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It’s my specialty

Hi. I am writing this from my in-laws’ kitchen. Brandon is out on a bike ride with his dad. THEY’RE BOTH WEARING SPANDEX!!!! It’s a great day to be in New Jersey.

Before the holiday sets in, while it’s still relatively quiet in the house, I wanted to share a recipe with you. I should say first that it’s not for Thanksgiving. I know you already have plenty of that. What we have here is something for this weekend, or next week. More specifically, what we have here is the soup that I will be eating over and over and over again, lunch after lunch and dinner after dinner, for months to come. The New Winter Favorite.

I can tell what you’re thinking. This soup does not have the aura of a champion. It looks like a heap of cubed vegetables - or, shall we say, roughly cubed; you will never see me teach a knife skills class - in broth. Stay with me.

I was introduced to this soup by my friend Gemma, who made it for dinner one night in Edinburgh. We’d been out of the house all day, walking around town. In the late afternoon, we ducked into Mellis for cheeses and oatcakes, and then into a pub, and by the time we got home, it was probably seven. That’s the point when I would usually say, Screw it, we’re having scrambled eggs, but Gemma turned on the stove, and an hour later, we sat down to this soup.

The recipe, she told me, comes from a book called Great British Food, by the team behind London’s Canteen. If I can be perfectly honest, I’m glad I tasted the soup before I saw the recipe, because on paper, it looks like it might not add up to much. It looks plain. Possibly too plain to taste like anything. I ought to know, because in my household, I am notorious for choosing soup recipes like this: elegantly simple ones that promise the moon, but more often than not, wind up tasting like warm, lightly salted tap water. It’s my specialty. (I do not write about such recipes here, for obvious reasons, but Brandon can tell you all about them.)

This soup is not like that. Yes, it is simple. It’s mostly vegetables and broth. But what makes it special, I think, is the combination of vegetables: not just the usual mix of onion, carrot, and celery, but also parsnip (or rutabaga), Savoy cabbage (or Brussels sprouts), a leek, and some fresh thyme - in other words, lots of sweetness, fragrance, and depth. Plus a fistful of pearl barley, which gives it a hearty chew. The flavors are clear and clean, but also immensely satisfying. Brandon ate two bowls of it. MY STREAK IS BROKEN.

I should also note that, because this recipe uses small amounts of a number of vegetables, it’s a handy way to clear out the crisper drawer after a period of insanity, also known as Thanksgiving. And if you plan to make turkey stock on Friday from the bones and last bits, I’ll bet this would be a good way to use it. In any case, I think you’re going to like it. It’s instant Repertoire Material.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Vegetable and Pearl Barley Soup
Adapted from Great British Food, by Cass Titcombe, Patrick Clayton-Malone, and Dominic Lake

A few notes:
- I used homemade chicken stock to make this soup, but you could also use good-tasting store-bought chicken or vegetable stock. To me, the best brand is Better Than Bouillon.
- If your celery comes with leaves still attached, save them! Toss in a small handful when you add the cabbage, toward the end.
- Instead of parsnips, try peeled, cubed rutabaga.

3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large yellow or sweet onion, diced
150 grams (3 or 4 stalks) celery, peeled and diced
150 grams (about 3 medium) parsnips, peeled, cored, and diced
150 grams (about 3 medium) carrots, peeled and diced
150 grams (1 large) leeks, diced
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
Leaves from a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 ½ liters (6 1/3 cups) chicken or vegetable stock
50-60 grams (¼ to 1/3 cup) uncooked pearl barley
A couple handfuls of shredded Savoy cabbage or Brussels sprouts
Freshly ground black pepper

Warm the olive oil in a Dutch oven or small stockpot. Add the onion, celery, parsnips, carrots, and leeks, and stir to coat with oil. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until softened. Do not allow to brown. Add the garlic and thyme leaves, and cook for a few minutes more. Then add the stock and a couple of good pinches of salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook for 10 minutes. Then stir in the pearl barley, and simmer gently for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the Savoy cabbage or Brussels sprouts, and simmer for 5 minutes more. Taste, and add salt as needed. Serve hot, with freshly ground black pepper, if you like.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings


October 31

We’ve arrived at the end of my trip. The last walk.

The way I remember it, the wind was blowing like mad. I have no idea how these pictures came out looking so peaceful.

Christophe and Gemma led the way through Holyrood Park, along the skirt of Arthur’s Seat.

Another time, I want to climb to the top. I’ll have to go back.

I think I could live in Edinburgh. Next lifetime, maybe.

Hope your week is off to a good start.


October 29

To those of you who advised me to go to Scotland: YOU WERE SO RIGHT. I get it now.

In order to get there, I had to endure a bout of verbal abuse from a disgruntled airline employee whom I will henceforth remember as Psycho EasyJet Guy, but I made it. My friends greeted me in Edinburgh with a bag of Mini Cheddars, and shortly after, there was a homecooked meal and a long sleep on a very comfortable air mattress, and then I fell in love with Scotland.

