Meatless Monday: Life in the Fast Lane

We are midway through Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holiday marked by fasting -- no food or drink from dawn till sunset. The fasting, mandated in the Koran, is not for punishment. It is a cleanse, but a natural one. It does not involve shelling out bucks for powdered, unpalatable mixes of mystery ingredients. Fasting at Ramadan is said to encourage virtue, self-control and mindfulness, a few things we could all do with more of, regardless of religious beliefs.

Ramadan is a time to pledge anew your faith and in so doing, refocus. It changes the rhythm (or rut) of life. Many Muslims read or listen to the entire Koran during the month. It's a time of returning to what's important -- yourself, your family, and a spiritual dimension that exists even in our own fast food nation. We could all do with more of that, too.

Despite all we know about the health risks of fast food, fifty million Americans eat it regularly, contributing to a $170 billion industry. That's up $60 billion from when Eric Schlosser stunned us all with his 2001 book Fast Food Nation. And we top the charts for global obesity We're #1. Whoopee.

There's a correlation in America between higher obesity rates, cheaper food and lower income. However, cheap eats need not be fast food. Harira, Morocco's traditional soup served at Isfar, or the Ramadan break fast at sunset, is nourishing, cheap and feeds a family for days.

Soup may not be your first choice now, when it's in the 90s, but after a day of fasting -- or any kind of challenge -- harira is simple, soothing, sustaining, just what your body craves. It's warming by way of cumin and turmeric, but not hot. Every family makes their own version, some made elegant (and more expensive) with saffron or ras en hanout, a blend of up to two dozen spices and botanicals. I've seen recipes with lamb, with chicken, with eggs. I make a plant-based pot of it.

Harira's variations are endless, governed only by personal taste and availability of fresh ingredients. Seasonal and local is not a new concept. For centuries, that's all anyone knew. Harira's only must is the addition of yeast or a bit of bread dough, stirred in at the end. It's traditional and gives the soup some oomph and thickness and a mild fermenty kick.

Even Morocco isn't exempt from fast food. The walled city of Meknes, founded in the eighth century, now boasts a McDonald's. Still, at Isfar, people don't line up at Mickey D's, they ladle up harira. It doesn't take long to make, but it's not fast food by any stretch of the imagination. It's an age-old comfort food, and its age and connection to the ages is part of what makes it so comforting.

Every culture has food like this, something beloved, sacred, soothing. This is food that sustain the body because it's made with ingredients that tend toward the humble but are whole, nutritious and recognizable. It sustains the soul because it has a rich cultural and culinary history. It connects us to our past and to each other. This is the real meaning of soul food. It's food that's meant to be shared, that lets us know we're not alone in the universe.

You don't have to be Muslim to be mindful. And you don't have to be Moroccan to love harira.

Vegan Harira

For even more (!) about harira and why I love it, check out my blog Edgy Veggie.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric
3 zucchini or yellow squash or a combination, chopped
2 red peppers, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 28-ounce box diced tomatoes or 2 pounds gorgeous ripe tomatoes
1 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
6 cups vegetable broth
1 pinch saffron or ras en hanout (optional but very nice)
1 small handful whole wheat vermicelli or angel hair, broken into pieces
1 tablespoon yeast dissolved in 1/4 cup warm vegetable broth or water
juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1 handful fresh cilantro, chopped
extra lemon wedges for serving, if desired

In a large stock pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and turmeric. Saute a few minutes, until onion softens and turns golden. Add chopped squash, red pepper and celery.

Continue cooking, stirring often, for another 5 minutes.

Stir in tomatoes, chickpeas and broth. Reduce heat to medium-low and let harira simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes to an hour.

Add broken noodles and dissolved yeast. Squeeze in the lemon juice. Season with sea salt and pepper. Stir in chopped cilantro just before serving. 
Serve with extra lemon wedges if desired.

Serves 8.