I grew up in a wonderful progressive community in southern Appalachia, where vegetarianism was never a confusing concept. I don’t remember ever learning about tofu – it was something people ate, and the bean curd patty was never a revelation for me. Any sense of “you mean you don’t eat meat/dairy/wheat/Doritos – what can I feed you?” never really stuck around for very long, because, although I attended a lot of tabbouleh-intensive potlucks, someone always had a new recipe for something intriguingly healthy. Many of my parents’ friends would say, “Oh yeah, I was a vegetarian… in college.”

So on the first day of college, I went to the cafeteria, grabbed a tray, looked at the chicken fingers on the hot bar, and said, “Well, I’m in college, so I might as well be a vegetarian.”

It was not so simple, of course. I was never a huge fan of meat, but I still weaned myself off of it slowly. I’ve done enough traveling, though, to know that most of the world is vegetarian only for reasons of economics. I’m very aware that for me to say that I choose not to eat meat is an ability that comes only with a great deal of privilege, so when someone goes out of their way to go to the butcher for my visit, I’m going to eat what they serve me and be grateful for every bite. People ask me why I’m vegetarian, and I say, “really, every reason.” It’s better for my cholesterol, my wallet, my environment, my friendly neighborhood cows. I’m one of those pissy ranting liberals who goes on about American overconsumption, and I’m thankful daily that I don’t live in a place that expects me to drive my large belching car to a strip-mall supermarket so I can stock up on my weekly supply of Jimmy Dean.

Sometimes I think I should take things to the next level and go vegan. This thought usually lasts until the spoonful of yogurt in my hand makes it to my mouth. I’ve never asked a vegan, “So… what do you eat, anyway?” but I have always been secretly impressed by cooks who can give vegan food that rich-and-creamy mouthfeel that we all crave from time to time. It’s a very particular aesthetic of mastication*, to me, a way of looking at food that is hearty, satisfying, and – most importantly – not just full of weirdo substitutes. (For example, Coconut Bliss is good. Tofurkey is frightening.)

Enter rice milk. You can make soup with it! Who knew? I got a lovely bunch of kale in my produce box last week, and I had a ton of tiny potatoes that were all about to get sprouty, and I really wanted to make a good soup with them. I was thinking about making a nice wintery, creamy soup, but I get bites of super rich food at work all day, so when I come home, I do not want to go into a dairy coma. I also do not want my cream soup to taste like soy. So rice milk it is! This is the vegan potage I’ve been craving – deeply-flavored, savory, but not a cream bomb. My friend ET and I had this for lunch today with a nice carrot salad, bread, and a little plate of Bulgarian sheep’s-milk cheese. (Oops, that’s not vegan.)

kale-potato-soup-2

Kale-Potato Soup with Balsamic-Roasted Garlic
serves 4-6

2 heads garlic
salt and pepper
olive oil
good balsamic vinegar. The thick stuff.

1 small yellow onion, diced
1 stalk celery, finely diced
1/2 teaspoon chopped dried rosemary
1 bunch kale, center stems removed, roughly chopped
1 1/2 pounds potatoes, skins on, roughly chopped
1 quart + 1 cup vegetable broth
2 cups rice milk

Roast garlic: preheat oven to 375F. Chop off the top of each head of garlic, exposing the cloves. Put the heads down on a piece of aluminum foil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Wrap them up in the foil to make a little packet, and put in the oven for 30 minutes or until the garlic is soft and drop-dead-gorgeous brown.

Meanwhile, make soup: In a pot over medium heat, cook onions, celery, rosemary, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until softened, about 5 minutes. Add kale, potatoes, and vegetable broth, cover, and turn the heat up to high. When soup comes to a boil, turn heat to medium low and simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are soft and kale is cooked, about 30 minutes.

By this point, the garlic should be done. When it’s cool enough to handle, squeeze out the cloves into the soup. Give it a stir, and get out your blender. Use a slotted spoon to put the veggies in the blender – a little broth is OK, but don’t overdo it. Puree it in batches, adding enough rice milk to get it to a cream-soup consistency. Discard vegetable broth (or save it to make another soup!) and put your pureed mixture in the pot; heat until warm and serve.

Note The red garnish in the picture is just some red pepper puree. Empty a jar of roasted red peppers into the blender, add a little rosemary and a drizzle of olive oil. Buzz. Done.

*Yes, I just said, “aesthetic of mastication.”