Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: Tuscan White Bean and Kale Soup

This is another in my series of postings about cooking to save the planet.  As I've noted as I've posted these pieces, my goal in writing them is to share tips about shopping for food and preparing and eating it that may be perfectly obvious to some readers, but which will, I hope, help many readers whose life history hasn't, unfortunately, included the kinds of lessons in these matters once passed on as a matter of course within families.  

My sense is that many younger folks today have lost that vital connection--or, better, that it was lost for them by their parents, who have failed to transmit some essential cultural wisdom in these areas to the current younger generation.  And as an educator who cares about issues like preserving the planet and seeing people with limited resources well-fed, I want to do my bit to remedy the situation.  And so these postings . . . . 

Today I'm making a large pot of kale and white bean soup.  But before I get to the soup itself, I'd like to share a thought that struck me as I put the beans on to cook and shredded the kale to go into the chicken stock fragrant with onion, garlic, carrots, bay leaf, and oregano.

As I have noted several times on this blog, Steve and I eat soup almost every day.  We do so because we love it, and it's a way to enhance our consumption of healthy vegetables and limit the amount of less healthy items we might otherwise consume--meat, in particular.  

But today it hit me: I cook soup repeatedly throughout the week for another reason, as well.  I do so because I enjoy--I receive real joy from--sharing each pot of soup with someone other than ourselves.  I don't do this self-consciously or as a result of any careful planning. 

It simply happens.  I have an aunt who lives alone and is now up in years, and we have a close neighbor who's in similar circumstances, and so I never cook a pot of soup without intending--whether consciously or not--to set aside a quart or two of the final product for these folks, and anyone else I happen to think of who might enjoy and benefit from the gift.  Their faces are in my head as I prepare the ingredients and stir the pot.

We do all too little to help others, Steve and I, though we try always to remain conscious of our obligation to do so--on a daily basis.  But this soup "ministry" comes naturally to me, I suddenly realize.  I enjoy cooking and eating soup.  Others are in need of nourishing meals.  And the giving delights me as much as (I hope) the receiving seems to delight them.

As I myself grow older, I'm becoming aware of the real, ongoing challenges that aging people living alone face, as they try to provide for their nutritional needs.  It's a drag to cook for oneself alone, and to eat alone, day in and day out.  One's own cooking grows unappetizing under the best of circumstances.

It means the world to some elderly people living alone to be given something like a quart of freshly prepared, nourishing soup full of vegetables and good flavor.  And so I'm encouraging anyone reading this blog who might feel inspired to do so to think of those around you as you cook, who might benefit from bread broken at your table and shared with them.  

It's not only those up in years who often appreciate the gift of a ready-made and nourishing meal.  Younger folks with families, parents who work all day and find cooking a good meal for their families when they come home in the evening a stretch, also often very much welcome a well-cooked dish like a pot of soup awaiting them after a long day of work.

And that ferverino aside, here's how I make the kale and bean soup.  I put on a pot of white soup beans--say, a cup or two of dried beans, depending on how much kale I have to cook.  As they cook, I heat either water or stock of some sort in a large soup pot, and shred a bunch of kale (the bunch I cooked today must have been twenty stalks or more: it cooks down).  To prepare the kale (after you've washed it carefully by putting it into a sink or large bowl of water, swishing it around to let any detritus settle, and then rinsing each leaf well), tear the leafy part of the vegetable from the stems and discard the latter.

Then shred the kale.  I find this works best with most leafy greens if I take the greens sans stalks and then roll them up into a tight ball.  I cut across the ball in shreds, and then I turn the cutting board a half turn (90 degrees), and shred across the ball the opposite way, to produce thin, small shreds.

These go into the simmering stock, along with a large onion chopped fine, several toes of garlic finely minced, three or four large carrots diced, and two or three large potatoes cubed.  I also add a few sprinkles of oregano and several bay leaves, along with salt and pepper.  Let these simmer covered until the vegetables are tender, and when the beans have cooked through, add them to the pot.  If necessary, add more water or stock.  If you or those who will eat the soup don't object to a bit of heat, you might add a few sprinkles of red pepper flakes as well.

Once you've added the beans, let the soup simmer for a few minutes more and it's ready.  For us, this is the meal itself, along with bread and butter and perhaps a wedge of cheese--or some parmesan grated into the soup.  You can certainly also add meat to the soup.  Slices or crumbles of  cooked sausage are traditional.  And it's definitely a welcome and healthy meal for those who may not be up to cooking for themselves, or may be tired of doing so.  

Please don't forget these people in your life.  As George Washington Carver famously said, "How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these."

Because I believe he's correct, and because I myself may one day live to be old and in need of the help of others, I try to remember Carver's challenge to think of the aged--and the young, the striving, the weak, and the strong, as well.