Peasant Comfort Foods for Deep Winter Dining – from Beet Borscht to Corn Soup to Spinach Dahl

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My favorite vegetarian dishes, the ones that I turn to for comfort during our long, cold winters, are mostly the same dishes we enjoyed as farmers in Saskatchewan during the Depression years. As poor country peasants we survived mostly on our garden vegetables. In those days, bologna and sardines were what I longed for – not the burghul, chickpea, lentil, potato and other such dishes that my mother prepared.

On the whole, ours was a culinary vegetarian world occasionally supplemented by beef or lamb. The dishes we ate were tasty, nutritious and wholesome. Small amounts of meat were only used occasionally as condiments to enhance the vegetarian dishes. On special occasions such as birthdays and weddings, mother prepared vegetarian feasts that were superb.

In the ensuing years, as I roamed the globe and sampled the world’s cuisines, I gathered many tasty vegetarian favorites. Back home, when I prepared those recipes, I recalled my travels to North Africa and the Far East, and the love that I’d developed for hot, spicy foods.  As I prepared the peasant recipes from these lands, I also perked them up with my favorite herbs and spices which imparted myriad savory flavours.

The herbs and spices that captured the culinary tastes of my travels included chervil, fresh coriander leaves (cilantro), garlic, mint, parsley, oregano, and thyme. And favorite spices include cinnamon, cloves, cumin, ginger, marjoram, nutmeg, pepper, saffron, tarragon, turmeric and hot peppers. The happy result: mouth-watering recipes which I added to the repertoire inherited from my mother.

Now, for my family’s deep winter dining, I have many options when choosing soups and stews. The aromas that provoked my youthful appetite back on the Saskatchewan prairies are still there, and now they carry a worldly twist.

There are numerous versions of this famous Eastern European soup/stew; this is mine.  (Serves about 8)


  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 pound beets, thoroughly washed, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 4 cups water
  • 3 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 medium potato, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 medium sweet pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 cups shredded cabbage
  • l small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 4 Tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 3/4 teaspoon powdered mustard
  • 3 Tbsp lemon juice

1) Heat oil in a large pot, then sauté onion and garlic over medium/low heat for 10 minutes.

2) Add beets and water and bring to boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes.

3) Add broth and remaining vegetables, then bring to boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 1-1/2 hours or until vegetables are cooked, adding more water if necessary.

4) Add the salt, pepper, cumin, allspice and mustard, then cover and cook for 15 minutes.

5) Stir in lemon juice and serve hot.

This North African soup is both exotic and tasty.  (Serves about 6 to 8 people)


  • 1/2 cup navy beans, soaked overnight in 6 cups of water mixed with 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 cup blanched almonds, pulverized
  • 2 medium sized onions, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup white grape juice
  • 4 Tbsp slivered almonds, toasted

1) In a saucepan, place beans with their water and bring to a boil. Then cook over medium heat for 1 hour.

2) Add remaining ingredients, except slivered almonds, and bring to a boil.

3) Lower heat to medium/low and cook covered for another hour or until the beans are well cooked, adding more water if necessary.

4) Purée in a blender, then re-heat.

5) Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with the slivered almonds and serve immediately.

This sauce is served with every meal in Tunisia, North Africa.  It is an excellent condiment for those who like their food fiery hot. A little, or a lot, of this hot sauce can be added to the entrées which follow to fire up the degree of ‘heat’ as one so desires.

Red hot chili pepper


  • 1/2 cup fresh ground cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 cup ground cumin
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 Tbsp ground caraway
  • 1 Tbsp salt

1) Thoroughly mix all ingredients, then pour into a jar with a tight fitting lid.

2) Cover and refrigerate and use as needed.

The indigenous peoples of Mexico believed that corn had a divine origin. They called this golden grain the ‘food of the gods’ and believed that the gods first made humans from corn. It was so important in their culinary world, they called it toconayo (our meat).  (Serves about 8)


  • 4 cups fresh or frozen organic corn, thawed
  • 1 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 4 Tbsp finely chopped green onions
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 4 cups milk
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 4 Tbsp grated cheese

1) Place corn, hot pepper, green onions and salt in a food processor, then process into a paste. Set aside.

2) Melt butter in a saucepan, then add corn paste and stir-fry over medium heat for 3 minutes. Stir in milk and water.

3) Bring to a boil, then simmer on low heat for 25 minutes, stirring a few times.

4) Serve piping hot, with each diner adding cheese to taste.


In Morocco, Harira is served as a daily soup, to begin a feast, or to break the fast in the evenings of Ramadan – the Muslim holy month. This version is much more spicy than the Harira usually cooked in Morocco. (Serves 12)


  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 4 large cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
  • 1 medium hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 cups cooked chickpeas
  • 3 cups stewed tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup brown lentils, rinsed
  • 9 cups water
  • 3 teaspoons salt
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon mild paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 cup brown rice, rinsed
  • 4 Tbsp lemon juice

1) Heat oil on medium/low in a large saucepan and stir-fry onion, garlic, coriander leaves, hot peppers for 10 minutes.

2) Stir in remaining ingredients, except rice and lemon juice, and bring to boil.

3) Cover and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes, then stir in rice. Cover and cook for a further 25 minutes.

4) Stir in lemon juice and serve immediately.

5) Recipe Note: For an exotic taste, serve with an accompanying plate of fresh dates.

(Serves 4 to 6)

Recipe: Red Lentil Rice Paper Rolls

Red Lentils


  • 3/4 cup split lentils
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 large sweet pepper, finely chopped
  • 1 Tbsp curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3-1/2 cups water
  • 3/4 cup coconut milk

1) Place all ingredients except coconut milk in a saucepan and bring to boil, then cover and cook over medium/low heat for 40 minutes, stirring a few times and adding a little more water if necessary.

2) Stir in coconut milk then cook for a further 5 minutes before serving.


This dish is believed to have originated in Puerto Rico and then spread to the other islands in the Caribbean. (Serves 4 to 6)


  • 4 Tbsp olive or coconut oil
  • 1 pound frozen okra, thawed
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 large sweet pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
  • 1 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 large tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1) Heat oil in a saucepan and sauté the okra over medium heat until they turn light brown, turning them over a few times.

2) Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on paper towels to drain excess oil.

3) In the same oil (add more oil if necessary), sauté the onion, garlic and the sweet and hot peppers over medium heat for 10 minutes.

4) Stir in tomatoes and sauté for a further 10 minutes.

5) Gently stir in the okra and the remaining ingredients.

6) Cover and cook for about 15 minutes or until okra is tender, adding more water if necessary.

7) Serve hot with cooked rice.

Habeeb Salloum’s articles have been published in the Toronto Star, Backwoods Home Magazine, Forever Young Information Magazine, and Vegetarian Journal, among others. His most recent book Asian Cooking Made Simple – A Culinary Journey Along the Silk Road and Beyond is available at amazon at:

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