Thursday, March 28, 2013

Syndicated at BlogHer!

I am honored and proud to be syndicated over at today for the post that was originally entitled "You Are Here," a post about journaling and blogging, and about the way we think about our past and future audiences, and our future selves.  Please click over and join the conversation there!
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Featured at the PAIL Bloggers site today!

My post "Re-boiled" is being featured at the PAIL Bloggers site today.  Thanks, metholic, for extending the conversation about the pieces of our parents we see in ourselves, the pieces of ourselves we see in our children, and the ways in which we always continue to work on the people we are becoming, too.
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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Perfect Moment Monday: the Gift

On the last Monday of each month, my lovely friend Lavender Luz at Write Mind Open Heart sponsors Perfect Moment Monday, a blog hop/writing prompt that offers an opportunity to notice and reflect on the "perfect moments" in our lives, rather than create them.  These moments can be ordinary, momentous, or somewhere in between.  Everyone is welcome to join.  


When I lived in California, once every few months I'd travel from LA to San Francisco to see friends and escape the sprawl for a while.  I often did the drive at night, to avoid traffic, and I have vivid memories of driving through the San Joaquin Valley feeling a little like I was hurtling through limbo, nothing but vast dark emptiness and flat farmland for miles in every direction.

One of those nights, when I was speeding through the darkness, something changed -- maybe I was driving in a new lane, or I'd noticed a new billboard ... who knows -- and I caught a glimpse of the sky.  I was stunned.  So stunned that I had to pull over, opening the sun roof of my little blue ford Escort.  Peter Gabriel was blasting, the cold air was rushing in.  I got out, despite the trucks thundering past, and gaped in wonder.  There must have been thousands, and thousands, of stars.  I stood there weeping at the side of the freeway, grateful beyond words that I'd been given such an unspeakably beautiful gift, an epiphany of belonging, a feeling of being held by the Universe, of being one of the stars.

photo credit: Jhenline, wikimedia commons
The other night, as I was driving back home from a meeting through a rural area of the county, something about the unfamiliar light from my husband's dashboard and the cold dark around me took me back to that night in the empty darkness between LA and San Francisco.  It wasn't about the stars, because we don't see nearly as many stars in NJ.  But really, neither was that moment in California.  It was, instead, about knowing who I was, and feeling I belonged.  I'd spent the night with intelligent, kind, thoughtful, generous women, and was thinking about them, thinking about how amazing they all are, and how lucky I'd been to be there with them.  And there in the dark, I had this thought: "this is who I am when I am my best self: a clever, kind, thoughtful, warm, funny, generous, loved and loveable person, who belongs with these other women."

I had to catch my breath; it was too beautiful for words.

If only we could all feel like this all the time.  It's a little like holding the stars, isn't it?  Maybe the most important thing is to notice it, and embrace the Universe right back, when we are lucky enough to find ourselves in the presence of that kind of a gift.
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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hijacked: or, Why I'm a Better Parent When My Hand is Up a Puppet's Butt

Let's face it.  I'm not a very patient person.

Which, as you might imagine, makes having a highly intelligent, verbal, opinionated two-year-old female around you all day a bit of a challenge.

Enter the Plague Rat.

My son got the Plague Rat hand puppet as a third birthday present from his aunt, long before N. was born.  It wasn't a terribly cuddly creature, so like most of his less-beloved stuffed animals, it lived in one of several baskets, making an occasional appearance in home puppet shows.  And to be perfectly honest, we were probably a little embarrassed about it.  What good parent wants her child to become friendly with a plague rat?  Maybe we buried it a bit deeper in the basket than, say, the fluffy elephant, or the furry monkey.

And so it lived in relative anonymity, until my daughter became a curious toddler.  On one of her ransacking missions around the house, she discovered the rat.  And of course, because it's an awkward item, it quickly became her constant companion.  That's just how she is.

She calls it Mousie, which is probably a name she got from me, much as I tend to avoid the diminutive toddler-speak version of the animal kingdom.  "Mouse" is a bit less demented-sounding than "rat" when you're trying to explain that no, your adorable two-year-old is not holding a squirrel, and "Mousie" makes it sound ... almost ... cute.

