mom, i love you.
Brussels, a city that I have long associated with my beloved french fries happens to be the namesake of another food that has rapidly climbed to my top-three-favorite-veggies chart – brussel sprouts. Although the exact origin of brussel sprouts is unknown, I am very grateful to the French who settled in Louisiana and introduced them to American cuisine. I am even more grateful to my Goodman who is doing his best to harvest our own, so I don’t have to spend so much money at the store constantly buying them.
Brussel Sprouts, have always had an unjustified bad reputation among vegetables, but I think they can be equally as enjoyable as a plate of fries. If prepared correctly, preferably roasted or caramelized with some salt, pepper, lemon juice and perhaps a dash of red pepper, I can eat them with all the pleasure in the world. To really appreciate good brussel sprouts one should preferably get them fresh and not frozen. And even when getting them fresh, one should avoid brussel sprouts that are a bit discolored, which could indicate that they are dated and perhaps the flavor will be a bit off.
Like the other members of the Brassica family (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and kohl rabi – to name a few), brussel sprouts are incredibly strong in the “good-for-you” category. They are an excellent source of vitamin C, supporting the body’s immune system as well as vitamin A, with its concentration of beta carotene. In addition to boosting ones general immune system, they fight off carcinogens. For vegetarians, brussel sprouts, rich in protein, are a particularly good choice and when combined with a whole grain, create a complete protein.
Given my love for brussel sprouts, it’s no wonder that I wanted to somehow create a soup out of it. My inspiration for the soup was the cream of celery soup my mother made when I was a child. Although, I use mostly brussel sprouts, I add some celery as the two blend well together. I should say that the celery itself is quite a reputable vegetable, also chocked full of health benefits. Together, these ingredients with the mint, parsley, and lemon juice make for a joyfully delicious combination.
Obviously, it is easy to romanticize memories of our past, making any attempted replication of my mother’s soup hard to live up to my memory of what it tasted like when I was child. I will have to say, however, in playing with the recipe several times, it’s inching its way closer.
What you will need:
- Soup pot
- Baking Sheet
- Measuring spoons
- Measuring cup
- Pan (optional for caramelizing onions – can easily been done in the soup pot).
- Juicer for lemon
- 2lbs of brussels sprouts
- 1 onion
- 4-5 cloves of garlic
- 4 stalks of celery
- Quart of Broth (either vegetable or chicken)
- Olive Oil
- 1 tablespoon of turmeric
- 1 tablespoon of fresh or dried parsley
- Few springs of fresh mint or teaspoon of dried mint.
- 1 Lemon
- 1/2 cup of milk or cream
- Heat oven to 350 degrees.
- Wash brussel sprouts, slice off the bottom and cut into to halves.
- Peel garlic
- On a baking sheet roast the brussel sprout halves and garlic cloves for 15-20 minutes.
- Dice onions and celery, placing into separate bowls.
- Heat a pan or cooking pot with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil.
- Add the diced onions and caramelize, adding in the tablespoon of turmeric, with a teaspoon of salt and dash of pepper. Cook until the onions are translucent.
- On a low heat, add the roasted brussel and garlic to the onions, the diced celery and mix in the tablespoon of parsley.
- Add in the broth and cook on medium heat for 15-20 until the brussel sprouts and celery are al dente. It is optimal to keep the nutritional value of the vegetables.
- Ladle the soup mixture into your blender, adding more or less fluid depending on how thick you like your soup.
- Blend your soup according to preference. You can blend it until it is completely smooth or with smaller chunks.
- Add the sprigs of mint and the squeezed juice of half of the lemon.
- Add the cream or milk, depending on your preference or for vegans, omit.
- Blend, adding more lemon juice, salt and pepper according to preference.
- Ladle soup into bowl or cup, garnish with more mint on top.
- Serve with some nice bread for dipping and a glass of white wine.
(This soup can be made and stored in advance. Soup will stay fresh refrigerated up to one week. This soups also freezes well.)
Campbell’s canned soup was one of the most memorable eating experiences of my childhood. It was not just any kind of Campbell’s soup, but cream of celery soup in particular that I loved. Each time my mother pulled those cans out of the pantry, I knew that a special occasion was upon us. From the minute she started to make the soup until it hit my palate, I anticipated its taste with mouth-watering salivation.
