Our Christmas Day celebration is coming to a close on what was a bright and crisp day in Ireland. All my best wishes for health and happiness to you and your family for the holidays and 2015.
There is something about winter being just around the corner that makes me long for a generous bowl of steamy soup. You know, the kind that warms, fills and nourishes and needs little more than a slice of crusty bread drizzled in olive oil? I’m a big fan of soup. One of my favorite cookbooks is the Soup Kitchen, which gets used all year long as it’s filled with all kinds of yummy soup recipes. Having said that, when I want something simple and familiar (or I have vegetables in the fridge that need to be used), I reach for ingredients to make my “go-to” soup.
My Irish mother-in-law gave me the base recipe many years ago. When I asked her if she minded me sharing the recipe, she laughed, saying of course she didn’t and that it was my recipe now anyway. I guess she’s probably right given that when I went looking for the paper I wrote it on all those years ago (to “fact check” it before writing this post), I couldn’t find it in my recipe box. Truthfully, I make it often enough to remember it and so she is right. I even wonder if I ever wrote it down, but it doesn’t really matter because the basic recipe is pretty easy, flexible and the best part? My kids usually love it (disclaimer: note I say usually because for some reason they don’t love all vegetables equally). In any case, the base recipe makes enough to feed the four of us (two adults royally and two little people amply) and is exactly the kind of thick comforting soup that we crave as the days here in Amsterdam are at their shortest.
Irish Farmhouse Soup base recipe:
Makes about 1.5 liters of soup (the recipe can easily be doubled)
- 1 medium onion, chopped finely
- 1 clove of garlic, minced or pressed
- 1 liter of vegetable stock
- 1 cup chopped potatoes (about 1 large or 2 medium)
- 3 cups chopped vegetable(s) of choice (we use one small roasted pumpkin as the kids like it)
- 2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
- Pinch of flour
- Bay leaf
- Herbs of choice (for pumpkin soup, I add a few sprigs of fresh thyme and oregano and about 1” of fresh diced ginger)
- Heat oil into a heavy-bottomed pot, add fresh herbs, bay leaf, onions and garlic, cooking until onions and garlic are soft.
- Add a pinch of flour and stir until onions and garlic are coated.
- Add stock and chopped vegetables and bring to a boil.
- Lower the heat to a simmer, cover and boil for about 20 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.
- Remove herb branches and bay leaf.
- Remove from heat and blend for a creamy and thick soup. If it’s thicker than you like, just add a bit of water or stock to thin it.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve with crusty bread drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.
Tip: If you’re in a rush, just chop the vegetables finely (dice) and they’ll cook much faster.
Another tip: My favorite way to roast pumpkin: Cut the pumpkin in half, scooping out seeds and slicing it into pumpkin “smiles”. Put them on a baking tray, coat thinly with olive oil and bake in a preheated oven at 200C/400F for about 20-25 minutes or until tender (test with a fork). Remove from the oven, let them cool and peel (skin should come off easily).
Certainly now more than at any other time of the year, with the bustle of the holidays upon us, we find ourselves in busy straits. For me, this means some shopping for gifts, but as a maker, it more often means that I over commit myself to many projects I naively think that I will accomplish easily between now and Christmas. Needless to say, this results in late nights and rushed making, which is not my favorite kind. I end up craving some kind of balance (and dark chocolate…in large quantities, but that’s another story altogether). I find balance to a large extent by approaching the holiday projects like I do those in my mending pile.
A few months ago, after coveting it from afar for too long, I broke down and finally got myself a subscription to Taproot Magazine. First I tried the American Book Center (trying to keep brick and mortar book shops in existence is a worthy cause after all), but unfortunately they didn’t sell it, so online I went and it was sorted. I started with the issue MEND, drawn to it by an article by Katrina Rodabaugh about mending, accompanied by beautiful images of mended jeans. I had started mending my own jeans a few years ago, fueled by necessity and inspired by images I’d seen on Pinterest, and I was hungry for more inspiration.
Shortly after, I was lucky enough to be part of an online class “Slow Fashion Style” given by Katrina. The magazine paired with the class were exactly the inspiration I needed, rekindling my slow fire and giving me plenty of creative inspiration and dreams of adopting Slow principles in more aspects of my life. There are all kinds of Slow movements going on out there and I can understand why. It speaks to me (and apparently many others) in a profound way. When I feel like the pace of my life is spiraling out of control, slowing down even a little bit creates more balance and balance is an awesome thing.
In my mind, the idea of Slow encompasses reflection, observation and connection. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing something at a slow pace (although feel free to do so if you can and want to), but aiming to take the stress (and speed) out of the act of making or doing or going by being mindful, observant and connected. I try to see a glimpse of beauty in all moments, but particularly in those where the opposite seems to apply when I approach them at full speed. A concrete example: yes, we’re late for swimming lessons (again) and I’m biking like mad to the pool with crying kids in the seats on the front and back of my bike, but, hey, doesn’t the wind feel nice on my face and aren’t the leaves on the trees particularly vibrant today? That simple act of observing and being mindful of my surroundings allows my heart rate to slow down and brings me just a bit more balance, which is a good feeling…very good in fact.
