This past Saturday I did something I’ve never done. I cooked dinner for a former girlfriend.
Well, I might have made Amy a grilled cheese sandwich once, and I’m still prone to leaving Beth inappropriately long voice mails about random soup, even though, truth was, she could cook circles around me. But this was the first time than an actual meal was prepared and time was specifically set aside to consume it. Sara was in town for a few days, though, on a whirlwind visit from grad school in Baltimore, and we decided to hang out and catch up. I was flattered by being offered the Saturday Evening time slot, perfect for food, a spirited, introspective conversation, and a few DVR’ed episodes of Doctor Who.
So I was fumbling through my pantry a few days prior to her arrival trying to figure the usual things out: The menu, the shopping list, specific timing of the purchase of the ingredients (don’t get me started), whether to launder the top-tier tablecloth or exactly how much cleaning of what parts of my apartment were required, the depth and stickiness of the ethical quagmire started to reveal itself. I grapple daily with the tragifarsical contradiction of displaying significant OCD tendencies while being, in nearly all respects, a complete mess. But there were so many decisions.
Compromising on food quality was out of the question. and if nothing else, I always regard “company” as a perfect chance to show off a little. But what always strikes me as most interesting is he most not, specifically, the specifics of the final decisions as much as it is the mental paces your mind is put through while making choices. I think this works both ways. If nothing else, I was dealing with someone who has visited my apartment many times and would be well familiar with its native state. This is not simply passive aggressiveness on my part – sometimes an over-the-top elaborate meal, replete with fancy garnish and the Fancypants European Linens I obsess about – might intimidate the guest. I don’t know, maybe I’m growing old and overcompensating due to my perpetual worry about becoming “the creepy old guy on the bus.”
That said, there is a way to prepare an elegant meal without resorting to osso bucco and Barolo and chocopots.
It’s good to have a soup. Actually you should have two or three, but this is one of mine. For several practical reasons, it’s just about the perfect soup. It’s easy to make, It’s inexpensive, it doesn’t require broth, it’s extremely filling, and it makes a LOT of soup (8-10 dinner servings, depending on how thick you like it)
And then there’s the taste. The earthy beans offer the perfect counterpoint to the smokey porcine richness, with the veggies adding just that perfect note of fresh sweetness. And there is something both comforting and familiar about a hearty bowl of bean soup.
I’m not sure where this came from. I remember my parents cooking a soup like this when I was growing up, and I’ve been cooking something vaguely similar for the past 15 years or so. There was never a recipe growing up, I just remember on a lot of Sunday nights the house would all of a sudden smell really, REALLY good, and then there would be soup. I think I’ve learned to pretty much recreate the “original.”
I’ve learned over time, though, that a par-cook is the secret.
I’m starting to realize I am, at best, a mediocre recipe writer, and, as usual, I have vastly overcomplicated this. The bottom line is that you need to cook the beans until they are done, and hopefully you won’t have too much or too little water in the pot as they thicken. Just wing it, and you’ll be fine, as long as you don’t undercook the beans. Anyway…
Bean Soup ala Jeff
1 16 ounce bag of dried Great Northern Beans
1 medium yellow onion, julienned
1 carrot (or 2) , diced
1 stick of celery(or 2), diced.
3 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 t dried chipotle powder (optional but quite yummy)
6 ounces (one of those supermarket packages of two) smoked ham shanks or hocks. Shanks yield more meat, but hocks will impart a deeper flavor. Please note that I have no empirical data to support that last assertion. I usually buy hocks.
No less than one but no more than four strips of bacon, cut into postage-stamp sized squares.
Place the beans in a large pot of water. Cover the beans with water until there are two inches of water atop the beans. Leave overnight.
To cook the soup, drain and rinse the soaked beans, and place into your soup vessel. Cover with salted water, add 1t of salt, and bring to a boil. Once the water reaches a boil, let the beans continue to boil for 20-30 minutes. I usually prep the remaining ingredients as the beans cook.
Once the parcooking is done, pour the beans and the water into a separate bowl. Beans should be softer but still uncooked gritty if bitten into. Reduce heat to low, and add the bacon to the pot and cook until most of the yummy fatty goodness has rendered into the pot, but the bacon hasn’t started burning yet. Remove the bacon, and add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic, along with a pinch of salt. Cook until the veggies are translucent, about five minutes.
Return the beans and their liquid to the pot, along with the shanks/hocks. Add additional water if needed to ensure that the meat is floating and almost completely submerged. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a rolling simmer. Let the soup go for another hour.
At this point, I like to remove the hocks/shanks in order to let them cool a little bit, so that they can be pulled apart later if need be.
Take a look at your soup. The liquid should be starting to cloud up with bean starch, but the beans themselves shoud be soft. If the beans are not quite cooked at this point, return the soup to a full boil, stirring every few minutes until the liquid starts to thicken. I like to use a potato masher as I do this, trying to acheive a mostly pureed without completely destroying each individual bean. Sometimes I like to actually remove a cup of “undercooked soup” as I mash, so as to re-introduce the whole beans to the mashed-up soup.
Anyway, pick apart as much meat of your hocks/shanks as you care to, dicing whatever you do pick off into small chucks. Add, along with the uncooked bacon. And cook until warm.
A note about storing the soup: No matter how much water you put in the soup, it never seems to be enough. When I portion the soup up for leftovers, I always add a few tablespoons of water for every pint or so of soup… otherwise, it’s a very tasty paste.
Serve with bread.
And the last two brownies. Decide for yourself whether ex boy/girlfriends are automatically entitled to the crustless “center” brownie I always save for last. Sara still gets this familiar goofy look in her eye when she is about to tell me something bacon-related, so, at least here, the calculus is pretty straightforward.
Oh… PS… A couple of things.
First, yes, that was me in Cincinnati Magazine. January 2011 Issue. It’s only a quick q&a, and, mercifully, I am drawn and not photographed, but they got the gyst of it. Anyway. Page 194. GO. :)
Also, congrats to Andi for launching her new blog, http://lunchitpunchit.com/ Which, of course, you all MUST read. The blog is, like its author, thoughtful and fun. It’s always useful to keep an eye on the big picture- like losing wieght or living frugally, or, most straightforwardly, enjoying what we eat. And what I liked about this blog is that she is able to show, without being preachy or without compromise, how simple it is to move your life forward by taking a few good steps with your daily food routine.