Tag Archives: friendship

Silver and Gold Friends, Backpacking Through Europe, and Moussaka

     I was an avid Girl Scout when I was younger and I used to love to sing the camp songs that went along with scouting.  One of the popular tunes was called “Make New Friends.”  The lyrics tell you to make new friends, but keep the old because one is silver and the other gold. 

In the last couple weeks, I have had the opportunity to appreciate that refrain.  We moved to Alpine almost two years ago now and have begun to make new friends.  (It’s always harder when you don’t have kids to break the ice.)  Last week we invited some new friends/neighbors, Jacki and Wendell, over for dinner.  We met them at our yoga class down the street – our main social outlet.  We appreciated them immediately because they loved the outdoors and were always out hiking in the mountains nearby or running on the trails near our neighborhood.  To honor the occasion, we broke out one of our oldest recipes ever:  Greek Moussaka.  We only make this dish about every five to ten years because it is a little labor intensive and wonderfully (devastatingly) rich.  When we make it, we make lots of it – several casserole dishes worth.  I say “we” because this is a dish that Jay traditionally makes, with me playing sous-chef.  Anyway, we were happy we made lots because a week or so after our delightful evening with our new neighbors, one of my oldest friends, Wendela, whom I knew from high school and who was my first college roommate, came to visit.  Wendela too, is an outdoor kind of girl.  It had been ten years since we’d seen each other. She and I talked and caught up while we climbed Bell Bluff together.  It’s a good long hike and we were pooped when we got back home.  It was the perfect time to unfreeze some of our leftover Moussaka and enjoy it again with an old friend.

