improvised smoky bean and root vegetable soup

Campbell’s Bean with Bacon soup was one of my favorites growing up.  Quivering beige sludge with an occasional bean or mysterious fat cube, it was condensed.  You’d add a can full of water and slosh it around in a pot on the stove, then it would become soup.  It would cook up hot and salty, just how I liked it, and perfect with saltine crackers.

Even after leaving home, it was comfort food.  I remember with fascination and trepidation a particular old sandwich shop in Ann Arbor that would sell a bowl of it, sans attribution, for college student prices.  Maybe a buck fifty a bowl?  Perfect for a freezing day walking around without sense in Michigan.  (Drake’s closed a few years after my last visit in the late 80s, but there’s a wonderful photo set from that era here.)

I wouldn’t say no if someone put a can in front of me now, but I’d probably seize up over the salt content.  Actually, maybe not, since even Campbell’s realized it was over the top and reformulated the stuff into a “heart healthy” version (whatever that means) a number of years ago.

There are many ways to make your own bean-smoky-meat soup that are way more healthy than anything processed in a can, but if you’re lucky, they’ll still bring on that rush of nostalgia when you smell them in the pot.

I had a surplus of root vegetables from the CSA thanks to this frosty month, and thought I’d experiment with a bean soup that was as much about the veg as it was the legume.  This soup is more than its parts, so feel free to add more root vegetables than you think possible.  It will look like too many roots, but you’ll cook half of them down into the broth.  Don’t do anything ridiculous, like add beets, though. Stick with mild potatoey- or carroty-type roots.

Smoked ham or bacon or turkey is really not optional for this recipe, as it forms the broth.  Start the night before you’d like to serve it.  Flavor improves as it sits.

Improvised Smoky Bean and Root Vegetable Soup

  • Several pounds of mixed root vegetables: rutabagas, turnips, potatoes, celery root, etc., chopped
  • One large yellow onion, diced
  • 3-4 stalks celery, diced
  • a half dozen good-sized carrots and/or parsnips
  • Several cups of country ham (or a couple of ham hocks/shanks if you have those instead)
  • Greens: a bunch of kale, collards, green cabbage, head of parsley, escarole, etc.
  • Fresh herbs if you have them (I used a bay leaf, a couple sprigs of sage, and some thyme)
  • 2-3 cups of dried soup beans, which might be Hutterite soup beans, Vermont cranberry beans, Navy or Great Northern beans, etc.
  • salt and pepper

Soak your beans overnight and prepare the stock. Dice the onion, celery, and carrots or parsnips into small pieces.  Over medium heat in a medium-sized stock pot (5 gallons, perhaps), sauté ham (if using), chopped onion, celery and carrots/parsnips until they turn golden brown.  Add enough water to fill the pot about halfway, and add half of the chopped root vegetables, herbs, and the ham hock/shank (if using).

Do not add the beans or the other half of the vegetables yet.

Simmer stock on a low heat for a couple of hours, then cool and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, bring stock up to a simmer, then add the beans and cook until they are soft.  With a potato masher, mush some of them up to thicken the broth.

Now taste and salt the broth (salt needed will depend on the ham you’re using).  If in doubt, err on the less salty side, since you can add more later. Add the greens and the rest of the vegetables, and simmer another half hour or so until tender.

Adjust seasonings before serving with a hunk of country bread.

Serves many hungry people and freezes well.  Cats who appear to be innocently looking out the window from a far corner of the table so they won’t seem interested also enjoy it when your back is turned.

introducing the favalous fava bean!

Although the lingering chill has affected the hot weather crops, our cool weather ones are doing just fine! I continue on with sweet snowpeas, and the favas are happily ripening in other gardens.

Today, I am on assignment for my CSA, because their favas are finding their way into boxes for the next few weeks. Widely used in the Mediterranean and Middle East, favas are used in myriad ways both healthy and lovely. I’ve been looking at some beautiful recipes from Italy, Tunisia, Morocco and Japan. You can’t go wrong with preparing fresh beans and pureeing them with some olive oil and garlic for a wonderful dip, but there’s much, much more to try.

