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Mariella’s Cod Soup

In hard times, it’s important to spend time doing restorative things. Often in my life, I have cooked my way through crises. The beautiful colors and textures and smells of fresh foods; the satisfaction of chopping, stirring, tasting, and adjusting; and the pleasure of turning out a good meal for self and others is all truly restorative for me.

Yesterday, I got out an old recipe—maybe this has to do with a particular desire I have right now to be younger and healthier, but whatever the reason I had a craving for a meal I learned to make from a friend many years ago when I had just graduated from college and was working as a waitress in St. Paul, Minnesota, while I tried to figure out what to do with my life. My future was very uncertain, though in different ways than it is now.

Mariella, Marla for short, was a fellow waitress with me at the Minnesota Museum of American Art restaurant. This had been the closest I could come to a job in the arts, and although it wasn’t what I had in mind I still think more fondly of the experience than of most of the other jobs I’ve had in my life. Soile, the head chef, ran the place with European standards and attitudes, and the food was indeed something to be proud of. Before a shift would begin, Soile would make sure we had all tasted each new dish on offer. And after a long day, Soile would make sure that we all sat down and had a sumptuous meal of our own together. Mariella was a Finnish housewife and friend of Soile’s who sometimes waited tables, and she laughed like no one else I knew.

Once when we were serving a dinner to a large contingent of the Finnish American Society, the patrons kept mistaking blonde, broad-faced me for a Finn and chattering away to me in a language I didn’t understand. I asked Marla what to do, and she said, “Just go and pour more wine! All will be well!” And it was.

This soup, a version of which we sometimes served at the restaurant, reminds me of the little bit I learned about Finland from working with these wonderful women and occasionally serving those banquets to the Finnish American Society. It is healthful and piquant, basic and elegant all at once, friendly but surprising, and light in spirit as well as on the palate.

Here’s to Mariella’s Cod Soup and to the many warm and uproarious laughs we had in the cold, Minnesota air as we walked back to our cars–or in my case, the bus stop–after shifts at the restaurant. I hope she is still such a happy lady today, still sharing the genuine and simple joys with people in her life.

Cod Soup (Aseljanka or Seljanka)

1 lb. cod (fresh if you can get it, but frozen will do)
1 leek, sliced (or equivalent green onions)
2 T. butter (olive oil is fine)
1 1/2 qts. (6 c.) beef or fish broth
1 big tomato, diced
1-2 dill pickles, diced
2 c. diced, boiled potatoes (optional)
1 T. capers
1 bay leaf
dill, whole allspice, salt, and pepper to taste
(if you use canned broth, don’t add any more salt)
For serving–fresh dill, lemon slices, and sliced olives (green or black)

Brown the leek in the butter (or oil). Add tomatoes and broth. Let it come to a boil. Add fish, pickles, and spices. Cook about 15-20 minutes.

If you like it heartier, cook 2 c. diced potatoes separately, and then use the water as part of the liquid. Add with the tomatoes and broth for a total of 6 c. liquid.

(Sprinkle with fresh dill, add some olive slices and lemon slices. I usually also squeeze a quarter of lemon over each bowl for more lemon flavor.)