When Life Calls for Soup

I’m very thankful for the academic calendar. I spent six months working outside of academia (total, my whole life, excepting the years before age 5) either as a student or a teacher. During those six months, I was perpetually disappointed by the lack of built-in break times. Thanksgiving break meant one day off:  Thanksgiving. Christmas meant a long weekend, not a two-week (or, joy, month-long) break that I had become accustomed to after twenty years of operating on an academic calendar.

Now that I once again work on a college campus, I’m in the middle of a month-long break from teaching. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean I’m lying around, eating bon-bons and watching movies. (I wish. And in fact, I am determined to make that happen before school starts again.) Since school ended, I’ve run all manner of Christmas-related errands, travelled to Georgia for the holidays with my family, and am now back in Virginia, busily cleaning, taking care of “life stuff,” and trying to clean my room and create some semblance of order.

I think I’m most thankful for the academic calendar because winter break is sort of like a time-out. It’s the intermission of my job. Unlike summer break, that three-month period of unemployment that is too short to get a job meant for anyone over age 19 and too long to take an extended period of vacation, winter break is one month long. It has holiday festivities to break it up. And it is a time to breathe after 18 weeks of panic, planning, and perpetual grading.

Today when I went to the Book Exchange, a wonderful used book store in Norfolk, and picked up Anthony Bourdain’s first book, my first attempt at Michael Pollan book, In Defense of Food, and what looks to be a lovely novel called The Book of Salt, a fictional account of the chef for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I got one non-food book for myself, and one for my girlfriend. I find that, now that I have a little time to flip through cooking magazines and surf through recipes, all I want to do is cook. And eat. And then rest and repeat. Among my Christmas presents this year were my first mortar and pestle and my first cast-iron skillet. Beautiful, weighty items that now sit in my kitchen, waiting to be used, with my warning scrawled on the chalk board:  Kitchen Rule #1:  Do not ever use soap on the cast-iron skillet.

I miss cooking. During this past semester, my poor roommates and I were so over-worked, so down-trodden, so often defeated at the end of a day of teaching, that we often collapsed on the couch, chairs, or (I’m not ashamed) on the floor, tossing back and forth grunted offerings of take-out possibilities. Orapax? Chinese? Pizza? Ten Top? (Ten Top is the reigning champion of take-out food in this house.)

The white bean soup I needed.

But now, during this delicious break from work, while I work my other side gigs and work on organizing my oh-so-cluttered bedroom, I can cook. And last night, after a rainy, windy day (when I got to wear my new rain boots for the first time!), I needed soup. Herby, savory, beany soup.

I’ve put teaser pictures of this soup on Facebook before, and my friend Alyssa always reminds me that I keep promising to share the recipe. And today is her day. I got this recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, on a rare day when their database was open to the public. Last night, I made it and served it up for my girlfriend and myself, drizzling a careful swirl of olive oil over the top, before burying it all under a pile of homemade rosemary croutons and bacon.

White Bean Soup with Rosemary Croutons

4 1-inch slices of Italian bread, cut into 1-inch squares

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary

Salt and pepper

4 16-oz cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed thoroughly

2 1/4 cups low sodium chicken broth

6 slices bacon, chopped

1 onion, chopped fine (or until your eyes are watering too much and you can’t go on)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 475 degrees. Combine bread, 3 tablespoons olive oil, half of garlic, 1/2 teaspoon rosemary, and 1/8 teaspoon salt in large bowl and toss to coat. Transfer bread to rimmed baking sheet and bake, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool.

2. Meanwhile, process 1 1/2 cups beans and 1/4 cup broth in food processor until smooth. Cook bacon in Dutch oven over medium heat until crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towel-lined plate and pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat. Cook onion in bacon fat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add remaining garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in remaining broth, pureed bean mixture, remaining beans, and remaining rosemary and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, until beans are heated through, about 10 minutes. Add lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with remaining oil and sprinkle with bacon. Serve with croutons.

* You can use Great Northern beans instead of cannellini beans.

In light of my revived romance with cooking, and the coming conclusion to 2011, a time when I tend to reflect back on what I did this past year and what I want to do next year, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing. Not always in the dismal, “woe is me” way of my previous post, but just generally, writing. The kind I do. The kind I want to do. The places I want it to take me. I’ve foolishly said before that I think I’ve wasted time with food writing; that it’s not real, and therefore I’ve lost precious time. But have I? I see books out there, food novels, food memoirs, books that are lush and detailed and (sometimes) tell a decent story. Why do I think that’s closed off to me? I have worked in food service as a waitress collectively for about 3.5 years. I’ve been a food writer for a year and a half. Come February, I’ll have two reputable print clips (thank you very much). That world isn’t closed off to me. It’s hard. And it’s competitive, just like any other area of writing. But what a silly thing, to spin my wheels and wish I was a food writer when, in fact, I am.

I keep a copy of Virginia Woolf’s diary by my bed. When the mood strikes me, I read a bit of it, always dipping in and out of it. In this way, I am taking my time getting to the inevitable and heart-breaking end of her life. And today, as I flipped through, reading section I’ve underlined (or drawn hearts next to), I found these two quotes that are particularly poignant to me:

“Who am I, what am I, and so on:  these questions are always floating about in me:  and then I bump against some exact fact – a letter, a person, and come to them again with a great sense of freshness. And so it goes on. But on this showing, which is true, I think, I do fairly frequently come upon this ‘it’; and then I feel quite at rest.” (1926)

“Writing is not in the least an easy art. Thinking what to write, it seems easy; but the thought evaporates, runs hither and thither.” (1933)

Today, I’m happy for Virginia Woolf, and white bean soup, and a few used books.

2 thoughts on “When Life Calls for Soup

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