- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

“A hot liquid made with ingredients that make your eyes water and your nose run clears up congestion and makes you feel better,” said my medical-student son said recently, sounding worldly. “Chili peppers and garlic come to mind. That’s why I reach for my mother’s soups.”

So did I, and although Mama’s world didn’t extend much farther than rural Choctaw County in southern Alabama, when the weather turned cold, she began preparing pots of soups that seemingly warmed body and soul.

I remember soups brimming with black-eyed peas, lima beans or navy beans and seasoned with a meaty ham bone or chicken backs, or a beef shank, and simmered until creamy and delicious. At other times a pot filled with home-canned tomatoes, sliced turnips, a bunch of greens, or my favorite, sleek okra pods and a handful of rice, added up to the best vegetable soup ever.

No other food has as much universal appeal as those chili peppers, and throughout the world they are cherished as much for their flavor as for their healing properties. They owe their healthy reputation to capsaicin, a chemical found in their skins that researchers say not only relieves the common cold but also helps thin the blood and thereby prevents the clotting that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. The hot pods are also loaded with beta carotene and vitamin C.

Capsaicin encourages the brain to release endorphins, the body’s natural “feel good” hormones, which suffuse us with a sense of well-being, and helps keep winter doldrums at bay - soul food at its best. I am sure this is why years ago Mama made us drink a fiery cup of hot chili pepper tea or a soup laden with chilies at the first sign of a winter cold or sniffles.

I begin the new year with a pot of black-eyed peas laced with chili peppers or hot pepper flakes - a dish, according to Old South folklore, that brings good luck for the year.

Feel better chicken soup

It may be matter or mind, but this filling and delicious soup works. How could you not feel better? Makes 6 servings.

2 to 3 pounds chicken backs and necks or 3 or 4 whole chicken legs and thighs

2 or 3 tablespoons peanut, coconut or olive oil

1 large onion, chopped or finely sliced

2 to 4 cloves garlic, crushed or minced

2 small jalapenos or cayenne peppers, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, cilantro or parsley

1 or 2 teaspoons curry powder, ground ginger or turmeric

8 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned

2 cups root vegetables such as carrots, turnip or rutabaga, peeled and sliced

1/4 cup brown rice or lentils or elbow macaroni

Trim away excess fat and skin from the chicken backs and neck. If using connected chicken legs and thighs, split crossway at the joint, making 6 or 8 pieces. Rinse the poultry, pat dry with paper toweling and set aside.

Heat the oil in a heavy 4- or 5-quart pot. Add the chicken, onion, garlic, hot peppers and herb, and saute over low heat for 4 or 5 minutes, stirring. Stir in the curry powder, ginger or turmeric, and saute 2 or 3 minutes more, stirring.

Add the water, salt, black pepper and bay leaves, and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring. Then reduce the heat to low. Cover the pot and cook the broth for about 1 hour, or until the chicken is just about tender, turning over the pieces in the broth occasionally.

Add the tomatoes, carrots, vegetables, rice or lentils or macaroni and cook covered for 1 hour longer, or until all of the vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally.

If desired, cut the meat from the bone and stir back into the pot, discarding the bone. Heat the soup a few minutes longer. Serve the soup in warm bowls.

Black-eyed pea soup

Ground nutmeg or allspice and a slug of rum gives the dish a bracing flavor. Makes 6 servings

1 pound dried black-eyed peas, soaked

3 tablespoons peanut, olive or grapeseed oil

1 large onion, sliced

3 cloves garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled

1 bay leaf

1 or 2 hot chili peppers or 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg or allspice

Freshly ground black pepper

8 cups water

1 smoked turkey wing (about 1 pound), or meaty ham bone

1/4 cup gold or dark rum, if desired

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

Pick over the peas, discarding stones or debris, rinse, place in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Soak the peas for 1 1/2 to 2 hours; it not necessary to soak black-eyed peas overnight.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a 4- or 5-quart pot. Stir in the onion, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, chili peppers or hot pepper flakes, nutmeg or allspice and black pepper. Saute, stirring over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until the onions are tender.

