Food and Love: Willie's Soup and Cornbread

(Originally published in The News Review on October 6, 2015) Recipes in this post: Willie's Soup, Cast Iron Cornbread

“Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate.” Alan D. Wolfelt, Center for Loss & Life Transition

As I put finishing touches on this column last Thursday, I was interrupted by news of the shootings at Umpqua Community College. Not again! Not here! I sat transfixed, switching nervously between online reports and Facebook posts, my heart sinking with each update. What could I write about food that would not sound out-of-touch and inconsequential in light of the tragedy?

This much I know, food is an integral part of most life transitions. A newborn instinctively roots for her mother's breast to find nourishment and comfort. We celebrate birthdays and weddings with festive cakes. We mark holidays by preparing traditional recipes. And for funerals and memorials, food is brought in by friends, neighbors and church members to sustain the grieving family.

While I considered how I might help, others sprang into action. Two women I know spent Friday afternoon baking apple pies and sharing them randomly in a simple act of community good will. Another friend took dozens of Costco smoothies out to law enforcement officials, still working tirelessly at the crime scene. Brava, ladies, for your random acts of kindness!

In the coming weeks, may we be willing to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort through heartfelt gestures, large and small, as we pray for peace and healing in our community.

I spent the latter part of the summer in La Grande, Oregon waiting for the arrival of my first grandchild. What should have been a seven to ten day trip became a lesson in patience. Baby Ada was twelve days past due when she finally made her grand entrance.

My daughter, Christine, and I busied ourselves cooking and baking. We filled the freezer with shepherd's pie, scalloped potatoes and ham, lasagne, pelmeni (Russian meat-filled dumplings), black beans, whole wheat bread, cookie dough balls and even a few pans of sticky buns. My son-in-law, Blake, is an avid gardener, so we had a bountiful harvest of potatoes, onions, parsnips, carrots, tomatoes and herbs to work with.
A week into my stay, Blake's mother and grandmother (whose flights had been booked months ahead) arrived to join the waiting game. We tried hard to be a help and not a hindrance, falling naturally into work patterns that suited our abilities. As I baked bread, Traci and Donna weed whacked the yard. I cooked dinner each night and they washed the dishes. While they tended the garden, I kept up on the laundry.

Two glorious days of rain and cool weather cleared the smoke from the Grande Ronde Valley and inspired me to put soup on the menu, with cornbread on the side. Willie's Soup is a family favorite that comes together quickly. I always have the ingredients on hand. This cornbread recipe is known as “the good cornbread” among my children, to distinguish it from the whole wheat, less sweet version I make to please my husband and to use in cornbread dressing at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

With a bit of coaxing, our granddaughter eventually arrived, healthy and beautiful. I stayed another week and a half then drove home, my heart full of gratitude for this tiny new addition to our family. In light of recent events, I am reminded of the poet Carl Sandburg's famous declaration, “A baby is God's opinion that life should go on.”
Willie's Soup

Years ago my mom copied a soup she used to order at her favorite deli. We've been eating “Willie's Soup” ever since. A few times each winter, mom will make a huge batch and give me several quart jars for the freezer. Paired with a salad and cornbread, this soup makes a quick, tummy-warming supper the whole family enjoys. Feel free to double or triple the recipe if you want to share or stock up.

1 pound extra-lean, grass-fed ground beef
1 large onion, diced
3 stalks of celery, sliced
6 cups water
6 teaspoons “Better Than Beef” soup base (I like the organic variety)
1 bay leaf, broken in half
2 cups peeled and diced fresh tomatoes or 1 can petite-diced tomatoes w/juice
3-5 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2-3 parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks (or more carrots)
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup frozen peas
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, cook the ground beef until no longer pink. Drain any fat (if there is any), add the diced onion and cook until translucent. Add the remaining ingredients, except the peas. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce heat to low and simmer until vegetables are almost tender, 10-20 minutes, depending on the size of your “chunks.” Remove the bay leaf halves. Add the frozen peas and simmer for another 4-5 minutes. Ladle into bowls and serve with cornbread.
Note: I freeze soup in gallon freezer bags, rather than glass jars, because it's easier to defrost quickly.

Cast Iron Cornbread
This is adapted from Bernard Clayton's recipe for “Rebecca's Cornbread” in The Complete Book of Breads. It's a sweet, rich “restaurant-style” cornbread with a fluffy interior and crusty edges when baked in cast iron. A 10-inch skillet is the perfect size, but you can also use a 9-inch square metal or glass pan, if you don't own cast iron.
¾ cup yellow cornmeal (I use Bob's Red Mill brand if I don't grind my own.)
2 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1 cup milk, whole or lowfat (not nonfat)
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) butter, melted and cooled
3 large eggs, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. If using a cast iron skillet, place it in the oven and allow it to preheat for at least 10 minutes. Otherwise, butter a 9 x 9 x 2-inch square pan and set aside.

Stir the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk and beaten eggs. Whisk gently just until combined. If using cast iron, carefully remove the hot pan from the oven. Brush the inside of the pan with some of the melted butter (a silicone brush will not melt) and fold the remaining butter into the batter. Do not overmix. Pour into the pan and level the top with a rubber scraper or the back of a spoon. Bake for 20 -25 minutes. Test the center with a wooden skewer, toothpick or metal cake tester. No batter should cling to it. Remove from oven to a cooling rack. Cut into wedges or squares and serve warm with butter, jam or honey.


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