Jay (aka “Adam”)  in a fig tree on Crete, 1982
     I can’t even say the word “Moussaka” without immediately being transported back to the summer of 1982.  That’s the summer, a year after I met Jay, that we spent backpacking through Europe. Our travels took us to different countries in Europe from England to Scotland, Wales, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Switzerland, Holland, and Germany.  In Greece, Jay fell in love with Moussaka and tried it at every restaurant we went to, noting the subtle differences, paying attention to what he liked and didn’t like about various recipes.  When we got home, he set out to find a recipe that matched the ones he liked best.  The result is the recipe attached here.
     While cooking up Moussaka and memories from our backpacking trip through Europe recently, I turned to the journal that I kept on that trip more than 30 years ago.  I came upon following entry, written after 3 days on a train from Turkey to Switzerland. My journal says: 
     Spending many hours on a train leads to much soul-searching and thinking (if there’s anything left unsettled in your mind.)  Between reading my new book and watching the beautiful East Italian coastline, I did a lot of thinking about my own future.  Which way was right?  The unanswerable questions circled my mind and tortured me endlessly.  Should I go for Optometry?  6 years of hard study, challenge, a good income, but . . .then what??  Will I be content to look in peoples eye day after day.  I kept thinking it’s not fair I can’t do what I want to do:  write and teach.  Then I started thinking maybe I can, despite the education budget cuts, teacher cutbacks, low pay.  Maybe if I went for it and met some of the right people I could become a professor. On and on. Should I do this or this?
     Funny how some refrains, like the old Girl Scout song, keep turning up in one’s life!  30 years later, I am still musing about what to do with my life and wondering why I can’t just write and teach!  And in the next breath, thinking maybe I can . . .
     Backpacking through Europe served as a microcosm for what the next 30 years of my life would be: adventure and travel with my best friend, sprinkled with making new friends, sprinkled with mystical experiences, interspersed with experiencing peaks (profound love) and valleys (fights) with Jay, all recorded in a journal.  Even as I wonder what to do with my life, I find have been doing it all along – traveling and writing, appreciating friendships, searching for more, loving and struggling.  One of the last entries from my 1982 backpacking through Europe diary says this:
     Somehow I had grown accustomed to the haphazard lifestyle we’d been living:  being surrounded by castles, ancient monuments, impressive buildings, ruins, endless churches, cobblestone streets, trains, the underground system and people from all walks of the earth speaking foreign languages.  We’d been from the charming British countryside to the rugged incredible Swiss Alps, from sun bleaching dark tanning Greek isles to wild wet Holland. All along the way we were continuously amazed at how easily we adapted.  At each moment we barely seem fazed to be walking under the Eiffel Tower, climbing the Shilthorn, or exploring old ruins.  Throughout it all, we were just ourselves, feeling basic things:  I’m tired, let’s eat, where are we sleeping? . . .
     Looking back on it all, it seems fantastic — fabulous.  But, our adventures were ordinary for where we were at the time.  Everything felt natural.  Still, it seems obvious once back in America our stories will sound most exciting, and enviable.  Our pictures will look so interesting.  We will continuously recall the experiences of our summer in Europe.  Yet throughout it all, no matter where we were, the times that were best were those when we felt close to each other, had fun with each other regardless of (though taking advantage of) our surroundings. 
     “No matter where you go, No matter what you do or see or have, what matters most is who you have beside you.” 
     What I learned so long ago is that friends, old and new, but particularly best friends are so important, for these are people you can be close to and have fun with, regardless of your surroundings, regardless of the peaks and valleys of life.
     I offer you our oldest recipe, our Moussaka recipe, which you might note is written in Jay’s handwriting. May it enrich your life, too.
Original Recipe                                                            Alternatives
3 medium eggplants
3 large onions diced
We usually use sweet onions
2 lbs ground lamb or beef
We usually do half and half; omit to make this vegetarian
3 Tbs tomato paste
½ cup red wine
½ cup chopped parsley
¼ tsp cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
6 Tbs flour
We use potato flour
1 quart milk
4 eggs, beaten until frothy
2 cups ricotta cheese
Cottage cheese can be substituted (but I prefer ricotta)
1 cup fine bread crumbs
We get gluten free bread cubes like for stuffing and then pulse grind them in the blender
1 cup freshly grated parmesan
Olive oil (lots)
Potatoes – cooked and diced
·      Preheat oven to 375 degrees
·      Peel eggplants and slice ½” thick
·      Pour generous olive oil in skillet and brown the eggplant on both sides
·      Heat 4 Tbs butter in same skillet and brown onions
·      Add meat for 10 minutes
·      Combine paste with wine, parsley, cinnamon, salt & pepper, and add to meat
·      Simmer and stir
·      Prepare white sauce in separate pan by melting 8 Tbs butter and whisking in flour
·      Boil milk and add slowly to butter and flour mixture
·      Stir constantly
·      Cool mixture slightly then add in beaten egg, nutmeg and ricotta cheese
·      Add salt & pepper to taste
·      Grease a large pan (11 x 16) – or use multiple pans
·      Sprinkle bottom with bread crumbs
·      In our alternate and preferred version we add a layer of sliced potatoes on top of the bread crumbs
·      Arrange alternate layers of eggplant, meat with parmesan
·      Add white sauce on top
·      Bake for one hour until golden
·      This gets better each day!


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Meditation Retreats, Friendship, and Red Lentil Dal — an Indian Version of “Stone” Soup