Little did I know, though, when that creature made its appearance on the scene, how grateful I would be.  Because, you see, Mousie has power.

For example.

My daughter isn't much of a fan of eating.  It's not that she doesn't like to eat, so much that it doesn't really interest her like it interests me, and she wants to do everything on her own terms.  She would snack on Cheerios all day and be perfectly content.  Though she'll eat fruit and vegetables, they're not as high a priority as, say, beans.  Or meals with several different courses.  Mealtimes can be a battle.

"N., eat some more carrots."

"I don't like carrots."  (Which, for those of you playing along at home, means "I don't want them.")

"One more bite."

"No."  (Pushes plate away.)

But.  If if I put Mousie on my hand, and squeak, "N., yummy carrots!  I love them.  Eat another carrot!" my daughter will obligingly pick up the carrot, make comments about its deliciousness, and crunch away with gusto.

Or yesterday, when N. yanked her gaudy pink and purple flowered one-piece bathing suit out of her closet before you could say lickety-split and demanded to wear it RIGHT NOW.  It was barely 40 degrees outside, and though we were mostly done being outside for the day, still: it's March.  Because she was so insistent, and finally asked so sweetly, I caved.  But I also asked her to throw a zip-up sweatshirt over her shoulders.  I had to pick up my son from a play date down the block, so without something else on her under her jacket, I'd have to get her undressed and dressed again.  Not convenient.  She wasn't buying the sweatshirt.

"But N," I coaxed, "aren't you cold?"

"No," she said, certain, continuing her scantily clad dollhouse play without missing a beat.

"How about if we put on this nice pink sweatshirt?"

"No," she repeated.  "I don't like it."

I reached for Mousie, wiggling my fingers into its hands, and waved them to intervene.  "Brrr, N.," he said, shivering.  "It's cold.  Don't you want to put on your pink sweatshirt?  Ooohhhh, yesyesyesyesyes.  Sweatshirt!"

"Okay," she said, amenably, walking over to the closet and holding out her arm so that I could help her.  And then promptly threw herself into a full-body Mousie-hug.  "AWwwwwww, I love you, Mousie," she thralled.

Or today, we wanted to get the kids outside for a walk.  N. wanted to zip her own jacket, was unable to do so, and threw a fit when we zipped it for her.  She was still wailing when I put her down on the sidewalk, and Mousie squeaked "see you later, N! have fun!" from her room.  She looked up, tear mid-spurt.  I asked her what we would bring back from the farmer's market for Mousie; she ceased crying immediately, looked up at me with complete composure, and answered: "applesauce."  Then she waved to our house, telling Mousie she'd be back soon.

I'm not sure how to analyze this. There is certainly something about Mousie that both diffuses the difficult situation for me, and motivates my daughter to do my bidding.  Is it Mousie's high-pitched voice, which appeals to my daughter more, and therefore, she'll do what it tells her to do?  Is it that I am better able to rein in my anger and frustration when I'm speaking Mousieze?  Is it that a neutral figure seems less threatening and more conspiratorial than a parental authority figure?

Mousie makes me a better parent.  It's true, it's hard to scream when you're squeaking pleas in falsetto.  It's hard to be impatient and frustrated when you're concentrating more on making your movements look authentic, when you're covering your puppet-eyes with your puppet-hands in a game of "GAH I can't possibly see what I think I'm seeing."  It's hard to feel rage when your hand is covered in a mass of fur and fluff, and your two year old is gazing sweetly at you, completely in love.

And it's hard to take yourself, and the little things, too seriously when your authority--and your arm--has been hijacked by a plague rat.
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Monday, March 18, 2013


If you're a parent, you've heard the admonition that you're going to find yourself saying the same things to your children that your parents said to you.  It's hard not to.  After all, we are good students, and those lessons happen at an impressionable age.  And we see ourselves in our children, too, don't we?  Sometimes the resemblance is obvious, and sometimes less so; sometimes it's physical, and sometimes something much deeper than facial features.  Sometimes it's flattering, and there is great joy in those moments.  Sometimes, it's anything but.

