No regrets in the kitchen : A lentil soup for the sleepless soul

3 beans

At 3:30 a.m. I lie awake in bed, star­ing over the mound of blan­ket that is my hus­band next to me, over to the fuzzy wall behind him. Fuzzy, only because I am near blind with­out my glasses on or con­tacts in.

I am par­a­lyzed with anx­i­ety. Para­lyzed. A mil­lion thoughts run through my head, mostly about things that I could have done but did not do over the last, oh, say, 10 years. Regret is an unfriendly beast, my friends, and it keeps you up on a week­day morn­ing for two hours at a time.

I regret a hand­ful of things in my near thirty years of exis­tence. Some are small — cer­tain hair­styles from the 3rd and 4th grades, for exam­ple. But some are way big­ger than I’ll ever be able to fully tackle — the mild depres­sion in my first year of col­lege that led to weird social habits, the way I han­dled my move to New York and my first apart­ment, my lack of bud­get­ing habits and con­versely my keen knack for spend­ing, and there is, lest I ever for­get, my poor career choices. Oh, career, how I hate you as a con­cept. I ran through a lot of –what if’s?- last night, many sce­nar­ios deal­ing with my career, and two hours later I was still up, putting this blog post together in my head. Well, at least I can be pro­duc­tive while sleep-deprived.

lentil soup

I don’t believe peo­ple when they say they have no regrets. The Diplo­Man says he doesn’t have any. He also doesn’t “miss” things, because he says he’s always look­ing for­ward to what’s to come. Well, he’s my Super­man, so he doesn’t count. For the rest of us imper­fect human beings, we make mis­takes — lots of them — and some of these lead to feel­ings of regret. 99% of the time, I’m regret free, but then there are those spaces in my life, the mere 1% of times when I sit in a quite void of dark­ness (like 3:45am on a Thurs­day morn­ing), star­ing into noth­ing and think­ing about everything.

There’s a solu­tion though, which to me comes when I’m exhausted down to my bones at 5a.m. and there’s noth­ing really left to think about. When I become deliri­ous with frus­tra­tion, I’m finally able to con­front regret, mourn it, leave it, and look for­ward. Because until they invent time travel, think­ing about what I would have done serves no pur­pose. It’s just too bad it takes me awhile to get to this point.

lentil soup_2

Don’t get me wrong, usu­ally I’m look­ing for­ward. Most days it feels pretty good, some­times it’s just mediocre, and most recently, it’s been pretty great. For exam­ple, as hor­rid as my career tra­jec­tory has been in the past, I’ve recently been look­ing for­ward to estab­lish­ing my own thing (what­ever that means) and one day hav­ing the oppor­tu­nity to share it with the world. I’m look­ing for­ward to explor­ing new parts of the United States, after much time explor­ing parts abroad. I’m look­ing for­ward to my time in DC, which I’ve come to love so much as my new adopted home­town. I’m look­ing for­ward to the win­ter, and look­ing for­ward to steam­ing hot bowls of soup to sus­tain my days out East.

My dear part­ner in life only likes one kind of soup, though — that of the lentil vari­ety — so I’m forced to make the best ver­sions of lentil soup I can pos­si­ble make, in hopes to one day veer him to the path of say, chicken tor­tilla soup, or mine­strone, or but­ter­nut squash. Wait, no, this dear hus­band of mine also cares not a lick about squash, nor beets, nor sweet pota­toes, nor brus­sels sprouts. Seri­ously, what’s a woman to make for din­ner from September-March???

spoon of lentil soup

For now, lentil soup will most def­i­nitely do. In the kitchen, I’m able to con­fi­dently say I have no regrets. I can take full con­trol and make some­thing out of noth­ing. So look­ing for­ward, I’m will­ing this win­ter to be a nice cold one, and I’m will­ing a ton of lentil soup to be made. My first pot of the sea­son was upon my return from New Orleans, and was rich with a lovely oxtail soup base and sweetly fla­vored with a mire­poix of leeks and salt ham. It was thick­ened, not only with lentils, but with 3 dif­fer­ent types of beans as well. If I’m doing a lentil soup, I’m hav­ing no regrets.

