Where does inspiration come from? I don't know what Beethoven would say, but for me, inspiration pops up out of the blue when I'm writing recipes. Of course, during recipe creation, like for any creative work, the brain is always humming away, rummaging through sense memories, taste memories, old cookbooks, dishes tasted a dozen years ago and filed away under "try to reproduce," descriptions from novels, bits of poetry, mental snapshots, things learned in first-job kitchens 20 years ago.
One morning, I was gathering the ingredients to cater a lunch for a women's leadership seminar at the Oakland Center for Spiritual Living. Some of the attendees were vegetarian, others dairy-free. I'd planned some nice ladies'-lunch items--the chicken salad with curry and mango chutney I'd made by the bucketful at a fancy deli in the mid-80s, a vegan quinoa-adzuki bean salad I'd created for this column last year--when the sunny day suddenly turned chilly and overcast. Soup weather, my mother would call it, and so tomato soup, with its cozy, home-from-school associations, seemed like a natural fit. But it wasn't summer, and the fresh tomatoes available were mealy, Mexican, and overpriced. How could I make a canned-tomato soup that didn't taste like marinara sauce, or worse, have that unmistakable tinny flavor to it?
Roasting the tomatoes in plenty of olive oil concentrated their flavor, and warming, India-meets-North African spices like coriander, mustard seed, and cumin took them out of the pizza-sauce realm. Instead of cream, a rich slug of coconut milk would balance out the tomatoes' acidity, as would a drizzle of honey at the end. But what wintery thing would give the soup some heft? Some sweetness and ballast? I was driving around Lakeshore, looking for parking, when the solution suddenly turned on in my head, just like the proverbial light bulb: sweet potatoes! Perfect color, perfect earthy sweetness, and the starch, once pureed, would turn the soup to velvet.
These roadside bursts of brilliance don't always pan out, but thankfully, this one did, and the soup turned out to be the star of the luncheon. In fact, I could have skipped both salads, left behind the fruit and cookies and just ladled out big bowls of soup, breadsticks on the side, to make everyone very, very happy.
So, why this soup for New Year's Day? Well, it's a good pantry soup. Canned tomatoes, chicken stock, sweet potatoes...you probably have all these around from the holidays' cooking sprees. The spices can be rearranged depending on your taste and what's in the pantry. It's good for you, a welcome, spice-bright visitation of veggies after all those rich and indulgent holiday meals. You can easily make it vegan by using vegetable stock and leaving out the honey (or substituting agave or brown-rice syrup).
It's easy to throw together, and it doesn't take long, and the recipe's easily doubled or tripled, should you have a lot of friends and family on the couch. And it's good for sipping any time of day, whether as a warm-up after a brisk walk or while wallowing in that all-day Downton Abbey marathon. Plus, what better way to start the New Year than with a burst of inspiration?
Sweet Potato-Coconut Soup
Yield: 6-8 servings
Prep Time: 25 minutes, plus 45 minutes roasting time
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes, plus 45 minutes roasting time
1 28-oz can plum tomatoes, preferably organic
5 tbsp olive oil, divided
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
pinch cayenne, or to taste
pinch cinnamon or 1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
grated rind and juice of 1 small orange or tangerine
2 medium sweet potatoes, chopped
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 13.5 oz can coconut milk
1 tbsp honey, or to taste (agave syrup can be substituted for a vegan version)
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Drain tomatoes, saving liquid. Halve tomatoes and spread out in a single layer in a non-reactive baking pan. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 45 minutes, until tomatoes have shrunk slightly and begun to brown. Remove from oven and set aside.
2. In a small, heavy pan (cast iron is ideal) over medium heat, toast mustard, coriander, and cumin seeds until mustard seeds start to pop and spices smell fragrant.
3. In a deep, heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat remaining 3 tablespoon olive oil. Add onions and saute, stirring frequently, until onions are softened and translucent. Add garlic and toasted spices, and cook, stirring, for another minute.
4. Add cayenne, cinnamon, ginger, rind and juice, sweet potato chunks, and roasted tomatoes. Add reserved tomato liquid and broth. Bring to a gentle simmer, reduce heat, and partially cover. Cook for 45 minutes, or until potatoes are very soft.
5. Add coconut milk and honey to taste. Taste for seasoning; add salt if needed. Remove cinnamon stick, if using. Let cool for a few minutes, then puree until smooth using an immersion (stick) blender. If using a regular blender, let cool for another 10 minutes before pureeing.
6. Taste for seasoning, and add honey or salt as needed. Serve hot.