Fava beans, if they had an advertising campaign, would bill themselves as “Europe’s First Bean.” Thorngrove Table, an absolutely wonderful medieval food blog, featured their history in a post a few years ago. As with all ancient foodstuff, the fava bean is associated with otherworldly legends. Some cultures cast fava beans for divination (favomancy), and others plant them as magic beanstalks to reach up to a giant’s castle. Having planted mine as green manure in February, I missed the traditional day in Italy to plant them, November 2 (All Souls’ Day), which gave the title “beans of the dead” to the fava, and the other traditional day in Europe, Good Friday, seems a bit late. I also failed to plant them in the night, another superstition for good luck.

Favas were seen as both good and evil. On the dark side of the force, they were seen as the vessels that held the souls of the dead. Other mortal dangers include favism (a serious chemical intolerance of the bean that creates anemia in some people of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean descent) and, of course, the reputation they have as an accompaniment to human liver, with a nice Chianti. The pods are said to be toxic, and you should avoid eating the beans raw.

When the force is with them, favas have pretty little white and black flowers, and the young beans are tender and just as green as can be. The plants fix nitrogen in the garden via little nodules on the mature roots, so they’re not only pretty but great for your soil. You can eat the young plant tips sautéed with butter and garlic, the young beans as you would green beans, and the older beans shelled, which taste of the essence of spring.

Shelling fava beans involves a double commitment: first you need to remove them from their tough pods, then, after boiling the beans for 2-3 minutes, you need to remove the tender green innards from their waxy shell. But honestly, they’re worth it. And if you’d like to skip a step, you can buy the shelled beans frozen at Middle Eastern markets, but you’ll still need to remove the waxy shell after boiling them.

Some delicious ideas for the beans:

  • Lamb stew with favas and green almonds, eaten by Moroccan Jews in the spring – apparently the Israelites ate favas when they were slaves in Egypt, so they are a symbolic food at Passover;
  • Italians eat young favas with watercress and pecorino in a salad, or creamed with melted pecorino and cream (see recipe for the latter in The Silver Spoon Italian cookbook);
  • Japanese vegetarians puree the beans and serve them with thin slices of fried eggplant seasoned with soy;
  • Alice Waters has a quick, simple recipe for fried artichoke bottoms topped with freshly boiled, warm fava beans in Chez Panisse Vegetables;
  • Another recipe from The Silver Spoon is a lovely variation of fava puree – boil the shelled beans with small cubes of raw potato in vegetable stock, then mash together and serve with some olive oil.

But the most unusual and lovely one, in my view, is the most seasonal, too. Until sundown tonight, many Jews all over the world are celebrating Shavuot, a holiday that honors the Torah. It also coincides with the grain harvest in Israel, so it makes sense that North African Jews would celebrate with a traditional dish of buttered couscous topped with fava beans and sautéed onions. Claudia Roden has a great description of the classic recipe in her The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. The classic often includes powdered sugar or cinnamon and raisins, plus dairy drinks on the side, to symbolize “the land of milk and honey.” I decided to add a non-traditional ingredient to the dish, local fennel from our weekly market, to change and layer the flavors in a different way. It’s a delicious and beautiful side, perfect for everything from a vegetarian meal to fish to chicken.

Couscous Topped with Favas and Caramelized Fennel and Onion

Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side

1 cup quick-cooking couscous
5 T. salted butter, separated
1/2 t. cinnamon
1 bulb fennel, sliced thinly and chopped
fronds from the fennel, rinsed and chopped
1/2 cup chopped sweet white onion or spring onions
at least 1 cup prepared fava beans (shelled twice)
salt and pepper

Shell and cook the fava beans: Remove the beans from the pod, then boil them for three minutes. Shock in cold water, then slip off the white, leathery skins. Set prepared beans aside in a bowl.

Prepare couscous according to the directions on the package, using 1 T. butter instead of olive oil. Keep covered and warm as you make the topping.

