Wit’s End Soup

Back in the proverbial days of yore, I spent several years of my life in a relationship with a man who had very strong feelings about the definition of a meal. More specifically, he felt that a meal was not deserving of the title unless it was served on a plate. Meals that required a bowl simply did not count. In hindsight, this was probably a not-so-subtle stab at my dietary preferences; I was/am a long-time vegetarian, and he was very much a meat -and-three-veg type of guy. Either way, I called bullshit then, and I certainly haven’t changed my opinion in the intervening years. I probably still use bowls more often than plates, and not only as a counter to my clumsiness. And when you are wont to indulge in some table-free eating, cradling a warm bowl of food in your lap is so much cosier than balancing a plate.

So many delicious meals call for a bowl. First and foremost: SOUP. I am pretty sure that soup was probably on the top of my ex’s “not-a-real-meal” hit list but, just throwing it out there: he was completely wrong. It’s a rare week when I don’t make multiple batches of soup. Even in summer. Even in our Australian summer. Soup makes me a happy camper. It’s healthy but comforting, and usually very low effort. And it’s probably my #1 favourite way of making sure that I eat enough vegetables. Salads are all well and good but offer me a choice of soup or salad and the soup is going to win, hands down, 90% of the time.

There are a quite a few soups in my repertoire, but any account of my eating habits would be lost without an account of three soups in particular. The Soups (tomato/bean/barley, sweet potato/pumpkin, broccoli/cauliflower). Seriously, probably not a single week has gone by over the last few years where I haven’t made one of these soups. And for good reason.

My MVP, the tomato, bean, and barley soup (aka, the soup of my 2016) , has been in rotation, in various different forms, for a long time now. It started life as a potato and barley soup cooked from a charmingly old school Australian Women’s Weekly cookbook – one of those early vegetarian cookbooks that confusingly called for carob instead of chocolate in all of the desserts, as if chocolate consisted mostly of beef dripping and hooves. It’s changed a fair bit over the years, however. Since the original cookbook and I have long since parted ways, there’s no way to tell how much my current version resembles its progenitor. Not much, I suspect, beyond the presence of a couple of key ingredients. Over the years I ditched the potato, pared the seasonings back a little, later started seasoning in a different direction entirely (chilli!), added some more vegetables, threw in some beans, and so on.

The finished product is nothing fancy, but it’s also healthy, filling, comforting, reheats well, and doesn’t really require very much from you. When I need to feel like I’m taking proper care of myself, in spite of everything, I fall back on this soup, and it is yet to let me down.

Finally, some notes on variations: this soup can easily be modified depending on what you have kicking about. And that’s why this is such a friendly soup. It’s easygoing, and really more of a template than anything else. I rarely make the exact same version of this soup twice in a row. I use plain old water, not stock, as a base for the soup for two reasons: A) I find that the tomatoes and the bay leaves make a tasty enough liquid on their own, and B) I live with someone who has to watch their salt intake very carefully, so I tend to steer clear of stock where possible, and add seasonings to taste when the soup reaches my bowl. That said, if you want to use stock you should go right ahead: I bet it will be even more delicious!

The chilli doesn’t result in a particularly spicy soup, but if you’re averse, just leave it out.

I would be a filthy liar if I claimed that I ever actually measured the barley (couple of small handfuls) or the olive oil (just pour in a slug of it).

If you are in a rush or too hungry to mess around with 30+ minutes of cooking time, ditch the barley and toss in some soup pasta instead. It provides similar substance but cook up in a much shorter time (10 minutes, give or take, depending on the size of the pasta), so you can insert it into your face quicker! You can also soak the barley beforehand to cut down on cooking time; I do this whenever I have the foresight, which is honestly not all that often. An hour or so beforehand, rinse the barley, place it in a bowl, and cover it with freshly boiled water, and set aside to soak. Unless there’s lots of excess water (i.e. more than a cup), I don’t even bother draining it; I just toss the whole lot into the soup with the tomatoes.

Sometimes I use a bottle of passata instead of tinned tomatoes. Torn up kale can happily substitute for the spinach, and of course you can use regular spinach instead of baby; just tear it up a bit first. If I don’t have celery in the fridge, I don’t tend to bother going out and getting a whole bunch just for this; I just make a celery-less version. Similarly, as long as you’ve got some greens, the absence of parsley is not the end of the world.

Long story short: don’t be a slave to the recipe. This soup just wants you to be happy!

