I got my first flu of the season. I had sneezed off and on all through that retreat weekend I told you about last post. I thought it was the wine, but by the time I got to San Francisco on Sunday to get that book signed, I was achy all over, had a blazing headache, and was so tired you'd have thought I hadn't been on retreat at all.
I was so sick and so utterly overwhelmed by parking that when I got to Omnivore books on time for the signing and saw that the line to get in wrapped around the block, my spirit failed. I slowed down and stared at the beautiful people with their beautiful pre-ordered books. I noted the absence of mine and the possibility of Omnivore being sold out. I sobbed a little and felt pathetic. And then I decided it wasn't meant to be. I turned the corner and headed right back to the Bay Bridge and home.
The next week I spent sick and slowed, which was bad but not awful, because it let me think a little. Still, it has taken me until now to get how the whole ordeal fits together.
The soup I finally made when I could stand for more than ten minutes was this one. In Morocco, Harira is served year-round, but it is especially popular during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. I know nothing about the holiday first hand, but from what I've read resonates, if only conceptually. Participants fast from sunrise to sunset. They pray and focus on God. They recite the Qur'an. And because of the extra space or hunger or both, the night meal that breaks each day's fast is heightened and magnified. It means more, and so they treat it accordingly. One might break the fast with dates and eat this nourishing soup, and so they are prepared for another day of centering.
It seems appropriate that I made the Harira last week in the midst of having the flu. Sickness is, after all, one ways the body tells us to slow down. Something is off--we need a change. I had just gotten back from that weekend away where we happened to talk quite a lot about food, denial, generosity, and how they meet together. Babette's Feast was on topic, and we watched the film. I had already seen it two times and did not expect much, but I found the film hilarious to watch and also good for reflection.
It is about a French woman, named Babette, who had worked for two older, Puritan-type women for fifteen years. Babette was taken in during the French civil war, and when she wins the lottery, she uses the entire sum to prepare a lavish meal for the women and their small community of followers. The women are shocked, overwhelmed, and frightened of the potential temptations associated with food and drink, but they agree. The community will eat and drink but not enjoy, and that is how they will save themselves from temptation.
But the generosity and delightfulness of the meal does its work without the people's consent. They are all changed, blessed, and opened, just by their participation.
Ramadan seems to have this same spirit. There is fasting and abstaining and a reaching towards the holy. There is refraining from food, and there is feasting. There is thanks and renewal and learning. There is generosity and abundance in the midst of restriction.
The General's speech towards the end of the film encapsulates what this Moroccan Harira offers and represents, and what stood out to me most:
Grace, my friends [...] takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have
chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that
which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together and
righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!
May the soup feed you well no matter what time of year it is, no matter what religion, no matter what grace you accept, reject, or ignore.
Moroccan Harira with Yam, Red Lentil and GreensThis is supposed to be a lentil and tomato soup. I added yams. If memory serves me, I've made a chicken version. I have had it without the lentils. I had blended the tomatoes and I have also diced them up. In my opinion, the heart of the soup is its bounty of specific herbs and spices and the spirit in which it is eaten. Proceed accordingly.
1 yellow onion, roughly chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2-inch nub ginger, peeled and minced
1 carrot, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 large yam or about a pound, cubed
1 15-ounce can whole tomatoes
1 tablespoon honey
2 cups cooks chickpeas, broth reserved if home-cooked
2 bay leafs
1/2 cup red lentils
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon each: paprika
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon ceyenne, or more (optional)
1/2 teaspoon tumeric
a few heft turns of freshly ground pepper
pinch of saffron threads
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 a red bell pepper, diced or an equivalent amount roasted red peppers
1 bunch collards or other greens, ribs removed and cut into ribbons (optional)
a few tablespoons fresh parsley, roughly chopped
(dates and toasted almonds, to start or finish, for fun)
Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add onion, a three-finger pinch of salt, and cumin and saute until the onion softens a bit. Add the garlic, ginger, and paprika and let cook a minute or two. Add carrot, cinnamon, and allspice. After three to five minutes, add the celery, bell pepper (if raw), cayenne (if using), and tumeric. At some point along the way the saute may become dry. Add a glug of bean broth if you have it, or water, and proceed. Note that this is not the place to caramelize.
After about ten minutes the vegetables should all be soft. Add the tomatoes one at a time, shredding between your fingers. (You may also blend with an immersion blender or dice on a cutting board. But the latter is messy and the former is almost too uniform--but that uniformity is what I went for this time.) Add also the tablespoon of honey, another three-finger pinch of salt, and the saffron. Let mingle at a simmer for a few minutes.
At this point, put in the yam and the chickpeas and just cover with water or bean broth (vegetable broth is ok and so is chicken, but I prefer the clarity of water or bean broth...call me old-fashioned...). Bring the mixture to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer. Once the yams are tender, stir very well. Mash a bit of the soup against the sides of the pot to help break it up a bit. Focus on the yams, not the beans. When you are done with this, add about two cups water, bring it to a boil, and add the lentils. Cook until well done and nearly indiscernible.
Check the fluidity. Is it too thick? Just right? Chances are it is thick, especially after sitting a few minutes without stirring. Give it a good stir and note the dispersion of goodies. It should feel like soup. If it feels like stew, add more water a cup at a time and an appropriate amount of salt. Stir again and reassess. When the soup is of soup consistency, bring it back up to boiling point and, if using, stir in the greens and, if not raw but roasted, the pepper. Let cook five minutes, or until the greens are brightly tender. Stir in the lemon juice, parsley, and pepper. Allow to mellow for a couple minutes.
Taste. Add salt if it is bland, lemon juice if too rich, cayenne if too boring, and honey if too tomato-y. Add more water if it is, again, too thick. When the time is right, serve hot and topped with chopped cilantro or green onions and maybe plain, whole yogurt. End or begin the meal with dates and toasted almonds. Enjoy!
Adapted from Soup in Season by Tom Wuest, Karen Hollenbeck Wuest, and Peter La Grand