This hasn’t been an ordinary winter, though. We’ve had hardly any snow and temperatures in the 30s and even the low 40s, which is just against God. When it finally started snowing the other day even non-skiers like me were greatly relieved.
But apparently my blood has thinned, because as the thermometer settled toward the zero mark I was unreasonably cold. Wool socks weren’t keeping my feet warm. A fleece layer was necessary even in the car. I considered pulling out the long johns and maybe even zipping my coat.
Clearly what was needed was a mess of beans.
My mom, who was originally from Tennessee, used the phrase “a mess” to describe not just an untidy room but also a big batch of something good. So did a former co-worker, who once spoke of a hunger for a “mess of beans.”
That’s why DF covered two cups of pintos with water when he got home Friday night. Below-zero weekend temps had been predicted and he wanted us to be ready.
Nourishing us twice
The next morning he took a large ham bone from the freezer and put it in the slow cooker with a little water. The two simmered for a couple of hours while we did chores and ran errands. Next DF strained the broth into a glass measuring cup and set it outdoors, then carved off all the ham scraps he could.
The scraps went back into the slow cooker along with the beans, some chopped onion and shredded carrot, two types of stock from the boiling bag, and seasonings. The ham juice came back indoors when the fat had solidified; the defatted stock went into the soup and the fat into the freezer.
To paraphrase Thoreau, that soup nourished us twice: when we ate it, obviously, but also throughout the day as its aroma perfumed the entire house. At 5:30 p.m. I baked cornbread (DF greased the skillet with some of that frozen ham fat) and the two of us sat down to what we considered the perfect winter supper.
The beans were perfectly tender and the broth was rich and meaty but not overly salty, with a touch of sweetness from whatever had been in the last boiling bag. A squirt from the mustard vinegar bottle perfectly complemented that slightly sugary note.
A dish that improves with time
As a single mom in Philadelphia the baby and I practically lived on Great Northern beans. No exaggeration: We’d eat it at least five or six times a week. Once I got married it was years before I could even think about bean soup.
During my more recent lean years (divorce debt, return to college), I ate a lot of pinto beans. In part that was because they were cheap, but it was also because they were easy to fix in the slow cooker and they lasted for days.
And now? DF and I make a pot of beans at least once a month, sometimes more often. They’re nourishing, they’re filling and, yes, they’re cheap. We also like the fact that they’re made with stuff that might otherwise have been thrown out: the bone from the ham, the kitchen scraps that turned into soup stock, and the dregs of mustard and brine from the “empty” pickle jar that combine to a savory seasoning.
Right now the slow cooker crock is sitting on the ledge of the fireplace insert. We plan to dip into it whenever we get hungry today; ditto the half-skillet of leftover cornbread. I’ve already had a bowl and can attest that yep, some things do get better after sitting in the fridge overnight.
In our case, the “fridge” was Seward’s Icebox: DF set the crock outdoors last night when we’d finished eating. Its contents were frozen solid when he brought them in before leaving for church. Now they’re ready to help us combat the 15-below shivers. Long johns and wool socks are fine chill-chasers, but sometimes you also just want a mess of beans.