Black Beans and the No CSA Blues

About the third night of black beans in a row (black beans with squash galette, black beans and rice, black beans in tacos), I realized I had the No CSA Blues – inertia, listlessness in the grocery store, a failure of imagination. It’s not that the Co-op doesn’t have food, but I’m missing the guidance – and the box of prompts.

I loved our CSA in Alaska – no matter the short season and the preponderance of greens and beets – it was a thrill to have freshly harvested vegetables on the Last Frontier. But the dependence I’ve formed on the Red Dog’s produce is more extreme. I rarely write a proper list from a recipe and take it to the store. I like best to make do with what’s in the fridge. So without the CSA I come up short. In Red Dog’s CSA season (all but a couple of months of the year), there’s always something good.

With the young couple who joined us in Hawaii we talked about black beans (in addition to cats), and they asked about cooking them. So – a little black bean cooking encouragement for dried bean beginners (like I was before the blog). Martha Stewart’s recipe has become second nature (supplied a year ago by the mother of my young friend). While simple, beans need time on the stove, so they’re good to cook on a Saturday – or an evening while watching a movie.

In spite of Bittman’s advice, I do soak two cups of beans overnight. They serve as sign of intention when I wake up to plumper beans pushing through the water over top of them. I add more water to cover till I’m ready to cook.

Rinse the beans and put in a big pot. The recipe calls for eight cups of water – but seven cups with well-soaked beans is adequate. You want enough so the beans stay covered during cooking, but not so much that you end up with more bean broth than you want.

Throw in two onions, just peeled and quartered, five garlic cloves peeled and smashed with the handle of a knife. Add two tablespoons of red vinegar. I take Bittman seriously about salt during cooking. I add a teaspoon to begin with, and try to remember the other mid-way in the cooking.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and set the timer for 90 minutes or so. (This is where gas stove cooks have advantage. It took a while to figure out the right knob position on my fluctuating electric stove.) Batches of dried beans vary also – older beans take longer to cook.) Sometimes I cook longer than the 90 minutes – being sure water continues to cover.

A year’s worth of bean pots and bean posts have taught and rewarded me. They freeze beautifully and make easy weekday meals.

When the CSA comes back next week (hooray!) whatever is in it will go splendidly with black beans.

Connected by Cats

More than 40 years ago we named our scraggily, tiny black kitten who made so much noise at night, Oiltinsbang. The words are a line in a poem by John Haines, from his collection “Winter News.” As the years went by, we also called our cat Moley Man, but he was always most properly Oiltinsbang (which my father-in-law could never get right, calling him “Tin oil noise” and other variants).

In the poem Haines writes of “Northway where the cold begins,” and:

“Oil tins bang

as evening comes on,

and clouds of steaming breath drift

in the street.”

Haines’s poetry narrated and animated the landscape and cold of our Alaska life. One summer, when I was still in school, a favorite English professor and her husband took us with them to visit Haines at his handmade cabin in the woods near Fairbanks. He welcomed us with meals and a woods walk where we feasted on wild raspberries.

My friend wasn’t really a professor then, though she is now, but a teaching assistant – closer to my age than a regular professor. When she sent word of Haines’s recent death, she included the poem and recalled our visit to his cabin – and mentioned Oiltinsbang.

Her email message came right on top of the saddest iPhone drawing by my painter friend of her cat Tuffet on the way to the vet for the last time. The messages together set up a tangle of connection – old friends – old cats. Sadness and joy  – beautiful Tuffet, beautiful poem.

I’d been reading a “New Yorker” article by David Brooks, author of “The Social Animal.” He says a lot of surprising things about our happiness and how unknown the sources of it are to us. Brooks writes in the voice of a neuroscientist to say: “I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.”

Cats are conduits. I see our older son and his wife building those links when they tell tales of life with Cromwell and Wolsey, their orange cats. The cat stories of the young people we saw in Hawaii, who moved with their cats from Saipan, made quick connection between all of us – cats’ quirks and foibles filled the room.

When my husband came home the evening of the emails, he’d also heard about the death of John Haines. Out of the blue a decades-out-of-touch colleague in Alaska called to say he remembered that we had a cat named Oiltinsbang – and had thought about him when he read about John Haines.

Brooks emphasizes that research in the last 30 years has shown the importance of connection to our inner mind. He doesn’t mention the role of cats, but he could have.

