When I was a little girl, my dad came up with a phrase that I think is perfect for describing life with small children: relentless fragmentation. It is that feeling we get when an important phone call is interrupted, when the bread burns because we are changing a diaper, when we attempt any of the myriad things that used to take five minutes: articles are now ingested one paragraph, one sentence, one word at a time. Emails are responded to only weeks after the fact. Books we are pining for gather dust on our nightstands as we instead read – again, again, AGAIN! – about dragons and dogs and brave, hungry kittens.
I have a hard time with fragmentation. And I have no doubt it is relentless.
I’m a gifted concentrator: given half a chance I can sink in and dig deep. But I don’t do so well with the multitasking. In fact, multitasking as a concept doesn’t even really apply to what I do: I’d call it multi-distracting maybe, or multi-not-quite-finishing. Somedays it’s multi-panic-attacking, when all the little distracted not-quite-finished bits, carefully noted on random scraps of paper, threaten to mutiny and take over my bag and from there, my life. On those days, I call Kyle and say “I can’t DO this,” and he says “Just take a deep breath,” and I do, and when I say it again – “But I really can’t do this!” – the edge of panic is usually gone. This is because of three things: first, deep breaths do help. Second, those papers are not actually threatening me in their best Jack Sparrow. Third, I know Kyle will love me even if half the things on my lists never get done. I would lay odds that he would love me even if all the things on my lists never got done. Actually – he might even love me more without any things on any lists at all. (We’ll never know, I’m afraid).
I have long thought that if I had more motherly patience – for long drawn out questions, for missing red socks (that then take ten minutes to put on), for oatmeal urgently demanded and then eaten grain, by grain, by single-freaking-grain … perhaps with more patience, I wouldn’t feel so fragmented. And if I wasn’t so fragmented, I might not ever get frustrated. I would just feel cheerful and unbothered, a buoyant raft of love and ease floating along with my kids in their rushing stream of interruptions and crises and needs. After all, I signed up for this job willingly and enthusiastically and whole-heartedly, and patience is practically the first listing under requirements. I’m a go-getter, and believe me – I have tried to go-get some patience. And so far, no-go.
So lately, when I sit in the quiet of pre-dawn, I have been asking not for patience but for presence. I don’t need to be eternally patient with my kids – if we’re talking truth, I can’t be. Not yet. But I can be present with them. I can take a deep breath, listen to that question, find that sock. Being present means I’m not: checking email (I’ve been locking my phone in the car, not trusting my own self discipline on this one), doing chores (sweeping now happens only once, at the end of each day, neuroses be d*#^$*!) or reading the paper (I can’t resist gazing longingly at it, but progress is being made!) Instead, I sit in my chair, sip my tea, and hold my tongue while that oatmeal takes its slow, slow, sloooooow ride on the spoon. No, it’s not patience. And maybe it’s not pretty. But it’s (mostly, hopefully, on good days anyway) present.
Busyness is best left to Richard Scarry creatures, indeed, and summers (winters too) probably are better spent reading and taking creek walks. But I also know what it feels like to have a life that is full to bursting, kids moving at lightning speed, days that sometimes feel like they are only precariously balanced on a highwire in some strange family circus. Being present helps me remember that it is a blessing, always, this swirling whirling life we lead. As Jess says, we’re happy-tired.
Find the good and praise it. So, here’s my good, this week: it turns out that when I focus on being present, my days feel a lot less fragmented. Less facebooking and emailing and Sunday Styles, yes – but more out of each of my moments. Moments with my kids, my husband, myself …. even moments with my kitchen. Fragments, yes, perhaps – but each of them a delicious moment of presence, when we work to make them so.
Being fragmented in the kitchen is actually a good thing, with this recipe. You can make the components in pieces, over a few days – beans, lemon-garlic paste, herb infused olive oil, even croutons and crème fraîche if you feel like it. Then, when you are ready to make soup, it comes together in a matter of minutes.
On first making, this became My Favorite Winter Soup. It is a vegetarian soup – a vegan one, if you want it to be – and it has a certain lightness to it. But make no mistake: it is a substantial, meal-worthy bowl. Kyle thinks there is something about it reminiscent of a French onion soup, and I suppose what he is getting at is a certain richness, a depth of flavor and a layering of fragrances that makes you want to stop and linger over each bite. While lemon and herbs give a happy lift, the bass notes are the ones that carry this soup onto our instant classics list: a broth thickened with a puree of creamy beans, caramelized onions, sweet carrots. This near-apricot-colored base is then studded with bright green kale, the deep brown-red of Chestnut limas, and a few dazzling drops of lemon zest and golden, herb-infused olive oil. It’s a winter pick-me-up, but it’s also a true comfort food: warming, earthy, healthful. If the dollop of crème fraîche makes it a tad indulgent, it is more than balanced by the richly hued, nurturing bowl it is dolloped into.
