Making good use of beets by turning them into a velvety, dairy-free soup that’s spiked with lemon juice.
She totters around the downstairs of our rather enormous house and I let her, hanging back with my cup of coffee (if it’s morning) or tea (if it’s late afternoon) and granting her the illusion that she’s on her own to discover what there is to discover. My intrepid explorer; I hope one day soon her path is the granite of the Sierras rather than the cold, slick tiles of this house (though admittedly granite can be cold and slick too).
There’s a rather astonishing number and variety of birds in our neighborhood; often they fly in great flocks over the slightly pollution-stained houses and somewhat raggedy palm trees and alight on bougainvilla branches and garden walls. There’s one in particular that sounds like a blue jay and every time I hear it I think of being in the redwood forest, maybe Armstrong Woods in particular, the quiet hum of the trees and rushing water and hot summer pressing down all around me. Intellectually I know of course that there are no blue jays here – mourning doves, sea gulls, small white cranes, …. yes, but no jays or other birds similarly familiar to we North Americans – but if I take a moment to close my eyes I can almost believe I am in California of an August afternoon with nothing much to do other than listen to the leaves falling down to carpet the dry ground.
Sometimes I try to imagine life 10 years in the future: will this interlude of living abroad seem a strange dream when the ocean in view is the Pacific and a day laced with humidity is rare? While I cannot ever claim to love living here I try to remember the little things for when we’ve moved on: the crazy traffic that has somehow become ‘normal’; how in this fall season we can hear the roar of the ocean at our house a mile up the road from it; how the rain sounds on the skylight (and how I curse the inevitable puddles that come in through the doors without fail); the early morning miles along the corniche; the overgrown banana tree with its very sweet fruit that is threatening to overtake our front porch; our walks on the street behind our house that can almost send me off the deep end with their repetitiveness and lack of open space; Missy the white horse and her rickety cart and her many trips around the neighborhood with the nice guys who collect the yard waste; ordering a coffee with milk in a mix of French and Darija (my most successful cross-cultural foray to date); the call to prayer multiple times a day; the random goat and/or sheep in the middle of a busy street; the congregations of stray cats; Friday couscous; the days of endless sun.
It’s tempting to romanticize the expat experience and in truth I don’t want to be negative. Yet I think it bears repeating every so often that visiting a place is not at all the same as living there. The little things that we may have found endearing and quaint in, say, Lisbon no doubt drive its residents absolutely crazy on a daily basis and it’s likewise for Casablanca, Morocco. “Getting by” language-wise on vacation is fine but when you’re digging deep to remember that French word for ‘waking up’ and your baby sitter maybe doesn’t know that word anyway, well, it can be frustrating. This is not to say I am not grateful for the opportunity because I know that already I’ve learned so much about what not to do in life, the biggest aspect in that regard being that I rarely take anything for granted anymore. (I’ve also learned to really be in the moment on a daily basis, but I’ll save that one for another time.) (And of course I engage in the near-daily ‘it could always be worse’ argument with myself for it really, really could.)
2014 has been an incredibly challenging year and not just because it’s my first full year of motherhood. The reality of living in a country that’s not your home is something that’s hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it and I doubt I’ll ever be so naive again as to guess that I know what I’m getting into beforehand. You don’t, until you’re in it. Lesson way, way learned.
Case in point: a trip to the grocery store. A few months ago at Carrefour I was delighted to find a box of ‘bio’ Earl Grey tea. Let me tell you, I enjoyed the heck out of that tea. When the box was empty I thought, as you do, I’d pick up another one the next time I was in the store. Alas, that particular tea was nowhere to be found upon my visit a month later. Unlike in many developed urban areas in the States where you can mostly count on produce and products constantly being available at well-stocked grocery stores that reality simply … doesn’t exist here.
The days I find cauliflower in decent shape are good ones and if spinach is available it’s an even better one. You find yourself hoarding vegetables, olive oil, etc. because when you’re out you may not get any more for quite awhile (I’ve also learned I’m not the only one who does this, which is comforting and disturbing at the same time). If I see good-looking potatoes at Les Domaines (colloquially “the King’s market” which is a tiny but organic-ish store that sells only Morocco-grown and produced vegetables, fruits, and dairy), well, I may buy two bags and make them last. Same for garlic. I have finessed the art of sorting through a bucket of Japanese sweet potatoes to pick out the ones that are entirely mold-free. That New York Times article about using up everything, even food that’s ‘on the edge’ or slightly spoiled? Yeah, I can relate. The milk I like is sold with two days remaining before it ‘expires’, and I’ll be damned if I am going to the store every other day just to buy a pint of milk. So we use it anyway. Shockingly, it is not spoiled even 5 days after the ‘best by’ date. Thus I try to waste as little as possible (I hope I always did this but now I’m more conscious of it) and I think I mostly succeed.