 

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A Simple and Happy Vegetable, Bean, and Barley Stew:

You will need:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 brown onion, finely chopped

3 x cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 x medium sized carrot, finely chopped

1 x stick celery, finely chopped

2-3 x bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon chilli flakes/crushed red pepper

2 x 400g can of chopped tomatoes (seasoned or not, as you please)

2/3 cup pearl barley, rinsed

1 x 400g can of three bean mix (or five bean mix if you are feeling particularly beany), drained and rinsed.

couple of handfuls of baby spinach

a handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped

 

Instructions:

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and then add the onions. Add the bay leaves, carrot, celery, and garlic (I tend to add ingredients in this order, chopping as I go rather than prepping it beforehand). Cook until the vegetables are softened and the onion is just beginning to brown. Stir in the chilli flakes.

Add the contents of the tins of tomatoes, the drained beans, and the barley. Pour in some hot water (I use a recently boiled jug). You’ll want to add about 500ml of hot water, though I never measure. I usually refill my tomato cans about half full, give them a swirl to get every last bit of tomato, and add this to the soup. Cover and bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer.

Cook until the barley is plump and beginning to break down a little. I usually give it about 30 minutes. You can stir during this time if you want, but you don’t need to. Remove the soup from the heat and stir in the spinach and the chopped parsley. Pick out the bay leaf if you can be bothered. I almost inevitably cannot be bothered. Season to taste, ladle into bowls, and eat.

Seriously, I feel a whole lot less overwhelmed by the general state of things when I have a dinner than can be served with a ladle.

And please note that this soup can very profitably be served with toasted cheese or garlic toast. Yes indeed.

A 2016 grab-bag

While we’re on the topic of the passing of the last year, there’s some other things about which I would like to write.

I always find it useful to look back over the previous year, examine the things that I did, the things I didn’t do, and the things I enjoy. A habit I’ve picked up over the last several years is keeping a simple little list (nothing elaborate, or for public consumption) of the media I’ve consumed over the previous year. I have one for books read, movies watched, television series viewed, and one for computer games played. It may seem a neurotic habit, but it’s always nice to look back and remember when you did things, what you did, and how that informed the choices that came next.

For each month that goes by, I also write a brief list of words and and sentences, reminding myself of the things that characterised my time during that month. Nothing too poetic or elaborate: often it’s just a mismatch of the weather, the music to which I listened, the things that I was obsessively eating, what my mood was like, anything special that I saw or felt.

These things sound small, self-indulgent, a bit silly, possibly a bit obsessive, but it’s actually a habit I’m very glad to have acquired. It’s a bad cliché that as you get older, things speed up. Months and years blur together and sometimes you raise your head and look around only to discover that three months have passed in a blur of work and routine. You try and remember what you’ve been doing, but it’s all a bit hazy. You find yourself able to stutter out something about work, something about catching up with friends, a few comments about relaxing and hobbies, but the details get lost, it’s just the skeleton of your year. Keeping little notes, little lists and reminders, adds flesh to the bare bones. All the more so because the vast majority of the time when I read over my lists, I remember the little parts that I had forgotten, and it makes me smile. Because the little things – the week that it was unseasonably cold so I took up the habit of making blanket nests in that particular chair, the week I burnt my hand while bread baking and went stir-crazy from not being able to knit, the fortnight where I had a near permanent craving for lemon curd on toast – are the things that are me, that make my life different and mine.

I won’t bore everyone with the full list, and at any rate I prefer to keep it private, but in the spirit of the miscellaneous bits and pieces, here is a random grab bag of the little things that I enjoyed the most in 2016, the little things that took me by surprise with how much I enjoyed them.

Homemade bread and soup

Look, I did say “little things”. So, I like to cook. And I make a lot of things from scratch because of the dietary requirements of my household. But I also don’t tend to talk about it all that much, mainly because it feels too much like tooting my own horn (wow, that sounds like an analogy for masturbation, now I think of it) and it makes me feel like I’m crafting the image of an existence that is way more domestically idyllic and crunchy than it is. Things make me kind of uncomfortable. So usually all that makes it to Facebook is an annual blurry photo of bread accompanied by several lines of self-deprecation.