     As a self-declared “peasant cook”  I have a natural affinity and appreciation for stone soup.  What could be better than combining all kinds of ingredients in the pot to create something new?  This recipe comes from – well all over the place, as it should–but essentially it is stone soup with an Indian flare.
     For me this soup has a way of stirring up memories hankering back to days of embarking on a spiritual journey, of attending and hosting meditation retreats, and of traveling to ashrams in India.   In fact before participating in a meditation community, I had never cooked Indian food and was unfamiliar with red lentils. I only knew of the larger brown lentils – and I didn’t much care for their very earthy flavor.  But red lentils, I found out, I like.  They are smaller, and both sweeter and a little nutty (something like the meditation community itself!)  They are a common main ingredient in vegetarian dal, and as such are full of protein and very filling.   They are the perfect starting ingredient to feed a large crowd.   They are the stone in this stone soup. The basic recipe for this red lentil soup, also known as Masur Dal, shown in the picture attached, was originally copied down at a gathering with fellow meditators.
     The legend of stone soup, while it starts out as a kind of trick, ends up being about a gathering of community–of coming together and sharing–of letting go of individual belongings to create something greater.  Do you recall the story?
     Weary travelers–let’s call them gypsies — come to a village carrying nothing more than an empty pot.   They are starving when they arrive but the villagers are not willing to share any of their food.  So the gypsies fill the pot with water and drop a stone in the pot. The actions spark the curiosity of the villagers. They ask the gypsies what they are cooking.  “Stone Soup” is the reply. “Come join us!” they say.  “It’s quite tasty, although it would benefit from a little salt.”  One villager decides he doesn’t mind parting with a little seasoning to help them out.   The gypsies stir the pot.  “It’s very good, but a carrot might add something too.”  Another villager decides he can offer up a carrot. “Maybe some pepper … “  And so word gets out and soon all the villagers have come round the pot, bearing their own addition to the soup pot.   As each villager lets go of something from his or her own cupboard, the soup is enriched and grows more delicious, and the villagers instead of resenting feeding the gypsies, anxiously await the new concoction and ultimately appreciate the potential for new friendship.
     A meditation gathering, coincidentally, is much the same–although perhaps the opposite is happening.  Weary travelers on our own spiritual journey, we gather together for support, initially unknowingly hanging on tightly to our thoughts and beliefs.  As we sit with our own self–we notice our thoughts and we practice gently letting them go.  Ultimately, we discover something more–a quiet fullness that is present in the gaps between our thoughts.  Later, we share with the group our experiences.  And, as a result of sharing our intimate selves with other, we gain friends.  
     So while a full pot is the hope of the stone soup ritual and an empty mind is the hope of a meditation retreat–it comes from the same principal of letting go of our attachments and opening to something unknown with curiosity.  And, whether we empty our minds or fill our pots,  when we come together in friendship and share, something greater than the individual is bound to be experienced.
     And so it was that my spiritual journey encouraged me to be curious and ultimately led me to meet new people and to have all kinds of new experiences, including enjoying new and delightful foods.  As Jay and I got to know the meditation community, it came to pass that we offered to host meditation retreats at our house.  We would gather in communal spirit for several days and nights together.  Because the intention was to meditate – not to host a party – the eating arrangements were to be vegetarian and very simple:  yoghurt, granola, fruit and nuts in the morning; fruit in the afternoon; a one pot meal plus salad in the evening.  All the guests brought potluck ingredients so that nobody was too burdened with cooking obligations.  We took turns being responsible for the evening meal.  
     At the end of one of these retreats, our good friend and meditation teacher Durga, announced that she was going to make an Indian Masur Dal. I watched her fill a large pan with small very pretty tiny red beans and was immediately intrigued.  What are those?  How do you cook them?  She rinsed the red lentils and added water to the large pot.  She had set out turmeric, coriander, cumin, ginger, garlic, curry and coconut milk.  She indicated the rest of the ingredients would come from leftovers of earlier meals. 
     I can’t help but pause now, thinking of Durga.  Let me just say Durga is truly a force unto nature herself – small in stature, but large in spirit and exuberance (and hair J) she fills a room with her presence.  Her name, which represents a Hindu goddess, is a kind of spiritual stone soup in itself:  Durga is said to combine the energies of all the gods and the weapons depicted in her many arms are weapons given to her by various gods:  Rudra’s trident, Vishnu’s discus, Indra’s thunderbolt, Brahma’s kamandalu, Kuber’s Ratnahar.  Whatever the case, in the last 15 years, my stone soup friend, Durga, has taught me much about meditation and about the spiritual journey, but perhaps most about friendship — Durga understands the value of friendship, and honors it as a supreme spiritual path unto itself.   For Durga, friendship is the stone in her spiritual soup.
     But back to the red lentil soup . . . as Durga indicated that day, once you have the basics, you can add whatever else you want.  The last time I made this, I literally added all the leftovers in my fridge: tofu, potatoes, peas, broccoli, bell peppers, rice, onions, pesto . . .  Shortly afterwards, we went on a mini vacation, but there was still some left.  I asked our pet sitter to give Gypsy (our dog) some on top of her food.  Gypsy, who once was a  stray, always gets some sort of human food on her dog crunchies.  I figured she was used to foraging for human leftovers;  she so clearly loves them all.  Besides, it makes me smile to add some to her dinner every night – dogs should enjoy stone soup too!
     When we returned our pet sitter had left us a note.  “Everything went well.  By the way, what was that soup that I put on top of Gypsy’s food?  It looked delicious!  Can I have the recipe?”   
     So here it is, friends – a stone soup with an Indian flare honoring the soul searching Gypsy in all of us.
Basic Recipe:
1 cup red lentils
3 Tbl olive oil
1 onion, chopped finely
3 cloves garlic
½ tsp minced ginger
I usually use more
1/2 tsp turmeric
½ tsp – 1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp coriander
½ tsp garam masala
½ tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp crushed pepper
3 cups water or chicken broth
1 can coconut milk
Common additional ingredients:
1 can or 2 tomatoes, diced
1 carrot, chopped or grated
1 -2 bell pepper, chopped
½ bunch green onions, chopped
Lemon or lime juice
Cilantro or parsley to garnish
Options for the “stone soup” part:
I tend to add whatever leftovers I have
cooked potatoes
cooked rice or quinoa
Jalapenos or cayenne
Cooked broccoli
  • Heat the oil in a big pot and cook onions and garlic for a couple of minutes
  • Add green onions, peppers, and carrots. Stir for 5 minutes
  • Add tomatoes, ginger, turmeric, curry, cumin, coriander, garam masala, cumin, mustard seeds, crushed peppers, and salt. 
  • Stir for another 5 minutes, and add red lentils and water or broth
  • Bring to boil then simmer until done
  • Pour in coconut milk and simmer 10 more minutes 
  • Add cooked leftovers
  • Garnish with cilantro. Squeeze a little lemon or lime juice on the soup.

