Getting ready for the season
Countdown: 35 days till my local farmers’ market opens for the season!
I expected this would be a seasonal blog when I started writing it; sure enough, I haven’t posted an entry since December.
Because, really, who wants to read “I took the (whatever) from last harvest season out of the freezer tonight…” Winter cooking, at least in my house, is more about sustenance than it is about enjoying the process. I envy those of you who live in places where there are local farm markets all year round. Oh, we’ve had a winter market this year, two days a month, but I always forget which days until it’s too late.
However: Spring is definitely here in Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley. The daffodils are up, the ornamental fruit trees started blooming this week and we’re less than five weeks from the opening of our local market. So I’ve begun the annual process of clearing the pantry and freezer of the remnants of last year’s harvest to make room for this year’s.
It’s still a little chilly here, and I’ve still got some of Matt-Cyn Farms’ wonderful beans on hand, so I put them on to soak last night and thumbed through recipes this morning. A little of this, a little of that, and I wound up with a Cuban-style bean soup with ham, enriched with tomato and brightened with the tang of fresh lemon juice. That, and some of the first $1.29 a pound asparagus of the season, oven-roasted, made for a wonderful dinner. And there’s plenty left for lunches next week.
Cuban Bean Soup with Ham
- 1 pound dried beans. Black beans are traditional; I used half black turtle beans and half bicolored yin-yang beans from Matt-Cyn Farms
- 10 cups water or vegetable stock, or any combination of both. I keep my vegetable trimmings in a bag in the freezer; when I have a couple bags full, I throw them in water with some pepper and herbs and make stock.
- 1/4 pound ham, cubed. Bone-in ham steaks are an economical way to buy ham; include the bone for flavor (remove before serving!)
- At least 2 cloves garlic, finely minced. I used 6; I would have used more if it hadn’t all been sprouting (instead, the sprouting cloves will go in my garden)
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 1 red bell pepper, chopped (many recipes call for green, but I find green bell peppers unpleasantly bitter. The red, yellow or orange versions add a pleasing sweetness to the dish).
- 1 can diced tomatoes, or an equivalent amount of tomato goo*
- juice of 1 lemon
- salt and pepper to taste. I didn’t bother with salt; the ham was sufficient.
- Dry sherry (optional)
- Hardboiled egg, chopped (for garnish)
- Lemon wedges (for garnish)
Either soak the beans overnight, or use the quick-soak method (Cover beans in water, bring to a boil, put on a lid and cover the pot. After an hour, the beans will be ready to cook). Discard soaking water.
In a large, lidded pot, bring stock/water to a boil. Add soaked beans and ham. Once the beans come back to a boil, turn the heat way down and simmer, partially covered, until tender (1-2 hours).
Make the sofrito: Pound the garlic, cumin, oregano, mustard and cayenne together until well blended. I use a mortar and pestle. You could also throw it in a food processor.
Heat the oil in a saucepan, then sauté the onion and red pepper, stirring, until wilted. Add the spice mixture and stir for a minute. Add the lemon juice and 1/2 cup of liquid from the beans. Cover and simmer 15 minutes. Check to make sure the beans are tender (because once you add the lemon and tomato, their acid will prevent the beans from getting any softer), then stir the sofrito and the tomatoes in and simmer for another hour, partially covered.
I’d planned to puree some of the beans and add them back in to thicken the soup, but it was plenty thick enough without doing so.
When ready to serve, check the seasoning and, if you like, stir in a couple of tablespoons of dry sherry to finish. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with chopped egg and a slice of lemon. Should serve six or so, with a nice salad and some chewy bread to mop the bowl.
Bonus: Tomato gooI probably ought to call it something nicer, like “slow-roasted tomatoes,” but my sister dubbed it tomato goo and tomato goo it is. It’s my favorite thing to do at the end of tomato season, when there are so many ripe tomatoes (from the garden or market) that I can’t possibly eat them all. It’s easy:
- Quarter a bunch of ripe tomatoes, cutting out the blossom ends and any bad bits
- Peel some sweet onions and cut them in large wedges
- Peel several heads of garlic; leave the cloves intact
- Chop up a few fistfuls of fresh basil.
Mix everything together and spread it in a shallow layer in a large roasting or baking pan. The layer should be no more than one tomato chunk deep. Drizzle with olive oil.
Put in a 250F oven and let it cook, stirring every half hour or so, until the liquid has almost entirely evaporated, the onions and garlic have caramelized and the tomatoes have turned into something as good as the best sun-dried tomato you ever ate. This will take hours. Read a book or do the laundry or something.
I always make two pans at a time, one on the top oven rack and one on the bottom. If you do that, swap the pans’ positions a couple of times for more even cooking.
When the goo comes out of the oven, cool and spoon into freezer bags. Press out the air, seal and freeze. To use, peel back the bag and cut off chunks. If you want to thaw it, use the microwave (open the bag first). Add to soups or stews, use as a pasta sauce (alone or with amendments), add to omelettes, spread on rounds of good toasted bread for instant bruschetta, etc. etc. etc.