Saturday, January 14, 2012

tiny memoir: my good soul

in my twenties, i was a single mom struggling to make a decent life in a little house in a not-so-great neighborhood bordered by the city of bakersfield, california to the north and acres of farmland to the south.  i didn't have a lot of money and had no car for several years. 

on sunday afternoons, i put mia in her stroller with the wonky wheel and we walked on a little stretch of highway 58 to a funky makeshift cafe in a converted liquor store next to a 7-11.  it was run by a beautiful woman from bangladesh who had moved to california and joined the pentecostal church.  during the week, she served typical american food.  but on sundays, she made the most amazing hot and spicy chicken soup for two dollars a bowl.  i can still remember her standing at the stove with her thick black hair in one solid braid that reached past her hips, dressed in a long flowery prairie dress, singing hymns in bengali. 

i can't remember the bengali name for the soup.  she translated it for me once, writing out "my good soul" on a napkin.  i think she was trying to write "my good soup" but her english was shaky.  she placed her hand on her heart when i spoke the name out loud. 

indeed, this is where the soup worked its magic.  after each delicious spoonful, the warmth would slowly bloom around our hearts.  i had no health insurance at the time and i swear this soup, with its garlic and ginger and spinach and chili peppers, saved us.  in those days, neither one of us ever experienced illness that required medical care.

the last time i went home to bakersfied (seven years ago now), i drove out highway 58 toward pumpkin center to find the cafe torn down; replaced by a car lot.   i couldn't remember the name of the cafe.  actually, i don't think it had a name. 

for years i've tried to recreate the soup.  it has taken much trial and error.  for the longest time, i thought the little black seeds in the soup were poppy seeds.  i recently discovered they are nigella sativa seeds.  i've come pretty close to matching the taste and the healing effect.  the soup is a lovely mix of south asian magic and american practicality.  just like its original creator. 

my good soul makes you feel instantly better when you are unwell or off kilter in your body or spirit.  i try and use only organic ingredients.  you can probably use mushrooms and vegetable broth in lieu of the chicken to make it vegan.  this makes a nice big pot.

my good soul
three chicken breasts, poached and shredded
olive oil
nigella sativa seeds, about one tbsp.
mustard seeds, one tsp.
one onion, chopped
two celery stalks, chopped
two carrots, chopped
one head garlic, chopped (about twelve cloves)
two tbsp. chili pepper paste in the tube
two tbsp. ginger paste in the tube
chicken broth
two cans great northern beans, rinsed
baby spinach leaves
pumpkin seeds

use bone-in chicken breast with skin for the best taste.  poach the chicken by simmering it in just enough water to cover, salt, pepper, chili flakes, rosemary and a bay leaf for about thirty minutes.  set aside to cool before shredding the meat.  reserve the cooking liquid; it's about three cups.

cover the bottom of a large pot with olive oil and heat until a seed dropped in pops.  add the seeds and cook for about thirty seconds.  reduce heat to medium high and add onion, celery and carrots.  cook for about five minutes, until tender.  add the garlic and cook a few minutes.  add the chili and ginger pastes and stir well. 

add about one-half cup of your poaching liquid and deglaze the pan.  add the beans and your shredded chicken.  add the rest of your poaching liquid and extra broth (or water) if you need it to fill the pot to two inches below the brim.  bring to a boil.  reduce to low, cover and simmer for twenty minutes.

add the spinach and stir in to wilt.

garnish with pumpkin seeds.


feel better.


p.s.  it's difficult for me to get my recipes exact because i play when i cook.  i encourage you to do the same.  use all six of your senses when you make a meal.  i use a le creuset pot, which gets pretty hot, so you may need to leave some wiggle room for cooking times.   adjust the heat to your taste, this recipe is quite spicy.  the nigella sativa seeds are pretty important here.  if you live in a large city, you can probably find them at an indian food store or maybe whole foods.  i ordered mine online, so if you're local to me and want to make the soup, i've got close to a lifetime supply and i'm happy to share.