My dubious relationship with social media aside, in reality, I bake bread all the time. Especially over the last year, since due to illness I’ve had more down-time in which to pursue undertakings that are time consuming but low effort (i.e. bread). And it’s made me really happy, for a number of reasons. Fresh crusty bread is delicious. It’s nice to see my friends and family getting so much pleasure from something I’ve made. And bread (fresh or toasted) pairs very well with soup, something that I cook weekly without fail, regardless of the season, just because soup a) contains vegetables and b) can be reheated when I’m feeling too wretched to cook. If I have soup and bread in the kitchen, I know I’m safe from resorting to cereal for dinner (great as an occasional indulgence, but it becomes a little disheartening when eaten regularly by necessity because you’re too exhausted to cook).

Sitting down to a bowl of homemade bread and soup makes me feel like I’m taking care of myself. And when you’re sick, unhappy, or otherwise ill-at-ease, this is a nice feeling to have. The feeling that even if the advanced things are escaping you, you’ve got your basics covered. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s nice.

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Radical Face

Because the name doesn’t give much away, Radical Face is the name of a musical act comprising of an excellent fellow named Ben Cooper. I started listening to the first album of the artist’s Family Tree project when I was travelling alone in 2015, and I spent a lot of 2016 listening to the entire trilogy once the final album of the project was released.

I’m really bad at and super self-conscious about discussing music, lacking the technical knowledge and vocabulary to say anything intelligent. But any account of my 2016 would be incomplete without a reference to these albums. So I’ll just say: the Family Tree trilogy stole my heart clean out from under me, it’s excellent, and you should give it a listen (and if you do, check out the website as I loved following the cast of characters and stories behind the songs).

Mojitos

So, even though I’ve always been into citrus and mint, I never really thought myself a fan of white rum. I was wrong. Mojitos are amazing; hands down my new favourite cocktail for when it’s too hot and sticky to move. The version that we make is close but not identical to this recipe, though now I’ve read about it I can’t wait to try the grapefruit version here.

Mass Effect:

So, just throwing it out there because I don’t know if it’s come up on this blog before: I play computer games. And not just in a ‘Candy Crush Saga while I wait for the train’ kind of way. In an ‘I used to have a Diamond league Starcraft ranking’ kind of way (though full disclosure: we didn’t hold it long). I haven’t blogged much about it, but gaming is a major interest of mine, and certainly occupies as much of my time as the hobbies that do get blog coverage (knitting, travel, etc).

I don’t bring this up out of nerd elitism (which I loathe; the stigma against casual gaming is ridiculous) but just to warn people that I’m about to deviate from standard content, and with mouth-foaming levels of enthusiasm, no less.

I used to struggle to play story heavy RPGs. They often feature a lot of cut scenes and down-time generally, and my attention span had been completely trashed by the aforementioned Starcraft habit. My mindset was that with a few exceptions, if I was gaming, I wanted to be 110% engaged at all times. However, a few years ago I realised that I could very profitably knit through any extended cut-scenes. This turned things around completely, and kick-started my (ongoing) love-affair with Bioware games.

In 2015 I played the Dragon Age series (a fantasy RPG series full of amazing world building, complex characters, and simply terrible hats) and, minor quibbles aside, I loved it in a big way. When 2016 rolled around I thought that I’d try the Mass Effect trilogy; three sci-fi setting, third person shooter games released by the same studio. I’d never really been one for shooters, but figured that as my love of Dragon Age had been pretty, ahem, slavish, it might be worth trying a game where I couldn’t throw fireballs at the bad guys. Which is kind of funny in hindsight, considering how much I grew to love my sniper rifle.

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Just look at this cool alien and his cigar. Why wouldn’t you play this game?

I really enjoyed the Mass Effect games for a number of reasons; the writing is wonderful, the world-building is detailed, the game-play is fun, and so on. But what makes them actually important to me is harder to nail down. A lot of it is being able to play a female character; thankfully this is not as rare as it once was, but I’ve been gaming for decades now and tell you what, I’m still grateful as hell when the option is there, and even more grateful when it’s as impeccably executed as it is in these games. Having weathered many years of playing (otherwise excellent) games where the female characters were at worst just eye candy and at best sporting a confusing lack of weather/combat appropriate clothing compared to their male counterparts, getting to play as a female character where your gender is not an issue within the game universe, where having sex and being sexy and romance in general are completely optional, where your competence is respected from start to finish (and not just up until the point where you suddenly need to be rescued) was, well… Honestly, I didn’t realise how badly I needed it until I played these games.

Being a card carrying feminist who has been gaming for a long time, I had gotten super good at rolling my eyes at the chain mail bikinis. I wasn’t thrilled by them but I wanted to play the games so I just shrugged, continued playing, and rolled my eyes when other Diablo II players would insist on naming their trade games things like “Oiled Melons”. I got really good at rolling my eyes and ignoring it. Mass Effect reminded me of how good it feels when you don’t have to do that, when you don’t have to put up that little bit of extra mental distance between yourself and the game.

