Falling on a Sunday, Dec. 26 would offer tranquility and a sense of ease that might actually carry over the specialness of Christmas Day.
Per her usual routine, about 5:15 a.m. on Dec. 26, our cat began to talk to me from downstairs, patiently but persistently communicating her desire to be released from the confines of the house. I made my way down the steep stairs to grant her wish, only opening my eyes enough to avoid a stumble and a tumble. I returned to bed relishing the thought of at least two, perhaps three more hours of uninterrupted sleep that comes only when you know you do not have a list of tasks or the first day of the work week eagerly awaiting your attention the moment your feet hit the floor.
Not quite an hour later, I sat straight up in the bed certain I heard a sound like blue jeans loudly banging around in the dryer. I asked myself if I had thrown a load of clothes in the dryer in my almost sleepwalking state when I put the cat out. Feeling sure I had not, and concerned about the out of place noise coming from downstairs, I got up again. This time my eyes were fully open and my brain was focused rather than running on autopilot.
Barely glancing out the back door at the bottom of the stairs before turning the corner to head for the laundry room, my heart stopped when I saw towering flames and realized the vacant house on the corner was rapidly being consumed by fire. By the time I dialed 911, the fire department was on the scene and a neighbor called to be sure we were awake and to suggest we move our cars from our parking pad which is on the lot next door to the burning house.
In my moment of panic, I awakened my spouse and two sons, barking directions to get up and move cars. I even threw on my husband’s jacket and ran out to move my car down to the bottom of the alley, completely forgetting that shoes over sock feet might be helpful.
By that time all three of my men were standing on the parking pad enthralled, yet awed by the reckless speed of the fire, as they watched the firemen efficiently work to keep the multiplying flames from spreading to the house next door. With childlike, fear inspired fascination for the efforts of the vigilant firemen, they were content to remain the audience while I needed something to do to slow my racing heart and take my mind off the horrific destruction.
Hoping to feel useful, I made two pots of coffee and provided shoes and a jacket to my spouse, who had not even thought about those necessary items while the heat from the fire was so intense. I retreated to the kitchen, which silently offered a haven of comfort and a sense of calm as fat, wet snowflakes fell and painted a serene scene on the deck outside the kitchen window.
A quick survey of the overflowing-with-leftovers-refrigerator yielded the beginnings of a perfect forget the fire project — ham and bean soup. Many years ago I found a recipe for Seventeen Bean Soup which developed into As Many Beans as You Can Find Soup to lessen the stress of trying to find a certain number of types of beans.
The ham carcass not quite picked clean from the week before Christmas and a ham shank from the freezer created the base of this hearty soup.
As Many Beans as You Can Find Soup
Ham carcass, ham hocks or ham shank
2 large onions — peeled and cut in chunks
4 stalks celery with leaves
2 bell peppers — cut in chunks
4 carrots — cut in chunks
Seasonings of your choice: garlic powder, seasoned pepper, or others
1. Put all the above ingredients in a large pot and fill with water.
2. Bring to a boil and simmer for several hours.
3. Cool and refrigerate overnight.
2 cups dried beans
28 ounces canned diced tomatoes with juice
2 cooked boneless chicken breasts — pulled
1 pound Polish sausage — sliced
1. Rinse beans, cover with water and soak overnight.
2. Skim fat from refrigerated soup base, heat, and strain.
3. Bring base to a boil and add soaked and drained beans. Cook until beans are done.
4. Add tomatoes and simmer about thirty minutes.
5. Add sausage and chicken and simmer until sausage is heated through.
6. Cool and refrigerate overnight.
7. Heat and serve.
• As you get comfortable using this recipe, you can adjust the ingredients to your liking. The numbers of the vegetables are suggestions. You may want to use more or less.
• Make the soup base and soak the beans on day one. Put the soup together on day two.
• You might add chicken stock rather than water if more liquid is necessary at any point in the cooking process.
• The finished soup is even better after it sits in the refrigerator for a day or two. It also freezes well. If you freeze it, add the sausage and chicken before serving.
• The chicken and\or the sausage can be omitted.
• Packages of mixed beans are available or you can make your own mix.
Agnes Nelson’s Cornbread is a wonderfully simple, satisfying accompaniment to this soup. For many years, Ann and Joel Robinson joined us for Christmas Eve dinner which at that time usually included gumbo or red beans and rice. Ann introduced us to her mother’s basic cornbread for those special meals and we have used her recipe for more than 20 years.
Agnes Nelson’s Cornbread
1 cup cornmeal — sifted
1 teaspoon flour
1 teaspoon salt
One half teaspoon baking powder
One fourth teaspoon baking soda
One half cup buttermilk mixed with one half cup water
1 egg- beaten
One half stick butter
1. Mix all ingredients except butter.
2. Melt butter in hot cast iron skillet and pour into batter. Mix well.
3. Pour batter back into skillet and bake at 450 until very brown.
The beginnings of As Many Beans as You Can Find Soup simmering on the stove sent a message of anticipated eating pleasure and lured the expected sense of calm back on a day that began so early with a frightening, too close to home event.
Significantly bolstered by the reassuring, awesome work of our Jasper firemen, the hope for Dec. 26 peace and tranquility found its way home.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 205-387-2890.