Mario’s Yam Soup

Yams were $0.79/pound yesterday in my grocery store, which must mean that they are coming into season. And now it’s September (how can this be!?). As soon as the air is a little cooler at night and you start to see the leaves turning color or falling – here and there they are doing that already in Virginia! – it’s time to think about the fall recipes.

Yam soup is one of my favorites. I first had it a few years ago when Mario, the “Villa Lunch” chef at the hotel where I worked, included it in his buffet. This is Mario in his glory. It was a nice hotel.


Unlike most cooks, Mario was out on the floor daily. He made all the food for Villa Lunch starting at 7am, then came upstairs with it at noon and personally sliced the meat and spooned the sides onto the plates of very happy guests. He is talented, personable, kind and funny – absolutely perfect for this job. He often made up a plate for me as he was breaking down the buffet table around 2pm. It would include whatever I wanted from that day’s items, quite a nice perk! He knows how much the guests loved him from the stack of comment cards collected over the years that sing his praises. I hope he takes those out of his desk and reads them now and then.

Mario’s yam soup was a guest favorite – out-of-this-world flavor, but so simple. If you were preparing lunch for 40-50 people every day including a soup, a salad, a main dish (and associated sauce or accompaniment) and two hot sides, various cold salads and a cheese and charcuterie board, and you had a total of five hours to get everything ready, you would keep it simple too.

I posted this recipe on July 19 (in The Cookbook Comes Out). Here it is again. Now’s the time to make it.

Mario's yam soup

You might want to divide all the ingredients in half (and if you want to use three yams instead of two and a half, it won’t hurt anything). This recipe as it is makes a lot of soup. It freezes very well and I have always made it in this quantity, but you need a big pot. A really big pot. To get an idea if my regular Dutch oven would be big enough, I put the yams and onions in it, whole, and then tried to imagine having to add the oil, wine and a gallon of water. I don’t think so.

onions and yams in pot2.jpg

I had to bring out my big pot. It’s considerably bigger than my Dutch oven, bigger than I really need, but better to have more room in the pot than a quantity that is unwieldy at best and possibly might even spill over. My big pot is this big compared to my Dutch oven. It worked.


A pot midway in size between these two would have been perfect.

Having settled on the right pot, I started chopping. Those of you who are very sharp might have noticed that there are more than 5 onions in my pot in the photo above. Isn’t that the thing about recipes? They tell you 5 onions but not necessarily how big the onions are supposed to be.

I have Mario’s onions in my mind, the huge ones I saw him cutting up when he was making this soup. My onions are not huge. They are from my garden so I love them, but they are on the small side, so I used seven instead of five. Mario might have used ten of this size, but I’m going with seven. That’s the thing about onions. It doesn’t matter that much how many – more gives a stronger onion flavor, fewer gives not as strong an onion flavor. Your call.

(The yams look redder in this photo than they are.)

onions and yams on counter.jpg

I put the cup of olive oil in the pot, turned the flame on low, and proceeded to chop up and add the onions to the oil. My onions were chopped like this. I chop them on a separate board – always have, this particular board for decades actually – because as much as I love onions, I don’t want their flavor/odor getting into the wood of my countertop and I don’t want the thing I cut up later (let’s say, watermelon) to pick up any of that flavor. It’s a small price to pay for the joy of chopping on a wooden surface.

chopped onion.jpg

The onions in the oil are a thing of beauty.

onions inpot.jpg

There are two ways to peel a yam. One way is with a peeler and the other is with a knife. The peeler works only if you have a good peeler. Even then, it is simply a matter of preference.

peeling yam2 (2).jpg

When it is peeled and the end is cut off, it looks like this.

peeled yam.jpg

I find it easier to slice it into thick wheels first, and then cut off the edges. For this I use my 10” chef’s knife. First make slices about ¾” thick.


Then, either in a small stack…

cutting sides off a stack (2).jpg

…or one by one, cut the edges off.

cutting sides off (2).jpg

Then cut them into cubes…

cubed yams2.jpg

… and put them in with the onions.

onions and yams in pot.jpg

I turned it down to low and put a cover on to let this all soften. About 20 minutes went by before I remembered the wine. White wine, the recipe says. Talk about UN-EXACT! I guessed at a chardonnay. It also happened to be the first thing I pulled from my fridge. Chardonnay will work, I decided. Pollak is a local Virginia wine and a very nice vineyard to visit if you are in the area.


