Over a decade now stands between me and the year I spent living in Lima, Peru. I learned so much during that year. Spanish, for one. Also that no matter how slow it seems, time passes. And that a couple of lagers make a great remedy for mild gastrointestinal distress.
I also learned how to cook for myself. Having spent the previous two decades being fed by parents, line cooks, and cafeteria ladies (not to mention one boyfriend whose chef skills may have played a small part in the decision to make him my husband), my kitchen repertoire was quite limited. Left to my own devices, I often slurped up two bowls of cereal and called it dinner.
In Peru, I found myself with lots of free time on my hands. I've never felt so lonely as I did in my early days there. I still remember touching down in Lima on that first of many gray mornings. At six a.m., a shuddering school bus dropped me in front of a locked gate on Colonel Inclan. Somebody helped lug my trunk inside, then left. I had a whole day to myself and nothing to eat but a box of stale corn flakes kindly left in the cupboard by my new employer. After shedding copious homesick tears, I headed out on foot to explore, and to find a grocery store.
Over the course of the year, I became expert at shopping and cooking for myself with the ingredients available in my adopted city. Going on fifteen years later, I still remember a crunchy salad I would make with native choclo corn, tomato, red onion, olive oil, limones, and cumin. Breakfast was a dark and crunchy locally-made granola with cubes of papaya and fruit yogurt. And a favorite for dinner was a stew of lentils cooked with onion, fat carrots, and any other veggies I picked up at the corner produce cart. Preparing that big pot of protein delivered the same kind of satisfaction I felt hanging my laundry in the sun on our rooftop. With the bustling city outside my front gate demanding so much, I found in the elemental acts of cooking and cleaning a much-needed palliative.
There is contentment in a pot bubbling on the stove. Its sounds and smells entice, promise, reassure. A warm pot of soup grounds me, makes me happy to be at home. I needed that on a lot of lonely evenings during that daring, enriching, and sometimes unbearably solitary year.
A drawer in our kitchen houses a beloved, bespattered copy of Fine Cooking magazine, No. 96 (Dec. 2008/Jan. 2009). In the right-hand corner of the cover, I at some point scrawled "GOOD SOUPS" and underlined it twice. Inside live the recipes for this soup and another one I make often. They are one-pot meals that require just a bit of preparation before they're bubbling away on the stove and filling the apartment with warm, spicy aromas and the promise of nourishment.
Good friends and family surround me now, and the loneliness of that time is safely shelved in my memory alongside adventures whose like I'll probably never see again. Circumstances change, but I'll bet that the heavy, comforting presence of a pot on the stove will be a constant pleasure for many years to come. A flimsy box of cereal has no chance against it. Must add that to the list of things learned.
You can find the recipe for Black Bean Soup with Sweet Potatoes here. A couple of notes on this dish: For a hearty dinner, ladle the soup over white or brown rice. The sweetness and smooth texture of the soup make it kid-friendly; our picky toddler has on multiple occasions eaten his portion and begged for more. Also, we don't keep aniseed on hand, so I usually substitute fennel seed. Enjoy!