Kabocha Pumpkin

Our younger son’s sweet friend came back from the market in Kauai with a Kabocha squash. She said we would make pumpkin stir-fry. “But that’s a squash.” I said, “Pumpkins are orange.” Wrong.

She knew her mind. Dark green this pumpkin may be on the outside, but inside the flesh is deeply orange and when cooked – it’s the best of both worlds – pumpkin and squash. (Bittman says, Halloween makes some people (me) think pumpkins are orange and only for pie or soup. Edible orange pumpkins can be used in lots of squash recipes.)

I asked for the recipe to share here. These directions call for a wok, but our adaptable Thai friend made this in an ordinary skillet – with crowd-pleasing results.

Peel the pumpkin, leaving some green. Cut in half, remove seeds, and cut into pieces an inch long and half an inch thick (you need about 2 cups). Chop a (medium-sized) shallot and a bell pepper. Tear basil leaves.

Heat the wok (or what you have), add a tablespoon of vegetable oil and the shallot, and stir-fry till the shallot begins to brown. Add pumpkin, stir, add a cup of water and stir.

After about five minutes, when the pumpkin is soft, add two tablespoons each fish sauce and oyster sauce and two or three teaspoons of sugar. Add the bell pepper and stir for about two minutes.

Turn off the heat, add the basil leaves and mix well. The squash should be a little mushy. Serve over hot rice. Delicious!

And here’s something else – Kabocha pumpkin or squash, whichever you call it, makes terrific pie! Just when we had resigned ourselves to the end of pie season – a reprieve.

Squash – pumpkin – it’s orange inside and terrific to eat!

Hope

The bird’s nest fell sometime this winter and landed on the lawn. Filament-sized twigs, barely worthy of the word twig – wiry sub-twigs – and a few strands of what must be deer hair and wisps of lichen form the flattened nest. It is intricately constructed and still strong in its fragile weaving but no match for a windstorm.

It sat on the front porch table for months, and now in the last week, every time I see it, I think about Japan – and the other flattened homes. When I sent inadequate commiseration to my Japanese reader, he ended his reply by wishing “Peace to the unfortunate souls.”

Knowing the balance of hope with with despair is upended for the survivors, I wish for the return of hope – somehow – in all its life supporting forms.

Cooking Beans in Paradise

On Kauai papaya, lemons, oranges, avocados, apple bananas, and pineapples join exotic fruits I don’t know so well – rambutan and mangosteen. Even in the islands it’s winter, but at farmer’s markets gorgeous vegetables and kale bunches of all kinds overlap each other. We often bought dinosaur and frilly kale, along with shallots, potatoes, carrots (not so good as Red Dog but local), and tiny eggplants. We discovered that my old friend’s kale salad – while good right away – gets even better after a day or two – unlike any other dressed salad.

Our younger son’s sweet friend, our resident Thai cook, worked her magic on several evenings, and one night presented an all-Thai menu with cooking lessons. She charmed galangal and kaffir lime leaves from the owner of the local Thai restaurant, and taught us about ingredients like lemon grass and peppers. Her soup was fragrant and hotly delicious.

Our older son and his wife prepared vegetable kabobs to grill on the night we celebrated my husband’s birthday, and made tasty oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips to go with ice cream – a festive stand-in for birthday cake.

But black beans carried the day. I made two different big batches from dried beans, and – like the basic little black dress – they appeared in many ensembles.

We served black beans and peppers stuffed with quinoa when our younger son’s college roommate and his wife came for a weekend (they’re newly moved to Honolulu from Saipan with great stories of that life). But the highlight that night – our daughter-in-law’s chocolate-covered, frozen apple bananas!

Deborah came with us – her “Vegetarian Suppers” is a portable size, and a good book to inspire a cooking-in-a-condo trip. Our first night together we ate Deborah’s “Black Beans and Yellow Rice” – the rice made partly with coconut milk and colored yellow with saffron and turmeric.

Deborah says even canned beans work fine in this meal – as long as you “doctor them up” by cooking and adding green peppers, onions, cilantro, garlic, cumin, and chipotle – or as many of those ingredients as you have.

I can make this at home now – and the rice will be properly golden yellow with the spices, and the beans extra flavorful from complete ingredients.

But I’ll be missing our amiable tablemates!