I find that this feeling easily translates to the act of mending, an act which forces me to focus, again being mindful and observant. I think about what I’m working on, where it came from and who made it, what it’s been through, the simple act of repairing a hole, lengthening or shortening a pair of pants, reattaching a button giving me space to think about and appreciate the person I’m mending for. I find connection. Approaching the gift making in the same way brings thoughts of beautiful meals cooked using an apron or oven mitts created by my hands or lovely sweaters, scarves and blankets knit from yarn nestled happily in a bag I’ve crafted for someone I love. In the end, I make what I can and try to accept my limitations. There are alternatives – supporting other makers, for example. Similarly, my mending pile waxes and wanes and I try not to stress about it. As long as my husband and I have a couple pairs of jeans to wear and my children have pants that cover their ankles and some shirts they haven’t popped the buttons off of, there is no stress…only paying attention to the love I put into the simple act with my thread and needle.
After living abroad for nearly two decades, I still continue the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving with a handful of my American friends here in Amsterdam. Like many things, once you leave home, you find your own way of celebrating the holidays, building on the celebration you knew as a kid. Celebrating in a different country with a partner who didn’t grow up with the tradition of Thanksgiving has made it all the more interesting to find my “own way” of giving thanks this week.
Growing up, we always had a frozen turkey that my father’s work gave to their employees as a Thanksgiving “bonus”, I suppose. My mother usually prepared it, getting up early to get it in the oven so it would be done by the early afternoon when we would sit down at the table to eat. Our tradition included turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed corn, soft white rolls, lots and lots of black olives, cranberry sauce from a can (for the form more than anything, I guess, since I can’t remember seeing anyone eat it…ever), pickles, more black olives, pumpkin pie with whipped cream and apple pie à la mode, which according to my father was not complete until accompanied by several slices of extra sharp cheddar cheese. This was my tradition of Thanksgiving dinner even as I went to college, making the trip home from Maine for a long weekend full of family and food.
Once I moved to Amsterdam, a weekend trip home was no longer an option, so I had to adapt. A good friend of mine moved over from the States shortly after I did and we decided that for our first Thanksgiving here, we would cook a big traditional dinner for our partners and a group of their (male) friends. Needless to say, it was a new (and expensive) experience for us to find, buy and cook a fresh turkey and all the traditional trimmings in a city abroad. The friends each brought a bottle of wine, which they graciously drank as we cooked. We managed with much help from several cookbooks, producing a fine meal and we were thoroughly exhausted by the end of the day. It was fun (more so for the fellas who got to drink, eat and be merry) and we enjoyed it, really, and yet we didn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner following that formula again. My friend has since moved back to the States and, over the years, the faces around the table have changed, but the tradition has continued.
This year, we’ve decided to skip the turkey since we won’t be the only vegetarians to share our table. We have settled instead on a lovely roasted sweet potato dish we recently enjoyed on a rare night out at the nearby Drover’s Dog. After a quick chat with the chef, followed by some discussion at our own table, we’ve managed to replicated it at home, tweaking it here and there to our taste, and we look forward to eating it again. Eighteen years have passed since that first experience cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, and I am fairly certain that my cooking skills and my ability to plan a successful dinner have improved. While it remains a daunting task to get a large number of warm dishes on the table at the same time, we have found a new formula. Many things can be prepared ahead of time…and will be. We share the responsibility for cooking by inviting our friends to bring a dish to pass and we have become more flexible in what we serve. We no longer go to many shops, looking for special (and overpriced) items to make the dishes I had growing up. We now try to eat mostly local and in season, buying much of our food from the local farmer’s market, and try to be more mindful of what the tradition is really about, both for us and for our children we hope: being thankful for life’s bounty, for family, for friends and for the opportunity to share stories and laughter around our dinner table.
A year ago I opened a shop on Etsy, which was a milestone for me considering that I’d been thinking about it for years before that. Yes, really, for years. Part of the reason that it took me so long to get there was because I didn’t really know what I wanted to put in my shop. However, the other part, which probably took me longer to figure out, was that I wasn’t sure what to call it. It seemed so daunting, creating a name. I wanted it to reflect something about me and still be cute and fun. I brainstormed, I made lists, I talked to friends and family, and in the end, I came up with Little Field Birch. It’s kind of a funny story…
Although I’ve been living in Europe for 20 years now, I grew up in the United States on a small farm on Littlefield Road. I think I spent most of my high school and college years dreaming of traveling to Europe and visiting the world. I learned a foreign language (my school only offered two options and I chose French), my family hosted an exchange student from Europe for a year, my friends and I joined the foreign language club and hung out with the foreign exchange students each year, dressing a bit like them and soaking up all of the cultural differences they had to offer us. Eventually this interest led me to Europe and I ended up settling in Amsterdam, where well into my post grad studies, I met my husband who grew up on a small farm in Ireland at Boolabeg. Now as I understand it, this translates loosely at small grazing pasture, which sounds pretty darn similar to little field to me. From the time we met, we pretty much knew we were meant to navigate this life together. Despite growing up an ocean apart, we had a lot in common and the fact that we both grew up both literally and figuratively on our respective “little field” just cemented the deal. Now more than a decade later, we are raising our young family in a city, but we draw extensively from our upbringing in that rural setting which has formed and continues to form who we are. It seemed only fitting it should be an ingredient in the name I was looking to create. The “birch” came after – partially because I have a serious soft spot for trees and partially because of how beautifully delicate and fairy-like birch trees seem to me. Funny thing is, though I know and love how those trees spot my parents little farm, I only noticed the little grove of them a few years ago as I walked out the back door of my in-laws’ farmhouse in Ireland. Hmm…fate indeed.