This Is Our Hill, And These Are Our Beans

I’ve been sick as a dog, so all the festive autumnal posts I had planned will have to wait until I catch up with articles and other stuff that I’m behind on. But rest assured: I have binders full of awesome posts just waiting to be unleashed upon you at a moment’s notice. Meantime, I’ll tell you about this wonderful soup we had the other night, which was made entirely from homemade and homegrown things. It had the deep and vivid flavor of food that you eat on vacation in another country, which imprints itself upon your memory forever as being both emblematic of the place and the definitive version of that dish; you are forever after disappointed by the pale imitations at the restaurants back home, and your own efforts always fall short. This humble bowl of soup was like an Italian vacation in a bowl. Nothing was missing. It was perfect, and it transported me back to the osteria in Florence where I first had white bean and escarole soup.

The great genius of Italian food is taking peasant scraps and spinning them in to gold, and the key to the success of this soup was the provenance of those scraps. The quality of ingredients is everything in cooking; the better they are, the less you need to do to them and the more they teach and delight you when you cook and eat them.

To begin, the new batch of pancetta. A few rosy curls of this, insouciantly diced and gently rendered in a pan, begin the journey to greatness. Then a couple of freshly-dug carrots and an onion, gathered along with the escarole a few minutes before prep began. I find that there’s a noticeable difference in the flavor of many vegetables if you eat them right after they have been picked or cut. While they softened a bit, I added some chopped garlic, a couple of fat pinches of the herbes de Provence (see last post), and a pinch of fennel seeds and stirred it all for a minute. The aromas rising out of the pan at this juncture were transportive.

The real stars of the show, of course, were the beans. With a frost impending, I went out and picked the whole bed of Tarbais beans, the seeds for which I brought back from France in March. They got off to a late start, since squirrels ate the whole first crop of shoots, but the second try yielded an ebullient and prolific tangle of vines that swarmed over the bamboo trellis I made for them. They’re not hard to shell, and it makes for an enjoyable family activity. There’s a not insignificant magic to splitting a fading green pod and exposing the shiny white treasure within.

The beans are spread on cookie sheets in front of a sunny window, drying for storage. I cadged a couple cups for the soup and parboiled them for half an hour or so until they were approaching tenderness. Fresh beans need much less cooking than dried.

Not having any white wine handy, I deglazed the pan with a bit of cider vinegar, then poured some chicken/lamb stock into the aromatic goodness—made from the respective bones of two meals the previous week—and then added the beans with a slotted spoon so they wouldn’t dilute it. While it came up to a simmer, I chopped a head of escarole and added it in along with a bit of salt to get the seasoning right. Then I let it all snuggle together until the greens brightened, wilted, and darkened a bit. Then I ladled it into bowls and finished it with a twist of pepper and generous festoonings of olive oil.

Photo by Milo

Because everything in it was as fresh and handmade as possible, the result was every bit as good as the authentic version from twenty-three years and five thousand miles ago. The steaming soup was a time machine, a multi-sensory mnemonic rush that overlayed the vivid memory on the present, collapsing time and space like a wormhole. The moral of the story, and the point of all this prolix prose, is that the real key to cooking food that curls your toes is always to start with the best of what you have on hand and figure out what to make with it. Working backwards from a recipe rarely produces an equal result, warranting as it usually does a trip to the store for one or more ingredients that came from afar. I have eaten coconuts, overripe breadfruit, and lilikoi in Hawaii (among many other things) and they hardly resemble those things as they present themselves in stores around here, if they’re even available. I rarely buy them, because they’re bland simulacra of the real foods. It is tangibly more nourishing to body and soul to cook a simple bowl of beans with your own food than it is to combine expensive and exotic products of foreign climes. It’s also more efficient, and less stressful; when you let the garden, pantry and freezer tell you what dinner will be, it’s just a matter of putting it all together attentively and enjoying the result. And it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a ticket to Italy.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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