(SPOILERS: Includes an overview of the Amelia Peabody Series by Elizabeth Peters. Ruins elements of the first book, but doesn’t deal with plot lines or mystery arcs)
Just to prove that I actually do eat and cook foods that aren’t chocolate desserts, I decided I had to make something worth posting for Sunday dinner. I was flipping through some cookbooks and online sites and couldn’t find anything that both sounded good and included ingredients in my kitchen.
I finally settled on making some plain old English potato soup, but when I started prepping the kitchen my eyes fell upon my bookshelf.
After a recent home improvement kick, there are now five bookshelves in the apartment. One in the living room holds classics and our DVD collection. Three in the bedroom house my Middle East books, 7abibi’s sci-fi and Chinese books, and our poli-sci/economics books respectively. The one in the kitchen has two shelves. The bottom shelf holds my cookbooks and food magazines. The top shelf holds my favorite novels: Harry Potter, Bridget Jones, Sookie Stackhouse, Amelia Peabody…
Amelia Peabody, known to many as the female Indiana Jones, was probably one of the biggest influences in the selection of my college degree. Actually, it was her linguist-cum-spy son, Walter Peabody Emerson AKA Ramses, that got me on the Linguistics/Middle Eastern studies track. Huh. No wonder I can’t get an interview… Though the Amelia Peabody series is usually enjoyed by a more mature audience, I was sucked in by the original novel The Crocodile on the Sandbank in eighth grade. The series now boasts eighteen titles with the nineteenth, A River in the Sky, due to be released April 6 of this year.
The stories are a suspenseful mix of murder, black markets, romance, history, and hilarious family drama. Elizabeth Peters is actually a nom de plume of Barbara Mertz, who received her PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago at the age of 23. Which means that a lot of the egyptological methods, theory, and history in these books are real. Many of the characters featured in the novels are also either real people (like Howard Carter, the Pankhurst sisters of women’s suffrage fame, and many more) or based on real egyptologists and travelers in Egypt and Britain during the early 1900’s.
The books usually involve the academic excavations of Amelia and Radcliffe Emerson being interrupted by a murder or theft which our intrepid egyptologists must solve before they can get back to work. The mysteries come to revolve around the character of the Master Criminal, who runs the black market antiquities trade between Egypt and Europe (one can almost hear Indiana Jones saying “that belongs in a museum!”). In the later books, a new generation joins the fray and the action becomes tied up in the unsettled political atmosphere that plagued Egypt during the final years of British occupation and the run up to WWI.
The series is a happy combination of several opposing elements. It skillfully weaves together factual events and people with fictional plots and characters. Though the main character is a female heroine who can kickass and take names, the books still manage to have interesting and worthy male characters. The flavor of the stories combine British, Ancient Egyptian, and more modern Colonial Egyptian elements to create deliciously complex story settings, characters, and structure.
Which brings me to East Meets West Soup.
Looking at my spice rack, I decided plain old potato soup simply wouldn’t do. I started pulling Central Asian spices like coriander, ginger, and turmeric. My general theory being that if Indian spiced potatoes taste good and English potato soup tastes good, then Indian potato soup would taste awesome. This is of course based upon the “good + good = awesome” maxim, as related to me on several occasions by 7abibi.
East Meets West Soup
This is a kind of “throw it in” type of recipe. Not finicky in the least. So if you haven’t got it, substitute your butt off. It’ll be just fine.
1 large onion (I used yellow, but you can use anything but sweet – Wallawalla/Vidalia/etc)
1 cup baby carrots
6 stalks celery
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large sweet potato
2 large russet potatoes
3 teaspoons broth/stock bouillon base (I used Better than Boullion chicken, but you can make this vegan
with vegetable stock)
3 teaspoons dry ginger (slightly less if you’re working with fresh or minced)
3 teaspoons minced garlic (3 cloves, if starting with whole)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons dry cilantro (a handful of fresh is better, but dry was all I had in the kitchen)
4 cups of water
chef’s knife or utility knife
large 2 – 4 quart pot
Dice onions and cut celery and carrots finely and combine in large pot. [Hey look! You just made a mirepoix. Don’t you feel all knowledgeable and chefy now?].
Sprinkle salt over vegetables. Place pot over medium/low heat, stirring occasionally with wooden spoon for 10 minutes until mirepoix is fragrant and vegetables begin to soften. This is a sweat, so you shouldn’t hear loud sizzling or see any browning. If you have that, turn the heat down until it stops. You should simply have steam and fragrance.
While the aromatics are sweating, take this opportunity to peel and chop your potatoes. I like pieces that are fairly large, because they tend to disintegrate as they get softer and bigger chunks means more chunks are left in the final soup. Chop the russet potatoes last, because they will start to brown after the flesh is exposed to the air and that does not look tasty at all.
Place the potato chunks in the pot with the aromatics and add spices (NOTE: if you’re using fresh chopped cilantro, wait and add it to the finished soup after you turn off the burner), bouillon base, lemon juice, and garlic. Stir until all pieces of vegetables are coated and then add water. Cover and let simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Usually celery is the last to go, so be sure to check a big chunk of that to be sure about doneness.
Ladle into bowls and enjoy.