Momma G’s Bean Soup or How to Thaw the Gizzard of a Frozen New Englander

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:

Large pot

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)

Oil

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.

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Squash it!

When I was a little girl, I detested squash of all kinds.  My mother would put one small slice of zucchini or one dollop of mashed butternut on my plate, instructing me to “try just one bite.”  I would wait until only that one lonely bit of vegetable remained on my plate, and then try to gulp it down without tasting it.  I tried salt, ketchup, and even washing it down with milk but it always made me gag, threatening an encore performance of the other, more palatable foods I had swallowed. 

When visiting my aunt and uncle in Maryland, I found that dinner one evening consisted solely of squash casserole.  I still remember my uncle smacking his lips, declaring, “That squash is delicious-sweet as a nut!”

“You’re the nut” I grumbled under my breath, trying to ignore my belly’s rumbling.  At fifteen, I dared not tell him I hated squash.  I went hungry that night.

Lots of people don’t like squash.  In fact, lots of people don’t like vegetables.  I know people who don’t eat anything green or yellow. I think it is maybe because they were forced to eat stuff that made them gag when they were kids.

When Abby was a baby, I was determined that she would not be a picky eater.  I made most of her baby food for her in a grinder.  She loved unusual foods and would gobble down things like bits of bleu cheese and slices of apricot.  One day, however, I bought jarred baby food, thinking it would simplify my life.  I warmed the vegetables and beef dinner, trying to ignore the fact that it closely resembled dog food both in smell and appearance.  Abby took one whiff and turned her head. 

“How can someone who eats bleu cheese scoff and good old American Gerber’s?” I asked.  I decided I could be as stubborn as she was and insisted she eat the full amount.  She gagged and protested, but she ate it.  Smugly satisfied, I commended myself on not being outdone by a one-year-old.  Then she calmly and quietly barfed the entire jar onto the tray of her high chair.  So much for force feeding.  So much for Gerber. 

I decided that the kids should try a little of every food, but not be forced to eat things they hated.  This worked to some extent, but sometimes they decided they didn’t like things before they even tried them.  I remember Gabe staring for the first time at a steaming bowl of pea soup, declaring, I don’t like this stuff.”  Try as I might, I could not get him to taste it.  I even thought of blind-folding him, but decided doing that bordered on child abuse even more than making a three-year-old eat pea soup.

Shortly thereafter, I was grinding homemade beef and vegetable soup in the blender for Elizabeth’s baby food when I realized that once blended, vegetables were no longer recognizable. Ureka! I thought. I could add a plethora of vegetables to the broth, grind them to a silky consistency, and nobody would look into the bowl and declare “Eeeew! It has celery in it!”  Added to this discovery was the advantage that the soup had the consistency of gravy and was far easier and less messy for young children to eat.  Needless to say, I rode that wave for years.

Hard to believe, my kids grew up to love vegetables.  The girls, now grown women, are vegetarians.  Gabe, although still a carnivore, eats all kinds of veggies.  When they are all home, half of my grocery budget goes to fruits and vegetables.

As for me, for some strange reason, the summer before I left for college I tried a bite of garden fresh yellow squash, steamed, swimming in butter, with a sprinkling of salt and pepper.  To my astonishment, I liked it.  I tried other squashes- zucchini, butternut, acorn, spaghetti- and found that I liked them too.  I even have concocted my own recipe for butternut soup.  Now, if I could just find a way to like exercise…

Momma G’s Butternut Soup

1 large butternut squash, peeled and cut up into cubes

1-2 large yellow onions, peeled, sliced and sautéed in olive oil till soft and caramelized

1 clove garlic, peeled, mashed, and sautéed with onions in olive oil

1 can of chicken or vegetable broth

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Cook squash in boiling water until soft.  Run squash, onion and garlic through food processor or blender in small batches until smooth.  Add lemon juice and enough broth to thin to preferred consistency.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

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