Not much sleep was to be had on the transatlantic flight. And now, they had us staying in a little school on the outskirts of Lisbon, trying to indoctrinate us into the Portuguese culture for 48 hours, before meeting up with strangers who would be our family for the summer.
I have lived my entire life with different degrees of wanderlust. Possibly due to being brought up in a military family. Perhaps just my own genetic “tic.” Wherever I am, I want to be somewhere else. Not that the place I am, isn’t wonderful and lovely, it’s just that I believe there are so many wonderful and lovely places out there and, well….I want to go see them. Experience them.
Being a parent now, I can only imagine how my mother must have felt when I would incessantly beg her, plead with her, practically sob to just let me go. To go and get on a plane bound for some far flung destination in the world for a year. I’m sure with much trepidation and fear, she finally relented to allowing her first-born child, as a high school junior, to board a plane headed for Portugal to live with strangers for the entire summer. All without cell phones or computers. Just faith that it would work out and I would be safe. I am eternally grateful to her for that summer.
I remember my first reaction to my student exchange placement of Portugal was, “Wait a minute! I said I didn’t want to go to South America.” Clearly, I hadn’t been paying enough attention in social studies. But after that initial reaction, I studied my atlas and the picture of the family I would be living with for the summer to know exactly where I was going to be in the world and who was coming to get me. Our 48 hours of indoctrination was over and we had just finished our lunch which consisted of two types of soups: a puréed carrot soup and, the national dish of Portugal, which I referred to in my journal as “that awful grass soup.” All 25 of us now stood in a line while the host families stood across from us in their own line. The counselors would call out the name of the exchange student and the families would run across the divide and embrace that person while the crowd cheered. It was all very exciting. I had already spotted my host family and wondered if they had seen me as well. I stood there, nervously waiting. Finally the counselor called out, “Carrie Cook!” But, before I could make a move, this other Carrie comes flying out of the line-up and runs to embrace my family. “But..wait…,” I started to say not knowing what to do in all the confusion.
Luckily, my host family had been studying my picture as well and realized in a matter of minutes that this Carrie wasn’t their Carrie. I sheepishly stepped out of the line-up with my hand up as they were trying to rectify the situation. My host family and I embraced…awkwardly and then, they took my hand in theirs (they were big hand holders) and made me a part of their family for the summer. And, I am eternally grateful for their generosity.
I spent the summer eating salted cod fish with potatoes and garbanzo beans. Barbecued sardines. Tiny little snails that we picked out of their shells with a pin. Moist, fruited and not-too-sweet Portuguese cakes. And, of course, the infamous grass soup. All these years later I have never been able to recreate these dishes…until recently. Out of nostalgia for the amazing food my host mother so lovingly prepared for me, I ordered David Leite’s beautifully written and photographed cookbook, The New Portuguese Table. In there was the recipe for the “grass soup” which I have come to learn is officially called, “Caldo Verde” or “Green Soup” and is made with kale sliced “whisker-thin.” (I wasn’t too far off calling it grass soup, was I?) One of these days, I may work up the courage to make it and post it here for you but in the meantime, I was taken in by the more “uptown” version of the soup on the following page of the cookbook. I did, of course, make my own changes to it but it is still quite Portuguese.
So, as I chopped up my carrots, my kale, my garlic and listened to Grace Cathedral Hill playing quietly in the background, I thought about what it means to take someone into your home. To have essentially a stranger live with you. To prepare her food. Your kind of food and hoping that she’ll like it. This teenager from America. I have the same feelings as I prepare food for my own family each night. Hoping they’ll like it. Enjoy it. These children of mine. And maybe, this food I prepare, will hold some nostalgia for them…much like the Portuguese food did for me.
White Bean, Kale and Sausage Soup
Inspired by Azorean Kale, Sausage and Bean Soup or Sopa de Couve by David Leite
Now, let me be honest with you about two things. The first is that this soup is not a weeknight soup. There is simply too much chopping. It’s best left to a Sunday afternoon when the sky is gray and you’re feeling a little pensive and can let your thoughts ramble on as you gaze out the window and chop your vegetables. The second is that the first day I made this soup, I didn’t like it. I have yet to truly embrace the “winter greens”…kale, collard and their cousins…but I had told myself that this was the winter I was going to try. Lo and behold, here it is almost spring, and I had yet to prepare one “winter greens” dish so when I stumbled onto this recipe, I knew this was it. Day One of making this soup, the kale was still rather coarse. Tough, even. But, by Day Two, the kale had softened. Was almost silky and had been infused with the flavors of the garlic and the spices. I couldn’t stop eating it. I found it delcious. So, make it on a Sunday afternoon, enjoy it Monday night for dinner or pop it in a thermos for lunch on Monday and Tuesday. You won’t be disappointed.
1 lb. dried white cannellini beans (or 2 15-0z cans of cannellini beans)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 med yellow onions, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
8 carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/2 inch pieces OR 4 carrots sliced and 4 med white potatoes, cubed
5 cups chicken broth
2 qt water (1 qt if using canned beans)
1 (approx 3×2 inch) piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper (more if you like your soup spicy)
1 bay leaf (preferably Turkish)
1 tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 lb chouriço, kielbasa, chicken or Italian sausage, sliced crosswise, 1/4 inch thick
1/2 lb kale (preferably lacinato), stems and center ribs removed and leaves coarsely chopped
Cover beans with water by 2 inches in a pot and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let stand, uncovered for 1 hour. Drain beans in a colander and rinse. OR, if, unlike me, you happen to be on the ball, soak your beans overnight covered by 3 inches of water. (If using canned beans, skip this step.)
In a large pot, heat olive oil over low heat and then, stir in your onions and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. While onions are cooking, chop up your garlic and carrots. Add the garlic to the pot and cook 1 minute. Stir in the carrots, and cook another 5 minutes. (You can chop up your kale while that’s happening.) Add beans, broth, 1 quart water, cheese rind, salt, pepper, bay leaf and rosemary and simmer, uncovered, until beans are just tender, about 50 minutes. (30 minutes if using canned beans.)
While soup is simmering, brown sausage in a heavy skillet over moderate heat. Then, transfer to paper towels to drain.
Stir in kale, sausage, (potatoes, if using) and as much of remaining quart of water that is needed to cover your vegetables. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until kale (and potatoes) are tender, about 15 minutes.
Remove the bay leaf and cheese rind. Season with salt and pepper, if needed and ladle into soup bowls. (A little more grated parmesan cheese on top doesn’t hurt either.) If heating up the next day, you may need to add a little water to thin the broth up a bit. Enjoy.
Yield: A huge pot full.
NOTE: I highly recommend buying big chunks of parmesan cheese and grating it yourself as opposed to buying the already grated kind at the grocery store which lacks the same nutty taste. Costco carries a nice big hunk that will last a long time. Whenever I use it for soups or pastas, I just set it out with a microplane grater and let each person grate his own amount on top. And the bonus is that when you’ve used up all of the cheese, you’re left with the delicious rind. Cut it up into 3 inch pieces, or so, and pop them in the freezer. You’ll have them at your fingertips for your next soup recipe.
All original text and photographs copyright: Carrie Minns 2009-2010