A well-meaning soup

The minute I open the windows now: birdsong. They’re in constant and urgent conversation, the birds, from dawn to dusk. Sometimes even after the sun has set. They’re catching up, their chirps like phonecalls bouncing from one branch to another, hey Martin how was Africa, didja have a good flight?

It’s been a long winter of quiet; it’s good to have them back.

We read a springtime book without meaning to. We started reading it to Chotto-ma at the end of winter, and as the pages turned, the season did too. It was timed like a perfectly improvised tune. Season and literature jammed, and we read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, ate chicken noodle soup, and willed the weather to get warmer – Chotto-ma’s introduction to unabridged English classics.

Getting a six-year old interested in a book written more than a hundred years ago requires stealthy planning – the language is heavier, the vocabulary unfamiliar, the pace slower, the pleasures quieter. Inspite of that, I wanted Chotto-ma to start with the unabridged version of a great book. Because if you read the abridged first, you often don’t get around to the original. But, I was also sure that I wanted her to enjoy it.

We had almost stopped reading aloud to Chotto-ma, because she was doing so much reading by herself. (The first novel she read on her own this year was ‘The Story of the Blue Planet‘ by Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnason, about two children who live on a planet with no adults.) Studies show, quite logically, that even when children become completely independent in their reading, a book read aloud to them by a parent continues to have a special place – there’s a sense of comfort and connection in shared stories – and that need not end when a child becomes a fluent reader; it’s a bond worth keeping as long as you can. We decided to split her books into two categories: she’d read the ones she picked out – like the Roald Dahl she’s reading now – and D and I would read to her the classics, and some poetry.

We chose The Secret Garden to start with. The language is not too challenging, and it’s a book filled with the beauty of nature, a couple of loud, ill-mannered children, and a happy ending. It also has plenty of overt racism, and that’s not a bad thing either – it gave us a chance to talk to Chotto-ma about prejudices and wrongs and rights. She loved the story, looked forward to it every evening, and enjoyed the drama as it unfolded. We also discussed the racist elements of the writing, of how India is portrayed and Indians described as inferior (Mary Lennox, the protagonist, is a little British girl who was born and raised in India till she moved to England to live with her uncle.) It opened up conversations about India’s history, the British Raj.

 
Our next read-out might be E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children. But no matter which classic you choose, I’d highly recommend reading it to your child to begin with instead of handing them a beautiful hardbound copy. Guide them into an older time and an older language, till they find their feet and are comfortable enough to read one by themselves. 

Goodness, I’ll stop right there. I sound far wiser than I am. Ignore this unwanted advice by all means, but I beg you, DO NOT ignore the noodle soup that comes with it. It’s our any-weather soup. It’s a soup to read with, to listen to the birds with. It’s a well-meaning soup, much like this post.


Chicken Noodle Soup

Ma would often make this soup when we were young. She’d throw in scraps of chicken and bits of vegetables left over from the week, and suddenly we’d have the most wonderful smell wafting out of the kitchen. Our Spring is cold and windy still, and I needed this. Like birdsong, it makes everything better.

Ingredients

The vegetables really depend on what you have at home, but these are what works really well. You also won’t find quantities for the vegetables in this recipe – since it’s meant to be made with whatever you have left over, feel free to put more of one, less of another.

4 chicken thighs, skin on
Cabbage, cut in big cubes
Mushrooms, cut in half if small, or quartered
Courgette, diced in thick circles, then halved so you have semi-circles
Carrots, diced diagonally
Cauliflower, cut in small florets
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
A few whole black peppercorns, crushed coarsely (the ready-powered version really doesn’t do it!) 
Spring onion, chopped fine, white part and green part separate
A bayleaf
Salt

In a deep pot, heat 8 cups of water. Add chicken, garlic, white part of spring onion, bayleaf, salt. Simmer on medium heat.
After about 15-18 minutes, start adding the vegetable in order of cooking time. In this case – cabbage, cauliflower and carrots together in first, and after about 6 minutes, mushrooms and courgette.
Add more water if needed, check salt. You want a nice, thin broth, full of flavour.
Once the mushrooms and courgette are in, don’t simmer for more than 1 minute, and take off the heat.
Take the chicken out. Get rid of the skin. Shred the meat in pieces and put it back in the soup.
Serve with pepper and the chopped green part of the spring onion.

COMMENT CAVEAT: Many of you have written to me saying that comments you leave here are often not published. So, a little note: if you don’t see your comments here in 24 hours, please know that they have not reached me at all! Blogger can play up, and I hate to think that words you’ve taken time and care to write down have vanished. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them them here, and write back.

 

Stalk

I did not grow up where rhubarbs grow. I hadn’t seen a single stalk of it till we lugged our life and luggage to England. Then, suddenly there they were, lying in their market stall. These lounging, stretching, graceful stalks. Pink and slender and as foreign as flamingoes. So, I admired their beauty, and skirted around them the way one skirts around beautiful, foreign things.

But when you live in this country, rhubarb will find its way to you. Rhubarb in ice-creams, rhubarb in pies, rhubarb with its feisty kick aimed at the corners of your jaw. Who’d have guessed? That this slender thing in its pink cocktail gown could kick like a ninja.