It was with this philosophy in mind that I made beet soup last month. Beets are one of those vegetables I do truly love but when I buy them I too often let them languish in the drawer because it seems like too much work to prepare them (not true but for some reason I can’t shake this personal fallacy). I had a bunch of very nice-looking beets that had been kicking around for awhile and I knew I’d – finally – better make good use of them before they went bad. Fortunately beets, like many root vegetables, are quite forgiving and long-lasting. I don’t know exactly how long they’d been in my possession but they were sprightly enough that I decided to use them in a soup.
Beet soup is perhaps not on anyone’s favorites list (or maybe it is, I don’t know), at least it certainly was not on mine. The few times I’ve had it it’s been too thick or dulled by cream. I can’t really say what prompted me to make it because I had never been enamored but I’ve realized this is often how I cook. I could do something I’ve done before but … let’s try something different just to try it. I’ve been doing a lot of vegan/gluten-free baking lately – more waffles too – ‘just for fun’ and really it is fun. When it’s also nourishing, delicious, and turns into dinner well, all the better.
The best part about this beet soup is the lemon juice. Yes, I was skeptical at first too and yes, I will sing its praises as much as I possibly can. The bright citrus contrasts with the mellowness of the beets to make this soup suddenly interesting, different than any beet soup I’ve had before. It was our Friday night soup one night in October when I felt like making all the vegetables in the house for dinner (I roasted the rest I had and draped them over quinoa along with a sesame-soy dressing and a generous sprinkling of sunflower seeds) and I made sure to save enough for Sierra’s lunch the next day. That she liked it as much as I did is a true mark in its favor, I’d say.
The reality of expat living is that it’s just that: reality. The trips to Marrakech or Essaouira (or Fes, I hope one day soon) are lovely and interesting and full of the sights and sounds you’d hope to find in Morocco. But they are not a daily thing, you know? They’re rarely even monthly, particularly when your spouse has a rather demanding (and steady, and good, which is why we’re even here) job and travels a lot and would understandably rather flake out on the weekend than get in the car again to fight traffic. The reality is the neighborhood kid who constantly wakes up your baby with his g-d annoying bike that he races around every afternoon sans helmet. The reality is that your neighborhood is kind of boring and depressing at the same time and if you don’t have the car you’re stuck in it for most of the day. The reality is that no matter how ‘exotic’ a place sounds on paper you still have the very mundane and ordinary aspects of life to address: trips to the doctor (and the inevitable fruitless search for an open pharmacy), remembering to make most of your transactions in cash because more often than not the credit card machine is broken, stuff is constantly falling apart in your house, being without cell phone for an undetermined time because ’10 days or less’ means more like 2 weeks or who knows. It’s not impossible stuff — no, not at all. But it can get frustrating when you long for a park for your kid to run around in or just a bit more ease of living, not to mention peace and quiet.
And yet — I would have no clue what it would be like to live outside my comfort zone of the U.S. if not for this time here and so I try to be mindful of this experience and take it as it comes. Along with butternut squash when I can get it, and greens, and good-tasting yogurt that Sierra eats every morning. I’m trying to make good use of it all, I suppose, including this very unique, very transitory time I have right. now.
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This soup is so velvety you don’t need a lick of cream or a whisper of sour cream and I wouldn’t recommend going there. Still — if you hanker for a bit of plain yogurt atop each bowl I couldn’t fault you.
Makes 8 servings.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
Salt and black pepper
2 1/2 pounds beets, peeled, end trimmed, and roughly chopped
4 small to medium sized potatoes peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
3 cups vegetable broth
3 cups water
Juice of 1/2 lemon and/or more to taste
Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the beets, potatoes, and carrot and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes, then add the stock.
Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat so the mixture simmers gently. Cook until the vegetables are fully tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Add the lemon juice and purée with an immersion blender or in a blender. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve hot.