When my sister’s firstborn left for college, she called me and wailed “but I’m not done!”
I reassured her (correctly, as it turns out) that my nephew was a super guy and well-situated for a nice life. But I was talking out my ear, as we both well knew in that moment, because in that moment how fine he was going to be was not at all what she was getting at.
My own children were mere tots at the time that I was giving hollow reassurances to my sister, and as they get larger and more capable and closer to the door (one of them even got loose, I’m afraid–flew the coop for college in September while I had my back turned), I become more acutely aware of what I have and haven’t gotten around to teaching them, and how as a result they are (or aren’t) prepared for what will come their way. I am fully aware, thank you very much, that efforts to prepare them undertaken by myself and others may have an inverse or otherwise skewed relationship to the anticipated preparedness. But there’s stuff that has been addressed, in some either misguided or intelligent fashion, and stuff that got skipped.
Under the heading “Possibly Skipped,” it seems that I may have overlooked teaching my children how to cook. They certainly know how to eat, and I don’t mean just that they hoover up large quantities of food, which they do. I mean that they are successful eaters, and I am really happy about that. They can tell good food when they see it, and even when perhaps ever so slightly overindulgent in the latter, know the difference between healthy food and treats. They know when their bodies want vegetables, and they have favorites and know where they come from. They all have their quirks as eaters, to be sure, but even the one who spent several years governing her plate according to a lengthy No-Fly list and traveled with a hip flask full of tamari can now pass for a regular diner at home and abroad.
They have all been coached through school baking projects and, thanks to helping in the kitchen, each excels at certain prep tasks (my oldest can mince garlic so fine it could pass through the eye of a needle; her sister is the guacamole master), but independent meal preparation is a separate consideration. One of them can fly solo through the preparation of a salad and a quesadilla. That’s about as close as we get.
The thing is, I don’t remember being taught to cook. My mother was a serious cook when I was younger, and my sisters and I undoubtedly learned to cook thanks to that. But I don’t remember my mom giving actual lessons. My two sisters took cooking classes when they were teeny from a Brooklyn Heights neighbor, and we still have the yellowing mimeographed recipes in an Age of Aquarius folder to prove it, but I don’t think that alone could be the secret because I never took those or any other classes and yet we all left the house as capable cooks. We just ate and helped and learned and cooked, as I recall it. (There was that one sister who twinked off to cooking school in Paris and kind of leapfrogged over the rest of us, but that was later). And I suppose I thought the same osmosis would happen for my own children without my having to think too much about it, but it would appear that it hasn’t, and as sure as eggs is eggs we know who can take the fall for that.
Mercifully, there is a resource for this. Someone has thoughtfully written a book aimed directly at persons who know good food when they see it but have fledged without learning, at home or anywhere else, how to prepare it. The book is Twelve Recipes, by Cal Peternell, and I am going to stock right the hell up on copies because if there were ever a timeless and perfect housewarming gift for first apartments, this is it right here. Also, he is a chef at Chez Panisse and he has a gorgeous, artful, sunlit life in a gorgeous, artful, clean house (the pictures prove it!) AND HE FORGOT TO TEACH HIS CHILDREN TO COOK ALSO. To simplify the arithmetic: Makes Me Feel Better = Good Book.
If you can cook, Twelve Recipes is also a nice way to be reminded, on days when you feel at a total loss, that there are both things you do know how to do and new ways to engage them. The book feels like how I would teach my children: assume they know what we are talking about–that they don’t need to be convinced, e.g., that a crispy roast chicken or a spicy bean soup is worth wanting– and that they just need the steps laid out to get from here to there. Plus, Mr. Peternell shares my total repulsion when it comes to browned garlic and is (in my humble and incontrovertibly correct opinion) exactly as decisive as a person should be in making it clear that all available measures must be taken to avoid this unfortunate time-travel rocketship to the late 1980’s. “Don’t Brown The Garlic” will be on all my children’s Valentines this year. Not going to take a chance they leave my house as garlic-browners, and I am happy to have Cal Peternell on my side. (Agrees With Me = Good Book.)
If you have not yet toodled around the exciting happenings of Bean Month (brain child of Samin Nosrat, the creator of this gorgeous site) and now drawing to a close, you really oughta. It’s not how I got to Twelve Recipes, and this bean soup, but as it turns out the world is tiny and webby and it could have been. Bean Month is certainly how I got to many other delicious pantry-busting things I have recently made, and fed to children who have no earthly clue how they were prepared, and I commend its rabbit-hole to you. You can also look up #beanmonth on Instagram, if you lean that way.