In went the wine and again I covered the pot, this time forgetting the water! Not the end of the world, she says ten minutes later. The veggies had already cooked down a bit, were not quite mushy but getting there. In went the gallon of water. It seems less formidable if you just fill and dump your quart-size measure four times. Then it looks like this.

cooking with water.jpg

And in half an hour it looked like this.


That’s when I turned it off and let it cool. You don’t have to let it cool before the next step, but I was going out to read to Evelyn (we are almost to the end of the Queen Victoria book!) so I left it.

There would be two ways to “just blend it,” as the recipe says. God bless him, Mario means blend as in blender, electric blender, and there are two of those: the traditional stand-up blender and the immersible kind. Let’s try both, and see.

I put some in a bowl, thinking I had a big/tall enough bowl for the immersion blender. Wrong. It made a splashy mess and did not puree the veggies as I wanted. Reject this method.

immersion2 (2).jpg

I got out the tried-and-true blender that has to be 25 years old, filled it about halfway,


put the lid on tight and hit Puree. I let it do its thing, whirring, chopping, pureeing at high speed for ten seconds. Ten seconds means me counting to ten as in one, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand….


Don’t you love that word: Voila!


It was enough. I transferred each blender-full of the now-pureed, almost-soup to the regular size Dutch oven. Fill, puree, repeat until all is done. I got this much, which turns out to be just shy of 5 quarts.

finished in pot.jpg

Add salt a teaspoon at a time, remembering that salt enhances the flavor, brings it out. Stir and taste each time. Too little is no good. Too much is no good. I needed about a teaspoon per quart to make it taste right (to me). Add pepper to taste.

When you heat it up to eat it, put some of the Backerbsen or some other little crouton on top of the soup in your bowl as I suggested with Mom’s Tomato Soup. They would be terrific on this.

Please let me know if my efforts to be EXACT in my instructions are not exact enough. I was timing something earlier, another recipe I might share, and Samuel, my son who’s 24, chided me. “Since when do you time things?” he said to me.

“Since the people who read my blog requested that I be EXACT,” I replied.

“Is this an effort to rebrand yourself as someone who gives specific instructions instead of your normal ‘you’ll know when it’s done’?”

Very funny.

The Cookbook Comes Out

I grew up in the era of television commercials. One of my favorites was for Almond Joy and Mounds: Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t! I don’t eat nuts at all, and even if you took the almond off the top of the Almond Joy I would not eat it, though I am fairly sure it is exactly the same dark chocolate covered coconut underneath as Mounds is. I would eat Mounds endlessly if only there were not a price to pay for such a delicious indulgence.

I find it’s the same with living in the country. Sometimes you feel like going outside and getting yourself busy with something that is likely to involve wheelbarrows, garden gloves and sweating. Some days I wake up and can hardly wait to get out there. Yesterday I was so anxious to get going (on weeding of all things! It had rained, okay? and I knew the ground was soft, and I had guests coming, and it would get hot later…) that I got dressed in my grubbies before even taking the dog out, then just stayed out there weeding after she did her thing. She stood next to me for that hour with a look on her face that clearly said: This is not the way this works. We get up, we go out, I do my thing, we go back in, you feed me breakfast, then you do whatever else you want. What’s up with messing with the routine? Hungry here! Starving! Wasting away!

Needless to say, she survived the wait. When we went out after breakfast, she came again, this time standing there with the look that said: Yes, great, my belly is full, but do you really expect me to lay down on these stones? I went and got the old pink towel that doubles as a soft outside blanket for her (which of us is well trained!?), put it in the middle of the driveway where she would be near but not underfoot, and watched her lay down and look up at me with her That’s more like it face.

Coco on towel

But sometimes you don’t feel like going outside. Today I had no such drive. It was a pleasant morning just the same as yesterday, cool enough, calm, lovely. I wasn’t put off by the coyotes howling somewhere in the distance. I didn’t feel overly tired or sore. There is plenty to do out there (and there will be for the rest of my days!). But my inner voice said No, today is a good day to bake!