A lot has been written about women and video games in recent years and while it’s certainly a topic on which I like to weigh in, this post is long enough already. And I certainly don’t want to imply that this is the only video game series that’s done things well on the gender front. But suffice to say, it was one of the things that made the Mass Effect series great for me. Though definitely not the only thing. In addition to the above, the character writing is also amazing. I am one of those people that, with a few notable exceptions, does not normally get emotionally involved in the things they’re watching/playing. But these games got me good; by the end, there was barely a single character to whom I wasn’t fiercely attached. Anyway, so if you like the idea of playing a game where you get to befriend excellent aliens in between punching them with your space magic, I’d highly recommend this game. In the mean time, I’ll be over here counting the days until Mass Effect: Andromeda comes out… *drums fingers*

Battlebots:

One of the things that I’ve been trying to do this year is think critically about the reasons why I like the things that I like. Partly because overthinking everything is my jam, but also to help me make good choices in the future, and to inform my own creative efforts. While I won’t bore everyone with the details (often), I am usually pretty good at figuring out the things that appeal to me. Except in this one specific case, which continues to mystify me completely, much to my utter delight.

When I was a kid I adored watching the British television show Robot Wars, so when my household discovered BattleBots (an American robot fighting tournament series) I was keen to wallow in some delicious nostalgia. I was not expecting to get nearly as excited about it as I did. We don’t really go in for sport at our place (I am a very bad Melbournian who has a benign disinterest in AFL), but this is as close as we get. We certainly treat it like a sporting event, complete with heckling and constant homespun commentary.

Why do I like watching robots destroy each other? No idea. I’m not really into spectator sports. My engineering/robotics knowledge is nil. I am not a competitive person. Yet I have watched every episode multiple times now and I am still trying to get my (long-suffering) friends to ‘come and watch robots’ with me. I’m so confused, though also very gratified that some things can still take me completely and utterly by surprise.

Tahini:

Despite always liking hummus and loving halva, I never thought I liked tahini all that much. It was bitter and a little gritty and I always ended up scowling at it. But then I realised that I could bake with it to great effect (the blondies, seriously). And then, inspired by this, I also discovered that I could just mix a wee bit of tahini with honey to taste and eat it with a spoon. So, umm, that’s a thing that I do now. Calcium? Or something.

Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC)

So I was lucky enough to end up in Bangkok twice over the course of 2016. Which is pretty awesome, because Bangkok is amazing fun and probably my favourite food destination, period (it’s just so good). There are plenty of interesting things to see and do – it’s a big place – but one attraction that took me pleasantly by surprise was the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. It’s a contemporary art gallery near the National Stadium BTS station, right next to the infamous MBK Centre (go for the discount shopping and stay for the food court!). We went there on a tip from my brother, and I was blown away by how good it was.

The exhibitions change regularly, but don’t get too hung up on what’s on; just go. I’ve never seen a bad show there; there’s nothing but interesting, beautiful, and accessible contemporary Thai art. If that doesn’t convince you, well, it’s free and air-conditioned and there’s an amazing ice-cream shop inside. Convinced now?

Taking my tea for a walk

Okay, so it’s not always as scenic as the below picture (Goolawah Beach in NSW, for the record). But when you’re going for a brief walk, it’s very nice to drink your tea outside. I’ve even been known to just carry my mug with me when a suitable bottle is nowhere to be found; it’s not the end of the world to just toss it back in your bag when you’re done.

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Flan

So, at some point this year I noticed that La Tortilleria (an adorable tortilla factory/Mexican eatery in Kensington, my stomping ground for a few years) gave the recipe for their flan to Broadsheet. What a discovery. I have only made this 3-4 times this year, but that’s because nobody in my household can control themselves when it’s around. Even my brother, who doesn’t typically go in for desserts. Even me, and I don’t even typically like creamy custardy things. This flan is ridiculously easy, will make you extremely popular, and you should go and make it immediately.

SERIOUSLY, GO AND MAKE FLAN, LIKE, RIGHT NOW.

Spotify’s ‘A Sudden Rainstorm’ playlist

Hours of rain noises. Making it 30% more pleasant to collapse into bed. Am I weird for being into this? Those ASMR videos do nothing for me (they actually make me feel a little uneasy, no matter what my friends say) but who doesn’t love rain? Perhaps it’s novelty; making up for all the rainy nights I missed due to the country being in drought for so much of my adolescence/early adulthood. Either way, it’s a godsend for insomnia and just deliciously soothing in general.

