No regrets in the kitchen : A lentil soup for the sleepless soul

3 beans

At 3:30 a.m. I lie awake in bed, staring over the mound of blanket that is my husband next to me, over to the fuzzy wall behind him. Fuzzy, only because I am near blind without my glasses on or contacts in.

I am paralyzed with anxiety. Paralyzed. A million thoughts run through my head, mostly about things that I could have done but did not do over the last, oh, say, 10 years. Regret is an unfriendly beast, my friends, and it keeps you up on a weekday morning for two hours at a time.

I regret a handful of things in my near thirty years of existence. Some are small – certain hairstyles from the 3rd and 4th grades, for example. But some are way bigger than I’ll ever be able to fully tackle – the mild depression in my first year of college that led to weird social habits, the way I handled my move to New York and my first apartment, my lack of budgeting habits and conversely my keen knack for spending, and there is, lest I ever forget, my poor career choices. Oh, career, how I hate you as a concept. I ran through a lot of -what if’s?- last night, many scenarios dealing with my career, and two hours later I was still up, putting this blog post together in my head. Well, at least I can be productive while sleep-deprived.

lentil soup

I don’t believe people when they say they have no regrets. The DiploMan says he doesn’t have any. He also doesn’t “miss” things, because he says he’s always looking forward to what’s to come. Well, he’s my Superman, so he doesn’t count. For the rest of us imperfect human beings, we make mistakes – lots of them – and some of these lead to feelings of regret. 99% of the time, I’m regret free, but then there are those spaces in my life, the mere 1% of times when I sit in a quite void of darkness (like 3:45am on a Thursday morning), staring into nothing and thinking about everything.

There’s a solution though, which to me comes when I’m exhausted down to my bones at 5a.m. and there’s nothing really left to think about. When I become delirious with frustration, I’m finally able to confront regret, mourn it, leave it, and look forward. Because until they invent time travel, thinking about what I would have done serves no purpose. It’s just too bad it takes me awhile to get to this point.

lentil soup_2

Don’t get me wrong, usually I’m looking forward. Most days it feels pretty good, sometimes it’s just mediocre, and most recently, it’s been pretty great. For example, as horrid as my career trajectory has been in the past, I’ve recently been looking forward to establishing my own thing (whatever that means) and one day having the opportunity to share it with the world. I’m looking forward to exploring new parts of the United States, after much time exploring parts abroad. I’m looking forward to my time in DC, which I’ve come to love so much as my new adopted hometown. I’m looking forward to the winter, and looking forward to steaming hot bowls of soup to sustain my days out East.

My dear partner in life only likes one kind of soup, though – that of the lentil variety – so I’m forced to make the best versions of lentil soup I can possible make, in hopes to one day veer him to the path of say, chicken tortilla soup, or minestrone, or butternut squash. Wait, no, this dear husband of mine also cares not a lick about squash, nor beets, nor sweet potatoes, nor brussels sprouts. Seriously, what’s a woman to make for dinner from September-March???

spoon of lentil soup

For now, lentil soup will most definitely do. In the kitchen, I’m able to confidently say I have no regrets. I can take full control and make something out of nothing. So looking forward, I’m willing this winter to be a nice cold one, and I’m willing a ton of lentil soup to be made. My first pot of the season was upon my return from New Orleans, and was rich with a lovely oxtail soup base and sweetly flavored with a mirepoix of leeks and salt ham. It was thickened, not only with lentils, but with 3 different types of beans as well. If I’m doing a lentil soup, I’m having no regrets.

