I always hand grind my whole cumin and add a little extra
¾ tsp chili powder
Note:  different chili powders taste different, so experiment to see what you like – I use the one Costco sells
1 jalapeno, chopped and seeded
Leave some seeds in for extra heat
1 can diced canned tomatoes with juice
I use organic canned tomatoes or fresh
4 cups water or chicken broth
4 cups vegetable broth
(Note:  I always make it with broth and like the organic Pacific brand for both vegetable and Free Range Chicken)
1 -2 organic free range chicken breasts
(I cut these up into bite size pieces before putting it in the soup – Note:  this is easy to do with frozen breasts)
Omit for vegetarian option
1 (15 ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
I use either organic Eden or Goya
2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
I use organic frozen usually
½ cup minced cilantro
I serve mine on the side
Salt to taste
The Condiments:
Minced cilantro
Diced ripe avocado
Grated pepper or Monterey jack cheese
Vegan soy or other imitation cheese
Extra jalapenos chopped
Handmade tortillas strips (recipe below)
I buy a stack of the inexpensive Mexican brand sold at local grocery stores
Yoghurt or sour cream
·       Heat the oil in a deep dutch oven over medium high heat
·       Saute the peppers, onion, garlic, oregano, cumin and chili powder for 3 minute, until the onion is translucent, stirring often. 
·       Add the jalapeno and tomatoes; continue stirring for one minute
·       Add the broth and the chicken pieces
·       Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes
·       Add the black beans and corn and return the soup to a boil, then reduce to low simmer and season with salt.
·       Prepare the cilantro, avocado, cheese, jalapeno and yoghurt condiments and place in separate serving bowls for each guest to add to their own soup
·       Prepare the handmade tortillas strips (hint– it is key to make your own):
o   Take a stack of tortillas about 1 -2 inches high and cut in half; then stack both halves on top of each other and make 1/8 inch wide slices through all layers to make strips
o   Cover the bottom of a frying pan with oil; 
o   Heat the oil over medium heat
o   Sprinkle the hand cut strips over the oil; season generously with salt
o   Stir and turn the strips until they brown and get little crunchy
o   Serve these separately for guests to add to their soup.
     And here it is – the well loved page from my Whole Foods Market Cookbook:

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Cookies and Milk for World Peace

     So today is 11/11/11 and all around the globe folks are pausing to remember what brings them joy and to envision world peace.  I know I did.
     I hadn’t planned on posting a blog today, since I just posted one yesterday, and I surely won’t manage to post one every day . . . more likely every week  . . .but I got to thinking about a day dedicated to World Transformation, and about what brings me joy and I decided I would like to post something sweet–alternatively sweet that is.  Because, well . . . I believe it’s important to reach out and share sweetness, whenever and wherever you can.
     Like all moms know, there is something inherently good about baking cookies.  It’s a way to fill the house with yummy sweet smells, to create an opening to sit down with a glass of milk or a cup of tea and relax for a moment, to support your child while they are doing homework, to support your spouse after a long day of work–it’s a time honored way to say “I love you” Bottom line, in my book: cookies and milk are a good thing.
     So when I discovered that my five-year-old daughter could not tolerate sugar, and when I learned my husband could not eat gluten, I immediately recognized that I would have to improvise.  How could I raise a child or nourish my husband without ever baking cookies? 
     I know, I know . . . . cookies are not the most important thing and there are lots of ways to show love  . . . and what about all the health detriments to eating too many sweets anyway ?        . . .  but still . . .
     Perhaps I was so drawn to the need for cookies because I grew up with European parents and it was absolute tradition in our house to have tea every morning and tea and a cookie every afternoon.  It wasn’t overindulgent.  It didn’t make us fat or wigged out.  It was a good thing.  And plus we had the wisdom of my Oma balancing things out–by the end of her creative and inspiring life that included harboring Jews during the war, and working for the underground, her single most important piece of wisdom:  Everything in Moderation.   That’s all. 
     Thus, with my time honored European traditions ensconced and my grandmother’s words to guide me, I set out to create a recipe for my daughter for chocolate chip cookies that was sweetened with alternative products and then a version for my husband that was gluten free. 
     I had a few other goals too. I wanted them to be filled with protein because I understood that protein would help balance the ill effects of sweets.  (There were few power bars in those days!) And . . . . and this was important  . .. they had to taste good because I had decided I was going to share them with my daughter’s kindergarten class.
     Below is the recipe on the original piece of paper I typed it out on–the handwritten notes below the typing comprise the gluten free version I came up later. 
     Before we get started cooking though, though, I want to really set the stage.  After testing these cookies out I took all the ingredients in to the kindergarten, having arranged for a special demonstration with the teacher.  We spent some time learning about sugar and learning about all the different products that contain a popular derivation of sugar:  high fructose corn syrup.  We looked at labels and I got the kids to try to imagine what it would be like if they couldn’t have any of those things, like my daughter.  No candy treats from the teacher for completing their math page, no Halloween candy, no donuts or cupcakes or kids cereal . . . . . they all looked horrified. 
     But then I told them that it was okay because we had learned there are always alternative ways to treat ourselves and others and these were often healthier, more creative and fun.  Halloween didn’t mean no dressing up and trick or treating, it meant swapping her sugar filled treats for wrapped up prizes when she got home.  And not being able to eat sugar, didn’t mean no chocolate chip cookies, it meant we had to figure out how to make them with out sugar, and we were there to have the whole kindergarten class pitch in and make a batch that we would taste test then and there that day!  The five year olds all pitched in and made the chocolate chip cookies with the unusual ingredients and they all declared they loved them!
     It’s always amazing what happens when you invest your own time and energy into making something happen . . . like pausing and taking a moment to envision World Peace, for instance . . 

