Soup holds a very special meaning in my world. It is nothing short of the elixir of life, I write without hyperbole. Just after my diagnosis, at the very moment when I realized I needed to take action and create a metaphysical shift in my being, I shunned the takeout dinners we had been eating as a family in shock and sounded a simple call to my community: to bring me soup. Soup flowed into our home in mason jars, Thermos, containers of every shape and size. The soups themselves brimmed with signs of home cooking, I noticed with longing at the time: irregularly cut vegetables, rich stock from its sojourn on the stove, a charming flavor imbalance that suggests a cook’s preference like a pinch less salt or dash less lemon. They filled me up, made me strong. I give them credit for saving my life, really.
They made me believe that there is something magical about soup, about sharing it. So I started to make it for people I love, too, as often as I could. Now I can say I am something of a soup lady, known for making soup and dropping it by before dinner.
A friend tells me that her grown sons return to her table when they know my soup is going to be around. Another says she always saves the last scoop for her kids, except for one she tasted while reheating it in a pot, a kind of blind love at first taste, and she stood at the stove and ate the rest. I left quarts for friends out in the snow, had my sons deliver a quart to an old widow a few doors down. Cooking soup for my friends and family on a regular basis, feeding their families as they had mine, is healing, too. I think about my community while making soup for them, wondering if they did the same for me, wondering if the cliché idea of love being an ingredient is actually true.
I think it is. I think foods can communicate love: through how they are prepared to how they are served; that the act of choosing a recipe always holds the cook in it, whether a sharing of one’s background or family or, if not contextually autobiographical, an offering of their taste or talent. It is giving a part of the cook’s home, time, and intention to nourish someone else. At my table, soup is particularly appreciated to share because it is one form I can eat as easily as another – it is a food that most people, regardless of food habits, can eat in common. It is easy to modify to the preference of its diner, I learned so well while in treatment and an endless sea of similar lentil soups arrived at my doorstep, adding pinches of this and that from my spice cabinet to transform each according to my whim.
Through cooking soup for friends, for making real food for real people rather than recipes for an anonymous reader I may never hear from as I’ve done for so long, I was given the gift of knowing my life in food isn’t over. That my idea of cooking wasn’t just a dream held in the years before I got sick, but could actually still flourish despite my restrictions. That my love for the way I eat now isn’t a delusion—it satisfies in more ways, not less. That making food, pouring love into my recipes, is something that hasn’t changed even when the ingredients did.
I told you before, but maybe now you’ll believe me: as far as I’m concerned, soup is the elixir of life.
Parsi Pumpkin and Bean Stew
Makes 3 quarts
The traditional version of this dish is quite spicy—we like to pass around a bowl of Sambal Oelek to get it there for those around our table that can take it. Though not traditional for Parsi cooking, it allows each of us to enjoy the spice level we prefer, and the garlic in the sauce pairs nicely with the flavors in the soup.
1/4 cup olive oil, or ghee or butter if not vegan
1 large onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger (from about 1-inch piece)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 small piece fresh turmeric, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon fresh; substitute 1 1/2 teaspoons dried, if necessary)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 bay leaves, fresh preferred
3/4 cup mung beans
3/4 cup red lentils
3/4 cup chickpeas
2 teaspoons Himalayan pink or Kosher salt
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice
1/2 small sugar pumpkin (about 1 pound), peeled, seeds scooped away and composted, and cut into 2-inch pieces
4 ounces (4 packed cups) torn spinach
1 / Heat oil in a Dutch oven or small stockpot over medium-high until hot; add onion. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is shiny, clear and tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in ginger, garlic, turmeric, coriander, cumin, cloves and bay. Add 8 cups water and beans; cover and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until beans are about halfway cooked, 30 minutes.
2 / Stir in salt, tomatoes and pumpkin. Simmer, partially covered, until squash and beans are tender, 20 minutes. Gently stir in spinach, taking care not to break apart squash. Serve warm. To store remaining soup, ladle into storage containers and cool completely before labeling with the date and transferring to freezer. Store in freezer up to 3 months.