Turns out those glorious cans were a major anomaly in our kitchen. Aside from the soup, it was rare that we would ever eat something that came from a can or a box in the freezer. It was nearly forbidden and to this day I wonder how that can of soup made the cut. Our nightly meals were elaborate homemade Persian dishes complete with salad, stews, meat or fish served with rice. The rice would never be Uncle Ben’s rice but a long-grain basmati that my parents would soak for a couple hours before preparing it with either herbs, dried fruits, legumes or vegetables. As children we never appreciated such meals. In fact my brother and I experienced major food envy. While our neighbors got to eat Hamburger Helper and Sloppy Joe’s, we were trying to find a way to avoid eating the sauteed chicken liver with mushrooms and lemon powder, or the lamb roast, on the plates in front of us. During lunch at school, my envy intensified as my friends would tote their lunch boxes filled with goodies like Wonder Bread with Jiffy peanut butter and a Twinkee or Ding Dong for dessert. My parents always packed us whole wheat bread, always toasted and hard by the time we unwrapped it. The peanut butter had to be the all-natural kind with a layer of oil on the top. We never got grape jelly, but some sort of marmalade, like orange or fig, that my father had made himself. The only kind of dessert that we would ever see was a piece of fruit, in particular a banana, that was often brown and bruised by the time we got to lunch. Breakfast cereals were forever a sore spot, as we longed for bowls of Lucky Charms or Frosted Flakes, but all we ever got were cereals low in sugar and high in bran. My brother learned quickly to become an expert reader of ingredients and lobbied hard to get us something other than Bran Flakes for breakfast. It was no wonder that as soon as we were old enough, we would stealthily make a run for the corner store with all our pennies, dimes and nickels weighing us down to buy packs of all the Hostess goodies we were never allowed to eat. Hiding behind the store, we inhaled them ravenously.
My mother Mily, which is the name she adopted when she moved to the United States, never had an inherent passion for cooking. She never made any pretense about enjoying or wanting to cook. She has always been a reluctant cook who would rather that someone cooks for her. Yet for all her complaints about cooking, she learned to cook quite well under the tutelage of my father, a Persian cooking wizard in his own right. He grew up in the kitchen alongside his mother and five other siblings. Cooking elaborate meals filled my father with joy. Being the dutiful Persian wife who wanted to nourish her family well and in following my father’s direction, Mily learned to create masterpieces.
Unlike my father, my mother spent very little time in her own kitchen growing up, not because she wasn’t invited but rather she flat out refused. She wanted nothing to do with food preparation, least of all meat. Currently a vegetarian, I always wondered how much her experiences in Iran had to do with her aversion to meat. Making a chicken or lamb roast, wasn’t as easy as going to the store or the butcher and having the meat prepared and ready to cook. It meant going to the food bazaars where fowl or meat would be hanging upside down and still needed to be plucked, skinned and deboned. My mother’s family would buy their own live chickens that her father would take into the courtyard, just behind the kitchen and slaughter himself. Getting to the point of being able to actually cook the chicken was a two-day process. In her youth, my mother vowed that she would never pluck a chicken in order to prepare and eat it. My grandmother laughed at her daughter’s reveries, yet in coming to the United States later in life, my mother was able to live out that promise.
In addition to meats, most Persian dishes are very elaborate, involving a lot of washing, chopping and sauteeing, even before assembling the ingredients. Women would sit for hours if not all day, washing their greens: parsley, dill, cilantro, spinach, etc. plucking the leaves and then chopping them very finely. These days, Persian supermarkets make life a lot easier for those of us who want to make sabsi polo – herbed rice, khoresht – a Persian stew or aash – soup, as all the herbs come packaged for easy preparation. Although, I still rely heavily on my Cuisinart when in it comes to chopping, I admittedly like to stock up on pre-packaged herbs. On some days, it helps my sanity and with the little time I have to prepare dinner.
While I was growing up, my parents enjoyed entertaining others. We would often have family and friends come over for social gatherings, that had either been planned for weeks or an spontaneously thrown together an hour in advance. Hosting others gave my parents great joy, and in the case of my mother also a great deal of stress, because hosting others really meant to feed them. It wasn’t as easy as setting out a fruit and cheese platter, with crackers and nuts on the sides. All the meals, even simple summer barbecues, were elaborate and involved. We didn’t have one fridge in our house. We had three of them. The extra two fridges were in the garage, where we kept all the herbs, fruits, meats and countless jars of my father’s homemade preserves. When hosting others, my parents, in a whirlwind of activity, would empty the fridges and pantries of all the ingredients they needed to start production of their meal. The meat needed to be marinated, the herbs to be chopped, the rice to be washed and the onions to be sauteed. As children I remember, when guests were set to arrive, we would enter the kitchen at our own risk knowing that my mother was getting just as heated as the roast in the oven. She took no prisoners and would start barking at us to make ourselves useful or get out. But in the end, the food was not only delicious but beyond abundant. I have never been to a Persian gathering where wasn’t food for ten armies. Persians feel infinitely more shame in not having enough food to feed others rather than the possibility of the food going to waste.