Especially when we see the parts of ourselves that we struggle with (or against) emerge in our children.

My son is sort of a perfectionist.  He's been that way as long as I can remember, lining up his vehicles in lines that had to go just so, having a complete meltdown when he doesn't do something exactly right the first time.  His teacher, in a recent conference, said that she noticed this quick frustration (to the point of tears) and it worried her, to see it in a child so young.  We do the best we can to prevent this from becoming a life-long obstacle.  Being encouraging.  Telling him that practice is important.  Assuring him that the mistakes are part of the learning process, and that everyone learns at a difference pace.  

But of course, this is my nature, too.  Having things just so.  Doing everything exactly right.  Never disappointing anyone.  Making everyone happy.  Or if I'm pissing people off, doing so with full knowledge and confidence that it's my intention to do so.  And as much as I try to be reassuring, I confess that sometimes I also respond to the things that make me frustrated by expecting him to be perfect.  Why didn't you get those math problems right? You know the answers.  Why can't you bathe yourself faster?  You're a big boy, you don't need me to supervise you every minute.  And so on.  Just, of course, like my father.

I also see him react out of anger, snapping with a quick temper, rage flaring up and going off like fireworks.  Which is also the way I've reacted to bottled-up anger over the years.  Quiet, quiet, quiet, and then BANG.

It's a scary negotiation, those moments.  Because I step back and see myself with a lens that makes me uncomfortable.

The difference, though, is that I see it, and talk about it, and let him know that I'm not happy with the way I sometimes deal with anger, or disappointment, or frustration.  And we try to talk about how both of us can problem-solve better.  

A few years ago, Brene Brown wrote, in her series about imperfect parenting, about the fact that parenting is a journey that we have to walk with our kids, while also continuing to figure ourselves out.  And in some ways, having kids forces us to figure ourselves out, even if we thought we'd figured out everything already before we started family-building.  (Good for you, by the way, if you have managed to do this.)  We may want to forget about our own flaws, or our own self-work, but we can't focus on our kids without looking a little more deeply at ourselves, too.

The other thing to remember about parenting is that as much as our children do resemble us, they are also, thankfully, their own people, subject to a different set of environmental conditions, and a different co-parent (or even in single-parent homes, different adult role models).  I know that there's hope for my son, because as much as he's a perfectionist, he's also, as my husband might be, perfectly happy with hastily written homework, or half-eaten sandwiches and crumbs on the counter, or pajamas on the floor.  And he's just as apt to walk away from a situation, or let his rage go, as he is to allow it to fester and scream.  Which are good reminders for me, too.

It's sort of like ribollita.  You start with bean soup.  And you cook it forever. And it's really good bean soup.  But then, you stop cooking it, and you throw in some bread, and you cook it all over again, and now it's heartier, and stronger, and more flavorful.  That goes for them, and for us.

I ate a soup like this in a small cafe in Kingston with a friend, at the end of a long weekend training program.  It wasn't quite ribollita, even though it was listed as such on the sandwich board (perfectionist that I am, I wasn't going to point out that they'd left out the beans and the bread).  But it was the sort of thing that had been cooked forever, which is sometimes exactly the kind of soup you want.

What traits did your parents have that you see in yourself?  If you have children, which of your traits, if any, do you see in them?  How has the "reboiling" changed you?

(not exactly) Ribollita

1 T. olive oil
4 stalks of celery, diced  
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 yellow onion, diced
4 sprigs rosemary (2 T. dried)
3 sprigs fresh thyme (2 t. dried)
1 c. white wine
4 yukon gold potatoes, 1/2" cubes
15 oz. can fire roasted tomatoes
15 oz. white beans (optional) 
5 c. vegetable stock 
1 c. water 

1 bunch of kale, stems removed, leaves chopped  

Heat oil in a large stock pot over medium heat.  Add garlic, onions and celery and saute until just fragrant and beginning to become translucent.  Add rosemary and thyme, and stir until fragrant, a minute or two.  Pour in white wine, and reduce heat to medium-low; cook until the vegetables are tender.