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Thanksgiving Memories and Leftovers: Turkey Burritos!

     Thanksgiving is one of those holidays where bits and pieces of memories from years past weave their way through my mind creating a rich Thanksgiving tapestry of sorts.  So many stories come to mind and whole scenes from different eras in my life and lessons learned.
     When I was a young kid, Thanksgiving was not an extended family affair. This was because my parents were both European, and not only was our extended family too far away, they also didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.  My parents, who became US citizens of their own right, were dedicated to all American Holidays, however, and to make the occasion grand they always arranged for a traditional Thanksgiving feast and for us to share the day with family friends.
     Thus, even though I am of European descent, my memories of Thanksgiving as a kid include the sound of American football playing on the TV in the background, a bowl of whole nuts next to a roaring fire, and a very traditional feast with Turkey, cornbread, stuffing, rolls, some decadent vegetables/cream/cheese casserole, yams or sweet potatoes and of course mashed potatoes and gravy.  My favorite dish was the stuffing – specifically my mom’s version – which she must have had to figure out on her own without the benefit of family tradition . . . the torch got passed, however, and when I first got married and realized we wouldn’t be able to make it home for Thanksgiving, I called my mom to get her recipe.  (Below is the well-loved index card where I recorded her recipe.)
     The morning was always dedicated to cooking, the afternoon to eating and the balance of the evening to playing games. Pie and a walk generally happened at some point during the evening festivities.  In those days, the ultimate goal was to stay up long enough to have a turkey sandwich at midnight!
     Beyond the basics of the day, my memories of Thanksgiving also come with thoughts of gratitude and grace.  There have been many Thanksgivings where one or another person held us spellbound as they recited their version of grace, or where they shared their grandmother’s favorite grace, or made up their own, or where we all contributed and reflected on what we were thankful for.
     But I remember one Thanksgiving learning about another kind of grace too.  On this Thanksgiving we had been invited to my Auntie Jeanie’s house (she was a beloved adopted “auntie”). . . and now just thinking of her immediately makes me recall the moment, while she was in the process of dying, that she asked me to speak her eulogy, and me in reflecting on her beautiful life and it’s undeniable impact on me and those around her, summed her life up in two words: “dignity and grace.” Auntie Jeannie was lovely and charming  through and through.
     On this particular Thanksgiving, as we all sat down to dinner, we became aware that a Thanksgiving Day travesty had occurred:  the turkey was burned to an absolute crisp.  Auntie Jeannie, however, did not fret for even a second.  She never apologized.  She never worried about her cooking or what we all might be thinking or what we were going to do without a turkey.  She simply put the charcoal black turkey on a beautiful serving platter in the middle of the table and said simply “Oh, it looks bit black”.  Not a single additional word was said.  And, with that leadership, we all took heed and turned the focus back to each other and the conversation to more interesting topics.  There was plenty of other food and we feasted gloriously, turkey or not.
     To me this simple act captured the essence of grace.  She knew instinctively what was important that day–and the fact that she had burned the turkey was not the most important thing, not even worthy of further comment really.  We were, after all, ultimately most grateful to be spending the day together and enjoying each other’s company.
