Making Soup in My Mother’s Kitchen

(Image credit: Dana Velden)

I’m paying an unexpected visit to my ancestral home in Wisconsin this week to take care of my mother who is recovering from surgery. It’s been an interesting few days so far, what with various medical administrations, a big winter storm (snow plus lightning!) that prompted a power outage, loss of heat, followed by sub-zero temperatures. Not to mention a new not-quite-housebroken puppy. Oh, and frozen drain pipes.

On my second day here, my mother sent me to the kitchen to cook up a hearty soup to keep our bellies full, the cold at bay and our spirits up. She handed me a recipe clipped from the Milwaukee Journal, a brothy mixture of white beans, kielbasa sausage and spinach.

(Image credit: Dana Velden)

At home, I may have made the chicken broth from scratch, soaked dried heirloom beans instead of using canned and maybe even used fresh spinach. From scratch cooking is something I enjoy and reflects the choices I have made for my life and my kitchen.

But an even higher value for me is using what is right at hand, being true to the kitchen I am currently working in. The most important thing was responding to my mom’s request for soup, to nourish her in a time of need, not to fuss about canned broth. So I set to work, opening cans and defrosting spinach, happy for the fresh onion and garlic and the beautiful coil of local sausage. Outside the storm howled and the temperatures plunged but in my mother’s kitchen it was calm and warm.

The soup was delicious, the broth enhanced with the smoky, rich sausage and brightened by the deep green spinach. Each bite was an interesting blend of textures, sometimes dominated by the creamy beans, sometimes the chewy sausage. The recipe called for a larger pasta like bow tie or ziti but it quickly became bloated and limp as the soup sat. So next time (and there will be a next time) I will use some of the tiny soup pastas from Eduardo’s, my favorite pasta from San Francisco.

The moral of the story is to always understand what’s most important. Life is nothing more than a constant series of choices and our successes will not be judged by how stubbornly we cling to our ideals, but by our wisdom in knowing when to hold fast and when to let go. Always error on the side of love and you’ll do fine.

Kielbasa and White Bean Soup
Adapted from the Milwaukee Journal – Serves 6

1 large onion, medium chopped
1 pound kielbasa sausage, sliced in 1 inch rounds
2 cloves of garlic
6 cups of chicken broth
1 can of white beans, drained
1 cup of small pasta, such as orzo or little stars
1 box of frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

Saute the onion in the oil with a pinch of salt until it is translucent. Add the sausage and continue cooking until the sausage starts to brown. Add the garlic, give everything a quick stir and pour in the chicken broth, followed by the beans. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for 15 minutes, then add the pasta and continue to simmer another 10 minutes or until the pasta is almost done. Add the spinach and heat through. Taste for seasonings—I found that just a few grinds of pepper were all that was needed.

Update 12/14/2014: 5 years later and this soup is still a winner in my kitchen. It’s a little harder, although not impossible, to find good kielbasa in my Oakland, CA neighborhood so whenever I spy some, I grab it. Sometimes I go all Martha and make the broth and cook the beans from scratch. Other times I use the original canned and frozen versions. It’s all good.

These are busy, chaotic times. It’s the holidays. There’s lots of bad weather happening out there and the world is its usual churned up mess of beauty and brutality, grace and madness. Sometimes I just want to take a pot of hot soup out into the fray and ladle on the warmth and good will, offering up the simple reassurance that a brothy, chewy, savory mouthful of soup brings. I want us to stuff our mouths full of this delicious goodness so we will all shut up for a while and just chew and swallow and enjoy something together. Picture it: sitting at the table together, elbow to elbow, slurping up the goodness we all deserve. All of us. Together.

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I hope you enjoyed this encore Weekend Meditation, originally posted on December 13, 2009. I will be posting these vintage posts every Sunday (with the occasional new post, if I can manage!) for the next several months while I focus on writing my first book.