My 10-year-old great niece Kaileena is coming for a visit with her 4-year-old sister Brea, her mom (my niece Erika) and her grandma (my sister Lynn). I was thinking yesterday about what Kaileena and I will do together next week when the others have gone to North Carolina. I was thinking about baking. We will make pizza together for sure, and maybe crackers (some of you might remember my cracker post from a few years ago – I have a hankering for those again!).

But before they come, some baking would be good. Think about how you feel when you go visit a family member or a friend and they have baked for you or prepared yummy food of any kind for you. That’s how I want my friends and family to feel. Besides, good neighbors of mine brought me some scrumptious lemon bars this past Saturday and I want to give the container back, but with something in it. Many years ago, my friend Kim told me that she and her mom had a plate that went back and forth between them a number of times because neither one wanted to give an empty plate back to the other. I always liked this idea, so I will put something yummy in Jen’s container.

Like anyone who is comfortable in the kitchen, I have some old stand-by, tried-and-true recipes for sweet things that time and again I find myself falling back on. Why? Because they are good! Chocolate chip bars, for instance. Strawberry tea cake. Oatmeal cookies. Sour cream coffee cake – oh, with blueberries in it at this time of year! That won’t fit in Jen’s container very well though. And two children are coming…

I settled on chocolate chip bars, which I made countless times over the years, so many times that the recipe was clearly in my head. I said was because I was a little disappointed in myself this morning in that I was slightly unsure of the amount of butter (Rule Number One: Always use real butter). Being unsure meant that I had to take the cookbook out.

THE cookbook.

Back in the day everyone had a cookbook, everyone I knew anyway. Well, some people had a little file box with 5×7 recipe cards in it, but that system never worked for me. You write recipes on a scrap of paper sometimes, or the back of an envelope, and scraps don’t fit well in a file box. Here is one example from my book. Believe it or not, this is a recipe:

scalloped potatoes

Mario Da Silva was the Villa lunch chef at Keswick Hall for years. He verbalized this recipe to me and I scrawled it out (clearly in a hurry!). It says

Scalloped Potatoes (Mario Da Silva)

3 onions

chop fine

4-5 cloves garlic

fine chop

olive oil    saute    S&P

(What is the difference between “chop fine” and “fine chop”? You tell me!)

heavy cream

mozz cheese

when sticky    stop


set aside

slice potatoes



in pan

spoon of sauce


mozz on top

parsley on top


That makes sense, right? I’ve made these potatoes several times. They are my mother’s favorite.  Mario now works as the Executive Chef at the Holiday Inn in Sarasota, Florida. If you are in Sarasota, go eat there. Trust me. I never saw a chef get more accolades! And he’s cute besides! (Hello, Mario and Mary!)

My cookbook is in a three-ring binder using plastic sleeves. That way, whatever slip of paper or card a recipe is on, I can find a way for it to fit. For the most part, the recipes written in the standard way, with a list of ingredients followed by instructions. The style of Mario’s potato recipe is the exception (you knew that).

I love so many things about my cookbook. Back in the day I had two smaller notebooks instead of one bigger one. I had one for BREADS CAKES / PIES COOKIES and one for EVERYTHING ELSE. Guess you know where my priorities were! I covered the notebooks the way we used to cover our schoolbooks with brown paper bags cut to fit, except I had book cover paper that had been a giveaway at a Ben & Jerry’s stand at the fair one summer in the mid 90s.

The paper was so colorful and fun. We lived in Vermont then and Ben & Jerry’s was still a local business. I loved my cookbooks covered in this paper:

ben and jerry 2

When I made cookbooks for each of my children about ten years ago, I didn’t have any more Ben & Jerry’s paper, so I scanned the last image in The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, retold and illustrated by Lorinda Bryan Cauley. It is one of my favorite images from when my children were small and I used to read to them (a lot).  I think it made a great cover for a cookbook.


The text just prior to this image says: “Then off he went to his snug little home in the fields, whistling a tune and looking forward to a good book by the fire and a mug of hot barley-corn soup.” The cozy chair, the tea kettle on the stove, the cinnamon swirl bread in the oven (just like I made many times!), the soft lighting … I can almost smell that bread!