Fry the onions in 2 T. butter over medium heat until they are beginning to caramelize (color dark golden). Add fennel bulb (save fronds for serving) and continue to sautée until the fennel and onions have some dark brown caramelization. Add salt and pepper to taste, then fold in the prepared fava beans.

Just before serving, season the couscous with 2T. butter, cinnamon, and fennel fronds. Mound couscous into cone shape with flattened top on a platter, and crown the top with favas and fennel mixture. Serve warm.

halloween in may: in which she makes two orange and black dishes

I made a Thanksgiving joke yesterday; today it’s Halloween. I just can’t get down this seasonal cooking thing, can I?

Today’s recipes are brought to you by a shut-in foodie, a girlfriend trying to make her meat-filled way in a vegetarian household. You see, I was staying at a friend’s house in Southern California. She’s a working girl, a lover of food, but an impending move across country and her unfortunate vegetarian status rendered her cupboards quite bare. I was writing my paper for the conference when, unbeknownst to me, I found myself rummaging through the kitchen looking for something to eat. I was locked in the apartment because of some rogue drywall repairmen outside the door. (Actually, they were quite kind about untaping my door when I had to leave, but let’s make this more dramatic, shall we?) I knew I’d starve if I didn’t do something quick.

So, brainy (remember I *am* writing a paper here so the mind juices are flowing), I thought I’d cook up a few dishes.

I found some lovely “beluga” black lentils, so called because they look like little pearls of beluga caviar, some of Orange County’s finest — Valencia oranges — and parsley and green onions. There was a bag of sweet potatoes, onions, some sour Chardonnay, and black wild rice. And olive oil and four kinds of fancy salt and white balsamic vinegar. And a Trader Joe’s vegetarian liquid bouillon of dubious merit. Clearly, these starvation rations needed a deft hand, some magic cook juju to make them edible.

My friend, though years out of her goth phase, maintains a certain flair we like to call Orange County Gothtastic. Though starving, I also felt tremendous pressure to make food of presentable quality, something the Queen of Blackness would accept as a Dark Offering. Clearly, orange and black colours were on the menu, and fall flavors would be a must, even though it was nearing 90 degrees that day. Alas, the agony of being a pale creature of the night behind the sunny, bikini-clad, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Orange Curtain. But I was more hungry than a vampyre at an actuary convention, so with the aid of Miss C’s familiar, Lord Dominic von Katzer-Masoch, I managed thusly:

Orange and Beluga Black Lentil Salad

Serves 2-3.

4 juicy Valencia oranges

1 lemon

1 cup raw Beluga black lentils

3 cups vegetable stock (use bouillon of choice)

bunch of scallions

1/3 cup. parsley, chopped, with a few whole stalks set aside for the stock

1 t. smoked Alder salt, or to taste

1/2 t. cumin

1/2 t. ground pepper

1 T. fruity extra-virgin olive oil

1 T. white balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

First, make the stock. In a medium pot, mix up your bouillon, use fresh mushroom and onion stock, or whathaveyou. To the stock, add the juice of half a lemon and large pieces of the lemon zest (or slice the lemon half and add the whole thing to the pot). Juice one orange and add juice to pot. Add smoked salt, cumin, and pepper, and a few whole parsley stalks.

Now, for the secret: smoked scallions. Turn one burner on high. When it is hot, very carefully, using tongs, place four whole scallions on the burner. Let them blacken in places for about 20 seconds, then turn over, and blacken a few more spots. (I learned this trick from Craig Claiborne, so you know it’s good.) Add scallions smoked thusly to the pot.

Rinse and check lentils for detritus, then add to stock. Simmer until cooked. I think this took about 30 minutes, but I don’t remember, so taste frequently. Note that the stock flavor will transfer to the lentils, so if the stock is not salty or flavored enough, you’ll need to adjust the flavorings. Lentils should remain whole but be tender and glossy. They really are beautiful creatures.

When lentils have cooked, remove from stock with a strainer (and save stock if you will be using it for a pilaf). Remove parsley, scallions, and lemon peels. Spread out lentils in a shallow pan to cool.

