Soup-er Simple: My top 6 soup spices

I reached a point last year where my spice cabinet was overflowing with bottles and packets, and I knew I had to pare down. So I asked myself, what spices do I really use and love? When making soups (my specialty) I rely almost entirely on the following set of dried herbs and spices. I would recommend this set to any home cook who is building out – or paring down – their spice cabinet.


Five-spice powder – This is my mainstay for winter soups, especially anything based around sweet potatoes, squash, beef, or lamb. The blend of cinnamon, fennel seed, cloves, star anise, and white pepper imparts a rich, earthy sweetness to the soup. Be judicious with this powder – a little goes a long way.

Curry powder – A boring soup can be turned into a delightful curried concoction in a flash with the addition of a good curry powder. Different curry powders have different blends of ingredients and different spiciness levels, so you may need to try a few to find your favorite. Add a few tablespoons to the pot along with any vegetables you are simmering, a minute or two before adding in the soup liquid (stock, water, etc.) so the powder can “toast” and develop its flavor.

Cayenne pepper – A tiny shake of cayenne adds kick to all types of soups and enhances the natural flavor of the ingredients. Adding heat is also a great way to reduce sodium in your soups – believe me, you won’t miss the salt if your tongue is tantalized by capsaicin!

Thyme – Thyme lends brightness and grassiness to lighter summer soups. Add a few generous shakes of the dried spice, or throw in several whole sprigs of fresh thyme (and remove the stems later).

Bay Leaves – A single bay leaf lends aroma and depth to an entire pot of soup or stew. I throw one in to almost every soup I make! Toss it in at the beginning, once you add the liquid – it should simmer the whole time the pot is cooking. Pick it out before consuming.

Turmeric – It took me awhile to develop a taste for the flavor of turmeric on its own, but it’s really, really healthy, and easily disguised in hearty soups. Thus, turmeric is on the list mainly for health reasons! Add extra to curried soups, or toss some in with a beef stew, minestrone, or chili.

Honorable mentions: Salt & Pepper – Obviously salt is a requirement to bring out the flavor of the soup ingredients. But don’t overdo it, and remember that stocks, broths, and canned goods (tomatoes, beans, etc.) often already have a lot of sodium included. Black pepper, if used, should be freshly ground on top of the individual bowl, since it’s flavor gets lost when you stir it into the large cooking pot.

Do you agree with my list? What spices are your mainstays for soups and stews?

Guide to my 5-month-old’s night-time wake-ups

All moms know that enduring unpredictable night wakings is one of the biggest challenges of rearing offspring. On a whim, I created this chart to explain the wildly different thoughts running through my head based on on the time of night my sweet daughter wakes up. Enjoy! And please excuse the cursing – my brain loses its filter between 5 and 6 am.


Insect photography with the iPhone

The iPhone is a great tool for insect photography due to the quick shutter speed and excellent close-up/macro focus ability. Here are a few photos I’ve taken. I’m thrilled with the gorgeous detail – insects are so beautiful! Click on an image to see a larger version.


Photos have been edited with Instagram. Photo credit: Julie MacCartee.

Soup-er Simple October delight: Puréed sweet potato, apple, and chickpea soup

It’s October, which means it’s time for pumpkin spice lattés, apple picking, and the re-emergence of comforting fall soups. I threw this simple soup together last night with a few basic ingredients, and my husband and I loved the result. So I thought I’d share!

This soup really couldn’t be much easier. It’s quick to prepare and doesn’t require a single perishable ingredient from the refrigerator. It’s a great way to use up mealy apples that have gone slightly past their prime. Serve it as an appetizer at a dinner party, or enjoy it for lunch in your house while wearing your favorite sweatshirt and slippers.

October sweet potato, apple, and chickpea soup

Vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free. Recipe makes about 8 servings.

1  large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 very large or 3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 apples, cored and cubed (leave skin on)
1 15-oz can chickpeas (or white beans)
1 box of veggie broth/stock, or water
Five spice powder (add to taste, ~1.5 tbsp)
Cinnamon (add to taste, ~1 tsp)
safflower oil or another high-heat oil (~2 tbsp)
olive oil or coconut oil (2-3 tbsp) (I always add some healthy fat to my soups to make them more savory and satiating)
salt (add to taste)

Cook time: 20 minutes

Add some high-heat oil to a large stainless steel pot, and turn heat up to medium. Add the chopped onion and a sprinkle of salt; cook until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer. Add the cubed sweet potato and apple, pour in some vegetable stock/broth or water to barely cover the ingredients, and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the ingredients are soft and mushy. Rinse the chickpeas and add them to the pot. Add the olive oil or coconut oil, cinnamon, and five spice powder. Cover and cook for another five minutes to allow chickpeas to soften.


