I went to Scotland last month with my son Henry for a family event. We stayed with some cousins who live on and manage a 1,300-acre organic hill farm at the edge of the Highlands. The property, which has been in the family for more than 400 years, includes an old manor house, an even older “old house” from the 1600s, vast wind-swept pastures and meadows, a few wee lochs, a wee byrne, 400 sheep, 50 cows and four energetic and hardworking dogs who keep watch over it all.
It is hard to describe the wonder of it. Not only is the place heartachingly beautiful in the photographable sense, it is so wisely and intelligently managed by my cousins (technically, third cousins) that I always come away feeling a complicated mix of envy, inspiration and deep humility at their lives.
Shortly after we returned home, my mother came over for a visit. No difficulty in describing the trip to her; she wanted to know how we’d eaten.
“What did Seonag cook?” she asked, referring to my cousin’s Skye-born wife.
“She’d start a pot of soup every morning,” said Henry, “and that’s what we’d have for lunch, with bread and butter and cheese.” He added that it was always wonderful.
I liked that it was Seonag’s daily soup that, out of all her vast culinary abilities, had most impressed Henry. It had made an impact on me, too. However, having come across her soup pot sitting in their (unheated) pantry at night, I mentioned that I thought perhaps she was adding ingredients each morning to the previous day’s soup, so that our lunches had actually consisted of an ongoing, evolving soup.
I seldom come home from trips anymore with material-object souvenirs. But I almost always return with some habit-trinket that I hope to integrate into my everyday life. No surprise, most of these last about as long as the sartorial choices of those hungover folks disembarking at JFK from the Caribbean every January; at best, some linger as long as their suntans.
This time around, my Scottish keepsake was the intention to start making my own evolving soup, though I planned to store it in the fridge at night as I don’t have a chilly pantry. In fact, I had started one shortly before my mother arrived.
As for what to put in it, I used the ingredients I found in my kitchen after a week abroad, enduring things such as potatoes, onions, kale and a parmesan rind. An hour later, the soup was ready.
An hour after that, it was gone.
I recreated the same recipe the following week, and once again it barely lasted two days. So much for my attempt to adopt someone else’s practice as my own. It reminded me that even the most admirable habits can’t just be cut-and-pasted into a new life — especially when they taste really good.
Potato-Kale Soup with Parmesan and Thyme
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, butter or a combination
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 3 ribs celery, chopped
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
- 1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1½ pounds new potatoes,
cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 bunches lacinato kale, ribs removed, cut crosswise into ribbons
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 quart chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 parmesan rind (see note)
- 1 29-ounce can pureed tomatoes
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil and/or butter over medium-low. Add the chopped onion and celery and cook 5 minutes, until the vegetables are translucent and beginning to soften. Add the thyme leaves and garlic, toss to coat well and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Increase the heat to medium and add the potatoes and kale plus a sprinkling of salt and pepper; cook, stirring frequently, for a couple more minutes. Add the stock, parmesan rind and tomato puree; bring to a simmer, then lower the heat and cook at a bare simmer until the potatoes are soft. Serve at once or store overnight to allow the flavors to mellow.
Note: An old parmesan rind works like a soup bone to add flavor and richness to a soup.