Chestnut Bean and Onion Soup, with kale and crème fraîche
This recipe is a take off on a beautiful Cellini Bean Soup by Phil West from Range Restaurant. I first saw the recipe in Heirloom Beans, the cookbook by Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo fame. This version uses the rather unorthodox Chestnut beans in place of Cellini, and kale in place of chard, and we’ve added some lemon notes and an herbed oil to brighten up our winter doldrums. (Cannellini beans and Calypso beans are also great here, by the way, and more similar to Cellini – but experiment and see which beans you like) Cooking your own pot of beans is important – canned beans will work in a pinch, but you will lose something, since the bean-cooking liquid is a large part of your flavor base. Here are some bean cooking tips from an expert. (I cook the beans for this soup very simply with a chopped onion sauteed in a little olive oil.)
In place of West’s gorgeous croutons, we serve this with fresh-steamy hunks of our favorite dinner bread (made with 50% whole wheat flour and sprinkled with wheat germ before baking). Any nice crusty bread, or homemade croutons, or big thick pieces of toast will work. But you do want something bready.
You can keep it vegan by omitting the crème fraîche, but it adds something really special here, upping the creaminess that the pureed beans bring while giving the herbs something tangy-smooth to play off of. On the second night though, you might want to skip the crème fraîche and add a poached egg to the bowl instead. This plays the same role but in a totally different way – and you can debate with your people which option reigns supreme.
Emmy has been after me to include my recipe for what she has named “Lemon-Garlic-Salt-Paste-OMG-What?!” – it really helps make this soup, so here you go: in your food processor, place one large lemon cut into quarters, three garlic cloves, and a teaspoon of salt. Process until a paste forms, adding a little bit of olive oil if needed to keep things moving. Place in a jar, just barely cover with olive oil, and let sit for a few days before using. (On day one lemon will dominate, but within a few days the garlic will come out to play and might even try to take over). I whisk a teaspoon of this stuff with a little olive oil and red wine vinegar (or more lemon juice) for instant salad dressing, mix it in stir fries, toss it with dry-pan wilted greens, smear it on buttered bread that goes under the broiler and then gets a poached egg on top. Its uses are limited only by your imagination.
A note on the Herbed Drizzling Oil: this is a simple infusion. If you’re feeling fancy, you could try something along the lines of one of Emmy’s many options, or this beauty from Heidi. To make the one I used on this soup, simply heat a little olive oil over low heat with a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme, until just before it starts to sizzle. Turn off the heat, and let it sit for at least thirty minutes (longer sitting time = more intense flavor). Strain out the herbs and store any leftover oil at room temperature for a week or so.
1 pound Chestnut beans, cooked, cooking liquid reserved
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
3 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 heaping tablespoon lemon-garlic paste (see head note)
1 bunch kale, chopped into ~ 1-inch square pieces (optional: remove stems before chopping if you prefer less chew in your final product … I leave them on, but do as you will)
Salt and pepper
To serve: crème fraîche, lemon zest, herbed drizzling oil (see head note), thyme leaves, and toasted bread or croutons, additional salt and pepper to taste.
Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in your favorite heavy-bottomed soup-making pot. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for about eight minutes. (If you have caramelized onions just waiting in your freezer, you could definitely use them here as an alternative). Add carrot and cook for about five more minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a tablespoon or two of water if needed to prevent sticking.
Add the lemon-garlic paste, plus about 2 cups of your cooked beans and 2 cups of their cooking liquid to the pan. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Bring everything just to a simmer. Turn off heat and let pan sit for a couple minutes to cool slightly. Using a hand blender (or working in batches with your regular blender) puree the beans, onions and carrots until very, very smooth.
Add an additional 2 cups of the bean liquor (use water if you don’t have 2 more cups) to the pot and mix well. Then add two cups of cooked beans, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. Turn heat back on to medium, and gently heat until the beans are warmed through and the liquid is just starting to simmer. Add the kale, stir, and let cook for about another minute, until the kale is bright green and tender but not at all mushy.
Serve warm, with a generous dollop of crème fraîche (or a poached egg as in West’s version). Sprinkle a few thyme leaves and a generous pinch of lemon zest over each bowl, and finish with a drizzle of your herbed olive oil. Float a few crunchy croutons in each bowl, or eat your soup alongside a thick piece of toast or a hunk of crusty bread.
This keeps well in the fridge for a few days, freezes acceptably, and can also make a nice base for a big pot of vegetable soup for later in the week. Because if we have learned anything here, it’s that it can be nice (or at least acceptable) to work in fragments. Right? Right. xo