Add potatoes and season with fresh ground pepper and sea salt.  Stir to coat.  Add tomatoes, beans (optional), vegetable broth and water and simmer on medium-low heat for 2 1/2 hours (or however long you can stand it), stirring occasionally and adding extra seasoning or water if necessary.

Remove the sprigs of herbs if they haven't disintegrated by now.  Add kale and cook until just tender and wilted, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Enjoy with a crusty white bread and the rest of your bottle of wine.
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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Self-Centered or Self-Care: Lentil, Mushroom and Sweet Potato Shepherd's Pie

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be self-centered.  It's kind of a sticky wicket, isn't it?  You're supposed to take care of yourself, and be good to yourself, but if you do too much of that, people start to look down their noses at you.  And how do you decide what you're doing for yourself, and what you're doing for someone else, even if it fulfills you?

For example.

I know someone who dedicated 40 years of her life to teaching in public school and raising her children.  She paid her dues.  And now she does the things that she wants to do: going to the YMCA, meeting friends for lunch, watching TV, helping out with a project at church.  When you talk with her, she talks mostly about these things.  Is that self-centered?  Or well-deserved self-care?

And there are times I think that maybe *I'm* self-centered.  I'm at home with N., but most days I go to the Y in the morning after the morning routine and playtime, and N. plays in Child Watch for an hour while I go sweat.  We come home, I feed N. lunch, and she takes an hour long nap, during which I get to shower.  In the afternoon, we do something ... sometimes a walk, or an errand, or on rainy days, we draw and do puzzles.  Then there's picking I. up from the bus, and managing homework time trying to keep her entertained, and dinner.  At night, I am out at a meeting sometimes three nights a week.  Board of Education, the Board of the Friends of the Library, a meeting for church.  Sometimes I go to yoga.  Less often I go out to a discussion group.  I feel guilty about going to yoga or to other events, because I feel like I am already so self-centered.

Not making my own salary has a lot to do with this worry, I know.  I buy some expensive tea, or a book, and I feel like I have taken without giving back.  Like I've tipped the balance of the Universe in favor of MEMEME.
I made this recipe even though my family isn't vegan, even though my husband really likes meat, even though I knew my kids probably wouldn't like it (and that N. probably wouldn't eat it at all).  Is THAT self-centered?  (I also made another version of it, which I will post later this week, which my son DID eat ... for breakfast.  Maybe it's a matter of simply winning people over to doing what I want them to do in order to get around the problem of being self-centered?)

Lentil, Mushroom, and Sweet Potato Shepherd's Pie
Adapted from the kitchn

5 medium sweet potatoes
1 c. green lentils, washed and picked over
3/4 c. uncooked steel cut oats
1 bay leaf
1 t. salt
1 T. olive oil
1/2 lb. white mushrooms, quartered
1/2 lb. white mushrooms, diced
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
3/4 c. low-sodium vegetable broth
1/4 c. red wine
1 T. tomato paste
1 T. soy sauce
2 t. smoked paprika

Preheat the oven to 400°F.  Wash sweet potatoes well and prick them a few times with a fork to prevent explosions.  Bake the potatoes for about an hour, or until they just about collapse when you try to pick them up with your potholder.  Set aside.

Place lentils, oats, bay leaf, salt and 5 cups of water in a medium saucepan, and bring to a boil.  Lower heat and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, for 15-20 minutes or until lentils are just done, and no longer crunchy. Remove bay leaf and drain the mixture, trying not to eat too much of it before you add the other ingredients.

Add the olive oil to a large saucepan and heat over medium-high heat.  Saute the quartered mushrooms with a pinch of salt until tender and just beginning to brown, about 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add the remaining vegetables and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until they are softened.  Reduce the heat to medium-low nad add the lentil mixture and additional seasonings.  Simmer for 5 minutes, adjusting seasonings to your taste if necessary. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Peel the potatoes (this should be very easy; just grab one end of the skin and the rest should fall out) and mash into a medium bowl.  Season with salt and pepper.  

