This winter has been particularly cold and snowy. Today as I watch fresh snow drifting onto the banks outside my bedroom window I listen to the forecast- sub zero temperatures for most of the week. I smile, thinking about the ways my parents worked to keep their family warm during the long Massachusetts winters.
The house where I grew up was a drafty old New Englander at the top of Dye House Hill. On frigid winter nights, the wind would sneak through the cracks between the doors and their casings, blowing icy shivers down my neck. My mother nailed moth-eaten woolen blankets over the doors in an effort to keep out the cold, and the cast iron radiators hissed and clanged, protesting the overtime. We played a game of hide and seek with the sun, opening the window shades during the day to capture a little warmth from the pale January light, and closing them as soon as the drifts outside the window turned blue with shadow.
My father hung a thermometer outside the dining room window and at night he and I would shine a flashlight on its dial, watching the needle sink lower and lower, and announce to the family how many degrees below zero the temperature had fallen. During winter storms, we watched snow pile in the backyard, occasionally measuring it with a yardstick borrowed from its home next to my mother’s sewing machine.
On frigid mornings my sisters and I laid our clothing on chugging radiators before slipping out of our flannel night gowns. The aroma of fresh coffee lured us downstairs to the small kitchen that was my mother’s kingdom. There, the chill of winter was warmed by bowls of oatmeal and thick slabs of homemade toast slathered with melted butter.
My mother was not a gourmet cook, but she could take a few basic ingredients and make a feast that would fill the bellies of a family of ten. On cold nights, her specialty was “Stone Soup,” named after one of our favorite folk tales. The story goes like this: Three hungry soldiers enter a village and finding nobody willing to give them food, fill a pot with water and stones in the village square. As they light a fire under the pot, they explain to the villagers that they are making soup from a stone. They convince the villagers that the soup would be even more delicious if they only had an onion, or a potato, or a cabbage. One by one, the villagers volunteer a few vegetables, until a giant pot of delicious soup is created for all to share.
My mom’s soup was much like stone soup in that she added whatever she could find from the refrigerator. Leftover pot roast and potatoes that would normally serve two people could be stretched to feed a small army with a bit of broth and some onions, carrots, and parsnips. Throw in a can of tomatoes and the rest of the corn from last night’s dinner, and the simmering pot would sing a tantalizing Siren’s song to a hungry family. Homemade bread or muffins and a slice or two of cheese on the side would complete the meal. A bowl of this hearty concoction thawed many frozen bellies that had been out delivering newspapers, or shoveling walks, or sliding on the hill beside Columbia Hall.
As a young mother on a tight budget, I learned to make my own soups. I could get three meals from one chicken- roast chicken for Sunday dinner and chicken soup for Monday and Wednesday suppers. Unlike other meals that require following someone else’s directions, there is freedom in making soup. I could be as creative as I wanted, and the results were usually delicious. I found that homemade soup not only nourished my family’s bodies, but also their souls. Maybe it is the chopping and sautéing, or perhaps it is that my best soups are made while listening to Josh Groban, but I think making homemade soup is a labor of love and comfort food at its finest.
Recently, my daughter Elizabeth asked me for a recipe for soup. Recipe? How do you write, “A little of this, a little of that, add whatever you have in the refrigerator?” I thought of my mother, and how I adapted her Stone Soup to create my own bean soup. For all those readers shoveling, de-icing and cursing the wicked New England winter, here is Momma G’s Bean Soup. Soup from a stone… Imagine that!
Momma G’s Bean Soup
What you need:
3 cans of beans- black beans, kidney beans, black eyed peas…anything that looks appealing
2 stalks celery- cut into small chunks
2 carrots- cut into small coins
1 onion- diced
1/3 small cabbage- about 2 cups shredded
1 cup frozen corn
1 small jar of med heat salsa
1 can tomato sauce
1 can diced tomatoes (you can use the pre-seasoned ones, or southwestern style stewed tomatoes)
3-4 cans vegetable or beef broth
Ketchup (about ¼ cup)
Cajun seasoning (optional)
Heat oil in bottom of the pot and add onions, carrots and celery. Cook until tender and add cabbage, tomato sauce, salsa and diced tomatoes. Gently simmer until cabbage is soft and veggies are tender. Drain all the beans and add to the pot. Add broth one can at a time until the soup is the consistency you like. Add ketchup and Cajun seasoning to taste (go easy on the Cajun seasoning- it will get spicier as it simmers.) Once the soup has simmered about 20 minutes, add the frozen corn. Simmer another 5-10 minutes and it’s done. This freezes well, and should make a huge batch.