Zen and the Art of Peeling Potatoes

Sweet Potato Soup – oh, so creamy with not a drop of cream!

Printed in The Woodstock Independent, January 2013

“Avoid food that makes health claims. Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.” – Rule # 2 from Food Rules by Michael Pollan.

One food I have never much liked is Candied Yams. It’s hard to experience the glorious flavor and sweetness of the yam itself buried under those ubiquitous marshmallows. Ah, here we are again . . . Real Food vs. Food Products. I present to you the ingredient label on a bag of marshmallows: corn syrup, sugar, modified corn starch, dextrose, water, gelatin, tetrasodium pyrophosphate (a thickener or emulsifier), artificial flavor and blue 1. Hmmm.

It’s hard to imagine opening a bottle of tetrasodium pyrophosphate to add to a dish I’m making. And if our food had real flavor, we shouldn’t have to add artificial flavor, right?

That doesn’t mean I want to skip the yams or sweet potatoes. Although not the same, yams and sweet potatoes are both satisfying, flavorful and versatile veggies with many health benefits. Both are fiber rich and high in potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, selenium, zinc and copper. Both low on the glycemic index, they don’t cause spikes in blood sugar like so many other foods we eat. Unfortunately those marshmallows pretty much obliterate the benefit.

Sweet potatoes and yams may impart a somewhat different taste and texture to recipes. Due to their nutritional differences, it’s worthwhile experimenting with both. Sweet potatoes are extremely high in Vitamin A, supplying eight times the daily requirement in one serving. Yams have a better balance of essential fatty acids, heart healthy Vitamin B6 and C, but sweet potatoes have more calcium, iron, Vitamin E and protein. In addition, sweet potatoes are loaded with anti-inflammatory compounds.

I make a Sweet Potato Soup that is deliriously simple and amazingly delicious. Without an ounce of dairy, it’s oh so creamy. A visiting vegan tasted it and determined she couldn’t have it because it was loaded with cream. I assured her it wasn’t . . . but there you go. That’s the amazing thing about Real Food. Its qualities may surprise you with great taste — unlike tetrasodium pyrophosphate, which I doubt would surprise anyone.

Besides, unlike tetrasodium pyrophosphate, sweet potatoes and yams are good for “vegetating.”

Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes. – Alan Watts

Sweet Potato Soup


  • 6 Sweet Potatoes (about 5 lb.), peeled and chunked
  • 2 Large Spanish Onions, chunked
  • Fresh Ginger Root (peeled slices, enough to make 2 well-rounded TB if minced)
  • 1.5-2 Tsp Salt
  • 1/2 Tsp Hot Paprika
  • 1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 2 Quarts Water


  1. Peel and chunk sweet potatoes and onion.
  2. Peel and slice ginger root.
  3. Add 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil to soup pot.
  4. Add onion, ginger root and potatoes along with seasonings.
  5. Add water barely to cover, approximately two quarts. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer until potatoes are soft.
  6. Puree in batches in VitaMix or conventional blender. Adjust thickness with more water if desired. Adjust seasoning.

Healthy, happy eating.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me onFaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter,@vegwithleslie.

Potato & Cabbage Soup with Fresh Dill

Once upon a time I searched on Pinterest for every cabbage recipe I could find. I love cooked cabbage! With all that hunting and pinning, two simple “recipes” that I created myself are still my favorites: sautéed cabbage “steaks” and this delicious Potato & Cabbage Soup.

I thought I was finished with my hearty soups for this season, but after I was ready to relax and enjoy those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, we got a cold snap. I keep reminding myself that I can count on those in May! So I made up some Potato & Cabbage Soup earlier this week to warm myself.

It does have that tantalizing little hint of spring in the dill.


