My general theory is that the deeper a vegetable’s color is, the more nutritional value it packs. Compare watery pale green iceberg lettuce with hearty emerald green Swiss chard. No contest. Or take starchy white russet potatoes versus dense garnet yams. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out which one is going to register higher on the vitamin scale. Don’t get me wrong, for I certainly love shredded iceberg on a Houston’s hamburger or a great bowl of mashed potatoes slathered with butter and cream. However, in the interest of my health and my mental well-being, I feel better when I opt for the more vividly colored vegetables that fill me up and don’t immediately send me into the dreaded “carb coma”.
It may be drab and bitter outside, but today is the day to overcome the chill of winter with a burst of vitality for your eyes and your palate. I am warming my stomach and my soul with a bowl of brilliant orange in the form of Sweet Potato and Peanut Soup. This recipe is so much more to me than just a scrumptious and nutritionally rich bowl of soup, for this very dish conjures up memories of the week in which I invited a new vibrant palette of colors into both my home and my life.
It was three years ago today that my apartment was infused with COLOR, and after a lifetime of strictly white walls, this transformation is still worth celebrating! I had done a massive overhaul of my apartment earlier that month, dramatically rearranging furniture, installing new lighting and purging all the clutter from my life. But I needed serious assistance with painting since I was instantly reduced to a state of paralysis during a solo trip to the paint store, overwhelmed by the endless choices suddenly available to me. Thank goodness for Peter and Alison, my wonderful brother and sister-in-law, both of whom are fine artists and true experts with a paint brush in any context. They have painted every one of their apartments together, choosing bold hues to transform each one of their living spaces, and I was thrilled when they agreed to help me paint my own apartment for the first time.
I was grateful for Alison’s keen eye and intuitive sense of color as she helped me sift through an endless pile of paint chips. It reminded me of being fitted for a new prescription by the optometrist who asks, “Which is sharper, A or B? C or D? A or D?” until the doctor finds the perfect lens which allows you to see clearly. Alison held paint swatches side by side, narrowing it down until we found colors that would not only complement each other but would truly resonate with me.
“Now THIS is a color that looks like you!” Alison had said three years ago today, generously coating the roller with a luxurious deep red paint. A wide smile spread across her face as she expertly guided the roller over the wall, gradually transforming the dingy white walls of my bedroom into a gorgeous burgundy red, a shade appropriately named Fine Wine. “I don’t know why we didn’t do this sooner,” Alison said. “You somehow look more like YOURSELF against a wall this color!”
After the bedroom had been deepened by Fine Wine, my very sunny living room was brightened to an almost ridiculous degree by a brilliant shade called Sunspot. This particular yellow conjured up visions of a most glorious field of sunflowers I had once seen from a train journey through Tuscany, a visual image which nearly reduced me to tears of joy at the time. This transformation of my own walls made me unbearably happy, for how could one ever be truly sad sitting in a room this cheerful and light, even in the dead of winter?!
I felt clumsy and unskilled with a paint brush, especially compared to my sister-in-law whose hand was so steady and practiced. I watched with admiration as Alison created perfectly cut lines where the walls met the ceiling without even having to use painter’s tape. And when my brother came later to join the painting party, they worked beautifully in tandem as though they were dancing a slow dance, taking turns leading and following each other as they moved along the walls with their paintbrushes. When I asked how I could help, Peter grinned at me and simply said, “Would you make food for us?”
Now THAT I could do.
A hearty soup is always appropriate and welcome in frigid January, and I was inspired by the bold colors that were going on my walls at that very moment. Sweet potatoes were the most enticing option, and I thought of a recipe for something called African Peanut Soup that I’d once tried from one of the Moosewood cookbooks. It was an unusual combination of ingredients which seemed odd at first glance—sweet potatoes combined with carrots, ginger, tomato and peanut butter, of all things—but I remember it being fabulous and nearly impossible to eat just one serving of it.
I didn’t have a recipe but I improvised one based on what I could remember of that Moosewood soup. While Peter and Alison did the lion’s share of the painting, I chopped and sautéed fragrant onions and garlic with pungent ginger. I added carrots for sweetness, crushed tomatoes for a bit of body and acidity to balance the sweetness, and I poured in vegetable broth along with the cubes of sweet potatoes. My stockpot was a riot of oranges and golds, as though I had grabbed a handful of paint swatches and tried to find an ingredient to correspond with every color on the chip.
When the sweet potatoes were tender, I pureed the entire mixture with an immersion blender until it had coalesced into a smooth puree. I blended peanut butter into the soup, which added a richness and a depth of flavor. Chopped scallions were an excellent garnish, providing a textural contrast and a splash of vivid green.
We devoured our sweet potato soup as we looked around proudly at these crazy-bright living room walls. “I think good things are going to happen to you now that you’ve done this to your living space,” Alison said. “I think it would be impossible not to be affected in a really positive way by this.” She was right, for that was the beginning of one of the most incredible years of my life. As I spent time in my newly transformed apartment, I found myself energized and inspired in new ways, wanting to stretch and challenge myself in bigger and better directions. In the end, 2006 was indeed a year of marvelous adventure, one that was characterized by a substantial deepening in many of my relationships with others as well as great creative flourishing and exciting travel all over the globe.
As I stand in my kitchen, I have a view of both my Fine Wine bedroom and my Sunspot living room, and I get great happiness looking into those side-by-side rooms from my kitchen vantage point. I whipped up a huge batch of my Sweet Potato and Peanut Soup this afternoon in honor of our painting party and the improvised creation of this recipe on 1/16/06. Three years later I am still filled with happiness to be surrounded by such vibrant color on my walls, at my table, and in my life.
SWEET POTATO AND PEANUT SOUP
Inspired by a recipe in Sunday Suppers at Moosewood
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 1-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
½ teaspoon salt
¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (depending on how hot you like it)
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped (about 1 cup)
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped ( about 2 lbs.),
6 cups vegetable broth
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
1 cup smooth peanut butter
Additional salt and pepper, to taste
Finely chopped scallions, for garnish
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed stock pot. Add the chopped onions and cook until translucent, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic, ginger, salt and cayenne pepper and cook for an additional minute, stirring constantly. Do not let the mixture brown; if the mixture is dry, add a splash or two of the vegetable broth to prevent this from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Add the chopped carrots, stirring frequently until the carrot begins to soften a bit, about 5 minutes. Add the chopped sweet potatoes and crushed tomatoes, then carefully pour in the vegetable broth and stir. Increase heat and bring soup to a boil; when the stock is boiling, reduce heat and simmer over low heat until the sweet potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Stir in peanut butter. Puree the soup using a handheld immersion blender. Alternatively, you can puree the soup in batches in a standard blender or food processor.
Taste the soup for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as necessary. Garnish with lots of chopped scallions. Serves 6 to 8.