Fall in New England
It’s here! Almost. The grass is drying out, leaves are tipped with red, some are already bright yellow, and even though it’s still hot and sunny, I’m so ready. Ready for my first fall in New England!!!! I love every season, the changes, the newness that each one ushers in. Different menus and cravings and clothes and activities. Even fall, this season of death is so beautiful to me. I’ve lived all over the U.S. and experienced fall in all its beauty, except for fall in New England. It sounds so quaint and idyllic, doesn’t it?
And I’m ready for it. Bring on the small town with charming old homes and buildings, the white church steeple towering above, streets lined with beech trees and birches, sugar maples, and white oak. We even have aspen trees here in Maine, this beauty from my Colorado childhood, with her white trunks and bright yellow leaves. Like every season, for me, fall is both full of the anticipation of the new and the comforts of the past.
I eagerly await the chilly temps and earlier sunset, wearing soft sweaters and warm scarves, the piles of leaves to kick through, hot toddies to warm my hands and my body, cuddling under cozy blankets.
And one of my most favorite things about fall, soup.
I adore soups, cooking them, eating them, dipping crusty bread into them, meeting for lunch on a windy fall day with a friend over them, teaching my daughter how to make them. The aromas of onions and carrots and celery cooking down and infusing my kitchen, the way that scented steam fogs up my windows. The dreamy hope that all those flavors will combine into something both sublime and comforting at the same time. I discovered one of my favorite soups when I lived in L.A.
In my late twenties, I moved to that massive City of Angels.
My first fall in L.A., I lamented the fact that the seasons were not as pronounced, unless, of course, you count summer. The dry heat in a Los Angeles summer, sometimes 110°, 115° for weeks at a time is a memory I will never forget. And I love sunshine and warmth, but I missed the cold and the snow; I missed the packing up of one season and the unwrapping of the next, that longing for everything good and magical that comes with each change.
Wondering how much snow we will get, if any. Wondering when those tulips will arrive. Wondering when it will be hot enough to dive into an outdoor pool. Wondering when that true autumn scent of dried leaves and chill-in-the-air will hit me when I step outside.
Los Angeles was like a foreign world to me in the beginning. It began as a crazy blurred mass of people, every single one a stranger, all rushing to be somewhere. And strangeness of experience too. A river without water, the real Skid Row, the hot, dry, cracked land beneath my feet. Always, that hot, dry, cracked land beneath my feet.
It felt to me like a place where one could easily be lost, not literally but figuratively.
I lived in downtown when I first arrived, but my second autumn there, I moved into a beautiful, peaceful, old Spanish-style apartment in South Pasadena, where life slowed down around me, and the beauty of the Angelenos latched onto me. And layer by layer I uncovered, an intricate wealth inside that city, an entire world of riches.
Students and families at City Terrace Elementary School, my mentors at Utah Street, Grand Central Market in the middle of downtown, warm beaches and palm trees, the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance, one crazy old Pasadena freeway. And the Colorado Street Bridge over the Arroyo Seco leading into Eagle Rock and right into Casa Bianca, the best pizza restaurant ever. Made even better because I got to share it with a fabulous group of girlfriends.
I fell in love with the food. My first crème brûlée, the risotto at L’Opera in Long Beach, In-N-Out Burgers, and the best Bánh mì ever. Even the homemade burritos, warm and addictive, made by a mother at City Terrace Elementary and sold for a dollar on Tuesday mornings, were some of the best burritos I’ve ever had.
It’s always about the food, isn’t it?
The last fall I spent there, the temperatures cooled a bit, I noticed more of the gorgeous, deciduous trees of South Pasadena whose leaves produced a symphony of color before they fell. The bright yellow Ginkgos and Walnuts, a deep red of a few maples. And it was sometime during that fall that I discovered a recipe for Creamy Tomato Soup. My girlfriends and I used to make it, garnish it with garlic croutons and Parmesan, sit down, and savor one fabulous soup together.
It’s still in the 80s and 90s here in Maine as we reach late September, but my daughter, so much like me, in love with the seasons and soup, is craving fall as much as I am, so we decided to make this soup anyway, temperature be damned.