Given the time and effort put into creating meals, it’s no wonder my mother stumbled on some shortcuts that made cooking so much easier. Making her cream of celery soup wasn’t as easy as opening the can, heating and serving it. She would doctor the soup up with herbs, spices, fresh celery and of course lemon juice. Once it was done, she transferred it into one of her finest China bowls and ladled it out to guests when they arrived. Like me, most others would marvel over how delicious the soup was and often ask for the recipe. Never revealing her secret, she would graciously thank them and give a humble smile, as if to acknowledge the amount of time she slaved over the soup. I recall one Christmas Eve when she served the soup guests, who were singing her culinary praises, when my brother announced “ Oh no she didn’t make this soup, it came from a can. It’s Campbell’s.” From across the table I could feel how mortified she was and how desperately she wanted to shrink beneath the table. Fortunately for her, she had platters of food yet to come, that were so elaborate and so clearly not from a can, that she could redeem herself as a cook worthy of some approval.
Now spending so much time in the kitchen myself, I can certainly understand how it felt for my mother in all those years of reluctant cooking.Putting fresh, home-cooked meals on the table each night is exhausting. On many nights I desperately want to give into the path of least resistance. There is so much effort involved in preparing a meal, negotiating with the kids over the amount of food they need to actually finish, and having to scrub the pots and pans. I wish I could just resort to pasta or pizza. Mealtime would transform itself into an easier and more serene experience. But much like my mother, I feel a sense of duty to nourish my family properly. I also have a thing for hosting brunches, barbecues and dinner parties. I have admittedly inherited some of the stressed-out qualities she possesses when preparing meals for others, as there is an element of pressure in wanting to get it right. When we are having guests I sense my own children, much like my brother and I, walking on eggshells in the kitchen knowing that at any moment I will explode in a raging fury. Fortunately, I’ve learned that there is nothing a glass of good pinot noir won’t cure when I feel an eruption coming on. As much as I would love to emulate the calm aura of June Cleaver, having everything prepared in advanced with an immaculate kitchen to top it off, I have had to embrace time and time again that, in the kitchen, I am my mother’s daughter. And quite frankly, I completely identify with her disenchantment in spending hours chopping vegetables. As much as I love preparing soups, I wish I could wash, chop and prep ingredients with the twitch of my nose as it is the most time-consuming part. I am often tempted just to open a can of beans instead of spending the time and counter space to soak them overnight. Yet for health reasons, I try to resist the urge. Ultimately, the appreciation others have for a homemade bowl of soup made from scratch, is worth the strain and effort. I feel such gratification that I quickly forget how anxious I was just hours before. I always willingly and whole-heartedly return to make more.
My mother has now retired from Campbell’s Cream of Celery soup, if not semi-retired from preparing elaborate meals all together. Yet, on the occasions that she musters up the inspiration, she will never let any of her guests go hungry. She pulls out her artillery and fires away, preparing meals made to wow and placate. Interestingly enough, although she is a vegetarian, on Thanksgiving I look to her for help in preparing my lamb roast, which I believe she prepares like no other. I also have learned a great deal about vegetarian substitutes in the khoresht and aash recipes that I love and appreciate but want to modify with more vegetables.
It’s been years, if not decades, since I have eaten her cream of celery soup, but the memory of how divine it tasted is never far from my memory. I have only started trying to recreate it from scratch recently. I don’t particularly like to add cream to soups, but given this is a creamy soup, it calls for the dairy. I have also modified the soup to include a new vegetable obsession of mine, brussel sprouts. In the hopes of creating something similar to her soup, I have been playing with multiple recipes. I have been working with all the goodies, including the celery, that she used to make her soup.
Just this Mother’s Day Kiko came home with a list of what makes his mother so special to him. To my amazement, he mentioned that I always make him his favorite soup. In his writing I found a true reflection of my own childhood feelings. Like him, I found such delectable pleasure and infinite comfort whenever my mom made my favorite soup. I experienced a sweet, happiness-is moment that only a mother can magically create.