Christophe and Gemma, my friends in Edinburgh, are good walkers. I admire that quality. They might say, Let’s go for a walk, and you’ll be out for six hours. We spent an entire long weekend that way.

Around midday on Saturday, we walked up Calton Hill, stopped for espresso at Artisan Roast, and then picked up sandwiches at Broughton Deli. I ordered ham, Isle of Mull cheddar, and tomato chutney. It was my first time having chutney on a sandwich, and it will not be my last.

We took our sandwiches to the Water of Leith Walkway, and the sun came out while we sat on a bench to eat. Then we continued on to Dean Village, where someone’s laundry waved enthusiastically from a line in a courtyard, and beyond that, to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. (I would like to live, though probably only for a couple of days, in the studio of Eduardo Paolozzi. I would open the blinds, even if I got in trouble for it.)

We walked.

In the early evening, we ducked into the Cumberland for a restorative pint. Later, back at home, Gemma made haggis with neeps and tatties for dinner. I think she felt silly about trotting out the Scottish national dish for the visiting American, but I wanted to taste it. Christophe made sure that we approached the event with proper solemnity, reading Address to a Haggis over the steaming pots. I cleaned my plate. I was made for Scotland.

I’ve never minded traveling by myself. But what I liked most about this trip, and what I think I will always remember about it, is that most of the time, I wasn’t actually alone. I owe my friends a lot for that.


October 19

I come from a family that goes to church only on occasional Christmas Eves, but somehow, I have come to love the feeling of being inside a church. I like the high ceilings, the wood and the stone and the gold leaf, and I like them best when they’re empty. There’s no other silence like it. My favorite church is in Paris, and it’s called Saint-Sulpice. I first loved it because my grandmother loved it, but now I love it because I do.

I never forget to go to Saint-Sulpice. I usually go on a weekday, when it’s quiet, and I make sure that I have some coins on me, so that I can light a candle. My grandmother used to ask me to light candles for my uncle Jerry and my aunt Millicent, who both passed away when I was a kid. This time, I lit a candle for her.

I don’t use the word majestic often, but Saint-Sulpice is majestic. I’ve seen it described as gloomy, but it’s never felt that way to me. I like that the walls are gray. When the light from the windows hits them, they give off a soft, humming glow. It always feels warmer in Saint-Sulpice than I expect it to. It also has a nice smell. Does it mean anything if I say that it smells like rocks? And very faintly, the incense from the Sunday before.

In my normal life, I don’t think a lot about my grandmother, but when I’m in Saint-Sulpice, I feel close to her.

My mother and my grandmother took a trip to Europe together in 1986. They were in Paris for a few days, and they stayed at the Hotel Recamier, on the Place Saint-Sulpice, next to the church. My grandmother had stayed there before, and she liked it because it wasn’t overly touristy. She thought the area felt neighborhoody, like someplace you’d want to live. Of course, it takes real means to live on the Place Saint-Sulpice; I’ve heard that Catherine Deneuve lives there, or once did. But the rest of us can visit, at least. My dad once took a picture of my mother there, near the fountain. She’s wearing her hair down, which she almost never does, and it’s held back with a wide headband. You can tell she felt very chic.

The summer that I was 18, I went backpacking around Europe with my cousin Katie, and in Paris, we stayed in a hostel near the Jardin du Luxembourg. I think it was on the boulevard Saint-Michel. I helped Katie to dye pink streaks in her hair in the bathroom. One day, we went to Saint-Sulpice to light our candles, and there was a flyer on the door for an organ concert that was to take place the following Sunday afternoon. We decided to go, and when the day came, we put on skirts. I remember feeling very grown up about it. But the chairs in Saint-Sulpice are very small, even for teenage girls, and we were antsy and bored. At some point, we started whispering to each other, and then the whispering led to giggling, and then an older woman in front of us turned around and, with immense scorn, told us to be quiet. We agreed later that she had been unnecessarily mean, but I felt bad about it. I thought about it for a long time afterward.

In any case, I always go to Saint-Sulpice. I went there two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, and then I went back again that Friday to sit on a bench by the fountain and have a solo picnic. I brought bread and cheese and Alain Milliat's pêche de vigne nectar. (Winnie introduced me to it, and it’s incredible. You can buy it at La Grande Epicerie de Paris.) There were two young Frenchmen sitting on the bench behind me, and they had a bag from the Pierre Hermé shop around the corner, on rue Bonaparte. Though they looked like a couple of American pro football players, they daintily passed macarons and a 2000 Feuilles back and forth, taking studious bites, analyzing. “The caramel flavor is good and deep, but also light somehow!” “It's amazing how delicate the pastry on this millefeuille is! So caramelized!”

I ate my lunch and listened.