"Leaving Lisbon" by Kara Arguello + Beet Vichyssoise


I was angry at Anne Sexton for several years. She didn't even want to write poetry!, I exclaimed to my creative writing teacher. It didn't seem fair for such beautiful language and composed poems to come from the mouth of a woman who started writing poetry as a suggestion by her therapist. To a 16-year-old, it seemed like she didn't even have to try, that there was no struggle involved, and that simply by hovering her pen above the paper, full poems were formed. Of course, I came to understand the depths of her personal struggles much later, but will never forget being handed her Collected Poems after class one afternoon. My teacher thought I could learn something from her.

Confessional poetry, like the work of Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, and Sylvia Plath, sustained me during the turbulent teenage years. My own poetry was a web of images, stream of consciousness, themes I didn't fully understand. It came from dreams. I didn't know where to root myself so I wrote everything that came to me. 

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In college, my poetry softened. It became more purposeful, more tailored (why use seven good metaphors when one will do?), and more inspired by landscape, particularly that of the central coast where I lived at the time.  

Robinson Jeffers and Elizabeth Bishop occupied space on the shelf now, and when I read "Leaving Lisbon," it conjured up memories of my time studying abroad in Europe, when I took weekend trips with my roommates to places like Dublin and Seville. Immediately, I was transported, wanting nothing more than to zip my suitcase, board an airplane, and wake up in Lisbon. Preferably with a view of "local laundry on the line" from my window. Marinated sardines will do for lunch, or octopus carpaccio, I'm not picky.  

Leaving Lisbon

by Kara Arguello

Lisboa, obrigada for dried codfish dabbled in piri-piri,
its papery white-pink a flutter of local laundry on the line.

Thanks too for rocket, so much sexier than arugula,
and for beet vichyssoise, which deserves bright 
banners and a brass band up Rua de Augusta.

I salute marinated sardines, who wear passion fruit 
life vests and raise the watercress flag, aboard 
a toasty boat barnacled with tapanade.

Serenade the scallops who sport many petticoats
like the women of Nazare – bright skirts of salmon roe,
puree of English peas, light curry foam.

Wave both arms to octopus carpaccio, a translucent layer
mandolined from Bairro Alto’s purple-white mosaic tiles, 
peppered red like its bridge across Rio Tejo,

untangle tongue and lips from the Vinho twins – bubbly 
Verde and throaty Tinta – ladies, our time went too fast.

Sing fado for molten espresso and dark chocolate truffles
served near the refurbished turntable in a hipster gelateria,
a song of bittersweet, of longing celebration.

Printed with permission from the author. 

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The final two words, "longing celebration," are a perfect ending, like the last bite of a rich chocolate gelato. For a recipe pairing, there were many choices, but I gravitated to the beet vichyssoise. I happened to read this poem during the summer, on a particularly warm weekend, and once the thought of a cold, creamy soup entered my mind, I could not be persuaded to made anything else.

I made Julia Child's vichyssoie several years ago when my parents had come over for lunch. It was served in martini glasses, the only time I've ever used them. Clearly, martinis are not my cocktail of choice. I remember the sweetness of it, the bite of the chives, how its chill coated my entire mouth. 

I haven't made it since. Isn't that always the way? We have transcendent moments with food, then replace them with new memories as quickly as ever. I'm glad this poem transported me back, and lacing it with beets seemed like a marvelous addition. 

Vichyssoise is really an exercise in simplicity. Potatoes, leeks, milk, chives. Very little is required. I wanted to maintain an elegance, and chose pink beets instead of red in the hopes it would provide a more mellow, layered flavor, which it did. Fearing red beets would be too assertive, choosing pink offers a sweeter, more subtle earthiness that doesn't overpower the leeks. Unfortunately, I hoped the beets would also impart of soft pink hue, but as they roasted, the color actually mellowed quite a bit, so you won't notice the trace of beets until your first bite. So it goes.  

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Beet Vichyssoise

On account of its richness, you can get away with serving a smaller amount of soup to more people. This would make a wonderful first course for a late-summer dinner party. 

Serves 4-6

3 pink beets
2 leeks, rinsed clean and roughly chopped
2 Yukon potatoes, chopped
3/4 cup whole milk
3/4 cup water
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
Chives for garnish

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Chop off the beet greens and most of the stem, and wrap each beet individually in foil. Bake for 1 hour. When the beets are cool enough to handle, rinse under cold water and rub the skins away with your fingers; roughly chop. 

Add the beets, leeks, and potatoes to a stock pot. Pour over the milk and water, and add the salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. 

Transfer the soup to a blender (in batches if necessary), and puree until smooth. Push the soup through a sieve before returning to the pot. This extra step will ensure the soup is perfectly silky. Add the cream and stir to combine. If the consistency is still too thick, add a touch of water. (You want the finished soup to have the consistency of heavy cream, but be more dynamic and layered in flavor.) Chill for at least 1 hour. 

Before serving, taste the soup again and add more salt if needed. Garnish with chives.