Sunday, November 18, 2012

Made with Memories

There are some things that are so ingrained in one's psyche that you can do them without thinking.  But when you slow down to look more carefully these things are often woven and rich with memories, sentiment, and tradition even though they are so basic.  Today, I'm making a "pot of beans" for Brent's parents to eat at the rehab facility.  My children are (theoretically) napping, sick with their own little colds.  So, for once, I was able to slow down and think about each step in this basic task and look more closely at what was woven there in my story.

I started the task, as I often do, by wandering through favored websites, and google before ignoring most of what I see and going with what I "know."  As I gathered, sorted, peeled,  and chopped, I tried to remember where I learned to do this and found it very murky.  It seems like I've always known, but that can't be right.  A few images flash forward and the puzzle starts to sort itself.  I remember sorting through beans on a cookie sheet or something similar.  We picked out those that were cracked, bruised, discolored, or shriveled.  We, I think, was my mother and I or maybe my grandmothers too.  We set them aside to soak and move on.

Here, my process has changed theirs. I suspect, my mother and grandmothers carefully chopped onions celery and maybe a carrot or two or even tossed in large chunks.  I peel almost a pound of carrots.  I chop all but two into inch long pieces for E's baby food and cut the remaining two into large chunks and dump them in the food processor.  I start the baby food carrots to boil with some baking spices and return back to this task.  (Who knows, maybe they were feeding their babies this way too).  I roughly chop a medium onion and three stalks of celery and into the food processor they go.  Just as they would have, I take all the scraps out to my garden to "make dirt" as my kids say. I pick a few sprigs of sage to add to the mix.

Inside, I sip my coffee and think about what's next.  I whirl the food processor a few times and end up with small bits of vegetables, not large chunks as this is how my family likes to eat it.  I ponder whether my mother-in-law would put this many vegetables in her version, and decide it is best to stick to what I know in this gift to her.

Into the large pot she once gifted me go all the vegetables and sage with 1/2 a stick of butter.  The heat is on low and I stir them periodically between typing and pondering.  I dice up some ham, Cure 81 of course, as my father and grandfather always favor it, and really does anyone not?  I stir some more and add a few more picked over beans to the bowl of water as by now I'm sure everyone is going to want some of this most basic soup.

More then ten minutes pass and the carrots, onion, celery, sage, and butter are fully tender and fragrant, ready to start the next step.  In go the beans and their soaking water, and more water still along with two cubes of chicken bouillon from my mom and brother's store, a new tradition for our family.  I know my grandmothers would have had home made stock around, but it is best not to contemplate how long it has been since I boiled a chicken.  I stare briefly at my spice rack, lifting and rejecting choices.  For now, I'll stay the course with tradition and season more later if needed.

I turn the heat up to high and bring the mix to a hard boil for five minutes.  Then down to low for as long as it takes to soften the beans.  I add in the ham as it slows to a simmer.  This triggers an old memory of bean soup in the Senate cafeteria where I worked briefly as an intern more than a decade ago.  This soup will be a bit different than theirs, but I love the storied past of this simple dish and how woven it is into life.

Then I let it go.  Nap time had failed times three. So I let the flavors, spiced with memory work their magic. About an hour later, I checked in and things were softening well.  It needed just a hint more richness in the broth.  My instinct here is to add some salt, but Bill is on a reduced salt diet. I added just a pinch instead then studied my spice rack some more.  During the summer's experiment with beans, I'd discovered that Summit County was a great match.  It has lemon peel and tomato powder in it, which I hadn't been looking for, but I decided to give it a try.  I made a double batch of the Pioneer Woman's Cornbread, because you must have cornbread with beans, and gave the beans a bit longer.

At last, the beans were very tender, the broth rich, and the cornbread crispy at its edges and our feast was ready to share.

1 1/4 lb great northern beans
2 carrots, peeled and diced
3 stalks of celery, diced
1 medium onion, diced
3 springs of sage, minced or 1/2 tsp dried sage
2 quarts of water
2 cubes chicken bouillon
1 cup ham, cubed
1/4 tsp salt (or to taste)
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 T Summit County Seasoning

The process is above, but in brief:

Pick through beans and place in cool water to soak (anywhere from a few minutes to a couple hours is fine.  The longer the soak, the shorter the cooking time). Melt butter in a large pot over low heat.  Saute vegetables and sage on low for 10 minutes or until tender and fragrant.  Add water/chicken stock and beans.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  Boil for five minutes.  Reduce to very low heat and add in ham.  Simmer very gently for 1-2 hours, checking periodically to see if beans are soft.  Add in additional seasonings to taste and enjoy.

Note, cooking times vary widely depending, in part, on the age of the beans.  Today's beans were from the local grocery store and who knows how old.  For tastier beans, I recommend ordering some from Rancho Gordo as we've done in the past.   My favorites are the scarlet runner bean and the cranberry beans.  So good.  They also have very simple bean cooking ideas.


Heather said...

Beautiful post! Love how you describe the memories intertwined into your cooking and I can almost taste the've inspired me to try soup myself this week. Your cooking is such an inspiration.

Anonymous said...

And they were as delicious as the post presented them. It gave us a feeling of home. Thank you.

Whitney said...

This beautifully captures why I love to cook, especially with family recipes. I feel connected and at peace when I'm in the middle of all that chopping, sautéing, cooking. Thanks for sharing!


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