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We all harbor secret fantasies of moving away, starting a café, and feeding people. Every month, Sarah Kieffer from the Vanilla Bean Blog will be indulging us with stories and recipes from the Wolners, who own the Blue Heron Coffeehouse in Winona, Minnesota.
Today: A lentil soup to cure anything that ails you -- from a broken heart, to the winter doldrums, to a weeknight dinner rut.
Working at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse taught me a lot about baking. But it also taught me about soup: mainly, that there is good soup, and then there is great soup. Growing up I only ate soup from a can, mostly in the chicken noodle and creamy potato varieties. My nose gently turned up at any steamy bowl involving tomatoes, beans, kale, mushrooms, dark broth, or egg. The Blue Heron specialized in unique soups, so my nose was in a permanent wrinkle.
However, there was a day in October 1998 when all this changed. I was a sophomore in college, and had stopped in for lunch before my shift started. My backpack was full of late homework and books to be read, but I was focused on the only thing that currently mattered: pulling out a well-used journal and writing about my broken heart. After scrawling pages and pages of words smudged with a tear or two, I glanced up to see the soup of the day: cream of zucchini. On cue, I made a face at any vegetable other than "potato," but at the same moment I also had a picture of my mother, can-opener in hand, cranking open some chicken noodle while I lay sick in bed. There was something so comforting about the memory of being cared for when I just couldn’t go it alone. I saw Colleen in the back, whisking and mixing, and I decided to pour myself a bowl.
I will never forget those flavors on my tongue and how warm they were to my belly; each bite held kind voices, my sister’s laugh, and the tall oak trees around my childhood home that watched over me as a child. I sat greedily hunched over my bowl, eating soup and bread and feeling comfort for the first time in weeks. It was the beginning of my love for soup, and I tried everything Colleen created from that day on.
Colleen Wolner is a soup maven, a soup whisperer. She has created volumes of her own recipes, such as soups like creamy lemon-mushroom-spinach with wild rice, refried bean, carrot orange, and potato rosemary. She can make a creamy potato soup like no other, with potatoes perfectly diced and cooked, tender but not mushy, and a broth full of potato, onion, and herb flavor that is thin but still absolutely creamy. From day one of the Blue Heron, she has also rocked copies of the Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special and the Café Brenda Cookbook, putting her own spin on their unique recipes: Burgundy Mushroom Stew, Chinese Mushroom, Celery Roquefort, and Winter Minestrone are a few favorites.
This Sweet Potato Lentil Curry is one of those soups. Adapted from the amazing Brenda Langton, it is chock full of everything in its title plus more: coconut milk, fresh ginger, carrots, red pepper, and a good squeeze of lime. It’s just right for wintertime, and will bring you comfort as you enter this New Year.
“But the kitchen will not come into its own again until it ceases to be a status symbol and becomes again a workshop. It may be pastel. It may be ginghamed as to curtains and shining with copper like a picture in a woman's magazine. But you and I will know it chiefly by its fragrances and its clutter. At the back of the stove will sit a soup kettle, gently bubbling, one into which every day are popped leftover bones and vegetables to make stock for sauces or soup for the family. Carrots and leeks will sprawl on counters, greens in a basket. There will be something sweet-smelling twirling in a bowl and something savory baking in the oven. Cabinet doors will gape ajar and colored surfaces are likely to be littered with salt and pepper and flour and herbs and cheesecloth and pot holders and long-handled forks. It won't be neat. It won't even look efficient. But, when you enter it you will feel the pulse of life throbbing from every corner. The heart of the home will have begun once again to beat.” -- Phyllis McGinley
Serves 6 to 8
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red onion, minced
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup peeled and minced ginger root
1 1/2 tablespoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced red pepper
5 cups diced sweet potatoes
14 ounces coconut milk
2 cups dried lentils, washed
8 cups vegetable stock
1 lime, juiced
1 bunch cilantro, minced (see headnote)
1/4 cup tamari
Salt and pepper to taste
Sugar to taste (see headnote)
Photos by Sarah Kieffer