O Progeny of Heav’n, Empyreal Thrones/With reason hath deep silence and demur/Seiz’d us, though undismay’d: long is the way/And hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light;/Our prison strong, this huge convex of Fire,/Outrageous to devour, immures us round/Ninefold and gates of burning Adamant/Barred over us prohibit all egress — BOOK II, Paradise Lost, John Milton
We never see ourselves as we are, only as who we were. We use photographs in the cruelest of ways, as torture devices, as ammunition in the war against ourselves. Mirrors become soothsayers, and we pine for the days of the cheap Chinese restaurants and the fortune cookie because it’s easier to accept your fate as a riddle on a slip of paper. In some cultures the ownership of a mirror is verboten, as it’s thought to be something of a fakir, conjuring our worst, darkest selves.
As someone who’s worn a mask for most of her life, who has spent the great portion of her adult life infatuated with a bottle of red wine, I can tell you this: it’s humbling to see myself as I am. Now. Right now. In front of a wall festooned with looking glasses.
Perhaps it’s true that we sometimes want to revisit a version of ourselves captured in those photographs, but were we ever happy then? Did we love ourselves enough? Love the woman we once were and the one we were on the verge of becoming? Could we see the vast journey ahead or did we only distract ourselves by what was in front of us? I often say that the great gift of growing older is the ability to see further on the horizon. To have the years of breathing through the dark spaces, knowing long is the way, and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.
We are the kind who return. Call us revisionists if that’s what you’re wont to do, but our hope is that with each visit we arrive a little wiser, infinitely kinder, patient. I’ve accepted that I’ll always be bound to certain people, I’ll continue to obsess over time and my lack of it; I’ll continue to love and fear the infinitude and quiet of the waves.
Within a month’s time I’ll turn 36 and I’m not sure how I feel about this just yet. The hours, they’re slipping, I immediately think. And when I’m tempted to revisit those terrific photographs from decades past, I’ll try to remember how much I love myself now, as I am, flawed, aged. Perhaps I’ll quell all the noise with something simpler and satisfying — a return to a beloved recipe. Something warm in the midst of coldness.
I invite you to make one of my mainstays: tomato soup with orzo. And take solace that there is always, always light.
2 large red tomatoes (when in season)
1 28oz can of San Marzano crushed tomatoes (when fresh tomatoes aren’t in season, use 1 1/3 cans of crushed tomatoes)
1 quart of chicken broth
1/4 lb of pancetta, diced
1 large yellow onion, rough chop
4-6 fat garlic cloves, rough chop
2 cups of basil
1 cup of freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese
2 tbsp of butter
1 tbsp of olive oil
12oz of orzo (3/4 of a box)
1 handful of grated mozzarella cheese
1 bay leaf
Salt/pepper to season and taste
De-seed and dice the tomatoes (no need to get all exact about this. My rule of thumb is to cut everything the same size so as everything cooks evenly). Chop the onions & dice the garlic. In a large saucepan, add the olive oil & butter. Why both? Butter yields more flavor and the oil stops the butter from burning as it has a higher smoking temperature. Add the onions, garlic with pinches of salt & pepper. Cook for 3 minutes on medium-high heat. You’ll notice that the onions are translucent and soft. Add the pancetta and cook for another 6-7 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
Once the mixture has softened, add the can of San Marzano tomatoes and the chicken broth. Bring the mixture to a boil. Add the bay leaf, salt and pepper to season, and stir for 1-2 minutes. Bring the heat down to medium. Cover the pot with a lid and cook for 15-20 minutes. While you’re lying on the couch watching The Bourne Identity, make no mistake – your soup will fragrant the kitchen, wafting through the rooms.
After 20 minutes, add the fresh basil and remove the bay leaf. You are ready to blitz! I have an immersion blender (one of the best investments I’ve made since I cook a lot of soup), which I recommend. Blend to smooth. Alternatively, you can blend this in batches in the blender. Warning: when blending hot liquids make sure you fill the blender only half-way & cover the lid with a towel and press down. This will prevent a steam/liquid explosion. After the soup is smooth, return the mixture to the pot. It will look watery! No worries, the starches released from the pasta will serve to thicken the soup. Add the pasta, grated Romano cheese. Cook for another 10 minutes. Add the grated mozzarella.
Ladle hot soup into a bowl and with a thick chunk of buttered sourdough bread (or baguette, if you choose), kick back and enjoy!
Tip: Don’t want to use pasta as your thickening agent? Quarter some potatoes and add them at the same time as you’re adding the diced tomatoes. In general, starches, flours (not recommended for a soup) and creams serve as thickening agents.