And finally… the monstrosity blanket

What? I thought I made myself abundantly clear re: my love for this ridiculous rainbow behemoth. No? I love it. Rather a lot. I may still run away with it. I love you, silly blanket!

So that’s it: my 2016 in miscellany. For anyone who actually bothered to read to the end of this post, I’m impressed. Maybe it’s a bit much to hope that you learned something relevant, but thank you for indulging me! Next post will have actual knitting content, I promise!

On the home front / a blanket

This blog probably gives the impression that I travel a lot more than I do. And it’s probably going to continue giving that impression since I’m, oh, three or four separate holidays behind. *hangs head in shame* Apparently I need to update more. I’ll try, okay?

At any rate, I do actually spend a lot of time at home, in Melbourne. I am, in fact, a total homebody. When I’m not travelling near and far, anyway. What can I say? I’m chronically inconsistent. Perhaps this is why the Sorting Hat quiz can never decide on my Hogwarts house…

I’ve been working hard the last year at turning my home into a place in which I am happy and comfortable, that I feel reflects my personality. Admittedly given my home is shared with other people – people whose aesthetics and lifestyles don’t always coincide with mine – it’s never going to be completely my own brand of artsy-craftsy domestic serenity. But that’s okay. Compromise is a thing, and there are still a couple of small spaces that are completely my own. And some of the shared spaces are lovely too. Two thirds of the household (present company included) are disgusting hipsters who love their indoor plants, so we’ve been working away busily on this. Of course, the room that gets the best sun doubles as a dumping ground for tools, but the plants are happy, so I am too!

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Poor babies need me to get off of my behind and find them new pots!

I also knitted a blanket, in a (wholly triumphant) attempt to use up some of my yarn scraps. Given how admirably Devin (what, you don’t name your car?) performed during the road trip detailed over the last few posts, I thought a reward was in order, and I’ve always liked having a blanket in the back seat in case of unseasonable cold, impromptu picnics, etc.

There is something else, though. If we’re being completely honest, the blanket was originally relegated to the car because… I was fairly convinced that it was going to be horrifically ugly. 50% of the yarn used was a violently purple wool/angora blend that I picked up for $1 per ball some years ago, because I’m only flesh and blood and can’t resist on-sale natural fibres. The yarn, of course, languished unused, but I couldn’t bring myself to de-stash the it; even though it was certainly not a colour I’d voluntarily wear, it was deliciously warm and snuggly. A blanket that would be banished to the car (where I didn’t have to look at it very often) seemed an elegant solution, if indeed you could ever use the word “elegant” in a sentence relating to such a virulent shade of purple (debatable). The thing is, the monstrosity actually grew on me as I knitted away. It’s not what you’d call tasteful or subdued, but it’s somehow glorious in its own way. This blanket clearly doesn’t care what anyone thinks. It’s now finished, and you know what? I love it, albeit a little sheepishly.

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The pattern is Stephen West’s Garter Squish; it’s a seriously wonderful design for using up scraps, and I really love the i-cord edging. As per the pattern, I used two worsted(ish) yarns held together to get a roughly bulky weight fabric. In practice, this meant holding one strand of Cleckheaton Angora Supreme together with random scraps from my stash, and knitting until the thing was enormous. In an attempt to break up the purple a little, I also dyed some of the Cleckheaton yarn a royal blue colour using food dye.

While I didn’t record exact (or inexact) quantities, in terms of metreage, this blanket is certainly the biggest thing I’ve ever knitted, and probably heavier than anything bar my Sylvi coat INSERT LINK). I was expecting such an enormous project to be tedious, but this actually went surprisingly fast and at no point did I want to light it on fire. It took a long time, yes, but that’s mostly due to the fact that I was only picking it up as brain-free knitting in between other projects. It also made for a superb gaming project; kept my hands busy (and my lap and legs toasty) through many a merry hour of Mass Effect.

And, of course, it’s incredibly warm; the wool/angora blend is super snuggly and the finished product is very cosy without being particularly heavy. The only problem now is that I need to wait until autumn to snuggle under it again. I still find myself eyeing it after trying days, but given it’s summer and all, I’d probably expire if I sought shelter within its lurid depths.

Thankfully, it makes me happy just by existing on my study chair. Just look at this magnificent bastard! ❤

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