Pour the the lentil mixture into a 9x9-inch pan and cover with the mashed sweet potatoes. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the lentil mixture is bubbly at the edges.  Cool 5 minutes and serve.
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Friday, March 8, 2013

On the Village: Parsnip Collard Soup

Today we had a delayed opening for my son's school.  One of the mothers from down the street called me to ask if she could drop her son off here, because she had to get to work.  And I reassured her that yes, of course, that was fine, any time she needed to do so ... because I remember those days, those days of complete panic because neither parent could afford to be late for work, which was never closed.  She thanked me profusely, and mentioned to me that she's collecting a bag of clothes for N., hand me downs from her four year old daughter.  We've been trading hand-me-downs; I gave her a bag for herself the other day, things from my closet that I knew would look better on her.  I'm loving this give and take.  It feels like we're realigning the balance of the universe.

In a sane moment while the kids were all playing with Magformers in the living room, where I could see and hear them, I shoveled our walkway and sidewalk, so that no one would slip and damage themselves on their way to the bus stop later.  I ran into our neighbor, who was leaving her house, looking worried, promising me that her boyfriend would get to the shoveling later, that she couldn't do it because she'd pulled some muscles and possibly cracked a rib the other day.  I told her not to worry, that I could easily clear her sidewalk and path to the house when I had a few more minutes, once the boys were on the bus and I had only N. to watch.  She looked doubtful, but I did it anyway.  Because it was the right thing to do.  And now there will be one less property for the kids to slip in on their walk home from the bus.  I suspect that some day, she will take in my garbage cans, or pick up the recycling that the wind blew all over my back yard.

Yesterday I dropped a huge box and two bags of books off at the library.  I've talked before about my love affair with books, and how hard it is for me to part with them, but the truth is that, looking at my bookshelves, I decided I just didn't need them.  Some of them were from my first graduate school career, some were from the early days when I thought I could learn parenting from a book.  Some were novels I knew I'd never read again.  And it was good to give them away.  Someone else could use them.  And I've picked up my share of discards.

I did the same thing with my closet, clearing out two bags of clothes, and even my jewelry box, giving away things that I didn't need to two friends from church.  And told them that I wouldn't be offended if they needed to pass things along, or bring them to the next clothing swap.

The other day I brought a meal to a family; the mother had been sledding with her children and fell, suffering a severe concussion that has left her with some memory loss, vision issues, and headaches.  She wrote a very sweet note to me, thankful for the meal, and hoping that some day she could return the favor.  I wrote back that it was my pleasure, and that the real return would be her getting better.  I think back to all of the meals that people brought me when N. was born, and I know what a gift that was.

I'm not a do-gooder, nor am I looking for congratulations or compliments.  I'm not even a very nice person all of the time.  I yell at my kids.  I say mean things about the neighbor who leaves 20 bags of trash for the garbage truck week after week because he's too cheap to get a dumpster for his remodeling project.  And on the flip side, I've been on the receiving end of generosity plenty of times, too.  But I've been thinking that I really wish the world were more this way, more like a neighborhood where people didn't take more than they needed, where they gave things to neighbors who could use them, where they watched each other's children at a moment's notice not because they had a prearranged co-op (which, don't get me wrong, is great too) but because sometimes it's hard to do everything.  Where we were willing to understand each other, and look out for each other, even if we didn't feel like being nice all of the time.

I like this soup because it's a little bit of everything: smoky, sweet, spicy, smooth, chunky.  Sort of like I wish we were, too.

How have you experienced the give and take of the village?

Parsnip Collard Soup
Adapted from Jan's Sushi Bar

2 T. extra virgin olive oil
2/3 c. onion, diced
1/2 c. celery, diced
1/2 c. red bell pepper, diced
1/2 t. ground coriander
3/4 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. smoked paprika
1 t. chili powder
3/4 lb. parsnips, peeled and cut into large chunks
3 c. water, divided
1 1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. pepper
4 c. collards or kale, coarsely chopped
1 ham hock (optional; if you prefer a vegan soup, add 1 can of beans and an extra 1/2 t. smoked paprika)
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a medium soup pot. Saute the onions, celery and red bell pepper for about 3 minutes, until the onions begin to become translucent.  Add spices and saute for a minute or two, until fragrant.  Add 2 c. of water and the parsnips and ham hock; cover and reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the parsnips fall apart when you poke them, about 10 minutes.
Remove the soup from heat and blend in a food processor or with an immersion blender until you've reached the desired consistence.  Add the greens and the remaining water (and beans if you're doing the vegan version) and return the mixture to the pot; cover and simmer until the greens are tender.  Season to taste and serve.
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Monday, March 4, 2013

