Posts Tagged ‘beans’

Cooking for Friends

January 11, 2011

I hadn’t seen Phillip in at least a few months when he called me earlier this week. Schedules fill up, obligations take over, and before you know it, you and your friends exist in completely different dimensions. Let’s have dinner, I said, and we made plans to go out.

Despite those plans, the urge for soup had overcome me. It’s been cold in San Francisco lately – San Francisco cold, mind you, but it’s damp and 49 degrees seeps into you in a way the cold in Alaska never did – and I had a full container of dried canellini beans and a fresh bunch of kale and somehow the day just called for soup. I put the beans on to soak after giving them a quick boil and made my way to the produce market to grab a few extra items for dinner: a baguette, a bottle of pinot grigio, and a pound of Italian sausage.

As the afternoon progressed, the soup began coming together. In addition to chicken stock – store bought, I have to confess even though there was freshly made stock in the freezer –  I added onions, garlic, rosemary, oregano, and a bay leaf and let them simmer for a while along with the beans. I began thinking of serving dessert, too, and found a friend’s recipe for a citrus cake  except that I didn’t have limes or lemons but I did have blood oranges, and I began pulling that together, too.

Eventually, sausage and carrots and kale made their way into the soup and I mashed up some of the beans to thicken it, the cake was baked and then drenched with a syrup of orange juice and sugar, and Phillip arrived, pleased to find out he’d be eating homemade – he’s not a cook – rather than going out. The apartment was filled with the smells of soup and baking. I poured some wine, pulled the baguette from the oven, and began dishing out the soup. I’d already placed a small Japanese rice bowl filled with black and green olives on the table and we began to eat.

The conversation, freed from the rigors of trying to figure out where to go for dinner, flowed and we caught up on our activities of the past few months. I’d been traveling and he had lots of questions about Mexico and I told him about Tijuana and what an ugly city it is but how lively and wonderful it is, too. We talked about the concerts I saw there and the galleries and the museum and the food and I promised to show him photos from both my trips there.

The soup was good – more rosemary and some lemon would have made it better – and Phillip was pleased with the kale. We drank more wine and ate more olives and then it was on to dessert and photos of Tijuana and Naples and Capri and the discussion about aging parents and relatives.

The soup, I think, facilitated all the talking. Soup does that, especially thick wintery soups.

A Sign of Good Things To Come

February 4, 2010
At the moment – at this very moment – I’m broke. Like freelance writers everywhere, I am dependent upon the whims of editors and their bookkeepers to ensure I receive payment for my work. Unlike many freelancers, I know how to cook and that makes my life a little easier.

Part of the beauty of knowing how to cook, even in the face of abject poverty – whether it is temporary or long term – is knowing how to make the best of sometimes very limited ingredients. If I have staples on hand, I feel secure. Even in the direst of circumstances, I can at least turn out a solid meal that will not only sustain me physically – hunger is hell on the body – but emotionally. Dreary food is hell on the spirit.

Tonight, I made one of the dishes I grew up with, pinto beans and corn bread. I love beans and I make damned good corn bread. What I love about beans and corn bread, even more than its tiny impact on my budget, is that even when I’m feeling flush, I still love to cook it. Even when money is the very least of my worries, a pot of beans simmering away on the stove top with a ham hock or two bobbing about amidst the legumes is remarkably reassuring. It is comforting in the way a warm house is comforting when one comes in from the cold, or comforting as the return of a loved one is after a long, unsure absence.

Corn bread, too, baking in the oven is a source of surety. Pouring the batter into a scalding iron skillet – hearing it sizzle and watching it bubble around the edges of the pan as it hits the melted fat – is a call not only to the taste buds but a wealth of scents and sounds. Corn bread is enveloping comfort at its best. Simple to make with none of the fussiness of yeast breads, corn bread’s gritty bite is substantial with flavor and nourishment and reliability.

Once the bread is done and the beans are finished simmering, I love to dunk the buttery slices of bread into the pot liquor, letting them soak up as much liquid as possible while still being able to get the piece into my mouth before it disintegrates from the weight of the juices. I always eat too much corn bread when I serve it with beans; the combination of flavors is irresistible.

I wasn’t aware that not everyone felt as highly about beans, or corn bread, until I was living on my own. A woman with whom I was friendly and I met on the street. This was in my hometown, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I must have stepped out to pick up something because I had beans cooking on the stove at home and in the course of chatting, I invited her over for dinner.

“Oh, no,” she insisted. “I’m planning on making curry. Come to my house, instead.” I remember, too, she was from Illinois, or someplace like that, and like many of my friends was a student at the university. I did have dinner with her at her house, but I was disappointed she seemed so uninterested in what I had planned. Beans and corn bread, I came to realize, was not a dish highly prized by everyone.

Nearly 25 years after that encounter, though, I still prize them and tonight, even with an empty checking account and a sense of impatience as I wait for the mail carrier to push those highly anticipated checks through the mail slot in the door to my flat, I feel that same sense of satisfied pleasure that only comes with a meal one truly enjoys. Beans and corn bread mean everything is, and is going to be, just fine.