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.