Lentil Soup for the Soul

  • 1 cup assorted beans, soaked (will come to be 2-3 cups)
  • 4 oz. salt pork
  • 1/2 large yellow onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 large leek, finely sliced
  • 1 small carrot, diced into small cubes
  • 1 rib celery, diced into small cubes
  • 1 small russet potato, diced into 1/8-inch cubes
  • 1 cup lentils (I used black and yellow lentils)
  • 6 cups oxtail stock (see recipe below)
  1. Soak beans overnight. For quick-soak method, add water over beans and boil. Once water comes to a boil, cook for two minutes, then turn off heat and cover with a lid. Set aside for one hour. Drain. (For this soup, I used pinto beans, cannelini beans, and split peas)
  2. In a large pot, heat a bit of oil over high heat and add onion and leek. Saute for 3 minutes, and add salt pork. When pork begins to turn white, add carrot and celery. Cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add drained beans and lentils, stir, then add stock. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Cover and turn heat to medium-low, and simmer for 45 minutes.
  3. After 45 minutes, add the potatoes. If soup is low, add more water to your liking – the soup can be as thick or watery as you like. Cover and cook for another 30-45 minutes.
  4. Serve hot. It’s lovely with a dollop of Greek yogurt.
Yield: 3 Quarts Soup, serves 8-10

Oxtail Stock 

**I was going to make a lovely pork broth out of pork neck bones as I’m apt to do, but Whole Foods had NO NECK BONES OR ANY OTHER BONES WHATSOEVER. The only thing they had were oxtails, which were fine, but c’mon! You call yourselves a butcher counter???!!?
  • 1 lb. oxtail bones
  • 1 large carrot, cut into 6 pieces
  • 1 large yellow onion, cut into quarters
  • 2 ribs celery, cut into 8 pieces
  • fennel fronds (I keep these in my freezer, cut off from when I use fennel in salads)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp. peppercorns
  • 1 Tbsp. salt
  • 8-10 cups water
  1. Wash oxtail bones under water. In a large pot of boiling water, drop oxtail bones in and cook for 3 minutes. Drain, and rinse bones again. (I do this with most bones before cooking in soup or stock; it gets rid of a lot of excess fat and gristle)
  2. In a large clean and dry pot, heat 2 Tbsp of olive oil over high heat.  Add onion, carrot, celery, and fennel fronds. Brown vegetables, if possible. After 3-5 minutes, add oxtail and sear sides. Cook for a 5-7 minutes, and add water to top of the pot. Throw in the bay leaves, peppercorns, and a spoonful of salt. Cover.
  3. When water comes to a boil, turn heat to low. Simmer for about 2 hours.
  4. Drain vegetables and oxtail into a container using a sieve. Use stock immediately, or reserve for another time.
Yield: 4 quarts of stock

My Sandy Day

You’ve all seen pictures and heard the news of Sandy’s hit here on the East Coast last night. First off, we’re totally fine. There’s one person still sleeping in our bed (and it’s 1pm), but other than that, it’s a normal Tuesday.

We had a gorgeous day here on Saturday. By the time Sunday rolled around, the grey skies reminded us that yes, we really were in for a storm. The weather reports oscillated between it being bad, really bad, and the worst. One late turn, and Sandy’s eye could be focused on us, rather than closer up north. So of course, we prepared for the worst.

On Sunday night (we were a little late in the emergency preparedness process) the DiploMan and I headed out to gather some food, water, and beer. Enough to last a few days without having go to the store, at least. He had just found out that work was called off on Monday, so we were going to hole up, and have a hurricane party to celebrate.

This is what we found at the store.

grocery aisles

Okay to be real, this was only the canned food aisle, and a little bit of the water and cereal aisles. I was tempted pretend I didn’t know a thing about this storm, and be the one person in the store buying eggs, milk, cheese, and sausages during a semi-emergency state. But I refrained, but mostly because we had to save room in our bags to carry all our beers home.

Being from the West Coast, I’m used to earthquake preparedness. Mind you, being “prepared” for an earthquake really only happens when you are in elementary school, and you bring a bag of canned food with your name on it at the beginning of the school year. And then the first week of school practice your ‘duck and cover’ routine as a class. Other than that, there is no earthquake preparation. Earthquakes give no warnings!

We walked home from the store, and by that time a light drizzle had started coming down on us. I woke up on Monday to hear the rain rapping on the windows. Nothing too crazy, just a rainy morning. I played on my computer for a little bit, and then a couple of our friends came over. We popped a few drinks and played some games. I took a nap. We had an amazing dinner: a hurricane soup, comprised of mostly leftover vegetables from the vegetable drawer (recipe below) and spaghetti with sausage ragu (sausage c/o Eco-Friendly Foods).

sandy soup

We kept peering out the window, waiting for the worst. We kept our eyes on our Twitter and Facebook feeds, eventually realizing that it was New York who was in for the worst.

