Sunday, October 9, 2011

BACK ON THE DRAGONWAGON: Summer's End Potato-Mushroom Chowder with Basil-Tomato Finish

How I have fed myself over the last couple of months is a blur. I have changed jobs, cities, pant sizes and, come to think of it, lifestyles.

For the second time I’ve moved to Chicago, affectionately known as the Second City. The irony is not lost on me, and I’m trying to embrace the momentum of this second wave.

The lifestyle change is thanks to a city that doesn’t require constant car travel, so as a result, I’m surrounded by delightful cafés and holes-in-the-wall that inevitably keep me from my kitchen. At least the city allows you to walk off its unending gastronomical gifts.

This weekend Chicago hit 80-plus degrees, right on the heels of a chilly, windy weekend. Friday night I found myself in the trendy Wicker Park neighborhood sipping margaritas and shoveling chips and guacamole in my mouth. The streets were full of gluttonous people like me, desperate to drink in that last sap of summer.

I wrote about summer’s start and end back in June when I commemorated my sister’s best friend, Summer, who died suddenly.  I knew Summer for many seasons, but year after year, her spirit remained unchanged. My sister pointed out that William Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is resplendent in metaphor for her. Summer’s lease did indeed have all too short a date.

So as I flipped through Crescent Dragonwagon’s “Passionate Vegetarian” in search of my next undertaking, I stopped on page 157, “Summer’s End Potato-Mushroom Chowder with Basil-Tomato Finish.”

The finish is a misnomer.  The basil—those peppery summery leaves—infiltrates this creamy dish. I chose to develop the cream finish with homemade tofu sour cream (p. 909). The silken tofu, juicy tomato, garlic and abundant basil made me want to lick the inside of my food processor. This is not a recommendation, of course. The blade is machete sharp.

Summery as this soup supper sounds, it’s also packed with some October picks, like cool-season kale and potatoes that can stand up to the frosty weather to come. Carrots, onions and mushrooms create a savory, yet sweet and earthy base. When you add the vegetable stock, the soup turns a “beefy” brown color. The flecks of carrot-orange rise to the surface, like a trumpet announcing fall’s arrival. The autumnal colors are deliciously undermined by the verdant basil (and the heaping glass of Rosé wine that, along with some crusty bread, flanked my dish).

This all-star Dragonwagon recipe is housed in the section called “Soups for Spirit and Sustenance.” Sure, it’s easy to understand how food sustains the body, but what about the spirit? What we eat should nourish our souls, but more often than not, our daily choices suck the spirit right out of food.

Leo Babauta, author of the popular minimalist-loving blog “Zen Habits” once wrote about the automated services so many people love, like auto bill pay. It sounds as though it would simplify life, but Babauta argues it strips a level of our consciousness away.

So it is for outsourcing too many meals. When you don’t buy (or frankly, grow) the ingredients—handle them, examine them and smell them—you are robbing yourself of the full consciousness when you taste them.

Today is Sunday. I didn’t do anything overtly spiritual. I didn’t go to church. I didn’t squeeze in a yoga session. But this summer’s end soup, from earthy start to bright basil-tomato finish, filled my stomach and fortified my spirit.

Who doesn't relish a fresh start? It's never too late to get back on the Dragonwagon. Summer may be over, but thy eternal summer shall not fade (without your permission, anyway).