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Lean Cuisine

With the holidays finished, January looks like ham and beans

By Gretchen Giles

December passed swiftly in a Scharffen Berger-tinged haze as I vigorously ate my way through the long holiday. I realized that things had almost become quite enough when, on New Year's Eve day, I had eaten a slice of homemade garlic pizza for breakfast, a thick piece of marzipan-draped princess cake with a glass of excellent red wine for lunch and had lapped up two thick bowls of lamb stew for dinner. While appreciating the dark poetic elements of this type of a month-long diet, I find that January has dimly dawned for such as myself, and it ain't pretty.

Not only is the fridge hugely bare of such niceties as princess cake, the wallet is also ill-disposed to luxury--the wad, as it were, having been firmly shot last month. What does dominate the frigid insides, however, is the damned ham.

My mother likes to define eternity as being composed of two people and a ham. By such a definition, four people and a ham is more like a time-share in purgatory: it's long and painful, but it does eventually end. January traditionally finds us ensconced in this chilly limbo as a free ham inevitably lands on our doorstep, the holiday bonus from a frugal employer to one of our ham-hating relatives.

As the spiral slices slowly diminish, the ham finally prepares to marry its natural partner in lean times and leftovers: dried beans. The household teenagers are by now so traumatized by repeated bean consumption that, one day last week when I was innocently pouring glass beads into a vase to weight it down, the beads tumbling with a sharp and familiar sound, they came screaming into the kitchen begging, "No beans! Please, no beans!" No, dear darling boys, no beans.

Not today, at least.

The next morning, I stealthily opened a package of mixed dried beans, laid the bag on the bottom of the stock pot and coaxed their noisy number out silently with my hands. By the time the young therapy candidates had arisen, the pot was boiling merrily away, and it was tough luck, too late and, of course--ha ha.

Among the first foodstuffs cultivated by early man, beans have been a mainstay of the human diet for at least the last 7,000 years. Discovered in Egyptian tombs and probably native to ancient Peru, beans traveled the globe in soldier's satchels as a staple. One of the most nutritiously complete foods, beans provide more protein, iron, magnesium, zinc, potassium and soluble fiber all in one package than any other natural food. Two cups of cooked dried beans a day has been shown to help improve glucose imbalance in diabetics and to curtail cholesterol levels in all of us. And while they may be eaten at our house to stretch the dollar and the ham, once the general adolescent moaning has died down, everyone admits they're pretty tasty, too.

Lower-Middle-Class Soup

I had been so proud of myself for conceiving my own wholly original soup recipe that I almost sobbed when I saw nearly the exact same cooking task executed recently in the New York Times under the title "Tenement Soup."

It seems that the ingredients I had cobbled together on a budget and then served three nights running to four people (making for 12 meals, each costing roughly 54 triumphant cents a bowl) were a staple of immigrant families in Manhattan's Lower East Side for generations after the rough trip through Ellis Island. One would guess, however, that spiral-sliced ham and cleaned, bagged greens were not yet invented, although Parmesan heartily had been, and a good grating of fresh Parm over this soup--along with boutique bread and passable wine (or vice versa)--makes for a warm and filling winter meal. Several, in fact.

1 pound mixed dried beans
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 pound country sausage
as much ham as you can stand (roughly 4 c., diced)
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 yellow onions, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
4 carrots, scrubbed clean and diced
10 c. beef or chicken broth
1 small can tomato paste
1 pound dried pasta, rotini or farfalle

2 pounds chopped assorted greens such as mustard greens, collard, chard, kale and even spinach (I like the expediency of buying Trader Joe's Southern Greens mix and then just dumping the whole bag in)

Fresh grated Parmesan cheese to taste

At least five hours before the soup will be served, (quietly) pour the beans into a large pot. Cover with cold water, add the bay leaf and garlic clove and bring to a boil. Boil briefly for four to five minutes, then cover, remove from heat and let the beans soak. The longer they soak, the more gas will leave the bean and join the water; never reuse this water.

In a heavy skillet, briefly sauté the diced ham so that it browns. You may need to add some oil. Remove and drain on paper towels. Crumble the sausage meat into the same pan and cook until the nuggets of meat are browned. Remove and drain.

In a large, heavy soup pot, heat the olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add the onion and garlic, and sauté until the onion is fragrant and nearly translucent, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, drain and rinse the beans, discarding the bay leaf and garlic clove. To the soup pot, add 8 cups of the broth, the carrots, rinsed beans and tomato paste. Simmer on high for an hour or until the beans begin to be toothsome and soft. Add the pasta; the rest of the broth may be needed at this time. After 10 minutes, add the greens, the cooked ham and sausage. Simmer high until the greens are softened, the pasta done and the beans ready. Serve topped with Parmesan cheese and look forward to having it again tomorrow. And the next day.

Lean Day Cassoulet

By all rights, this gorgeous French-derived dish should contain duck legs with confit and lovely charcuterie sausages, and were this the holidazed season, perhaps it would. But we're discussing bare-bones January, and whatever happens to be swooning away in the fridge the day you prepare this dish will work just fine. I recently ravaged the last of a grocery-store roasted chicken as a carnivorous extra for this cassoulet, and it was superb.

While this recipe suggests that you make your own fresh bread crumbs, the last time I made this meal, I simply grabbed a half-bag of panko Japanese bread crumbs from the shelf, guiltily moistened them with a bit of bacon fat and spread them on. You know it was good.

Spare your stove by putting a baking pan under the casserole to catch any bubble-overs.

1 pound dried great Northern white beans
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic, peeled
3 yellow onions, sliced thin into half-rounds
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half
1 bay leaf, broken up
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
as much ham as you can stand (about 4 c., diced)
6 slices bacon
other meats that might be idling about in the fridge: diced cooked chicken; cooked sausage links, halved; and certainly duck leg confit
1 large can best-quality crushed peeled tomatoes
chicken broth to moisten (at least 2 c.)
8 sprigs fresh thyme (dried thyme is absolutely legal)
half a loaf of good French bread

Prepare the dried beans by covering with water in a pot, adding bay leaf and garlic clove and boiling slowly for two hours or until the beans are soft. Remove from heat, cover and let stand until ready to use.

Heat the oven to 300. Place the sliced onions, garlic pieces and broken bay leaf bits in a large baking pan. Toss with enough olive oil to coat and slow-cook for at least an hour, turning the vegetables every 15 minutes or so to prevent browning. The end result should be almost jellied in its succulence. Remove and discard bay leaf pieces. Turn oven up to 350 and set baking pan aside.

In a skillet, cook bacon until browned. Remove and drain, breaking into small pieces. Brown the ham pieces in the bacon fat and enjoy the double-pork experience. Tell no one. Set ham aside. Prepare any ancillary meats and set aside. Drain tomatoes and dice if necessary into bite-sized pieces. Prepare bread crumbs by halving the bread and toasting it in the oven for 10 minutes. Let cool and tear into pieces. Place in a food processor and pulse until the bread is crumby.

Rinse the beans, discarding garlic clove and bay leaf. Take a Dutch oven or deep casserole dish and layer ingredients into it, beginning with the beans. Then layer in the onion mixture, crumbling thyme atop it. Next add a portion of tomatoes and the meats. Repeat layers until the casserole or Dutch oven is almost filled. Slowly add enough broth so that the meal is moistened but not running over. Top with breadcrumbs. Cook until the cassoulet is heated through and bubbling and the top browned, about 30 minutes.

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From the January 12-18, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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