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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Wednesday, July 17

Gapers Block

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When I was in college, I was broke most of the time, just like everyone else. And I had my share of ramen and rice and macaroni and cheese, just like everyone else. It was filling sometimes, but it was never a good meal. Fortunately, I knew of an alternative, a recipe I got from my dad. It's the only recipe he has -- this is a man who has plain salami sandwiches and hotdogs with sauerkraut for lunch every day -- but it's a good, reliable one, both cheap and nutritious. For just a couple bucks, you can eat for a week. It's bean soup -- and now that the weather is starting to get cooler, it's the perfect time to make it at home.

The first step is to hit the grocery store. Head to the meat department and look for a ham hock, which is basically a chunk of smoked hog leg. Yeah, it's kind of ugly looking, and you wouldn't want to eat it on its own, but it's key to giving this soup a hearty, smokey flavor. (You could easily make it without the ham hock for a vegetarian soup. If pig's not kosher, ask the butcher for a beef bone -- it won't taste the same, but it'll get the job done.) They're usually packed in pairs -- just throw the extra one in the freezer for later -- and cost around $2.00.

Next, head to the dried/baking goods aisle for the beans. You're looking for a one-pound bag of mixed beans, preferably one with around 16 different types -- you want variety here. The beans should be a buck, buck-fifty.

This soup is a good way to finish off the various bits of veggies gathering in your fridge -- limp celery hearts, cracked carrots, old potatoes, moist mushrooms -- but you might want to pick up some supplements from the vegetable aisle. I'd recommend grabbing some boiling potatoes, an onion, some carrots, celery and a little garlic. I sometimes add a hot pepper for a little spice, but you don't have to.

When you get home, pull out a bowl in which to soak the beans. You want one big enough for twice as many beans, because they'll expand as they soak. Pour the beans in, being careful to remove the "flavor packet" (it's disgusting, MSG-laden stuff), and fill the bowl with warm water a couple inches higher than the beans. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a towel and pop it in the fridge overnight. Check on the bowl after a few hours and add additional water if necessary.

The next day, drain the beans and sort through them, discarding any sticks, stones and beans that didn't rehydrate. Fill your largest pot with 8 cups of water (or chicken/vegetable broth, if you prefer, although the vegetables and beans will create a light broth on their own) and set it to boil. Pour in the beans along with the ham hock and reduce the heat to medium, and toss in a tablespoon of salt and a bay leaf if you've got one. Pop a lid on that puppy.

While the beans simmer, chop your veggies -- they'll take far less time to cook than the beans. You want to leave the veggies fairly chunky. Cube the potatoes, peel and slice the carrots, dice the celery, the usual. For the onion, I'd recommend chopping it into eighths, so you end up with good-sized concentric sections that'll break apart in the soup. If you slice them too small, they'll dissolve into the broth, which is OK, but I prefer to be able to identify them in the mix.

On the other hand, you do want to mince the garlic, which you can add directly into the simmering soup. After about an hour, start adding the vegetables, beginning with the carrots, onions and potatoes -- they'll take the longest to cook. You can add the celery now, too, but it'll completely lose its crunch; some people like that, but I prefer a little bite to mine, so I wait until the beans are mostly cooked through before I throw them in. If you've got mushrooms, add them next, and start tasting the broth and checking the beans for doneness. Depending on how the broth tastes, you'll want to start adding spices now. It will probably need some more salt, and I'd also add some black pepper, some rosemary, oregano, allspice and basil, though you can use any spices you like.

It'll take about four hours for the beans to cook all the way through. By that time the broth will have turned a bit cloudy and the flavors of the beans, the ham hock and the vegetables will have blended together and the broth will be slightly creamy from the potato and bean starch. Fish out the ham hock and bay leaf and it's ready to serve.

Obviously, unless you have a big appetite or large family, you're going to have leftovers. Which is great -- this is one of those meals, like lasagna, that actually gets better after a couple days in the fridge. The flavors have time to meld further, and by the end of the week you'll be sad to have run out of this great homemade soup. It also freezes pretty well.

One last bit of advice: since it takes so long to make this soup from scratch -- five hours or more from prep to plate, not including bean-soaking time -- make it on a weekend afternoon, or else plan to have something else for dinner the night you make it. There's nothing worse than slaving over a great smelling dish that won't be ready for three more hours.

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paul / October 14, 2003 10:26 AM

I managed to knock out some pretty good chicken soup this weekend in about twenty minutes. Some giveaway veggies from friends with gardens, chopped, sauteed, and pureed, and simmered with come cubed, browned chicken breast. An awesome soup would have required simmering the bones of the rest of the chicken for an hour or two.

Another trick for fish soup/stew/chowder - ask the guys at the supermarket fish counter for scraps - they'll either give them to you for free or for really really cheap. And don't be squeamish when they give you a few heads. There's usually a lot of meat on them.

Naz / October 14, 2003 12:54 PM

It's the fish heads that have a lot of flavour from the fatty oils and stuff that makes fish stews and the like really really good. Good call Paul.


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