“And suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust in the magic of new beginnings.”
This year began differently for me. Not by choice, but it did. Normally I enjoy having New Years Day off of work to contemplate the year just past and the one ahead. In all the years working as a cook I cannot remember working this day…the private club of which I’ve been employed for more than a decade is closed on this day, and all the restaurants I’d worked prior were closed on this day. And even when I did a short stint at a whole foods co-op as kitchen manager I arranged the schedule so I had off. But this year—on New Years Day—I worked, not at any of the jobs aforementioned; I worked my part-time job which I started just a few weeks ago. Initially I didn’t want to do this but my supervisor asked if I would and I said yes. I’m trying to say yes to more things in my life these days, but I’m jumping ahead as I often do.
The night prior I had a date with my two pugs, Netflix, and a bottle of red wine and hoping to make it until midnight (I did). I made lentil soup for dinner, and in trying to live more in the moment (something else I’m attempting to do lately), I really focused on what I was doing. At my full-time job, where I am in charge of a full kitchen, this is often difficult for me because of multi-tasking (which is actually an illusion). But at home I can really focus on just one thing and really appreciate the moment. So as I slowly sauteed the vegetables and garlic in olive oil I was fully aware of all of my senses. And when I added the fragrant spices they filled the air with an aroma that I remember from my youth.
I’ve mentioned a few times in this blog prior that I am partially of Lebanese decent; my dad’s family was from the “old country.” I have very fond memories of my youth and on this evening as the spices tickled my nostrils I was transported back to the smell of my sitto’s (grandmother’s) house. It was the same aroma I would smell when we would enter her house on a winter’s day and the windows would be steamed up and sitti and my aunts—who were busy in the kitchen—would stop long enough the hug and kiss me and my sisters and pinch our cheeks. And on this evening—the last night of 2014—as I stood my tiny home kitchen with my pugs at my feet while I made lentil soup—I was not alone, at least not entirely…I could feel the presence of my ancestors as if they were standing before me in the flesh. I felt comforted, and I thanked them aloud. I thanked them for all the hard work they did and all the love that they gave, and for making me the person that I am.
The next morning, on New Years Day, I awoke pre-dawn to the sound wind. My old Allentown house shook and creaked as the wind and snow howled outside. Ugh, I thought…I really wished I could just climb back under the covers. But I bundled up and rode the smaller of my two cargo bikes to work, the one fitted with studded snow tires. And it was to my fortune that the wind was to my back…I was quite literally pushed to work. What a gift. And in an attempt at being present I welcomed the wind rather than dread it (this no doubt would have been more difficult if the wind were at my face rather than my back). And as I blew past the new and half-built medical campus on Main Street the tarps billowed and howled and the outstretched arm of the crane swayed as if waving to the clouds. There was not a car or person in sight and it was beautiful, it really was.
My part-time job is working in a home where people have nowhere else to go. The juxtaposition to my daily full-time job is easily apparent. And it is humbling on so many levels. It’s just a few hours a week and I work alone in the kitchen, so rather than having a full staff to do things for me I do it myself (which I enjoy). But the best part is being able to serve people a good meal who may need it the most. Food can nourish far more than the physical body.
So what does any of this have to do with soup and a new year? Nothing and everything, I suppose. I, like a lot of people, had a whole list of resolutions—things to give up and things to take up—most of which will be forgotten by the end of the month. And as I rode to work just after dawn on the first day of the new year it came to me that changing my thoughts changes my reality, and that my resolution(s) can be distilled into that one thing. The wind howled and at points almost pushed me off my bike, but by welcoming it—being in awe of it—I enjoyed the ride rather dreaded it.
It is a proven fact that when one changes their thoughts they change their outlook, and that happiness truly can be a choice, even in the most difficult situations. I personally know this, but that alone does not always make it easy. When I remain positive I have positive things happen in my life; and living positively also means (for me) living compassionately. And when I live with a compassionate heart the world blossoms before me. Inversely, when I live in fear (or with negative thoughts) it’s as if I have blinders on and can only see my own problems (which seem paramount but in reality are not problems at all when it comes right down to it).
So after serving lunch I sat down to my own lunch of another bowl of soup, flat-bread, and an orange which I carried with me to work that morning. Again I thought of my ancestors and how when they came to this country they likely and nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few things that they could carry. And as I sat and ate to the hum of the refrigerator, I thought to myself that while I may not have everything I want I most definitely have everything I need…way more than I need, actually. And as I sat there I banished the list of resolutions that I had planned and just stuck to one…to change my thinking. Because if I do this I know that everything will work out. Will it be easy. Nope. Not likely. But is it possible? Yes, without doubt…I can start over everyday if that’s what it will take, not just New Year’s Day. And if I do this I know that I can be of more service to others—even if it is just little interactions throughout the day—because isn’t that what we are really here for, to help one another along in this journey we call life.
And I don’t know if I was imagining it or not, but as I ate the soup it tasted good…really good. Better than the night before, in fact. And this is what I thought about while eating lentil soup in a large kitchen lined with stainless-steel while the wind whistled and howled outside on the first day of the year.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world be be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Red Lentil Lentil Soup with Spinach
Makes about 2 quarts
4 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon crushed hot pepper
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 cups red lentils
8 cups chicken broth
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
4 cups (4-6 ounces) fresh spinach, chopped
¼ cup lemon juice
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and carrot; saute for a few minutes, then add the garlic and saute another minute or two. Add the tomato paste, cumin, turmeric, coriander, hot pepper, and salt, then cook and stir the tomato and spices for a minute or so. Add the lentils broth, bring to a boil then lower it to a simmer. Allow the soup to cook for about an 30 minutes, then add the potatoes and simmer another 30 minutes or until the soup thickens and the lentils become very soft. If it becomes too thick, add additional broth or a little water. Stir in the spinach and simmer for just a couple minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and remove from the soup from the heat.
For additional Lebanese-inspired recipes, click here.