When I started writing this column (more than a few years ago), the low-carb craze was in full swing. As the mother of a toddler, I worried some about all the cereals my little one ate, starting with rice porridge, then moving on to Cheerios, so easy for pudgy fingers to grasp. But I also felt grateful he didn’t seem to have any food allergies or intolerances. I did my best to put a balanced selection in front of him, and relaxed.
My second child was lactose-intolerant until his third year, so I developed more empathy for parents who had to monitor their children’s foods. My boys go to school with kids who can’t eat nuts, wheat and gluten, soy, dairy, eggs, and even citrus fruits. Some of these can be life-threatening.
Our awareness of food allergies has spilled over into the way some of us who don’t suffer from them eat. More people are eliminating wheat and gluten from their diets, claiming an improvement in well-being and alertness. Others are going “paleo,” reasoning (persuasively, I think) that they’re eating the foods our bodies evolved to consume. To some extent, these diets boil down to a few principles: eat meats that have been raised naturally, lots of fruits and vegetables, and very little or none of the grains and legumes that our ancestors learned more recently to grow as crops.
In general, I don’t do restrictive diets. Unless there are medical reasons, I don’t think kids should have to, either, if they’re being provided with wholesome food and opportunities for active play. But after the holiday season, we all need a break from sweet and starchy foods. And if you’re like me, you’re tired of cooking and shopping.
With all this in mind, I brainstormed a hearty soup that came directly from my pantry and fresh ingredients I had on hand in the fridge. It’s warming, savory, just a bit exotic, and rich without being heavy. Very little prep is required, and —best of all — it can be customized to fit most families› dietary restrictions. You can make this vegan by omitting fish sauce and skipping the yogurt. You can go nut-free, soy-free, or bean-free. If you have to avoid all gluten, take a good look at the curry paste or soy sauce, but for most of us just trying to dial it back, this is basically wheat-free and low in carbohydrates.
New Year’s Soup
2 shallots, peeled & chopped 2 tablespoons canola oil or butter.
1 tablespoon red curry paste
1 can pumpkin puree (not pie filling)
1 can coconut milk or 1½ cups cream (add near the end is using dairy)
1 large (28-oz.) can whole tomatoes ½ cup cilantro leaves, washed & dried
2 cups broth or water plus 2 bouillon cubes
1 teaspoon salt 1 cup red lentils (optional: they provide texture and protein)
1 bunch Swiss chard or spinach, washed, trimmed (remove chard’s stalks), and chopped
1-2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce or soy sauce
juice of one lime
1-2 scallions, chopped
Pour the tomatoes into a large bowl and break up by squeezing gently with your hands. Set aside. Place a soup pot over medium heat, add the oil and saute shallots until soften. Add red curry paste and sauté till darker and fragrant, a minute or two. Stir in pumpkin, coconut milk, tomatoes, cilantro leaves, 2 cups of water or broth (I use water and vegetarian “beef” bouillon cubes), and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer. After 10 minutes, add 1 cup of red lentils.
After another 10-15 minutes, or when lentils are soft, puree soup with a hand blender, or leave chunky. Add chopped chard or spinach and simmer till soft. Then 1-2 teaspoon fish sauce and juice of ½ to 1 lime, to taste. Serve topped with plain yogurt and/or chopped scallions.