Purée the soup by using a hand blender directly in the pot (by far the easiest way!) or by transferring the soup to a blender or food processor. Add salt or additional spices to taste.


Aflatoxin infographics: Making a complex issue more digestible

Aflatoxin – a naturally-occurring toxin produced by a fungus that infects certain crops – is getting a lot of attention right now in the agricultural development sphere.

I worked with a small team of USAID staff and implementing partners to develop an infographic on aflatoxin. Our goal was to create an eye-catching one-pager that conveys some core messages: 1) Aflatoxin is bad for human health; 2) Aflatoxin has global economic consequences; 3) Aflatoxin is a common/widespread problem; and 4) We can do something about it! This infographic has been shared with a variety of audiences to help spark interest in the topic and elevate it as a priority in international development.

Click on the image to view a larger version:

For another take on an aflatoxin infographic, here is a nice, concise image from the International Livestock Research Institute:

ILRI aflatoxin infographic

A face-to-face conversation, half a world apart

A few weeks ago, I stepped into a large gold-colored box stationed on Woodrow Wilson Plaza in Washington, DC, and came face-to-face with a young man from Afghanistan. We stood about the same height, about ten feet from one another, yet we couldn’t shake hands – because the man was actually standing in Herat, Afghanistan, in a similar box in a similar public square. We were two participants in Amar Bakshi’s art installation of “Portals” that connect people around the globe for short conversations.

For better for for worse, I happened to sign up for a portal time slot when PBS was doing interviews. I agreed to let them film my conversation and ask me a few questions afterwards. Because I knew any portion of my conversation might wind up on TV, I had a hard time relaxing and felt somewhat hindered in the topics I could broach. But I still enjoyed meeting my Afghan counterpart, who was interested in becoming a doctor. We talked about med school, public health, food, and sports.

Interested in the short PBS News Hour piece on the project? Watch the video below. My entry begins at 2:20. It’s always a weird feeling to watch myself on camera!


Here’s a transcript of my portion of the video. I am “WOMAN”:

WOMAN (ME): Yes, what do you eat typically?

MAN: Red meat, chicken or something like that.

AMAR BAKSHI: And that, I think, is powerful in itself for people.

WOMAN (ME): I had actually planned to maybe talk about some maybe more in- depth, tough questions.

MAN: Do you live in Washington, D.C.?

WOMAN (ME): But when you’re kind of faced in just that short moment of someone you haven’t met, it’s difficult to dive right into the meaty, kind of controversial, tough questions.

AMAR BAKSHI: People can go in there and chitchat about the weather. And often they do, because it’s hot here and there.



AMAR BAKSHI: But they can also go in and talk about — and they do — marriage, online dating, you know, freedoms, war, loss.

KHALED SALAR: Life has really changed in Afghanistan, and everything has had a really big impact on our lives. Learning about a country or a culture through TV or media is really hard, but getting to know people and getting to talk to them in person is — it’s much more effective.

PREETI PARULEKAR: For a lot of people here, sometimes, you can feel very conflicted about to what extent did we play a role in causing that?

It was a really good experience. It was really interesting to hear kind of about his life and his perceptions of the U.S. and kind of to get a feel for a real person living in Afghanistan.

MAN: And what is your favorite sport?

WOMAN (ME): I wasn’t disappointed that we talked about some of the lighter stuff, because a lot of times that’s what you actually talk to people about in daily life. I think the value in this experience is just having that moment with someone partway across the world that you absolutely wouldn’t meet otherwise.

And I think it tells you that every human on the planet has something to connect around. And so it was a pleasure to get to talk to someone that I otherwise wouldn’t meet and make that small connection, even just for a moment, to start off my day.

My friend won 3rd place in the Bethesda short story contest!