Perhaps, like we found with Sugar Free, Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies, there are all kinds of alternative ways we can treat ourselves and each other that are healthier, more creative and fun.
     Anything is possible, always.
     So finally . . . without further storytelling transgressions, here are my original Sugar Free Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies and Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies.  Be prepared for a surprise ingredient right out of the shoot!
Sugar Free Oatmeal Chocolate Chip      Gluten Free Sugar Free Chocolate Chip
1/3 cup soft tofu
1/3 cup soft tofu
1/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup canola oil
¼ cup liquid fruit sweet or concentrated fruit juice
¼ cup chocolate or vanilla whey protein powder (alternative)
½ cup sucanat or granulated fructose
(or substitute coconut palm sugar)
½ cup sucanat or granulated fructose
(or substitute coconut palm sugar)
¼ cup honey (or use more fruit sweet)
¼ cup honey
1 TBl vanilla
1 TBl vanilla
¾ cup unbleached flour
¼ cup potato flour;
¼ cup white rice flour;
½ cup teff flour
(or substitute ¾ cup pre-packaged Gluten Free Flour such as by Bob’s Red Mill)
2 cups rolled oats
1 cups gluten free oats (optional)
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp sea salt
2 cups grain sweetened chocolate chips (look for these in health food stores like Whole Foods or Sprouts)
2 cups grain sweetened chocolate chips (look for these in health food stores like Whole Foods or Sprouts)
1 cup walnuts (optional)
½ cup ground cashews
½ cup ground pecans
¼ cup sesame seeds
·    Blend Flour(s), baking soda, and salt and set aside
·       Blend tofu
·       Add oil, (whey powder) fruit sweet, vanilla, sucanat or fructose, and honey;
·       Add honey and mix until well blended
·       Add oats to flour mixture
·       Add nuts and mix
·       Fold in chocolate chips
·       Drop by teaspoon on well-oiled cookie sheet
·       Bake 13 – 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
·       For softer cookies cool on counter surface; for crunchier cool on cookie sheet
(Versions of this recipe replace the oil with peanut butter and cream cheese and I now often use coconut palm sugar instead of fructose or sucanat.)
     So, all I have left to say is: 
     World Peace and Chocolate Chip Cookies in the same day?  Sweet!



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Peasant Cooking, Storytelling, and Swiss Potato Soup