Lentil Soup for the Soul

  • 1 cup assorted beans, soaked (will come to be 2–3 cups)
  • 4 oz. salt pork
  • 1/2 large yel­low onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 large leek, finely sliced
  • 1 small car­rot, diced into small cubes
  • 1 rib cel­ery, diced into small cubes
  • 1 small rus­set potato, diced into 1/8-inch cubes
  • 1 cup lentils (I used black and yel­low lentils)
  • 6 cups oxtail stock (see recipe below)
  1. Soak beans overnight. For quick-soak method, add water over beans and boil. Once water comes to a boil, cook for two min­utes, then turn off heat and cover with a lid. Set aside for one hour. Drain. (For this soup, I used pinto beans, can­nelini beans, and split peas)
  2. In a large pot, heat a bit of oil over high heat and add onion and leek. Sauté for 3 min­utes, and add salt pork. When pork begins to turn white, add car­rot and cel­ery. Cook for 5–7 min­utes, stir­ring occa­sion­ally. Add drained beans and lentils, stir, then add stock. Add a pinch of salt and pep­per. Cover and turn heat to medium-low, and sim­mer for 45 minutes.
  3. After 45 min­utes, add the pota­toes. If soup is low, add more water to your lik­ing — the soup can be as thick or watery as you like. Cover and cook for another 30–45 minutes.
  4. Serve hot. It’s lovely with a dol­lop of Greek yogurt.
Yield: 3 Quarts Soup, serves 8–10

Oxtail Stock

**I was going to make a lovely pork broth out of pork neck bones as I’m apt to do, but Whole Foods had NO NECK BONES OR ANY OTHER BONES WHATSOEVER. The only thing they had were oxtails, which were fine, but c’mon! You call your­selves a butcher counter???!!?

  • 1 lb. oxtail bones
  • 1 large car­rot, cut into 6 pieces
  • 1 large yel­low onion, cut into quarters
  • 2 ribs cel­ery, cut into 8 pieces
  • fen­nel fronds (I keep these in my freezer, cut off from when I use fen­nel in salads)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp. peppercorns
  • 1 Tbsp. salt
  • 8–10 cups water
  1. Wash oxtail bones under water. In a large pot of boil­ing water, drop oxtail bones in and cook for 3 min­utes. Drain, and rinse bones again. (I do this with most bones before cook­ing in soup or stock; it gets rid of a lot of excess fat and gristle)
  2. In a large clean and dry pot, heat 2 Tbsp of olive oil over high heat. Add onion, car­rot, cel­ery, and fen­nel fronds. Brown veg­eta­bles, if pos­si­ble. After 3–5 min­utes, add oxtail and sear sides. Cook for a 5–7 min­utes, and add water to top of the pot. Throw in the bay leaves, pep­per­corns, and a spoon­ful of salt. Cover.
  3. When water comes to a boil, turn heat to low. Sim­mer for about 2 hours.
  4. Drain veg­eta­bles and oxtail into a con­tainer using a sieve. Use stock imme­di­ately, or reserve for another time.

Yield: 4 quarts of stock

Magic beans

Beans are sur­pris­ingly omnipresent in tra­di­tional Chi­nese cook­ing. But rather than being served as a sim­ple stand­alone side dish as com­mon in West­ern prepa­ra­tion meth­ods, beans here serve more of a holis­tic pur­pose. Sup­ple­mented with things like gin­ger, ani­mal bones, and var­i­ous herbal addi­tions, beans are boiled into med­i­c­i­nal soups. One woman I recently met was recount­ing sto­ries from her youth of her fam­ily always mak­ing a soup from one type of bean, mixed with spe­cific ingre­di­ents to keep their insides from get­ting too hot. It was made at least once a week, and she warned not to over-cook the beans and the soup– cook­ing more than 3–4 hours would release cer­tain things in the soup that would be harm­ful to your joints and ten­dons. (one rea­son to get bet­ter at speak­ing Chi­nese: under­stand exactly what these peo­ple are talk­ing about!) Nowa­days, as an adult liv­ing in a big city, she doesn’t have time to make the soup every­day, but she makes a point to cook a pot up at least once every month or two.

This is the best kind of food mem­ory, to me. A mem­ory that serves a spe­cific pur­pose, that has a spe­cific rea­son, and that is passed down not only to fam­ily mem­bers, but to any­one who is interested.

Going back to the bean, cer­tain vari­eties are believed to relieve cer­tain ail­ments and over­all cre­ate bet­ter Chi (which, on a recent acupunc­ture visit, I was told I have very bad ‘chi’- bum­mer. But more on that another time). I don’t know very much about the med­i­c­i­nal prac­tices here in China, all that I know is that learn­ing about holis­tic med­i­cine in this coun­try is as exten­sive and com­pli­cated and spe­cific as each local dialect can be. But I’m inter­ested in pick­ing up a few things while I am here, which will be eas­ier once I fig­ure out how to retain the infor­ma­tion that I hear. I fig­ure, if the Chi­nese peo­ple have sur­vived tens of thou­sands of years iso­lated from the West­ern world and it’s oint­ments, pills, and vac­cines, I am sure they have a few good tricks up their sleeves. Tricks that I can learn, and pass on.

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