This recipe looks long but that’s just because I do a lot of babbling about beans and tomatoes before I get down to brass soup tacks. Also: honesty compels me to let you know that he serves it with poached or hard-boiled eggs on top, and I am not fond of either, so I didn’t.
adapted from Twelve Recipes, by Cal Peternell
First of all, you are going to need to cook some chickpeas. Chickpeas in cans, like all beans in cans, are a staple of the pantry. Eat them with my warm encouragement to do so (as if you needed it!) and know that I do the same. But beans you cook yourself are tastier. They just are. When you have time to make them, do it. Make a huge pot and freeze them in can-of-bean portions, even. A big pot of beans is the best thing you can do for your mid-week self on a weekend aside from booking a massage or plane ticket, and it is way cheaper in every respect. Among other benefits to wallet and planet, you get the cook’s privilege of skimming off a bowl of warm beans and eating them with lemon and olive oil and salt and pepper, and there is not much that is better than that.
Peternell suggests you add a T of baking soda to the water when you soak the beans and I am not going to argue. These were some tender little devils. Whey, a dash of lemon or vinegar–I’ve heard about (and tried) all those acidic additions, but the basic did make a garbanzo of superlative texture. Whatever you do or don’t add to the water, soak a minimum of 2.5 cups of dried chickpeas in abundant water overnight. Sometime the next day, drain that water off and put the beans in a big pot with fresh water to cover by a few inches. (Some people like to toss a strip of kombu seaweed in with the beans, too). I use a big Le Creuset pot, and bring it to a low boil on the stove while I warm the oven to 350. Then I cover the pot and slide it into the oven and whack the heat down to 25o and go on about my day. Within the hour, towards its end, I check back with the beans. If the first one I meet is not tender, back goes the pot as before. If that bean is tender, use the “test five” method. All tender: pot is done. An overcooked bean is better than an undercooked bean, and don’t you forget it. An undercooked bean is unpleasant to chew and to digest, but as long as there has been abundant water and nothing has burned, an overcooked bean is just that much closer to soup. You’ll need six cups of cooked beans for the soup. So if you want an additional bowl of beans for your present or future self, soak more than 2.5 cups to start with.
If you use canned beans here, drain them and rinse them and use water in place of the liquid they came in. But really: make the beans.
The tomatoes: He calls for roasted tomato puree. One of my perennial late summer activities is to trade my soul and other expendables (up to but not including the children, as you can see, because I need them to work) for large baskets of tomatoes and roast pan after pan to stash in the freezer, so when I got to this line in the recipe I could draw on that stockpile, but even if you are not similarly equipped, you can replicate easily by roasting a box of cherry tomatoes from the grocery store. Cherry tomatoes still taste kind of like actual tomatoes, even in the winter, and roasting concentrates what tomato-ness they possess even further. Halve them and drizz with some olive oil, shake on a little salt and pepper, and cook in a hot oven until they wither and slump a little. Spin them in the blender and you are set to jet, unless you eat them all and have to start all over. Peternell says you can make the soup with a chopped regular tomato in place of this, but I don’t believe it would be as tasty.
THE SOUP, after all that:
- 1/4 c olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 t salt
- 1.5 t cumin seed, toasted and lightly crushed if you are feeling up to it
- 1 t paprika
- pinch of red pepper flakes or cayenne
- 1/2 c coarsely chopped cilantro stems and leaves
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 c roasted tomato puree
- 6 cups cooked chickpeas, with their cooking liquid (from 2.5 cups dried; see note above)
- to serve: big rustic croutons, and/or fried capers, or just a drizzle of good olive oil and ABSOLUTELY a squeeze of lemon.
Heat the oil in a big soup pot over medium high heat; add the onion and the salt and stir. Lower the heat and cover the pot. Check and stir periodically, lowering the heat if there is any browning, and cook in this manner for about 15 minutes, or until the onion is tender. Add the cumin, paprika, pepper, cilantro and garlic and stir for about a minute more. Toss in the tomato puree to STOP THE GARLIC BEFORE IT BROWNS, and stir all this together for a few minutes. Add the chickpeas and enough of their cooking liquid (or water) to cover by a generous inch or even two, raise the heat and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and continue to cook for 20 minutes so the flavors meld and the house smells good.
Puree about two cups of the soup, either in a blender (using all venting precautions to prevent explosions and injury) or by hitting a spot here and there with an immersion blender. The best course of action at this stage is to let the soup sit off the heat for at least a few hours or even refrigerate it overnight. Like all bean soups, the flavor and consistency improve after a rest.
Garnish with at least the olive oil and lemon, if none of the other options. Peternell also suggests harissa as a topping, and even offers a simple recipe for making your own, but I think I’ve gone on quite long enough at this point.