I thought I was going to Portland to help my grandmother June heal. I’d planned to teach a doughnut-making class at Sur La Table there, with Mark Klebeck of Top Pot Doughnuts, and I thought staying with June the night before would give me a chance to pop in with some soup. She had massive abdominal surgery three weeks ago; perhaps I didn’t know what that meant. I expected to wash sheets, or fold laundry, or perhaps run errands for her. I arrived with a tub of cumin-scented carrot soup, a gentle, fragrant concoction I thought might be easiest on the most timid of tummies.
Of course, any woman with the name “June” who lives in the Northwest will have a strong constitution; I should have known that she’d answer the door in her usual singsong voice, and that by the time we’d shared the soup and her salad—tiny pink shrimp piled into avocado halves, adorned with her sister Mary’s famous dressing, made of mayonnaise and Cholula (and darn good, I might add)—I’d nearly forgotten that she’d accidentally carried around a ruptured appendix for three weeks. She’s from good stock, that one. She’s healing just fine.
And every time I visit her, I’m reminded how much we have in common, even though she’ll be 85 this summer. We have the same flushable cheeks, and the same strong, thin hands, and the exact same feet, size 7 1/2, with unusually pretty toes. (Someday, I’ll show you in person, if you want. I feel very good about my feet.)
I like to think I have her sense of humor, too. After dinner, it seemed perfectly normal that we ended up standing next to each other in the bathroom, shirts pulled up to our bra lines, complimenting her nicely-healing scar and comparing our bodies, mine an almost carbon copy of hers, give or take 50 years.
When we were done bragging to each other about skin that doesn’t seem prone to stretch marks and lamenting the inconvenience of the sub-bosom sag, we moved right along, as if a two-generation gap somehow makes it perfectly normal for two women to act like 16-year-olds in front of a bathroom mirror. I’m sort of surprised we didn’t go through her old lipsticks together.
But we didn’t. Instead, I dug out the copy of Pike Place Market Recipes
I’d brought to share with her—the one I’d begged my publisher for, before leaving for Portland, because I wanted to give her one in person. I showed her the recipe for the carrot soup, and she promised she’d lend the book to her friend Verna, who would certainly make it. (Grandma June doesn’t really love cooking, so she avoids it. I’m finally getting used to this.)
But June liked my carrot soup, people. In fact, she said it was the best one she’d ever had. Now, carrot soup isn’t a hamburger or a dish of macaroni and cheese; one only tastes so many carrot soups in a lifetime. (You’d never see “Best Carrot Soups” on the cover of a magazine.”) But she said it.
When I made it the first and second and third time, this soup was about the Market. It was about walking into World Spice and reaching for a Kleenex halfway into my journey through the paprika selection, and about tufts of carrot tops tickling my armpits as they poked out of a packed produce bag.
From now on, though, it’ll be about June. Carrot soup will be about sitting at her kitchen table, drinking water from fancy pink wine glasses, because neither of us felt like drinking wine, anyway. It’ll be about watching her hand flutter excitedly along the side of the stove while the soup warmed, because she was she was so nervous, telling me about her new boyfriend. It’ll be crawling into that pink metal-framed daybed (that wasn’t ever mine, was it?), realizing how much her pride and approval matters to me.
So here’s a carrot soup that tastes like looking in a bathroom mirror, and finding someone you wouldn’t mind being at 85. If that’s not entirely relatable for you, just make it. I can promise that at the very least, it will taste good.
Sometimes, shopping for a small, simple dinner at the Pike Place Market can be overwhelming – there’s unavoidable temptation to buy, say, and entire salmon, and take it home for a holiday feast when you’re only two for dinner. When you just need something warm and satisfying, make this velvety carrot soup, spiced with cumin, cayenne, and pimenton de la vera – smoked paprika from Spain’s La Vera region. Look for the pimenton at World Spice Merchants, DeLaurenti, The Spanish Table, or in the spice aisle of a large supermarket, in a red box.
Time: 45 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 pounds carrots, peeled and chopped into 1” pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (pimenton de la vera)
Small pinch cayenne pepper (to taste)
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons honey (or to taste)
Heat a large, heavy soup pot over medium heat. When hot, add the oil, then the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the onion is soft. Add the carrots, season to taste with salt and pepper, stir, and cook, covered, for another 10 minutes, stirring once or twice. Stir in the cumin, paprika, and cayenne pepper, then add the broth and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and cook until carrots are completely soft, another 10 to 20 minutes.
Using a blender or food processor, carefully puree the hot soup in small batches and return to the pot. Stir in the honey, then check the seasonings, adding more cayenne or honey to taste. Serve hot.