The annual Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership short story contest winners have been announced, and I am excited to say that a very dear friend of mine has won third place! Heather and I have been part of a mini writing group for the past few years. While I fail on a regular basis to submit stories to the group, Heather reliably sends multiple pages of prose on the last day of every month. I am so impressed by her talent and her commitment to creative writing as an outlet amid a busy family life. If you’re looking for an interesting post-apocalyptic story to read, look no further!


by Heather Sisan

It’s been exactly eight days and 13 hours since Bram went out on patrol. I can’t help keeping the morbid tally, not to mention startling every time the intercom crackles. The whole community gets on edge when a patrol doesn’t come back. Even though we’ve all lost so many loved ones—no one’s ever safe—it still feels like we can’t bear another loss.

I don’t think it was fair of them to send him, not when I’m this close. As of yesterday morning, I’m officially 38 weeks—the 38 longest weeks of my life—and it could happen any time now. Mig read that first babies are usually late, which comforts me. I’m scared to death, if you want to know the truth; I don’t want it to happen, and I don’t want to go on being pregnant. I just wish, most of the time, that I could get out of my skin and be someone else.

Some more numbers, to put things in perspective. The community is 235 people, including about 40 children and teenagers, which includes me. It’s in what used to be upstate New York, used to be rolling pastures full of dairy cows, the kind of scene they printed on cartons of organic milk. No one would put our landscape on a carton now. The wind stirs up massive dust storms from the ravines and hillsides and clatters in the bare branches of the trees. There is an ethereal beauty to this kind of scenery, some people claim. The land is stripped clean, right down to its bones. At 15, I’m old enough to remember what Earth was like when it was green, when there were such things as birds, when rain didn’t pit and corrode the dome shields over the colony. Some of the youngest kids don’t know any different.

It’s the third shift and I’m falling asleep in my chair. I heave myself up, feeling the weight settle down hard like a bowling ball against the bones of my pelvis, my knees aching in protest, and start pacing back and forth. Across the room, Laner is scribbling in his notebook. It’s still about two hours before dawn.

“Go on home if you want, Jace,” he says without looking at me. “You don’t need to be here.”

“I’m OK,” I say. “It’s only another couple hours anyway.” The irony is that I can almost doze off in that chair, but as soon as I lie down on a bed I’ll be wide awake and fighting off a panic attack, my mind churning with what might have happened to Bram. With what could soon happen to me.

click here to keep reading!

Kindling knowledge exchange without bandwidth: An interview with Peace Corps volunteer Ryan King

I enjoyed the opportunity to practice my on-camera interview skills for the latest entry in the Agrilinks “KM Insights” video series. (Two lessons learned: curb the instinct to blink, and don’t wear orange pants!) Watch the video below to get the scoop on Peace Corps Ethiopia’s strategies for supplying its volunteers with the information they need to run agricultural projects.

This post is cross-posted from Agrilinks.

Most agricultural development practitioners—certainly, those based in major cities—rely on the Internet for daily knowledge exchange. There is no faster way to obtain new technical reports, join training webinars and conduct research than to use your favorite browser and a trusty broadband connection. But what about project implementers who are stationed in remote locations for more than a week or two? For example, many Peace Corps volunteers serve in small villages without reliable electricity or Internet bandwidth. How can they obtain the information they need to do their jobs well?

Ryan King, a Peace Corps volunteer leader serving in Ethiopia, and I discussed these challenges and honed in on a few good practices in a recent Agrilinks “KM Insights” interview, which you can watch above. He manages projects that support Feed the Future’s objectives, such as volunteer efforts to build productive household gardens, alleviate environmental degradation and educate communities about nutrition. To succeed in these projects, Peace Corps volunteers need to be able to access the best available information on low-cost technologies that can be employed at a household scale. However, as Ryan noted, getting information to volunteers is a constant struggle due to lack of connectivity.

As a step toward simpler information distribution, Peace Corps Ethiopia has equipped many of its volunteers with basic Amazon Kindle e-readers, which are refreshed with updated reports and briefs when volunteers return to post. Ryan explained that volunteers used to be sent to their sites with “a suitcase full of books” for reference, but now, nearly all of those volumes can be stored on a single hand-held device with a long battery life.

Ryan and I also discussed the value of video as a training medium for smallholder farmers, and the need for alternatives to online streaming in low-bandwidth areas. Open-access videos are preferable because volunteers can transfer them to DVD and give copies to their communities. In addition, audio transcripts are useful complements to video products, especially when translated into local languages.

Watch the full video for more of Ryan’s insights, and please share your experiences with low-bandwidth knowledge sharing in the comments section below.