December 15, 2014 § 4 Comments
Greetings from the sofa. I’m holed up here with aching limbs, stinging eyes, and a mug of honeyed tea. The sky is a forbidding grey duvet. I’m about to load up a BBC detective drama. It’s a day for soup.
The bowl depicted above contains my perfect soup, from one of my favorite cookbooks of the year, Diana Henry’s A Change of Appetite. It’s a spicy, hearty bowl, brimming with lentils, roasted tomatoes, and the perfect cold-busting trifecta of ginger, garlic and turmeric. Omit the dollop of yoghurt and it’s vegan. It comes together in less than an hour, and I’d be happy to serve it to friends for dinner. The recipe is at the end of this post, but I thought I would use it as an excuse to run through some of my favorite books of the year, since it’s emergency gift-buying week, and soup plus books plus rain equals perfect.
A couple of cookbooks:
The aforementioned title by Diana Henry is just what you want on your shelf as you head into the new year. It’s a well considered, balanced approach to eating more healthfully, which makes it sound terribly dull and austere. Its charm is that it’s anything but. The book brims with colorful, tasty recipes that you genuinely want to eat and cook. With the overtones of Middle Eastern and Asian influences throughout, Henry calls to mind the ever-so trendy Ottolenghi, but with more manageable ingredient lists, and the soul of Nigel Slater. If you’ve read this blog even once before, you’ll know that is the highest praise I can give.
My dear friend mentioned that her brother had been cooking up a storm from Rick Stein’s latest book on Indian food. I’ll admit that I was initially slightly skeptical, knowing Stein mostly via his seafood and French cookery books, and not thinking of him as the kind of expert you might turn to for Indian cookery. I also adore Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking (which reminds me that our errant nanny ran away with that book to add insult to injury!) and couldn’t imagine anything that would displace its central place in my library. Fool! Everything I’ve made from the book so far has been outstanding, and the only difficulty with the book has been choosing where to start, so appealing is the recipe selection. The Chettinad Chicken and Chicken Passanda were highlights, as was the dal made with black beans.
I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation in two sittings over the weekend. It crams so much emotion and truth into a tiny book, a novella really, creating a diorama of a marriage that does not shy away from the realities of long-term attachment. Powerful stuff.
I know at this point it’s essentially passe to like The Fault in our Stars, but I don’t care. If I had been 15 when I read that book, it would have destroyed me. At 35, it took quite some assimilating all the same. Yes, it’s about cancer; yes, it’s terribly sad; but really it’s a book about romance, and first love, and just being saved from that awful, awkward teenage stage. Cathartic in the fullest sense of the word.
Looking at my bookshelves, this really was the year of non-fiction for me. These were among the tomes I gobbled up…
With the Wild movie now in the theatres, Cheryl Strayed is somewhat of a discovered secret. I liked Wild a great deal, but Tiny Beautiful Things was one of the books that changed my year. I wanted to give a copy to everyone I love. Strayed’s ability to be unflinchingly honest was one of the things that finally inspired me to get my ass to therapy. It’s a tribute to the fullness of the human condition.
On the heavier side, Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score might change not just my year but my life, my dharma. It’s a wonderfully clear and accessible overview of work on trauma and the human body. I got into it because I was interested in the literature on how yoga is being used to help trauma survivors, but was captivated by the research on how the human brain adapts to these kinds of events, and what it means for effective therapeutic interventions. It’s hard for me to capture fully how Van der Kolk manages to take you through pages on weighty topics like abuse, neglect, disaster survival, while remaining positive about the human spirit and resilience. If you’re at all interested in body, mind, and spirit, read this book.
Mindfulness is terribly trendy these days, and certainly name-checked without a decent understanding of what it means as a consistent practice. When I was ready to give my meditation practice a boost, I turned back to Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart. It perfectly conveys the paradox of mindfulness: that its very simplicity is what makes it so challenging over time. I’d love everyone who thinks they can stick mindfulness in a corporate memo and be done to read this book. I also picked up Dan Siegel’s Mindsight for the first time, which got me falling down the neuroscience rabbit hole, in the best possible way. And as an aside, my favorite yoga philosophy book, The Inner Tradition of Yoga, is written by a wonderful thinker called Michael Stone, who has just the most incredible set of philosophy talks available as free podcasts. No excuses not to start the year with a clear, purposeful mind then.
Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby is the book I wish I had written. Lyrical and expansive, it’s a meditation on memory, place, and illness, and completely redefines what it means to write an autobiography. I wanted to give my copy away, but there were too many pages with turned corners, not to mention my complete attachment to it.
Finishing off with my faves for the kiddies:
Oliver Jeffers’ latest (and you can’t go wrong with any of his books) is an illustrated alphabet with a short story for each letter. The whimsical tales start to interweave as the book goes on, making it one that parents can enjoy just as much as the kids. I wondered if it would be too dark for Henry’s age (2 and a bit) but he adores it (when we get to H: “it’s haitch for me!”).
I just can’t resist Julia Donaldson’s books, because they read aloud so brilliantly. The Gruffalo and the Gruffalo’s Child are firm favorites around here, but I especially love The Snail and the Whale. The power of the small, the immensity of the world, and a hunk of wanderlust. Just lovely.
Finally, The Bear’s Song written and illustrated by Benjamin Chaud features some of the most satisfyingly rich artwork I’ve encountered. The oversized book is packed with detail on each page, with a little bear that the kids love to find in each drawing, Where’s Waldo style. With an accompanying story of Gallic charm and simplicity, you’ll be more than happy to read it for the third time in a row.
And so, the soup….
Lentil and Roasted Tomato Soup with Saffron
NB The original recipe has you roast your own tomatoes, along with a harissa paste. At this time of year the canned tomatoes are much better in flavor so this is how I present the recipe below, but know that if you have good tomatoes on hand where you are, you could roast them: rub 10 halved plum tomatoes with a couple of teaspoons of harissa mixed with a quarter cup of oil and cook for 45 mins at 375F.
1 tbsp. peanut or veg oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground turmeric (or 2 tsp fresh grated turmeric)
a pinch of saffron stamens
3/4 inch ginger, chopped
1 green chile (eg serrano), finely chopped
1 cup split red lentils
2 x 400g tins roasted tomatoes (I use Muir Glen’s fire roasted tomatoes)
3 3/4 cups vegetable stock (about 1 litre)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
plain yoghurt (optional)
toasted slivered almonds
Heat the oil in a large pan and saute the onion until soft and golden brown, 5-10 minutes. Add the garlic, all the of spices, ginger and chile and cook for a couple minutes more, stirring frequently. Add the lentils, stir to coat in the cooking juices, then add the tomatoes with their juices, and the stock. Season well. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for 15-20 minutes, or until the lentils have collapsed into a puree. The tomatoes should have disintegrated too. You can either puree the soup at this point, or keep it chunky (I did the latter). Check the seasoning and stir in most of the cilantro. Serve each bowlful with a spoonful of yoghurt if you like, a few toasted almonds, and some of the remaining cilantro.