  • Garlic, 8 cloves minced
  • Onion, 1 large Spanish, 1-2″ chunks
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 or cover the bottom of soup pot
  • Tomatoes, petite diced, 2 lb. (or a 28 oz. can of petite diced tomatoes)
  • Tomato paste, 6 oz. can
  • Chickpeas, 1/2 cup dried
  • Canellini beans, 1/2 cup dried
  • Red kidney beans, 1/2 cup dried
  • Carrots, 4-5 large sliced
  • Celery, 4 large stalks sliced
  • White cabbage, 1 whole small, 1-2″ chunks
  • Potatoes, 3 large, 1-2″ chunks
  • Salt, 2 TB (start with 1 TB and bring up to taste)
  • Cumin, 2 TB
  • Szeged hot paprika, 1 tsp., slightly rounded
  • Dill, fresh, 1 large bunch, minced
  • Water to cover


  1. Rinse beans and add to a 2-4 quart pot, add plenty of water, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer until barely al dente. Remove from heat, and set aside.
  2. Sauté garlic in extra virgin olive oil in a large soup pot.
  3. Add onion, carrots, celery and cabbage, and sauté for a short while.
  4. Add tomato paste and diced tomatoes to the mix and stir in.
  5. Add the barely cooked beans with their cooking liquid.
  6. Add water to cover. I added three quarts, but use the water to make it the consistency you like. Bring to a simmer and cook until flavors meld and potatoes can be pierced with a fork.
  7. Add seasonings and additional water if needed. I usually use about 1 TB of salt per gallon of soup, and this recipe makes about two gallons.
  8. Sprinkle minced dill in at the end of the cooking time reserving a little bit to sprinkle on servings.
  9. Serve and enjoy!

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Persian Barley, Rice & Bean Soup (Aash e-Jo)

Persian Barley, Rice & Bean Soup (Aash e-Jo)
Persian Barley, Rice & Bean Soup (Aash e-Jo)

One of the features of Middle Eastern food that I really appreciate is its tendency to mix things that I grew up thinking shouldn’t be mixed. Today the wisdom in the U.S. is still that two grains and three beans would be too much to load together in one meal. That it’s frequently done with great effects in Middle Eastern foods feels almost like a celebration to me.

Koshari is an example of this joyful piling together of starchy foods. Koshari is an Egyptian dish, a layering of rice, pasta, black lentils and chickpeas along with other ingredients. This delicious, creamy Persian soup, Aash e-Jo (barley, rice and 3 kinds of beans), is another example.

I started with a recipe from Persian Recipes. I made a few changes in the process so it would be easier to make, some changes in seasoning to suit my taste buds and a change in ingredients to make it vegan.

The result is a delicious, creamy, mildly seasoned soup with a nice hint of dill. I enjoyed the soup with a piece of my homemade spelt challah, of course.

Ingredients (10-12 servings)

  • Barley, 250 grams
  • Greens & herbs (parsley, cilantro, spinach, dill), 250-300 grams
  • Beans (garbanzo, white beans, kidney beans and lentils), 750 grams
  • Brown rice, 1 cup
  • Spanish onion, 1 large petite diced
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup
  • Coconut milk (full fat), 1-2 fourteen oz. cans
  • Salt, 2 TB
  • Hot paprika, 1 tsp.
  • Turmeric, 1 TB
  • Water, 3 quarts plus


  1. Petite dice the Spanish onion and put into a soup pot with 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil. Saute until caramelized.
  2. Rinse beans (about 4 cups) and add to soup pot. Add three quarts water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a low simmer, cover and let cook until done.
  3. While the beans are cooking, prepare the barley in a second pot. Just place the barley in the pot and add at least three times the volume of water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and let cook until done. Check the water periodically to be certain it covers the barley. When done, drain and set aside until the beans are cooked.
  4. Prepare the rice.  Please one cup of rinsed rice in a pot with 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and let cook until done. Drain, and set aside until the beans are cooked.
  5. Combine rice and barley in the soup pot with the beans and onion. Add seasonings and let continue to cook covered on low heat until the seasonings blend.
  6. When the soup is finished, add chopped spinach, cilantro and parsley. I always end up adding more than this because . . . well, I have more and I like veggies.
  7. Just before you’re ready to eat, stir in the minced dill (I used about a cup), reserving a little bit to sprinkle on top as you’re serving.


For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.