     I think of myself as a “peasant cook” –not really sure how I came up with the term, it just feels right.  I have learned since that there is an entire Facebook page dedicated to “peasant cooking”.  Well, for me, the term  captures the essence of using what is available, substituting liberally, usually ending up with a “one pot” meal (and a particular propensity for soups.) I think of peasant cooking as earthy, magical,  and messy rather than beautiful, refined,  and gourmet.   For me it is a hands on sensual art that reverts to simple tools, rather than technology. I think of my kitchen as my hearth – a place where people gather for warmth and comfort, for good nourishing food, and to swap stories – and I like that it contains the word “heart”  within it, because ultimately that is what cooking (and story telling) is for me–an expression and extension of love.
     Cooking wasn’t always this way for me.  When my children were younger I had begun to think of cooking as a chore–something that had to be done, rather than something I wanted to do.  Various members of my family had allergies, so it became necessary for our meals to be gluten free, sugar free and eventually vegetarian or at least optionally vegetarian.  At the time there was very little prepared food that met these criteria so I had to cook everything from scratch.  I realized one day that I had adopted an attitude that all the work involved in cooking was not appreciated (not that that was true . . . just what I thought . . .)
     I decided to offer myself encouragement–since it was obvious the need for cooking was not going to go away.  Every day that I set dinner down on the table I made a little proclamation “Oh my goodness, can you believe it!  I did it again – I actually made dinner and got it to the table!!”  This caused some giggling from the half pints and as I continued day after day to make these proclamations at dinner, the whole idea caught on.  Pretty soon, the kids were the ones who would say “Look Mom – you did it again!  You fixed us a yummy dinner!!”  That was the start.  Then I discovered that all the allergies I had to contend with were a huge blessing in disguise for it led me down avenues I never would have considered and forced me to research, to get involved.  I started investigating ethnic recipes – Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Ethiopian, Korean, Chinese, Latin American, German, Swedish, Dutch, Swiss — that focused on rice or corn or potatoes instead of wheat and bread; I wandered down health food aisles looking for alternatives to sugar, such as barley malt, fructose, cane juice and found also interesting grains like millet and quinoa, and vegetarian alternatives such as Quorn, tofu, tempeh.
     I began to look forward to cooking and started entering into the act of cooking with more intention and awareness.  At some point during the day I would peruse recipes to get ideas.  Then at 4 pm I would put on music, enter my kitchen and clean it – before I started cooking —  I would announce to myself (or others if they were around) that I had to prepare my temple.  What I found was that preparing myself and my kitchen this way helped me relax and really enjoy the task at hand. I noticed a gentle contemplative or musing (as opposed to frenetic) quality to my thinking; memories  mixed with imagination brewed harmlessly in the background just as the ingredients of my latest version of stone soup simmered.
     I learned things about myself, too. I discovered that I would much rather hand mince garlic than use a garlic press – and that I would rather individually chop my vegetables than use a food processor.  I liked the feel of the food in my hands.  I began to pay attention to the different spices called for in recipes and learned the joy of releasing the fragrance of fresh spices in a mortar and pestle (my favorite kitchen implement to this day). I noticed the colors in food and would create with attention to color as well as taste and smell.  In short, I began to feel like a kitchen goddess.
     So, without further ado . . . let’s begin.
     Today we are having Swiss Potato Soup.
     Just saying those words, brings a whole era to my mind and I think fondly of the many times I have pulled this recipe out.  I have included it here below in its original form, which I wrote 28 years ago, because the mottled, torn, well loved, imperfect, handwritten index card tells something all by itself.
     And as I sit here now, ready to explain more and recreate it in a more legible form, I remember the woman who gave me the recipe. . .
     She was my Greek and Latin tutor and at the time, I thought she was the coolest person I knew.  (I was 22 at the time;  she was about my age now)  She was super hip with short red hair, a dynamite figure and a flair for style. She was warm and engaging, and absolutely dynamic.  I wanted to be just like her when I grew up.  She taught me Greek and Latin in the evening at her house down the street from UCLA.  When I started taking her classes, she had just moved to a gorgeous little house on Westwood Blvd in Los Angeles. She gave me a little tour of her house and I remember being totally impressed that her four poster bed sat on hardwood floors in the dead middle of a sparsely decorated room that had a high ceiling.  Behind and to the side of the bed were giant tropical plants of all shapes.  The effect was like sleeping in the jungle.   I remember too that she told me how her first husband had died suddenly from melanoma.  The room was quiet and still when she shared that.  And in that singular moment, she taught me about reverance.
     She taught me about cooking too.  She sort of instinctively knew that I was struggling, living in my first little tiny house with my fiancé, on a budget and having to come up with dinners.  She announced to me that along with Latin and Greek lessons, she was going to share a recipe with me each week.  She said I should start with the basics, something simple and brought me into her kitchen and had me write down (on the index card you see below) her recipe for Swiss Potato Soup.
     So you see, whenever I decide to cook Swiss Potato Soup, as I do about 4 or 5 times a year it comes with the loveliest of baggage.  I can’t help but smile.  The memories of being a college student, of just starting life out, of the warmth and caring of others, they all come rushing back and I can’t help but think the soup is filled up with that too.
Swiss Potato Soup  (aka Potato Leek Soup):
Original recipe                                                            Substitutions
6 slices bacon         
Tempeh or chicken sausages (3)
3 (cooked) potatoes
2 large leeks (chopped)
1 turnip
I omit this, if I don’thave one
6 cups chicken broth         (free range organic—I like to think of happy, healthy  chickens)
Vegetable broth
2 cups minced onions
1 cup sour cream
1 cup nonfat greek yoghurt
Pepper, salt
Often omit because I don’t have it
  • Fry Bacon or chicken sausage and set aside; retain grease.  (For tempeh, see recipe below)
  • Add leeks and onions and sauté in hot grease or olive oil (I add a little salt to the olive oil, if I don’t use hot grease)
  • Add to a dutch oven the leeks, onions, cooked potatoes (cut into pieces), turnips and broth.
  • Bring to a boil then simmer for 15 minutes
  • Puree mixture in a blender. (Careful!  I had this explode in my face once . . . but that’s another story . . .)
  • Return pureed mixture to Dutch Oven; heat back to boiling briefly
  • Stir in sour cream or yoghurt and bits of sausage, bacon or tempeh.
  • Salt and Pepper to taste – it will take quite a bit of salt
  • Use parsley, if you like, for garnish
Serve with bread.  I like to make a special loaf of Bob’s Red Mill Hearty Whole Grain (Gluten Free) Bread.  It is sooo yummy and goes well with the soup!
Tempeh (that tastes like bacon):
One package tempeh (I buy organic garden veggie tempeh from Lightlife)
Wheat free Tamari (or soy sauce)
Olive oil – about 2 Tbls
  • Slice the tempeh into about 1/8th inch pieces
  • Fry in about 2 Tbls oil with 1 -2 cloves of minced garlic
  • Turn each piece over to brown each side
  • When brown sprinkle the tamari over the tempeh
  • Crumble the tempeh pieces up and add it to the top of the soup

Note this is a very handy recipe on its own–try making a BLT with it.  It’s amazing; it tastes just like bacon!  I learned with trick from a macrobiotic cook who lived with us for a while.  It’s one of those recipes we come back to again and again.


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