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26 September 2005

eating vegan with tomato-fennel soup

I don’t find it hard to eat vegan. I really don’t. I don’t think you would either.

For years, I was a vegetarian. I wrote about that already, so I won’t repeat myself. But for about four months this year, before I was diagnosed with celiac disease, and just after, I became a vegan by necessity. Why?

Well, for seven weeks, I could barely eat anything. I lay on the couch, languishing away, bloated and infused with searing pain. No one knew why. The doctors kept guessing, with the aid of expensive tests, and still no answer. If I ate more than a tablespoon of food at a time, I felt as though my stomach would explode. And there were plenty of more ailments and dramas. If you haven’t been following this blog from the beginning, you can read this if you want to know more. (And since this has become, ostensibly, a joyful food blog now, I won’t go too deeply into the bodily functions. Even though they fascinate me.) When you’re that ill, hunks of meat just don’t appeal. And cheese fell out of favor, because anything with too much fat made me ache with pain. I won’t even talk about the horrid morning of the avocado. So slowly, I winnowed it down to the foods that felt easy. Crackers, olive bread from Macrina Bakery, popsicles, canned chicken noodle soup, and ginger ale. With the exception of the ginger ale, everything I ate, one tablespoon at a time, contained gluten. Ah, that’s why I was so sick.

When I did finally have the answer, and stopped eating gluten, I felt enormously better, almost immediately. But by this time, my small intestines were damaged rather badly. You see, celiac disease means that my body reads gluten as a toxin, and thus, sends out fierce antibodies to attack it when it enters my system. Unfortunately, the antibodies attack the villi, the small hairs in the intestines responsible for absorbing vitamins, minerals, and all the other nutrition. When a swath of villi are flattened, they can no longer absorb what I need from food. And when that happens, the intestine no longer produces the enzyme necessary to digest lactose. And therefore, celiacs become, by proxy, lactose-intolerant. In fact, from what I understand, some people come to realize they have celiac disease because they suddenly can no longer digest cheese or milk.

The most incredible part of healing from celiac disease is that all it takes is great, gluten-free food. I haven’t taken any drugs or had any surgeries. I need never have either. Instead, the body heals itself. After six months to a year of completely avoiding gluten, I will have healthy intestines, as though none of this had ever happened. Years of damage will simply disappear. I will never stop being amazed by this.

It fascinates me, this process. I’m still learning, more and more. And since I once planned to become a doctor, when I was seventeen, it seems fitting that I now spend my days learning about the body and how it works. I’m perpetually in awe of our bodies. And if you would like to learn more about celiac disease and lactose intolerance, I’d suggest you read this.

But for the first couple of months after my diagnosis, I didn’t eat anything meat or dairy. Meat just seemed to hard to digest, and dairy just didn’t go over well. As soon as I learned about celiac-induced lactose-intolerance, I knew I needed to avoid the stuff. Even though I love good cheese more than a girl probably should. But I had been feeling rotten for so long, so long, that I happily avoided both, just happy to be eating again, having an appetite. So, for about two months, I was a gluten-free vegan.

Actually, if you’ve just been diagnosed with celiac, I might even suggest becoming vegan for a month or two. When you can add meat and cheese back in, you’ll be amazed at how many food choices you have.

But you know, even if you’re a vegan, there is so much great food out there. Think of all the foods you already eat that are gorgeous and indispensable to your life, the foods that happen to not contain meat or dairy: warm spinach salads; crisp carrots with a wonderful crunch; the first real apple of the season; broiled tofu with peanut sauce; juicy watermelon on a hot summer’s day. The broad red bowl on my chrome kitchen shelves is perpetually filled with fresh fruit and vegetables. My kitchen table is almost always mounded with herbs, vegetables ready to be chopped, and fruit just begging to be made into crumbles and sorbets. Fresh produce is the heart of my diet.

And I really do love tofu.

So when I read that Sam of Becks & Posh was hosting a vegan-themed blog competition, I knew I had to throw my hat into the fray. And I knew what I needed to make: soup.

chopped carrots

The air is cooler each day around here. And each evening, the sun seems to sink behind the Olympic mountains at least ten minutes earlier. Fall is no longer approaching. It’s here. And yesterday, in planning and preparing food for the week, I knew it was time for my first serious soup of the summer.

I’ve always loved the Fields of Greens cookbook. When I lived on Vashon Island, ten years ago, I lived from this book. And I have always dreamed of eating at Greens, the gourmet vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco (and Chez Panisse), mostly because every recipe I tried blew my mind. And the quote on the back of the book says it all: “It is a major culinary landmark, elevating vegetables and grains to a new art form.”

My first major foray into cooking was inspired by the Greens cookbook. At twenty-six years old, I had just begun making food seriously. And one Saturday afternoon, I spent nearly all day making mushroom stock from scratch, and then building that soup from the bottom of the pot. Hours later, I took my first sip and nearly fell on the floor. It tasted so damned good, a thousand layers of taste. I dined on it for days.

