Soup from scratch - an adventure story

In Mid-November, I went to an Intro to Zen Buddhism weekend retreat at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Zen Buddhist monastery up in the Catskills Mountains. This is less random than it may sound. A friend of mine was recently ordained as a Buddhist monk at DBZ, and has been a resident there off and on for the past couple of years (though obviously, right now, he's more of a permanent resident). I visited him once about 2 1/2 years ago, on a cold Sunday-Monday in late March [...when it was still very much snowing in the mountains and I was so cold I wore every article of clothing I'd brought along for my 25-hour-long visit!] I went back this past June for his ordination, and so the Intro Zen weekend marked my 3rd trek southwest of Boston into the middle of the Catskills to once again see their little piece of paradise.

And I don't say paradise lightly. Every time I go up there, drive up that last hill to see the lake stretching out before me, cross the little wooden bridge, park, and walk down the lane of pine trees that slowly reveals the monastery, hidden amongst the trees... the raw beauty of the place takes my breath away. I love the silence, the stillness, and yet the force of activity from the nature all around them. I like the big sky full of stars at night, I like the green everywhere in the summer and the gentle grace of falling snow in winter. It's a place where one can set one's mind completely free, set aside all pesky nuisances of life, and just be. You know how everyone has that place in their minds where they retreat to when they need to regain a sense of calm in the bustle of everyday life? For some, that place is purely imaginary. For me, that place is their mountain. It is the complete and total opposite of the city, and it's fun to return to every now and then.

But, I digress...
[So easy to do when thinking again of that mountain!]

While at the Intro Zen weekend, it was quite interesting to get a peek into the life my friend leads up there. And it is by no means easy. Sitting zazen (silent meditation) was difficult both in trying to quiet my mind and the physical pain it unleashes. We worked, we got up way before dawn, we moved through a very full day every day. Even meals (their formal versions of meals) were difficult because of the very exact set of rules surrounding how meals are to be performed and eaten. It's not just a matter of sustenance. It's a matter of grace, beauty, and mindfulness. [The residents were very kind in helping all of us Intro students to follow the rules in the correct order - lessening the stress of trying to remember it all!]

Ah, but the meals. Beyond the difficulty of remembering how to eat, when to eat, in what order, and then how to clean and put away all of my dishes (and it what order), the food was spectacular. Their chef - Seizan - is out of this world fantastic. Everything he made smelled fabulous and tasted even better. I looked forward to meals (even with the knowledge of the inevitable stress that went with figuring out the ritual of eating once again) just to get a chance to eat his food again. I got to help out in the kitchen on Sunday, and spent my time chopping, cutting, cooking, peeling - and watching him almost dance around his kitchen, working his magic as an entire meal for 30-some people unfolded before him. [I would not mind going back simply to work with him in that kitchen for awhile and pick up some ideas for things to do in my own kitchen!!!]

One dish, in particular, though caught so much of my attention, that a week after leaving the monastery, I still had an enormously strong craving for it! Don't ask me to name it officially, because I'm not sure what to call it really. My pet name for it has become "Seizan's Soup," which from my perspective refers to only one soup, but from the monastery residents' perspectives could mean any number of hundreds of soups that I'm sure he's crafted for them. Call it what you will, though, it is delicious.

And so, I emailed my friend, the monk (ha - one of my pet names for him), to ask if he'd get the "recipe" from Seizan. Now, I use quotes around "recipe" because I knew I would never get something that had been neatly printed up on a card. Seizan creates things from scratch - there are no recipe cards. But, with so little time between the making and the email I sent, I was hoping that Seizan would remember how he'd done it and be able to give me the general structure of the soup - and then I'd take it and work with it until I got it somewhat right. [It will certainly take me quite a few tries to get it to resemble something remotely as beautiful as what he made!] What luck, then, to receive an email from my friend, the monk, with pretty well detailed instructions on how to make the soup. Like I'd expected, there were very few quantity instructions, but the basic elements and the order in which to perform them were all there.

Suddenly, a challenge - to see if I could replicate and make something edible. A challenge and a delightful adventure in my kitchen!

I won't bring you through the whole process, and I won't be posting the recipe until I have a better sense of what to do and how to do it and how much of everything to use. However, I will give you the highlights of my adventure and some pictures of my final product:

The adventure actually started at Whole Foods, where I had to buy quite a few things I'd never even heard of before, or at least had no idea where to find them in a store. The ingredient list went something like this:
- kombu (a thick, dried Japanese seaweed)
- dried shiitake mushrooms
- peels of burdock root
- carrot peels
- celery leaves
- parsley stems
- onion
- bay leaves
- rosemary
- sage
- thyme
- corn oil
- scallions
- Brussels sprouts
- potatoes
- baby white mushrooms
- green beans

I managed to find everything without help - miraculously! Brought it home and realized that, in addition to the adventure of actually attempting to make this soup, the other adventure would be to find creative ways to use the celery, burdock root, carrots, and parsley that I'd have left once collecting peels, stems, and leaves for the soup. Heh. Roasted veggies with parsley & sage anyone? Mighty tasty - carrots, burdock root, and celery doused in a generous helping of chopped fresh parsley. Mmm.

The soup starts the night before: soak some of the kombu and some dried shiitake in the water for the soup overnight. Did you know that dried seaweed smells so sweet? I sure didn't!

And, when I eventually post the recipe, you will not believe the intricacy and complexity of this soup! It looks so simple at the end, when you go to eat it, but really, the layers of flavor and different ingredients are quite numerous! Awesome, I say. Truly awesome.

Cooking the soup took some doing. I messed up a few times along the way - but discovered that this soup base is mighty forgiving. [Always a good thing!] It ended up being an entire day project, but in the end I had a soup base to boil the veggies in for the final product that looked sort of like what Seizan had created and described for me... tasted pretty similar, too. I've got a really good base to start off of now - and now I can work on tweaking quantities to get a mixture that I like better.

Oh yeah, and whatever the obstacles and hiccups I met along the way, my kitchen smelled so fantastic all day today as I cooked this soup. I'm definitely looking forward to that aroma the next time I make this!!!

I leave you with a picture of the final product - complete with chopsticks, since that's the original way I ate this soup, and I felt really weird not eating it with chopsticks at home...

[The steam shows you that this is fresh out of the stock pot. Mmm, hot soup.]

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