lauren, halimah and i recently got back from a westerly sojourn to visit our dearest friend mary in houston,tx where she is studying architecture at rice university. besides little overnight trips here and there, this was my first real experience with a ladies only vacation. and let me tell you - it was amazing! we bonded deeply over serious confessions, embarrassing stories, nonsense jokes and sex talk. we stayed up late, whispered once the lights were out, slept in daily, traded accessories, shooed off male suitors in bars, and drove around listening to oldies.
but, perhaps most importantly, we ate and drank our asses off. from the high brow to the low brow, we left no culinary stone unturned. during a week when most americans are cursing themselves for their holiday indulgences, and swearing to do better this time around, our appetites took houston by storm. we scarfed trashy tex mex at chuy's, gorgeous waffles at baby barnaby's, light-as-a-feather gourmet pizzas at dolce vita, and simply perfect avocado tacos from the truck adjacent to possibly the best dive bar that side of the mississippi, the west alabama ice house.
my favorite meals, though, were the ones we prepared for ourselves in mary's tiny, charming kitchen. except for sunday brunch, we made breakfast each morning, small, balanced little meals, much like the ones i make at home before work. toast, coffee, yogurt, fruit.
there were a few lovely home cooked dinners, as well, usually preceded by a hasty trip to the nearby h-e-b for ingredients and beer. buying a 12-pack of cheap craft beer in a grocery store is such a succinct pleasure for a pennsylvanian. back at home base, we'd share the prep work with jangly tunes from the college radio station as our soundtrack. the fragrance from the simmering pot filled the small apartment, and a voice from the couch would pipe up, "what smells so good?" while i whipped up the salad dressing, mary would spread out her prized vintage place mats, and uncork the wine. finally, we would all sit down together, a tender ritual that recalled the glory days when we all lived under one roof in west philadelphia.
my favorite dinner was on saturday night. at that point, we'd been in houston for a few days and had all fallen into an easy groove with one another. there were still a few days standing between us and our departure, and if i stretched my imagination a bit, i could pretend that we'd never have to say goodbye. earlier that day, we drove out to galveston to rest our eyes on the gulf of mexico and explore the meager town. standing with my bare toes in the sand in early january, the wind whipping through the beleaguered palm trees, felt cinematic and intense.
as we returned to houston, restless from the sluggish highway traffic, we pulled off for late afternoon milkshakes from a charming diner. an hour later, overloaded on sugar and a bit regretful for it, we were all craving something inoffensive and clean for our pummeled palates. mary, who somehow always knows what's right for every occasion, suggested a fennel-studded tomato soup recipe from a homemade life, the beautiful memoir and cookbook from one of our favorite bloggers, molly wizenberg. lauren gifted me this book for christmas and i'd devoured nearly all of it on the plane ride from philly to houston just days before, so it seemed extra fitting. single handedly and with the grace of a true cook, mary put together the most splendid meal i've had in ages.
alongside the tomato fennel soup was a salad of lightly dressed bitter greens with apples and shaved aged provolone, a hunk of 3-seeded bread, and roasted cauliflower with a pungent, citrusy sauce. it was flawless. after the plates were cleared and the dishes done, we played rounds and rounds of our favorite card game, which became increasingly rowdy with each beer we drank. at some hazier point in the night, we popped a bottle of prossecco, and toasted to our love, which is especially appropriate in texas, where the state motto is "friendship."
Tomato Soup with 2 Fennels
from "A Homemade Life," by Molly Wizenberg
~serves 4-6 (generous helpings)~
~takes about 40 minutes~
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed and thinly sliced (save some of the fronds for garnish)
4-5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp dried thyme
2 28 ounce cans whole or chopped tomatoes
3/4 teaspoon salt
sugar, to taste
pepper and vinegar, to taste
- in a dutch oven or soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. add the chopped onions and fennel, and sautee for 5 minutes.
- add the garlic, thyme and fennel seeds. cook, stirring occasionally, for another 5-8 minutes.
- if using whole canned tomatoes, crush them in a food processor, with your hands, or however else you'd like. if using pre-crushed, no need to crush further. in any case, add the tomatoes and their juices to the pot and stir everything together.
- fill one of the now empty tomato cans with water and add to the mixture.
- turn the heat down, and let the soup gently simmer, uncovered, for 40-45 minutes.
- when the fennel is very tender, and the tomatoes have reduced to make the soup taste full-bodied, it's done! add salt and pepper to taste. if the soup is too acidic for you, a pinch of sugar will mellow it out. if you want a little more bite, add a small splash of red wine vinegar.
- ladle into soup bowls, and top with a pinch of fennel fronds, and a dollop of yogurt or sour cream (optional, of course!).
- serve, very hot, preferably to a table of your best friends.