Unlike many soups, it doesn’t begin with a traditional mirepoix of onion, carrot and celery, but instead combines Spanish onion, celery and leeks.
People, it’s all about the leeks. Caramelized with the onions and celery in butter and sugar. What gloriousness is this? I wondered the first time I made it. I could have just eaten that pile of gold. We’ll call it butter-melted caramelized leeks. Mmm, I can taste them now.
Lily said she wanted to help me, but when I gave her a cutting board with a knife and celery to chop, she immediately complained, “Celery? There’s no need to put celery in this soup.” She saw me chopping leeks and continued, “Why do we need any other vegetables. We only need tomato and cream.”
Ah, my love, I thought, soup, great soup, is about so much more than that. “Most soups begin with a few important sautéed vegetables in oil or butter, or both. The soup may look simple when you eat it, but underneath that facade are layers of flavor to discover. The flavor begins with these vegetables, honey.”
She left after she added the celery and sugar and said, “Call me when it’s time to pour in the broth.” I was hoping she’d stay with me in the kitchen, we could talk while those vegetables melted down into their sweet golden deliciousness. She could help me get the other ingredients together, rub the fresh thyme between her fingers and set off the scent. We could chat about our weekend. But there are so many things taking up space in her mind, and she’s like me, she’ll fill every empty moment.
These days she’s either making origami, reading a book, making dollhouse rooms out of boxes, or watching Weird Wonders of the World. Possibly trying to do all at the same time.
So many things to learn and do, that never-ending list. How easy it is to keep ourselves busy.
But when I make soup, I slow down and focus. Making soup never feels like a chore to me. I love every step along the way, finding or creating a delicious recipe, chopping the vegetables, the sauté, oh the sauté! It’s like magic to me, watching those vegetables break down and become something sublime and full of new flavor. Tucking in hints of seasoning with herbs and brandy and cream. I’m hooked, I’m home, I’m swoony, I’m excited all at the same time.
All of this together is like discovering a gorgeous, new city unfold as you explore, or diving into a saga and watching the story take shape, a story that lingers on your mind, one full of anticipation and excitement, of love and loss and longing. One you’d read again and again. Like the best love story.
***This Creamy Tomato Soup is from a book called The Daily Soup by: Leslie Kaul, Bob Spiegel, Carla Ruben, and Peter Siegel with Robin Vitetta-Miller. In their cookbook it’s called Tomato Basil, but it actually calls for chives instead of basil in the list of ingredients. Over the years I’ve adapted it to fit my desires and needs. I almost never add the extra plum tomatoes at the end unless I can find amazing quality tomatoes. I use chicken stock instead of vegetable stock because that’s what I have on hand, and I always add more leeks and butter, because, well, LEEKS & BUTTER!!!! Also, we love it topped with garlic croutons and Parmesan cheese.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 large Spanish onion, chopped
- 2 leeks, white and pale green parts only, cleaned and chopped
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme, (or fresh thyme from your garden!)
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
- 6 cups vegetable stock (or chicken)
- 1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon brandy
- 4 Italian plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
- Parmesan cheese
- Fresh Basil and garlic croutons for garnish, optional
- Melt butter in large stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion, leeks, celery and sugar and sauté until melted down and golden in color, about 10-12 minutes.
- Add the thyme, bay leaves, salt pepper, and cayenne, and stir to coat the vegetables.
- Add the stock and canned tomatoes, bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat, partially cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Stir in heavy cream and brandy and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove the bay leaves.
- Puree half (or more) of the soup in a blender or food processor until smooth.
- Return mixture to the pot and heat through.
- Stir in minced garlic.
- Serve in bowls with fresh basil, garlic croutons and finely shredded Parmesan cheese, if desired.
- I do a few things differently than the original recipe in The Daily Soup Cookbook. For example, I never add the plum tomatoes at the end unless I can find super awesome ones. A bad tomato isn't worth it. Also I often use chicken stock instead of vegetable stock and I always top it with Parmesan cheese and garlic croutons.