gerunding {+ Cuban black bean soup}

It seems I am always in the middle of something. Reading. Knitting. Cooking. Writing. Editing. Eating. I like to have lots going on. A recent -ing I’m doing is volunteering with a local project to feed kids who go hungry when school is not in session. I offered my public health business planning services, and so far the experience is gratifying, challenging, rewarding, and all-consuming, the very best gerunds a volunteer project can offer. Although the operations are focused on offering boxes full of fresh food, I haven’t taken part yet in that side of the process. I figure someone has to clear brush upstream so our boat can sail on when we reach that wild unknown future, so I’m keeping my focus on the horizon.

I chose to jump into this project now because I’ve finally got the time to give; pretty soon I’ll be needing a new raison d’être. Maybe I should have had the time last year, especially since I cut down on doula-ing, but kindergarten was a baffling jump from pajamas to the big leagues. It was like trying to climb out of a ball pit while wearing roller skates. And then like magic, my morning calendar became wide-open this fall with kid #2 in pre-k, so I shopped around for a valuable way to spend my newfound bounty of hours. I do a lot of writing, of course, but it’s a self-focused activity, and I get tired of being in my own head. When I turn my attention to this project, I jump into the flow of a task that will accept as much effort as I have to offer. It’s a rabbit hole of usefulness.

Have you heard of the concept of filling each other’s buckets? Vivi learned about this idea at school, and I borrowed a book from the library to fill the gap between what she learned and what little I knew about it. Now I use the bucket analogy to explain many scenarios from tattle-tales to compliments. I even see it as a useful exercise for my adult brain and find myself picturing my bucket filling and emptying as I hold open a door for someone or am honked at in traffic. Actually, in that latter vision, I see myself pouring my bucket on the honker’s head, which may not be what the author intended.

This hunger project fills my bucket with gratitude for all the ways I’m cared for in my life. As a doula, I see the types of care that are essential to making people feel supported, particularly in times of stress. Their need for food should be met, of course, but what about the next meal? Humans seek predictability and find relief of knowing we will be granted future sustenance; we are striving in this organization to meet a goal of sustainability. People want support, but we also long to be understood, to be valued, and to be useful. This project gives me outlets for all of these basic drives, and I hope part of our long-term strategy will be focused on giving our community those outlets as well.

I haven’t shared a recipe here in a while, and since I’ve been focused in this post on comfort, I knew just what I wanted to share. If I had to pick a food that I find both comforting and that can be shared among big group, this Cuban black bean soup would be at the top of the list. My favorite meal in Miami, apart from Cuban sandwiches, is black bean soup. It is velvety and smoky and fills you with warmth. And did I mention it’s easy?

This recipe was adapted from The Kitchn. I made few changes to the ingredients, just more salt and spices, but I did change the cooking method. I much prefer cooking it in the oven than on the stove top. The taste is just as good, you don’t have to worry about scorching the bottom of your pot (good news if you’re as easily distracted as I am), and you can leave the house if need be.

Cuban Black Bean Soup

Serves 8

Ingredients:
1 pound dried black beans (a must; I would not make this with canned beans)
1 onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 ham bone or smoked ham hock
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tsp. to 1 Tbs. salt
1 tsp. each of ground: cumin, Smoked paprika, and black pepper
1/3 cup white or cider vinegar (optional)

To garnish:
Sour cream
Directions:
1. The night before cooking the soup, rinse beans, removing rocks and ugly beans. Place beans in a Dutch oven or soup pot and cover with plenty of cold water. Soak overnight.

2. In the morning, preheat the oven to 300ºF. Drain the water and refill the pot until the water is one inch above the beans. Stir in the chopped veggies, garlic, ham hock, salt and pepper, spices, and olive oil. Add 2 teaspoons salt and black pepper.

3. Bring to a boil over high heat. Skim foam, reduce heat to low, and cover. Bake in the preheated oven for 4 to 5 hours. Check and stir every 2 hours or so until the beans have broken down to create a creamy, thick soup; the soup should coat the back of a spoon.

4. Taste soup and add salt as needed (mine needed at least another teaspoon). Remove the ham bones/hock and any fat and break up any large pieces of ham with a fork. (I’m sure Cubans would tell me this next part is not optional, but I’ve made it both and without vinegar and like each version. If you don’t use vinegar, be sure to serve the soup with vinegar or hot sauce on the side). Stir in the vinegar and simmer for an additional 15 minutes, uncovered.

5. Serve by itself or over rice and garnish with sour cream. I like to freeze what we don’t eat in QT mason jars. It reheats beautifully.

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