The Nerve Steadier – or how cutting up an onion can save your day

I don’t know what I was thinking – perhaps it was just the combination of good company and the names Terry Gilliam, Brad Pitt, and Bruce Willis – but tonight, I watched 12 Monkeys with my housemates, and now my grasp on reality has been completely broken down.

Those of you who are familiar with the film will understand my inability to unsuspend my unsettled sense of disbelief; those of you who aren’t are in for a treat. You should go watch the film now, and then follow my further instructions, so that you can at least come out of it having successfully reasserted reality.

Of  course, equally, you could use this regimen of steps to treat the sense of groundlessness you get after traveling, or the sense of tetherlessness that you get a week after a break up, when you can eat again, but you don’t know what to eat, and you really can’t be bothered to invest much effort in cooking. You can do this when the sky is like steel wool and the trees iron pokers, and all you want is summer. And you can do this after a long, annoying day, when all you want to do is sit down and not worry about anything, but you still have to cook dinner before you can do that.

It is this: cut up an onion. Make lentil soup. And then eat it.


Absolutely not the French method for cutting up onions, but sometimes, I like “pretty” over “cooks evenly”.

I believe I once said to you once that when you’re travel-volunteering (traveleering travolunteering?), one thing you you will almost never do is cook. For many people, perhaps this would be no great hardship,  but it gave me the sense that I had somehow come loose from reality, had been detached. I hadn’t quite realized what was wrong, until dinner rolled around one evening, and I asked if I could help. My host looked around the kitchen, trying to figure out what kind of task she could give someone with undetermined skills. “I could cut up the onions?” I suggested, timidly, and she handed me a knife and a cutting board.

For me, cutting onions is methodical and automatic – and yet, despite this, it is not an empty task, either. Every time I cut onions, I remember my emergency backup mother, who taught me how to cut them “the French way”, which attempts to get the pieces of onion to be as close to the same size as possible. I love the way they smell – earthy and sweet and spicy – and the way they sound. But more than anything, cutting onions makes me feel like I’ve centered myself. Like I have established a connection to the ground with my feet, and a connection to everything in the real, visceral world through my hands. Every fragment of my focus comes together and I am present. For just that little space of time, I am meditating: in front of me is a task that manages to occupy my entire mind and body. And so for just that little space of time, I am free.

And so this recipe starts with just that: cutting up an onion.

This is my go-to soup recipe. It can be made with pretty much any vegetable you have in your fridge, and probably with any kind of legume you have at hand. All you really need is an onion, a can of tomatoes, and some spices. And, if you’re anything like me, these simple things together will remind you of what is real, and what is unreal; what is to be feared, and what is to be mastered; and what you can do after dinner to start making things easier for yourself. Like having dessert.


Even in England, we get enough sun on our rosemary to pretend we’re in Italy about 0.5% of the time.

The Nerve Steadier – serves perhaps four, if you make that much.


– 2-3 T + 2-3 T oil (anything edible)

– 1 onion

– At least 3 cups of non-leafy vegetables of any sort, chopped to manageable sizes (potatoes work well, as do carrots and cabbage. Beets are probably very nice, though I’ve never tried that. Pillage your pantry! This is your Nerve Steadier. The more you-specific, the better.)

– 1/2 cup red lentils (or any other bean that cooks quickly, for that matter)

– (Optional) A leafy green, like spinach or rocket/arugula.

– Enough hot water to cover your ingredients, and then perhaps another inch in your pot (to allow your lentils cooking liquid, and to give a nice amount of stock).

– Can of tomatoes (I use diced. But use what you have!)

– Spices: cumin, rosemary and oregano are the important ones. After that, it’s really nice to have thyme, basil, marjoram, tarragon, and a pinch of cayenne. Also, salt and pepper to taste, as always.


1) Roll your shoulders a couple times, and then buckle down and cut up that onion. While you do, notice that it smells sprightly and piquant; that it makes a satisfying zipping sound as you chop it in half; that its skin is crackly and slides like paper under your fingers. Remember that what has happened is past, and here you are in the present, cutting up an onion. Maybe cut up your other vegetables as well, if you think that’s a good plan.

2) Saute your onions over medium-high heat in the first bit of the oil, until they’re somewhere between clear and golden brown. Unless you’re impatient like me. Just remember that the less sauteed your onions are, the sweeter your soup will be.

3) When your onions are mostly done, add your non-leafy vegetables. Allow these to soak up that oil for a while, and soften, and heat up. While you’re stirring them, add your cumin and other spices. Give them a head start.

4) Add the lentils, and the rest of the oil. Stir a lot. Coat the lentils in the oil, and let them cook for a bit – maybe a minute.

5) Add the water, and the can of tomatoes. Bring to a boil, and then simmer on medium heat, stirring when you get bored. After about three minutes on the hob, taste-test your broth and add more spices as necessary. Too bright? Add cumin. Needs fragrance? Add rosemary or oregano. Cook thus until the lentils and vegetables are tender enough that you’d be happy to eat them, and then turn the heat off. Stir in whatever mysterious green thing you turned up from the back of your fridge, and let it wilt a bit.

There you go. That’s it. You can have dinner now.

This soup is best eaten with homemade bread – a recipe for which will follow shortly!


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