Vegetarian soups

Vegetarian cookbook author, Anna Thomas, hopes her new cookbook will inspire a new generation. (Chicago Tribune/Bob Fila)

In just a few hours, the soup kitchen, now -- post-renovation -- a soaring space around a lavishly long soapstone-topped island, will be open again.

Preparing the meal

We drive to her house along roads lined with orange trees, unpack our food, and Thomas puts me to work cleaning and chopping and measuring. We're making the dishes in a menu from the book: roasted kabocha squash and celery root soup, kale salad with cranberries and walnuts, and Octavia's gingerbread.

Even for soup, she uses a metric scale because it's more exact, she says. "Two medium onions, a medium tomato. What is that?"

Chunks of turnip and celery root, and a kabocha squash cut in half go into the oven, a Wolf with a six-burner stove. The vegetables eventually are puréed for the soup.

Thomas makes the gingerbread, to be served with sweetened Greek yogurt. The recipe came from Octavia Walstrom, whom she met while making a film about the architect John Lautner. Walstrom lived in a Lautner house and made it for the crew; Thomas adapted it.

Thomas, 61, heard about someone who got an offer of a date -- sight unseen, based on the gingerbread. The date, Thomas jokes, should be hers.

While we're working, Thomas' friend Lisa Robertson stops by to loan an immersion blender -- Thomas has burned out two of them puréeing soups -- and to talk about what she might contribute to the evening. How about Manchego cheese with quince paste? It's something she brought to a party the night before that had gone mostly uneaten.

"I'll take it back from Margaret," she determines.

Thomas' older son, Chris Nava, comes in too, with a container of mussels he'd like to make that evening. So a pasta and mussels course gets added into the mix.

Nava, 25, who trained as a musician and teaches piano, is making desserts in a new restaurant in town, with two big oven burns on his forearms to show for it. Her kitchen, Thomas says, has become like Maurice Sendak's "The Night Kitchen," with Chris baking into the wee hours.

Soups have always been important to Thomas. A child of immigrants, raised in Detroit and California, she grew up eating the soups of Eastern Europe and in her first book wrote that making soup and bread gives a kitchen a soul. "The Vegetarian Epicure" included barszcz, a borscht her mother made; pea soup with butter dumplings; minestrone; chestnut and lentil soups.

The soups she makes today have less cream, and plenty are vegan. Cheese might be a garnish; butter gets browned to intensify its flavor so less is needed. Onion soup in the first book called for 10 tablespoons of butter plus "ample" grated Gruyere cheese. In the new book, fennel and onion soup gets 4 tablespoons of olive oil.

It's a small example of Thomas' soup philosophy: "Your history is in that pot of soup."

As the day ends, Thomas' guests start to arrive, good friends who care about food and wine and are part of her close-knit community, many of them also transplants from city life. They're among the people Thomas thanks in "Love Soup" for sharing produce, tasting food, offering ideas.

Steve Fields and Sims Brannon show up first, bringing a plastic container of pear sauce, homemade with Warren pears from one of the 60 heirloom fruit trees they've planted. It turns out to be a heavenly, serendipitous companion to the gingerbread.

"This is what happens. Everybody brings things," says Robertson, who did repossess the quince paste, which tastes great with the cheese on some walnut bread Thomas had made another day.

Bruce and Marie Botnick, a music producer and designer who are growing olives and grapes, arrive soon, and Marie sets the table, cutting flowers and arranging them along the long wood table.

"She's really much better at that than I am," Thomas says.

Everyone eats appreciatively; even the kitchen help gets praised. The guests talk about wine and restaurants, school food and the news of the day, a friend who is sick.

"What I loved when I started coming to Ojai, it wasn't a restaurant culture, it was about feeding each other," Robertson says.

That, it seems, hasn't changed.