     Now so many years later, our Thanksgiving feast has had to change to accommodate wheat free, meat free, sugar free dietary constraints.  Thus many of the stalwart favorites that seem to be the cornerstones of a Thanksgiving feast are not options–is this a travesty?  Not a chance–no matter what ultimately ends up on the table, we get to spend the day together cooking and conversing – what could be better?
     Below is our menu from this year’s Thanksgiving feast:
·      One small turkey breast (for the non-vegetarians)
·      One Quorn Turk’y Roast (a meat-free, non soy product)
·      Gluten Free Vegetarian stuffing (see below)
·      Mashed Potatoes
·      Vegetarian Gravy (Allrecipes.com)
·      Red Onion, Orange and Grapefruit salad
·      Green Beans with shallots and onions (WholeFoodsmarket.com)
·      Sweet Potato and Pistachio Quinoa (Food.com)
·      Stevia Sweetened Pumpkin Pie in a nut crust
     I don’t plan to write out all the recipes–just the gluten free vegetarian stuffing, (But, if you are interested, feel free to contact me for any of the recipes above) It was a fabulous feast!  Old stories were told and new ones were born . . . .
Gluten Free Vegetarian Stuffing:
Mom’s recipe                                                Udi’s                                                Mine
1 lb loose pork sausage – spiced with salt, pepper, nutmeg, sage, poultry seasoning
Omit –see seasonings added below
Prepared spiced bread crumbs (Pepperidge Farms)
1 loaf Udi’s Whole Grain Gluten Free Bread; 1 loaf Udi’s White Sandwich Gluten Free Bread
1 loaf Schar Classic White gluten free bread; ½ loaf gluten free rye bread
2 -3 onions chopped
2 onions chopped
2 onions chopped
Chopped celery (lots)
½ cup chopped celery
1+ cups chopped celery
Homemade chicken broth
1 cup low sodium chicken broth
1 cup vegetable broth
1 egg optional
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 eggs, lightly beaten
chopped parsley
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup chopped flat parsley
1 Tbl chopped flat parsley
3 Tbl chopped fresh sage
3 Tbl chopped fresh sage
½ cup chopped fennel
1 Tbl ground fennel seed
Some of mom’s seasonings added to taste:  nutmeg, rosemary, thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Salt and pepper to tasteMom’s version:  Fry pork then sauté onions in pork fat
··    Mom’s version:  Fry pork then sauté onions in pork fat
·      Gluten Free version – make bread cubes:
o   toast bread and cut into cubes, put in a bowl with parsley sage, salt and pepper
·      Vegetarian version:  sauté onion in olive oil
·      To onion mixture add fennel, celery
·      Combine onion mixture with bread crumbs  and add eggs, stock, cream and gently toss
·      Add any extra seasoning to taste
·      Transfer to a buttered shallow baking dish and bake covered for 30 minutes at 325 degrees; to brown cook uncovered for an additional 20 minutes
So Thanksgiving, 2011 has come and gone, but I will leave you with one final postscript and my favorite recipe using Thanksgiving leftovers, which I picked up from my mother-in-law and which has become a tradition in our house too:
Turkey Burritos!
These turkey burritos are no ordinary burritos —no these infamous burritos include all the thanksgiving dinner leftovers:
·      mashed potatoes
·      turkey (cut into cubes) or Quorn
·      stuffing
·      green beans or other vegetable casserole
·      gravy
·      sweet potatoes
·      cranberry sauce
·      everything! – all mixed up in one big skillet.
     After heating and mixing all the leftovers in one big skillet, you wrap it all up in a tortilla (corn or flour) and add a little homemade salsa (tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno) and voila! Yum!!! – McCandless Family Turkey Burrito leftovers — perfect peasant cooking food.
     So, take a look in your fridge – are there still Thanksgiving Day leftovers?  Forget about Turkey soup – make Turkey Burritos.  You will love them.

And last but not least my mom’s stuffing recipe, faithfully recorded and, as I mentioned, showing much love from Thanksgivings past . . .


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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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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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