Saturday, March 6, 2010

Back to Basics

My relationship with food got off to a rather shaky start. I’m positive that no one who knew me early on would have guessed I’d evolve into the vigorous, adventurous eater I am today. As a child, I ate almost nothing outside of macaroni & cheese, potatoes, pizza and ketchup. I wouldn’t eat food that was green, mushy, textured, chewy, bitter, tangy or brown. I was wary of meat, all things gooey, and battled my mom over eating things I Did. Not. Want. I was once at the table for hours after everyone had finished, a mouthful of sauerkraut firmly lodged into my cheeks, a tepid glass of milk haunting me as I stubbornly refused to swallow.

I clung to processed foods for comfort, and McDonald’s was my favorite. On the rare occasions that my family patronized the golden arch, I’d order a cheeseburger, only to scrape everything off. Including the cheese. Or so the family story goes. More commonly my family would go to In-N-Out*, especially on Friday nights when it was my dad’s night to do dinner. I didn’t like it, and I’d literally beg we pass by McDonald’s on the way home to grab some french fries, for me. Because apparently, I didn’t like the kind of fries made to order from fresh potatoes…I liked the processed, flavored-with-beef, deep-fried, frozen-then-refried kind.

I remember clearly the moments when Real Food caught my fancy, but believe me; I was reluctant to let go of my finicky reputation. So I tucked those experiences away, and on the sly started trying new things. I began to get swept away, feeling near ecstasy when a food experience would catch me by surprise. I remember the first time I tried a homegrown green bean from my sister’s garden. I was amazed it was the same vegetable my mom** often served from an aluminum can. It was crunchy, flavorful, and appetizingly green, as opposed to that muddy-grayish-green I thought was customary. A friend’s mom made us whole-wheat banana pancakes with real maple syrup, and I was astonished. I’d never even HEARD of real maple syrup. It came from trees? I thought it came from an Aunt Jemimah bottle, and was made up of fifteen ingredients or more!? I also clearly remember going with my brother to a local-legend called Tommy T’s. We went for the prime rib tacos, only available once per week. Oh my. What a tragedy, that the restaurant is gone and I’ll never experience that pleasure again.

Each experience opened me up, and as I began to love eating, I naturally fell into cooking. My first culinary endeavors were my attempts to recreate the foods I’d sampled somewhere and loved. Whether it was the “unique” taste of a McDonald’s hamburger (yikes), a perfect homemade flour tortilla, or Bonnie’s chicken chimichangas; if a food caught my attention, I couldn’t rest until I recreated it. The more surprising experiences I had with food, the more adventurous I became, and that’s how I’ve ended up in the foodie place I find myself in today.

I continue to attempt to master the preparation of foods I love, which at this point is pretty much everything. I’m on some kind of crazy culinary pilgrimage these days, working my way through classic preparations of meat, sauces, seafood, and pastries. I play around with Indian, Thai and Moroccan, and dapple in the nouveau world of California, vegetarian and fusion cuisines. The more I learn, the more complex my endeavors become, leaving me ever more curious to see what food adventure is around the next bend. However, with all this complex food preparation going on, sometimes I need to be brought back to balance, where I can tap into my core and just enjoy. Every now and again, I need to be reminded that my first love is simple, wholesome, seasonal food, and even though I adore a snazzy-good meal, nothing nourishes the soul like a hearty bowl of homemade soup.

My lovely roommate is on a culinary journey of her own these days, and I was the grateful recipient of this amazing Kabocha French Lentil Soup she made the other night. It is healthy, hearty, and beautiful, with a perfect balance of flavors you can’t quite identify while eating it. It’s a lentil stew, but could also be served alongside chicken curry with naan, because it’s almost an Indian dal. Delicious garnished with home-toasted croutons, drizzled with plain yogurt, or sopped up with a piece of whole grain toast, this dish will satisfy no matter how you choose to serve it.

*As an adult I am quite obsessed with In-N-Out. Like, I should be on a commercial, I love it so much. Just needed to set the record straight.
**Oh, and my mom served lots of lovely food growing up. It wasn't all canned green beans and sauerkraut.


This is a recipe twice removed: it came from a favorite site of mine,
101 Cookbooks, where Heidi Swanson posts healthy vegetarian recipes, some her own, and others she happens upon in her own food adventures. She pulled this from a cookbook called SoupLove, by Rebecca Stevens, which Heidi found at a shop in the Mission District in San Francisco. Do yourself, and those you love a favor and make this soup. I feel certain, even the staunchest of carnivores will find it deeply satisfying.

1 kabocha or other dark orange winter squash, 1 1/2 lb. (I highly recommend using kabocha squash which has a nice starchy quality that adds to the consistency of the soup. Whole Foods should have it this time of year.)
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon olive oil
sea salt
1 cup / 7 oz green lentils, rinsed
5 coin-sized slices ginger, 1/8-inch thick
1 whole star anise
6 cups water
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1 yellow onion, medium dice
1 leek, sliced into 1/4 moons
1 fennel bulb, medium dice

red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 425F with a rack in the top third of the oven. Cut the squash in half and remove the seeds. Oil and salt the squash and roast cut side down (in a rimmed baking pan) with the 1/2 cup water poured into the pan. Roast until tender, about 35 to 45 minutes. When cool enough, scoop out cooked squash and set aside.

In the meantime, in a medium saucepan, combine the lentils, ginger, star anise and water. Simmer until tender, about 30 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon salt.

In a large stockpot combine the olive oil, onion, leeks, fennel and additional salt. Cook covered over low heat until vegetables soften, about 7 - 10 minutes.

Remove the star anise and ginger coins from the lentil sauce pan, then add the lentils, lentil broth and squash to the vegetables in the stock pot. Stir well and cook for another 15 minutes or so, allowing the flavors to blend. Taste and adjust the seasoning here with more salt if needed, and pinches of red pepper flakes to taste.

Serve as is, or topped with lots of garlicky homemade croutons.*

Serves 4 - 6.

*For the croutons simply rip up the remainder of a day-old loaf of good bread into tiny shreds, douse it in olive oil, garlic, and a bit of salt, and toast it in a 350 degree oven until golden and crunchy.


  1. Another wonderful recipe to add to my treasury of recipes. Thanks Jen! Keep um coming!

  2. This is the best lentil soup I have ever tasted!!! Yummy!!! The funny thing is I am just the opposite of you. I used to eat anything and everything. Now I don't eat anything with beef in it and I remove cheese from my bizarre. I also used to be really skinny and now...well, I hope to be really skinny again one day.

    Once again I enjoyed reading your blog. Looking forward to the next one.

  3. Jen,
    I have finally gotten the opportunity to read all the wonderful thoughts that have come through a mind filled with beauty and wisdom. I had no idea how my life would even begin to play out and my life is no where near to Ive assumed. I am very lucky to have had such an amazing start. It makes me very happy to know that you are still strong as ever and I hope that you will continue that way.
    I love you,