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Luck, and Vegetable Soup

[Dinner, April 2009.]

All I’ve been wanting to do lately is eat vegetables. Now that it’s spring-nearly summerish I have been seeking out a lot of greens, gravitating toward quickly stir-fried asparagus and mushrooms, chard wilted and tossed with whole wheat penne, pine nuts, and feta, spinach steamed just for a few minutes and served with a squeeze of lemon. Fortunate, then, I was visiting my parents last weekend so I could be presented with one of the most gorgeous salads I’ve seen in a long time, made with just-picked greens from the neighbor’s garden and littered with sliced radishes and spring onions. I couldn’t stop eating it it was so good.

I think this mild obsession with green — and fresh, and crunch — started a few weeks ago after that wine-and-cheese-soaked weekend in Sonoma County. Now, I do love my cheese and good bread, especially when paired with champagne at lunch (a brilliant idea if ever there was one), but if I go too long without a decent amount of vegetables my body starts feeling a bit sluggish and I catch myself making eyes at early-season green beans at the market and plotting ways to incorporate them into dinner every night.

So I’ve been making a particular soup, inspired by a tip from a friend. It’s not very fancy but it’s immensely satisfying — and full of the vegetables I’ve been craving. Pretty much it’s just pearl (or Israeli) couscous cooked in vegetable broth with sauteed portabello mushrooms, seasoned with lots of fresh pepper, and then packed with as many greens as I can fit in the pot.

It’s delicious and takes all of about 10 minutes to throw together. It also makes good use of whatever you have in the pantry or the vegetable drawer. And — I don’t know about you — but especially now I’m trying to cut down on as many extraneous expenses as possible. I tend to hoard grains and beans, parceling them out to myself like gold bouillon (witness my “Eating Down the Fridge” post for the Washington Post), and when I can really clear out the shelves I feel quite virtuous and economical.

[Couscous-vegetable soup, April 2009.]

As I slowly drew my spoon through a steaming bowl of soup the other night I couldn’t help think of the book I’d just finished. Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time

, about the people who tried to make a go of it in the Dust Bowl during the Depression even as their neighbors fled to California or the Pacific Northwest, is one of the most fascinating and sobering portraits of human endurance I’ve ever read.

John Steinbeck beautifully fictionalized stories of plains refugees who left their barren farms behind in hope of finding a better life in the greener west but Egan’s book is strictly non-fiction and is perhaps more powerful for its grounding in fact. He incorporates many personal anecdotes of those who had bought into the ideal that the Great Plains — once populated only by buffalo and anchored by hardy prairie grass — was there for the taking, a boundless land of opportunity. And for a time it was: towns sprung up seemingly overnight and even those who didn’t have a lot of money starting out could form a fine life with a bit of land, a garden, and a field of wheat.

Unfortunately — and I think The Worst Hard Time is an inadvertent argument for biodiversity — this feverish quest to tame the wild grasslands stripped them of their natural vegetation. When drought descended for years and corn and wheat couldn’t grow, there was nothing to hold down the dirt. Photos of the time show houses half-buried by the endless dust storms that swept over the region and which resulted in deaths due to “dust pneumonia”, families barely able to scratch out a patch of garden let alone a living, and feelings of utter despair.

This passage, excerpted from plains-dweller Don Hartwell’s diary, is particularly heartbreaking

July 4, 1937 – Today is Sunday & the 4th of July, a quiet combination in Invale. A clear sky, a blazing sun. I swept and dusted in the forenoon. We had cherry pie for dinner. We didn’t go anywhere. We used to years ago – but those days are gone — forever, I guess.

July 14, 1937 — Some Russian aviators flew from Moscow to California over the N. Pole today, that would be easy compared to raising corn in Webster C., Nebraska.

But still they stayed. It’s part of our national identity, I think, to wish for a plot of earth to claim and keep as our own, even when it has turned against us. And, too, in the very darkest of times the American penchant for optimism holds; I see — and feel — it now, in what is probably the ‘worst hard’ time of my generation so far. We must keep on keeping on, no matter what.

I write this here not to depress; there is much — so much — to be inspired by in this book and Egan is a master storyteller with a beautiful narrative style that is worth reading for that alone. No; I write this because the book served both to inform me and as a reminder of just how lucky I am. I’m lucky to have access to locally-grown, organic, affordable (really) produce within walking distance of my apartment. I’m lucky to live in this place where people care so very much about the origins of the food they put on their plates, and that that idea is sweeping around the country and making changes in ways we haven’t even begun to calculate. I’m lucky to have friends who invite me over for dinner, send me home with leftovers, and don’t let me do the dishes. I’m lucky my parents have generous neighbors who share their garden’s bounty.

As I ate my soup I savored each mouthful, each vegetable in my bowl a small miracle of taste and biology. I thought about how every day is a gift — oh, even the ones when you feel tired and low and mean and like all the coffee in the world won’t be enough to make it better. This cold spring, this bowl of soup, this time, this life: I am grateful for all of it, and yes lucky. I will never take it for granted.

And, you know, I have more of this soup at home for my dinner tonight. See what I mean about being lucky?

Couscous-Vegetable Soup
You may of course add any other vegetables you particularly like.

2 portabello mushroom caps, thinly sliced
1 cup frozen corn
1 cup chopped green beans
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
2 cups spinach, washed
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 carrot, diced
1 cup pearl couscous
5 cups vegetable broth, plus water
3 Tb. soy sauce
salt and pepper

In a large pot, saute the mushrooms and garlic in one tablespoon of olive oil on low heat until the garlic is golden and the mushrooms are wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the carrot and cook another few minutes. Add the broth and the couscous and bring to a boil. Cook about 10 minutes, until the couscous is tender but not mushy.

Lower heat and add a bit more water or broth as needed. Add the vegetables, stirring well to combine. Add the soy sauce and salt and pepper to taste.


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  2. this soup looks delicious & healthy! I have gotten tired of my vegetable soup recipe and I would love to try something new! Looks great!

  3. I’m just reading that book now, and it is quite sobering. What has struck me the most so far is that it’s so much like today. All of the settlement in that area of the country was driven by companies’ business interests – tapping into a sense of opportunity that all people want – and it created a frenzy. It’s just a reminder (not depressing, just sobering): if it seems to good to be true, it probably is; good times ebb and flow.

  4. I’ve been reading a biography on Dorothea Lange, who photographed during the dust bowl eara. It’s fascinating to hear her perspective as many farmers made the trek to California.

    We are incredibly fortunate..and I look forward to reading your book recomendation. Thanks!

  5. Thank you for reminding us just how lucky we are! My father rode the rails back in the dirty thirties looking for work – we often forget how good we have it. If we ever get to the point where the only thing left in the pot is rock soup, then maybe we’ll start to understand hardship.

  6. thank you! i woke up this morning, stumbled upon this and had the couscous to make it. yay

  7. I really enjoyed this post and the soup recipe I’ll definitely try. My father was affected by the Dust Bowl as a child so that part really hit home. I’ll be at the IFBC in Seattle next month. Hope to see you there. Enjoyed your blog.

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