Inside my cookbook is a collection from many years of trading and finding good recipes. Many are handwritten, which is precious in its own way. One look at the recipe and I know who gave it to me, even if their name is not on it. I see Lyn Boyce’s handwriting, my daughter Marie’s from when she was a teenager, my son Samuel’s, my mom’s, my grandmother’s, my sister Lynn’s, Kim’s, Claudia’s, Anett’s, Crissie’s, Marisa’s, Judy’s, Margaret’s, Eileen’s, and Mario’s (not quite as challenging to follow as my scrawl, but close!).

This is really good soup, by the way. Don’t you love it: “…PLUS 1 GALLON WATER… SALT PEPPER AS YOU WISH. AFTER EVERYTHING IS COOKED, JUST BLEND IT.” You know what that means, right? That means a blender, a few scoopfuls at a time. Did I mention that this is really good soup? And see, not everything in my cookbook has sugar in it!

Mario's yam soup

Handwriting is a reflection of personality and individuality, as unique to every person as their voice or their laugh. How blessed am I to have such a collection! I also see recipes cut from the side of packages or from magazines, printed from emails, hand-copied from other cookbooks, typed on an old typewriter. I see smudges, stains on the paper (from pre-plastic-sleeve days), translations (from some of the German recipes), even notes to me, like these:

Claudia's fettuccini (2)

Marisa's handwriting (2)

There is nothing in the world like the combination of good food together with friends and family. You can make all the amazing dishes you want, but if you don’t share with people you care about, something is missing. Sharing good recipes is not as fun as being with people you love and eating the food that good recipes make, but it’s right up there.

Back to the chocolate chip bars. The recipe (below) says Chocolate Chip Cookies. I haven’t made it as cookies in years. Bars are easier. You put all the dough (no need to grease the pan) in a 9×13 pan. I don’t know why it says 15×10 at the bottom of the recipe – ignore that! Spread it out and bake until golden brown on top, maybe 25-30 minutes, I’m not sure. You tell it’s done by the color, not too dark, not too light. When it has cooled, you cut them up however big you want them.

With bars, you also achieve a more reliable goo-factor — you know, when they are still fresh and the chocolate (which melts together more in bars) is so soft it’s gooey, even kind of a mess. Almost heaven. Almost because, like Mounds, there is a price to pay. Then again, life is short. Every now and then, by all means, pay up.

This recipe is so old, it’s from my pre-must-use-butter days. You see it calls for shortening, which I don’t even have in my cabinet any more. That’s part of the charm of it for me though. I look at the recipe and remember when I kept a cardboard can of white fatty stuff, and I used it! The flavor with butter is so superior, to say nothing of shortening being a mystery food for me, and I like to know what I’m eating: What is that white fatty stuff and what do they have to do to make it? We need to see our own progress sometimes to be reminded of how far we’ve come. It’s like finding some hideous shirt in my closet and thinking I used to wear that?! Then again, sometimes the shirt is hidden for a long time and years later I find it and say, Hey, look at that nice shirt! Maybe I’ll come around to shortening again too.

I always wondered about the half teaspoon of water – could it really make a difference?  What if the eggs are bigger than usual? Might that not be at least half a teaspoon of water difference in the overall amount of liquid going in? But I always put the water in anyway. Some things you just do.

This is the only recipe in my entire book with sections circled and numbered, which I clearly did after the fact. I think I did this in an attempt to tell someone (one of my children maybe?) what order to do it in. Sorry for any confusion. 1. Combine butter, sugars, vanilla and water and beat till smooth. 2. Beat in eggs. 3. Add dry ingredients (I never combine them first any more) and stir them in. 4. Stir in package of chips.

You can add a handful of old fashioned oats if you want. This adds texture and makes them a little easier to justify. A couple shakes of cinnamon is wonderful too. Or add some chopped nuts, let’s say half a cup, if you like nuts. Walnuts might be good, I’m not entirely sure. Nut-eaters could tell you better.

I could type out this recipe, but it wouldn’t be the same.

choc chip bars