As the lentils are cooking, marinate the oranges. Remove peel from three remaining oranges. Since presentation is key, you might need to waste a bit of orange. You could segment them, but I like to have slices, so I turn the round orange into a cube by slicing off all six sides with the peel still on, then slicing the orange into 1/4 inch slices before trimming the remaining peel off each slice.

Chop the rest of the parsley and some of the scallions, finely. Place orange slices in a bowl, and add olive oil, balsamic vinegar, the juice from the rest of the lemon, some of the parsley and some of the scallions. Let marinate in the refrigerator.

When the lentils are cool, place the orange slices on top of the lentils. Add a bit more parsley and scallions judiciously atop the oranges, and sprinkle the pine nuts evenly on top. Chill until serving.

Serve with a pearl barley pilaf cooked in the lentil broth, since your friend does not have basmati rice.


Roasted Sweet Potato and Wild Rice Soup

Serves 2-3 as a main dish.

4 sweet potatoes

1 small white onion

1 T. olive oil plus 2 T. olive oil for soup

2 cups orange juice

1 t. paprika (hot or smoked)

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 cup cooked wild rice (see package for instructions and leave time for this, as it takes about an hour)

chopped parsley (about 1/4 cup)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Scrub sweet potatoes and cut off bad spots. Chop onion finely and place in small roasting pan with 1 T. olive oil. Roast whole sweet potatoes whole until soft, about 45 minutes, and onions until soft and caramelized (watch them so they don’t burn), about 20 minutes or so.

Remove sweet potatoes and let cool before peeling and chopping. Add chopped sweet potato to large saucepan with onions, orange juice, paprika, wine, and rest of olive oil. Puree with a stick blender or a potato masher, adding a bit more wine or juice if the soup is too thick for your tastes. Cook to blend flavors for about 15 minutes. Add wild rice, some parsley, salt (smoked salt if you have it) and freshly ground pepper to taste. This is not meant to be a very sweet soup, and the flavors should be balanced by the salt and the dry white wine. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve hot with bread.

chilly! my staples: midwesternish chili


It’s snowing in Eugene, and the Californian in me shoved aside the Midwesterner and ran outside to take pictures. We only get snow like this once every couple of years here, and it makes me happy because I remember the sound and the smell of snow, so hopeful, so vivid.

And being chilly, I made chili. This is one of my favorite recipes, and the best Midwest-style chili I’ve ever had. It’s particularly lovely because you can make it with almost all pantry ingredients, so it’s perfect for a day you’re snowbound. You can make it on the stove or in a slow-cooker. The recipe is a significant modification of one in a cookbook put out by the graduate students in my first grad school. It was called “Peanut’s Plebian Chili,” after a dog named Peanut. I ditched the Peanut, for obvious reasons, and made my own class-based value judgments. And I welcome you to do the same.

Almost Plebian Chili

2 lbs. Hamburger meat (lower fat better)
1 large yellow onion, chopped

1 T. chili powder
1 t. black pepper

1 28-oz. can chopped tomatoes with puree (or substitute can of diced tomatoes and a half-can of tomato paste)
2 15-oz. cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed (try to buy ones without added sugar)
3/4 c. steak sauce AND 2 T. catsup (this is the “almost plebian” part)
2 T. Dijon
1/2 lemon or lime, juiced
3 or 4 canned chipotles in adobo, plus some sauce, chopped (don’t omit)
1 T. sesame seeds
1 T. dark soy sauce (especially if you’re not using beer)
1 bottle beer or 1 cup water

Brown (A) on high heat in a dutch oven, preferably in two batches, but I’m not lookin’. Drain meat of extra grease. Turn down heat to medium low and add (B) to coat meat. Stir in (C), then cook for about 1 hour, covered, at a simmer. Tastes better the next day. Add salt only if necessary. Usually doesn’t need it, but if you use low-salt kidney beans or use less processed substitutes for the steak sauce and catsup (which I don’t recommend in this recipe), you’ll need salt. Serve with a dollop of sour cream, if that strikes your fancy, and/or pickled peppers. I prefer straight-up saltines and a beer chaser.