So last night, too late for common sense, I started making this tomato-fennel soup. I chopped onions happily, cut up the carrots, opened a can of roasted tomatoes, and smiled at the smell of the fennel slowly simmering with the garlic in the pot. Days earlier, I had made a spontaneous roasted vegetable stock, based on a suggestion that kitchenMage had left me in the comments section. I threw in everything I had left, haphazardly, including shitake mushrooms and eggplants. Unusual, I know, but the final stock was as dark as rich mushroom stock, and it tasted like the best of roasted vegetables. So in it went. And after it had all burbled, happily, for nearly an hour, I took it off the burner and took my first sip. Once again, I nearly fell on the floor. Smoky and slithering, slightly sweet from the anise, crunchy from the carrots—this soup makes autumn worth it.

And there’s not a hint of anything in it that would make a vegan mad.

tomato-fennel soup

TOMATO-FENNEL SOUP, from Fields of Greens cookbook, p. 86

1 quart of vegetable stock (see below), with 2 cups of canned tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon of fennel seed and 1/2 teaspoon of anise seed added
1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 teaspoon of anise seed, ground
1 teaspoon of fennel seed, ground
4 garlic cloves, chopped finely
2 medium-sized carrots, diced, about one cup
2 medium-sized fennel bulbs, quartered lengthwise, cored, and thinly sliced
1/2 cup of dry sherry
2 pounds of fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and pureed

°Make the stock and keep it warm over low heat.
° Heat the olive oil in a soup pot and add the onions, 3/4 teaspoon salt, the anise, and the ground fennel. Saute over medium heat until the onions are soft, then add the garlic, carrots, and sliced fennel.
°Cover the pan and cook the vegetables until very tender, about 5 minutes.
°Remove the lid, add the sherry, and cook for 1 or 2 minutes, until the pan is nearly dry.
°Add the tomato puree, one quart of stock, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Cover and cook over low heat for 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add a few pinches of sugar if the soup tastes acidic.

For vegetable stock, try this suggestion from our own dear kitchenmage:

"I've taken to making small batches whenever I have things lying around that could stand to be used quickly, resulting in lots of different vegetable stocks to go with the critter-based ones. The routine is almost mindlessly simple: Look around kitchen and gather up all the vegetables that will be getting marginal within the next day or two. Clean and roughly chop, sprinkle with salt, toss in oven at 325 for until it smells like there's something in the oven (30-90 min depending). Transfer to stockpot, cover with water, add herbs, simmer for a while. When it tastes like something you'd want to eat, remove vegetables and cool.

Here's my personal favorite trick: once you have stock, reduce it to about 1/4 the original volume before freezing. If you freeze this in ice cube trays, it's like instant semi-demiglace for sauces. Just pop in a cube or two to add depth to sauces."

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At 10:46 PM, Blogger Sam said...

Shauna - thank you for your heartfelt entry, as usual. Its so fascinating to read about your experiences. I had a celiac friend when I was younger, so it kind of amazes me they took so long to diagnose you, particularly as it is a well known and not uncommon disease.

But lets not dwell on that - everything sounds regenerated and good now, and the soup sounds delicious. Thanks for the links to the stock-making tips too. And, of course, thanks for entering IMBB 19!


At 3:54 AM, Blogger kitchenmage said...

Yea, a convert to the vegetable stock! Isn't that amazing? And I am so happy it ended up in such delectable sounding soup. I'll have to try it myself.

Yesterday's stock involved a fish head and tail and a canning pot because it was the only thing I could cram everything into. You've even inspired me to write it up.

At 5:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This soup and stock post sounds sooo comforting! I don't think I make enough soup...maybe I should get started already :)

At 6:52 AM, Blogger Nic said...

Yum, Shauna. I know I'd want that soup - vegan or not!

At 4:23 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

Hi Shauna,
I'm learning so much about celiac disease from you (as well as so much about life and food in general, of course). It must have been an awful experience in the beginning, but it's so neat to see how far you've come, what you've learned from it, and what a joyful, positive person you've become. Love the picture of the mortar and pestle!

At 9:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been reading about your blog all over the place and been meaning to come here--thanks so much for the kind comment on BJF that finally led me here!

I know just what you mean about becoming fascinated by the process of disease and healing--I've gone through something similar with my daughter.

The soup sounds wonderful, I love your writing, and I'm definitely trying that veggie stock tip. But right now, I'm going to poke around a read a bit more. :)


At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shauna- Thanks for your recipe. I have recently been diagnosed with a wheat and a corn allergy. Also I have a blood disorder that seems to improve when I eat at least vegetarian. It is best for me to eat a vegan diet. I am 26 years old, and am having to learn how to cook all over again. I am scouring the internet for wheat free vegetarian options. Thanks again.


At 3:38 PM, Blogger Lady Amalthea said...

Living with a vegetarian (who isn't so crazy about cheese), I'm learning to appreciate vegan food after looking down on it for so long. Really, though, it's nourishing and full of clean flavors that really showcase all the wonderful veggies. What's not to love?


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