“Soups can cure any illness, whether physical or mental.” ~ Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate
I wash my hands, put on my apron and prepare to disconnect from everything else.
My mind gets lost while my hands quickly and graciously chop half an onion into very similar pieces. My body dances back and forth between the stove and the counter, reaching for the coconut milk, adding a bit of cardamom, grating the orange, a little salt…
There’s nothing else on my mind. I am present, I am mindful of where I am right now and time seems to dissolve in my large saucepan.
I love cooking. I’ve always have. There have been times when I am able to do it on a daily basis and times when life gets busy and the cooking at home seems like a luxury. But it is a practice that I value and cherish in my heart.
There are so many reasons, and two very strong memories, of why I became so involved with real cooking.
First, both my grandmothers were amazing Mexican cooks. I remember helping them both in their kitchen and it was like taking part in an ancient ritual, some kind of sisterhood that embraced you when you were old enough to not be a risk in the kitchen. For me and most of my cousins that would be when we turned about seven.
I remember sitting down at my maternal grandmother’s house the day before Christmas and spending hours cleaning the romeros (a very traditional weed in Mexico), the shrimp, the nopales and peeling potatoes in order to make the traditional Romeritos with mole.
The intimacy of her two kitchens ready to prepare a feast for 30 or 40 people (my grandmother had 12 children, so you can imagine), it was the moment when we all connected, when we talked, laughed and cried; our souls hugged together around the great matriarch that my grandmother has always been.
I also think about spending an afternoon with my paternal grandmother. It would just be the two of us; she would lovingly reveal her mother’s baking secrets with me. I remember the details of her instructions for making our favorite pineapple upside-down cake, our hands kneading the mixture, the closeness of our hearts while sharing an activity.
They both taught me an infinity of recipes that I saved in little notebooks and diaries which include things as simple as rice and beans, to more complicated dishes like molé, ceviche, enchiladas, all kinds of soups and baking—oh, do I love baking. But overall they both instructed me in the art of bringing family and friends together around a table.
My other inspiration was reading Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate when I was around 14 years old. It rocked my world. It meant for me that women could be strong, powerful, magical and wild hearted from inside a kitchen. I remember trying to replicate some of the recipes in the book. I wanted to become part of it, make people feel through my dishes. The characters in this book were all from the Mexican revolution era and yet they felt so close to me.
I thought about becoming a chef at some point, but I didn’t because I wanted more to be a writer. But, still, I kept cooking—mostly baking—as a special hobby.
Baking has become a kind of meditation ritual. Being present is a hard thing in a modern world. Not looking at your electronic devices, focusing on whatever you are doing without your mind running away like a headless chicken. There are very few things that help me accomplish that: mindfully playing with my son, sex, yoga and baking.
When I am baking I cannot hold a phone in my hand, so I cannot answer a call or look at my emails. My hands are literally full and my mind is relatively empty. I am only focused on the present, on the flour, on my hands and the mix, on the time, on textures and smells, on vanilla and cinnamon. It is beautiful and magical; it is a dance with my hands and my heart. It is pouring my feelings and knowledge into something. Cooking is one of our most ancient practices and yet it evolves every second; it adapts to every culture, to every taste and need.
Cooking also teaches kindness because all the work is for others. Because you will probably not eat that whole cake by yourself. Or maybe, like I love doing sometimes, just give it away to someone random, a close by shelter, your kid’s school, an orphanage or the neighbor who just lost her dog.
My family travels a lot because of my husband’s job, so real cooking makes my house feel like a home anywhere we go. It makes my heart full and lets my mind rest.
Like in the book, I do consider soups a remedy for everything. So if you are going through hard times, if you need a little hug for your soul or just want to focus on something that will bring you to the present moment with a little treat, here is my mother’s veggie cream soup recipe (very Mexican). She learned it from her mother and it’s my favorite soup in the whole world.
Mamá Lupita’s Super Yummy Veggie Soup
¾ cup of diced onions
½ cup of diced tomatoes
¾ cup of diced zucchini
¾ cup of organic sweet corn, frozen
¼ teaspoon of salt
1 can of Carnation milk (for the original recipe) or 1 can of full-fat coconut milk
1 cup of vegetable broth
2 tablespoons of olive oil
Chop the veggies. Enjoy this time, look at the colors and the shapes, feel the smoothness in every movement, do not hurry. Breathe.
Then in a large saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the onions and sauté for three minutes. Do you start to perceive the smells?
Add the zucchini and sauté for three more minutes. The onion should be transparent by now. Add the tomatoes and sauté for two more minutes. Pour in the Carnation milk or Coconut milk, the vegetable broth and add the salt.
Cover and let it simmer for 15 minutes. What does it smell like? Add the corn, cover and simmer for five more minutes. How is your body reacting to the time invested?
Serve and let your soul enjoy it in some kind of shavasana.
Author: Montse Leon
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Travis May