I loved it. I loved the coy exterior and the tart within. Rhubarb has personality. It is what it is; you either like it, or you don’t. It’s Marmite vegetable.

And to me, it’s as English as Marmite too. In my technicolour rhubarb-imagination, I can see it’s delicate stalks stewing on an AGA in an English country kitchen, then put in a pie and served to a lady, who, as the camera zooms in, I see is Beatrix Potter putting the finishing touches to Tabitha Twitchit’s prickles.

But what if you invited this English Rhubarb into a different kitchen, into my kitchen? I bought six pink and well-mannered rhubarb stalks last week. D and Chotto-ma used half of the stalks to bake me a lovely cake on Mother’s Day.

And I had my way with the other half.

Rhubarb & Red Lentil Soup with Ras-el-hanout

This soup! It’s a very, very, very fine soup. We’ve had it on a loop for a week. It’s a great example of why rhubarb needs to be thrown into savoury recipes more often. The recipe was inspired by a tangy dal we had growing up – a simmered mix of red lentils and raw mango. This soup has the same tart edge, balanced by the natural sweetness of carrots. The ras-el-hanout, which we carried back freshly ground from Morocco adds a beautiful North African moorishness. (You can, of course, buy ras-el-hanout, as well as the turmeric in the recipe, in almost all supermarkets and Middle-Eastern grocers.)

Ingredients

250 gms red lentil, washed
2 stalks of rhubarb
2 carrots, chopped into small cubes
1 medium onion, also chopped small
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp coarse black pepper (crushing a few with a pestle is even better)
Bunch of parsley, chopped (or coriander – both work well)
1 1/2 tsp ras-el-hanout
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbs olive oil
Salt

Cut off the head and tail of your rhubarb stalk; the leaves are toxic, so must always be trimmed off. Not cut your stalks in 1-inch pieces. (Usually, I leave my rhubarb unpeeled and pink, but for the soup, white looked better than the final watered-down pink, so I peeled the stalks. Feel free to leave the pink on with rhubarb that is very fresh and firm.)
Heat the olive oil in a deep pot. Throw the onions, garlic, carrots in together. Stir for two minutes, then add 4 cups of water.
Add the lentils, rhubarb, half of the parsley (or coriander), ras-el-hanout, bayleaf, pepper and salt.
Cover and simmer till the lentils have split evenly. Add more water if needed.

Taste for salt, simmer for a minute more giving it a good stir.
Serve hot garnished with the rest of the chopped parsley (or coriander).

COMMENT CAVEAT: Many of you have written to me saying that comments you leave here are often not published. So, a little note: if you don’t see your comments here in 24 hours, please know that they have not reached me at all! Blogger can play up, and I hate to think that words you’ve taken time and care to write down have vanished. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them them here, and write back.

Boxes

Boxes are the darnest things. They trick you into feeling tidy, and then they suddenly fill up. So, what do you do? You get another box. That fills up too, so you get another. And another. Boxes multiply, brazenly. And then the big boxes and the baby boxes need to be sorted, tidied, labelled, piled or slid under beds.

But I’m still a fool for boxes. Between a pretty dress, and a pretty box, I’d choose the box every time. And I’ve been known to return from my travels with old wooden crates instead of the usual souvenirs. I might even have passed the fetish on to my daughter, because as a baby, a cardboard box could keep her far better entertained than a multicoloured toy that danced, sang and blew bubbles. For a special treat, an egg carton worked wonders.

I love my large, old wooden box filled with warm blankets. My battered tin box full of old, handwritten letters, cards, and another filled with photographs. The fabric-covered box filled with Chotto-ma’s baby clothes. My box of pretty patterned paper. Of cupcakes, and crayons. Of wooden clothes-pegs, and kitchen herbs. I have a box full of scissors of different sizes. Of shells from beaches far away. Of embroidered, white linen, handed down generations, the cloths now a little yellow with age. And a box with a key, full of stray thoughts.

Do you have a well-loved box, filled with well-loved things?

There’s one in my kitchen too. A box that is filled with many small boxes, and the small boxes filled with the most beautiful, aromatic spices, from which I take pinches of flavour, and colour. They are the spices that flavoured this fragrant soup of lentils and green mango. It’s a tangy soup that smells and tastes of Southern India. Of coconuts and curry leaves. It’s summer in a bowl.

Lentil & Green Mango Soup

2 cups red lentils, washed
1 small green mango, peeled and diced
1 cup coconut milk
A handful of curry leaves
1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbs oil
5 cups water
Salt

Boil the water, and when it starts bubbling, add the lentils, mango, turmeric, cayenne pepper and salt. Lower the heat to medium and cook the lentils till done. Remove from heat.
Heat oil in a pan, and add the mustard seeds and peppercorns. When the seeds start sputtering, add the curry leaves. Sit for a couple of minutes then add this to the lentils.
Put the lentils in a blender and blitz till smooth. Transfer it back to the pan and add the coconut milk. Add more water to adjust thickness if needed.
Heat the soup, without bringing it to the boil. Serve with a sprinkle of black mustard seeds.

Serves 6, maybe more.