On the Hand-written Letter, and Roasted Cauliflower and Sweet Potato Soup

My husband bought a Kindle not long ago.  He loves it, and reads most of his books that way now.  I, on the other hand, use it only when necessary and expedient.

I'm a book person.  You know -- the kind of person who flips slowly through the paper, drinking in the heady smell of the freshly turned page.  I love the feel and the weight of a book: I appreciate a smooth matte jacket, and I appreciate knowing both how far I've come and how far I have to go, just by eyeballing the location of my bookmark.  But honestly, much as I work diligently not to contribute to massive deforestation, I'm probably just a paper person in general.  At meetings for local civic groups, I find myself printing out e-packets just so I can write in the margins and spread them out all over the table.  The leaves take up space and overlap and rustle in a satisfying way that electronic media simply can't.  I love the three dimensionality of it, the completeness of the sensory experience.  And there's less and less of that in my life these days.

In addition to keeping a paper journal, I also used to write letters.  They were long, lovely, thoughtful affairs, written with the epistolary novel in mind, I think; I even had--and still have--a fountain pen and a wax seal to complete the romantic authenticity.  I had several friends with whom I corresponded in this way, and I've saved many of their letters from those years, imagining some day a relative would find them and be able to mine my past from the perspective of another person.  (I don't know why, but I felt more comfortable about this possibility than I feel about having my email read somewhere in the future.  Why is that, I wonder?)

The other day, after I'd responded to a of hers comment on my blog post, a friend of mine promised a letter.  She is an excellent letter writer (an excellent writer in general, but it is its own genre), and every once in a while, when she feels frustrated by the internet, or when it seems like it's simply not enough, she writes to me.  I usually write back, and sometimes there are three or four letters before we lapse back into electronic communication.

It's been a while since we'd done this, and I when I got her letter, I went to respond, only to discover that I no longer had a single sheet of stationery in my house.  It was depressing.  Good letters are more than words; they are works of art, unique because of the paper you've chosen to write them on, the vulnerability of the author's handwriting.  They're an important genre, a little window onto the soul that I'm not sure is the same in a published blog post.

I carefully tore a few pages out of one of my journals, and while my vegetables roasted for soup, penned a response, which may even have smelled just a little bit like garam masala and cauliflower and sweet potato.  And I determined to go stationery shopping in the not-too-distant future.  Because some art forms are too important to lose.

Did you ever write letters, and do you still do so?  If you received letters, have you saved them over the years?  How would you feel about having your email read some day, and archived in the same way that some writers preserved their letters?  Do you feel like reading someone's handwritten correspondence is the same as reading their email correspondence?

Roasted Sweet Potato and Cauliflower Soup
adapted from Isn't That Sew

3 large sweet potatoes, 1" cubes
1 head cauliflower, cut into small florets
4 large carrots, cut into 1" rounds
2 T. olive oil
2 t. garam masala
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil
4 cups vegetable stock
5 cups water

Preheat the oven to 400.  Toss sweet potatoes, cauliflower and carrots in a large bowl with garam masala and olive oil.  Place on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil or parchment.

Roast vegetables for 30 minutes or until just beginning to brown checking every ten minutes or so to stir, loosening the vegetables from the bottom of the sheet and avoid burning.  Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

In a large stock pot, saute onions and olive oil until just translucent, about 3-5 minutes.  Add garlic and saute one minute.  Add broth, water, and roatsed vegetables, and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are very tender.  Using an immersion blender, blend the remaining ingredients until smooth.  (Add more water at this point if you like your soup less thick.)

Serve topped with toasted pepitas, or if you prefer, a swirl of heavy cream.
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