While we here in DC were ‘victims’ of non-stop rain and pretty gusty winds all day, it was no match to what my friends up in NY saw. I kept checking the front page of the NY Times, which was constantly updating the website with photos of the city under four feet of water. I couldn’t help but think: the art in Chelsea!! The trees in Brooklyn!! The basement storage rooms of all the restaurants in the West Village!

Here in DC, our power stayed on, we were connected to wifi, and we were warm and dry. Our bellies were full. Our shelves were stocked. We even went out and danced in the rain for a bit.

ready for the rain

This is how you dress to go dance in the rain in Logan Circle.

Thank you anyway, friends and family, for thinking of us and for all the little texts and emails and phone calls that came our way. Unfortunately, my day was nothing but a stormy day stuck inside with a few boys (I went just slightly crazy with cabin fever) and a lot of drinks.

Hurricane Sandy Soup


  • 2 cups chicken broth (low sodium)
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 4-6 large kale leaves, stemmed and coarsely chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1 small bunch broccolini, florets only
  • 2 cups spinach leaves, loosely packed


  1. Combine first four ingredients in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Turn heat down, cover, and let simmer for 20 minutes. If liquid looks low (neither the DiploMan nor I like too much broth in our soups, but some of you do!), add up to another cup of water. Add chopped celery and broccolini, cover and simmer for another 10 minutes. Finally add spinach. Stir and let simmer, uncovered, for 5-10 more minutes. Serve from the pot, hot, alongside bread, pasta, or salad.

Options: (1) Carrots, cubed potatoes, bok choy, or any other veggies you might have lying around. Or, (2) crack a few eggs into the soup after adding the spinach, so you have a heartier serving with poached eggs. (3) If serving as an entree, vermicelli noodles would fare well in this soup. Make sure to soak the noodles until they are clear and add them with the spinach.

Yield: 4 appetizer-sized servings, 2 entree-sized servings

Red Remedies

After the first couple of visits to the doctor, “rest” was all that was prescribed. Much to my drug-desperate pleas, I took her advice with serious action, not venturing out of the house for more than one hour at a time. When I finally felt well enough to move about the house, I took my mother’s prescription for some kitchen remedies, and made myself one large pot of Chicken soup and one pot of red bean soup.

Unlike the dried legumes of the Western World, Red Beans (红豆 or, adzuki beans in Japanese) are more commonly found in desserts than in any savory form. Boiled down and cooked with sugar, red bean is traditionally found in paste-form, stuffed into fluffy white pastry doughs in China or chewy unctuous mochis in Japan. In Taiwan, red beans are often cooked down in soups for an equally homeopathetic and sweet delight.

According to Dr. Mom, red foods such as red beans and dried chinese dates should be eaten to boost a person’s blood. Blood supply? Blood levels? Blood cell count? Who knows, the Chinese just say blood. So when she heard that my white blood cell count came back surprisingly low in my initial blood tests, her first reaction was to order me to make myself a pot of red bean soup. So much for sticking around the house and getting some rest, huh?

This soup might not be for everyone. If you’re like a lot of people I know, the thought of sweet beans might make you gag. Personally though, to me this soup is comforting and appealing. It can be enjoyed hot or cold, depending on the weather outside or your mood, as a snack or a dessert. It’s extremely simply, and can be plain (like the recipe I provided) or spiced up with additional ingredients, like the red chinese dates that I added, too. And according to Mom, it can cure ailments.

Chinese Red Bean Soup


  • 1 cup dried red beans
  • 1 medium piece of rock sugar (or, 1/4 cup brown sugar)
  • water, for soaking and boiling


  1. Soak red beans in water overnight, or for a minimum of 4 hours.
  2. Add red beans, sugar, and about 4 cups water into a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Turn down heat to low, stir a few times, and cover, letting the soup simmer for 1-2 hours. Add water for a soupier soup, or let it simmer down for less. Taste for sweetness, adding sugar to suit your tastes.
  3. Enjoy hot, or allow to cool and refrigerate for a cold snack.


