It was my college girlfriend Tekla who first introduced me to the concept of eating lucky food on New Year's Day. She was a farm girl from Connecticut, and she had very fixed and radical ideas about how one should comport oneself in the kitchen. And pretty much everywhere else. But we won't go into that right now.
She was, in fact, an excellent cook.
It was Tekla who first inspired me to become a vegetarian, Tekla who introduced me to the Moosewood Cookbook, Tekla who brewed up mulled cider in winter, lemonade in summer, and gallons and gallons of tea all the year long.
As I was an impressionable young thing at the time, I went along for the ride.
She lived in a second floor apartment in Northampton, on a quiet side street about a mile out from the center of town. It was an easy, though a generally snowy and cold walk from the bus stop at the Academy of Music to her house, past a little road called Olive Street which we invariably called Oh! Live! Street, to her house on Harlow Street, which we inevitably referred to as the street of harlots.
Winters were colder then, as I'm sure many of you will recall. But it never took long to warm up after an icy walk from town to her house, where the fireplace was always lit and the kettle nearly always on the boil. She had two housemates, both fairly older than us, both just as fond of tea. And the pantry was always well stocked.
Northampton itself had been a culinary eye-opener for me, even before I'd met Tekla. Northampton gave me my first taste of basil pesto, roasted red peppers, really good bread, homemade pasta, gourmet pizza, a real tamale. And while we'd try to cook something creative out of Moosewood or The Silver Palate, more often than not we'd end up trundling back downtown for a slice, or a burrito, or whatever a college student's budget might allow.
That was the thing about those vegetarian cookbooks: You never had on hand the things they seemed to take for granted you would. Even Tekla's well stocked pantry tended to be bereft of the sorts of arcane ingredients those recipes called for. Ersatz staples, we called them. Arrant knaves of the kitchen.
So on nights when it was too cold to venture forth into the night, or our wallets wouldn't stand for it, or we just wanted to stay inside by the fire, it was most often a big pot of soup that would get summoned together from whatever she had lying around.
The making of soup follows a basic, reliable pattern. Oh, sure, there are some fancier soups that might call for fancier methods, but in general you can get some fairly spectacular results with just the usual drill of the same simple steps.
- Saute a mixture of onions, carrots, and celery in some olive oil or butter. Insist on referring to this mixture as mirepoix at least once while you are making it, just to remind yourself and your guest that you love obscure words of great specificity.
- Add stock and the main event of the soup, whatever that might be. We were vegetarians, so this was usually beans or rice, plus some seasonally appropriate vegetable to act as the star. Very good mushrooms, for instance. But these days (as a lapsed vegetarian, as I have lapsed in so many things), it's just as likely to be cubed chicken meat or shredded cooked turkey.
- Bring to a boil, then simmer until you can't stand it any more. Season to taste and serve.
The soup I made last night follows the same basic plan.
Apparently it's customary for black eyed peas and kale to represent prosperity in the new year, but as I was raised to consider prosperity to be rather suspect a thing to have, or even yearn for, I tend to think instead in terms of luck. I've since overcome my aversion to prosperity as a worthy goal, but I still believe that it's best to be vague about your wishes and allow fortune to decide the proper course for your blessings to take. After all, if I'd gotten what I was wishing for ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago, I'd be in a right pickle now, and no mistake.
It wouldn't be right to call this recipe "Tekla's Black Eyed Pea Soup" or anything of the sort, since I don't have any scraps of paper with her scrawl on it, specifying ingredients and cooking times and serving sizes. But for obvious reasons, I'm still going to claim her as this creation's most powerful influence. After all, if it weren't for her, I might never have known that I should be eating certain foods on certain days of the year to ensure a healthy, happy, and prosperous new year.
I'm in her debt for one or two other skills, but we'll leave it at soup for now.
Black Eyed Pea Soup
(to bring luck and/or prosperity in the New Year)
1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
3-5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 1/2 c. onion, diced
3 slices (about 2.5 oz) bacon, sliced into ~1 cm wide pieces
1 c. carrots, diced
1 c. celery, diced
1 c. green pepper, diced
1 bunch kale, washed, stems removed, and thinly sliced
32 oz (two cans) cooked black eyed peas
64 oz chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Saute garlic and onions in olive oil over medium heat until onions are translucent. Add bacon and cook until bacon is crispy. Add carrots, celery, and green pepper and cook for about 5-8 minutes longer, until the carrots are just tender. Add beans and stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 15 minutes. Skim any foam from top of soup. Stir in kale. Simmer another 10 minutes. Season to taste and serve. Makes 8 servings of about 2 cups each.