Years ago, I went through an intensive docent training to lead tours at a nearby Audubon ranch where egrets historically nest. If you haven’t seen it for yourself, I’m here to tell you it’s very moving to watch eggs suddenly appear on top of tall trees and hatch, followed by squawking open mouths, and weeks later witness awkward, tentative fledglings learn to fly with their new wispy feathers. Our training lasted for several months while we learned about snakes (which, for the record, still terrify me), spiders, newts, and of course the egrets. We studied how the natives in the area harvested salt from nearby marshes hundreds of years ago, and survived on acorns through the winters. It was fascinating.
There were around 15 of us in this training, and we got to know each other pretty well over time. We had potlucks, hiked together all over the property, and practiced our presentations on each other. The training was to host third and fourth graders at the ranch, ideally from schools in areas where children had limited opportunities to get to the coast and see wildlife on such a personal level.
I remember one child from an economically depressed area across the toll bridge from us who was particularly excited to be there. His enthusiasm burst through every pore in his small body. He’d never seen the ocean before, even though he lived less than 15 miles away. His mom was one of the chaperones in a group I led that morning, and she was just as excited to be there. They asked if the nearby beaches were free (yes, they were), and I can still remember the child’s face when he realized his mom probably couldn’t afford the $6 bridge toll to come again. He was disappointed, but pragmatic about it in a way a third grader shouldn’t have to be. It made me realize how lucky I am to have grown up the way I did, to have had the advantages I did, and to know that $6 has never separated me from something I’ve wanted to do for myself or for someone I love.
So where does this soup come in? A woman in my training class brought this soup to one of our potlucks, and I fell in love with it. I played with it for awhile, trying to get the same flavor profile as hers. This is my best effort to date. Every time I make it, I think of her and my fellow trainees, Audubon Canyon Ranch, and that little boy who was so excited to spend the morning with us. I wonder, does he think about that morning too, and all the animals we saw? Did we inspire him to want to know more of the world outside his community? I don’t know. But I like to think so.
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2/3 cup grated yellow onion
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1/4 cup finely chopped celery
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/2 teaspoon table salt)
- freshly ground pepper
- 2 cups vegetable broth
- 1 yukon gold potato, diced
- 1 cup cooked barley
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
- 1 teaspoon lime juice
- Heat up the olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot you plan to cook the entire soup. Add the onion, garlic, and celery, and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the tomato paste, turmeric, salt and pepper, and cook for another couple of minutes.
- Add the broth, bring to a simmer, and add the potato and cooked barley. Simmer until the potato is tender, about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the fresh mint, lime juice, and serve immediately with a crust of bread.