Marrow Soup, and other Offal Bits

Bone Marrow was never exotic to me. When I was younger, I would watch as my parents sucked the marrow out of pork bones after they were cooked in soup for hours. I followed suit, and pretty soon a meal of pork soup was a cacophony of sucking and slurping. Today, salted, roasted marrow bones with a parsley salad and crunchy toast is one of my favorite menu items- if it’s on the menu, I’m sure to order it. (Landmarc at the Time Warner Center has my favorite, but I’ll be damned if I don’t try Fergus Henderson’s at some point in my life)

As you know by now, Tainan has no shortage of good eats (if you don’t know, read the last few blog entries). Some restaurants in the West are famous for their nose-to-tail dining (I’m looking at you, Incanto, Cochon, St. John’s), but this idea has been around for centuries in Asia.

One eatery in Tainan highlights this concept extremely well. On display is a bevy of pigs parts- stomach, livers, intestines, hearts, brains, kidneys- sauteed and in clear soups, there is so much offal that I wonder where the actual meat of the pig goes.

Laoban, or “Boss”, and his wife have set up so the cooking happens in the front, and the seating behind. With a steady stream of customers requesting their parts and how they want them prepared, it’s amazing that Laoban never gets any two parties’ dishes confused. In fact, while we were there, continuous streams of four or five parties would be sitting at a time, waiting for their meals, and each order came out just as quickly and accurately as the one before it.

Since it was getting late in the evening, we ordered a couple of snacks- though I suppose in the States you would rarely call this a “snack”- pig livers tossed in sesame oil and a heap of sliced ginger, as well as a bone marrow soup.

I didn’t care for the pig livers all that much, but I could have drank a whole bowl of the soup all to myself. At first, the soup looked like a cloudy, fatty broth-and just for a moment I thought we had someone’s leftover broth given to us. Not exactly the most appealing nor photogenic of the dishes I encountered that evening. Running a spoon through, strands of white worm-shaped globs were picked up, and once again I was briefly mortified, until I was told this was bone marrow. I had never before seen marrow stripped so naked, out of the bone that I thought was necessary to contain it.

The marrow soup tasted delicious- each bit of marrow like a pat of butter or cream that would not melt in the warm and porky soup. It brought me right back to my childhood dinner table, just, without the slurping sounds.

If you’re feeling adventurous, and if you like offal- you’ve got to check out this stand in Tainan.

Aming Pig Restaurant 阿明豬心冬粉


72 Bao An Road

Tainan, Taiwan

Open 6pm-2am

Magic beans

Beans are surprisingly omnipresent in traditional Chinese cooking. But rather than being served as a simple standalone side dish as common in Western preparation methods, beans here serve more of a holistic purpose. Supplemented with things like ginger, animal bones, and various herbal additions, beans are boiled into medicinal soups. One woman I recently met was recounting stories from her youth of her family always making a soup from one type of bean, mixed with specific ingredients to keep their insides from getting too hot. It was made at least once a week, and she warned not to over-cook the beans and the soup- cooking more than 3-4 hours would release certain things in the soup that would be harmful to your joints and tendons. (one reason to get better at speaking Chinese: understand exactly what these people are talking about!) Nowadays, as an adult living in a big city, she doesn’t have time to make the soup everyday, but she makes a point to cook a pot up at least once every month or two.

This is the best kind of food memory, to me. A memory that serves a specific purpose, that has a specific reason, and that is passed down not only to family members, but to anyone who is interested.

Going back to the bean, certain varieties are believed to relieve certain ailments and overall create better Chi (which, on a recent acupuncture visit, I was told I have very bad ‘chi’- bummer. But more on that another time). I don’t know very much about the medicinal practices here in China, all that I know is that learning about holistic medicine in this country is as extensive and complicated and specific as each local dialect can be. But I’m interested in picking up a few things while I am here, which will be easier once I figure out how to retain the information that I hear. I figure, if the Chinese people have survived tens of thousands of years isolated from the Western world and it’s ointments, pills, and vaccines, I am sure they have a few good tricks up their sleeves. Tricks that I can learn, and pass on.