Stir in the water. Add the turkey wing or ham bone. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to simmer and cook for about 45 minutes.

Drain the soaked black-eyed peas, rinse well again, and drain in a colander. Then, add to the pot. Bring the pot to a gentle boil and then reduce the heat to simmer.

Cover and cook the soup for about 1 hour, or until the peas are tender and the soup is creamy, stirring occasionally. If desired, remove the turkey wing or ham from the pot and cut into small pieces.

Return the turkey or ham to the pot. Stir in the rum and the salt, and heat 15 minutes longer, stirring a couple times.

Jamaican red pea soup

Jamaica’s locally grown red beans are known as “peas.” In the United States, the bean bears both the kidney and chili bean name. Makes 6 servings.

2 cups dried red kidney or chili beans, soaked

2 or 3 tablespoons coconut, peanut or olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

2 to 4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 or 3 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme or 1 tea spoon dried herb

1/2 teaspoons allspice, or more if desired

1 small Scotch Bonnet pepper, finely chopped or 2 small jalapeno or serrano peppers

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger, or 1 to 2 teaspoons ground ginger

6 to 7 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk, or more if desired

1/2 cup dark rum, if desired

Pick over the beans, discarding stones or debris. Rinse the beans with cold water in a colander. Drain and place in a large bowl. Cover the beans with cold water and soak for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. It is not necessary to soak red beans overnight.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a 4- or 5-quart heavy pot. Add the onion, garlic, thyme, allspice, hot pepper and ginger, and saute over low heat for 4 or 5 minutes.

Stir in the water. Bring the pot to a boil, and then quickly reduce the heat to low. Cover the pot and simmer the broth for 1 hour.

Drain the soaked beans and then rinse well with cold water in a colander. Drain the beans again and stir into the pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the soup covered for 1 1/2 hours or until the beans are just tender, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the salt, black pepper, coconut milk and rum, and simmer for 30 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Serve the soup in warm bowls.

Caribbean pepper pot

This recipe from the Tree House Resorts in Negril, Jamaica, is bracing and chock full of roots and vegetables, such as locally grown callaloo, which resembles spinach and collard greens. Makes 5 to 6 servings.

2 1/2 to 3 pounds lean beef stew meat, preferably with bones

2 or 3 tablespoons coconut, peanut or corn oil

1 large onion, sliced

1 large red or yellow or green bell pepper, cored and diced

3 cloves garlic, crushed or finely minced

1 tablespoon fresh chopped thyme or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme

1 or 2 chili peppers, or more if desired

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped parsley

Freshly ground black pepper

2 1/2 cups beer or water

2 1/2 cups beef broth, or more if needed

2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1/2 pound carrots, scraped and cut into 1-inch chunks

2 cups shredded kale, mustard or turnip greens or callaloo

1 medium-size white potato, peeled and quartered

1 yellow or white turnip root or chayote, peeled and quartered

1 cup unsweetened coconut milk, if desired

Trim the beef of any excess fat and discard. Cut the meat into 2 inch pieces. Heat the oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven. Add the meat a few pieces at a times, and brown all over, 4 to 5 minutes. (Remove from pan when browned to keep from crowding pan.)

Stir in the onion, bell pepper, garlic, thyme, chili peppers, parsley and black pepper. Saute 3 or 4 minutes longer.

Add the water or beer, the broth and the salt.

Return the browned beef to the pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover the pot and cook about 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is just tender.

Add the carrots, kale or mustard or turnip greens, white potato, and turnip root. Cover and simmer over very low heat 1 hour longer or until the vegetables and meat are tender, stirring occasionally, adding more broth, and a sprinkling of salt, if needed.

Stir in the coconut milk and heat for another 15 or so minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve in warm, shallow soup bowls.

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