Last Friday evening, it was like a geyser of anger exploded through the floorboards of my house. An onlooker from the street might have seen jets of pressurized steam, shooting out the windows, my house like an under-funded rocket, the gutters ripping off as it thundered and clattered, the poor astronaut's family inside, about to lift off on an unplanned mission into the Maine stratosphere. After the rupturing finally subsided, I sat down on my bed, thinking, I need a cooking session. I've come to rely on cooking sessions with immigrants not just for cooking inspiration, but life perspective. Clearly, I needed some. Fortunately, a friend from book group had introduced me to her colleague, a Bulgarian-American therapist by the name of Svetla Popova, and we had plans to cook together the next morning.
I took exit 5B, made a couple turns, and there was her house: white, simple, and unadorned, except for fallen, still-colorful fall leaves. She welcomed me into her kitchen and started showing me how she makes her favorite Bulgarian bean soup and an easy version of spanakopita, made with layered flour tortillas instead of filo dough. She put previously soaked kidney beans in a pot, then water, then circles of carrot, diced onion and celery, green pepper, and a heaping tablespoon of paprika. The pot looked like it had some sort of special lid and handle, so I asked her about it. It was a pressure cooker, something I'd never used before.
She explained how it works. With the lid clamped down, the pressure inside increases and so the boiling temperature of water decreases. The beans cook four times faster than it would take in a regular pot. With a little prep, the soup only took 20 minutes to cook. In the middle of the lid, there's a hole the size of a toothpick, and on top of that, a safety valve, a heavy piece of metal that hisses and rattles, managing the pressure appropriately. "It talks," she says. "It's like counseling. You talk, you release the pressure. If you don't, it's all closed up and it will become a bomb, the anger that has not been released, and everybody suffers."
Had she walked by my house last night? Over lunch, a delicious combination of warm, balanced soup with flecks of fresh spearmint from the backyard and garlic thrown in at the last minute, paired with toasty, layered feta and greens, we talked through some stuff. By the afternoon, filled with new perspective and the healing powers of a good homemade meal, I felt like a new person. For anyone who'd like peace restored to their house, I highly recommend Svetla's counseling, making her soup, or both. They worked for me.
For the recipes or to sign up for the author's cooking class (authentic Cambodian $15, Nov 6), Google "Inside Immigrant Kitchens," or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.