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Seasonal Pantry: Comforting white bean soup is perfect to share

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On the second morning of my evacuation, I stepped out of the little tent where I had slept fitfully, listening to the freight train wind and comforting my two little terrified dachshunds, and saw a great blue heron, sitting quietly on the edge of a pretty little lake, where a day or two earlier a mama river otter bobbed and floated as she munched on crawfish.

A few hours later, a white egret had taken the heron’s place, but I spotted the blue bird up a hill, standing as still as a rock, amidst nearly a dozen geese. How regal this bird looked, and how lucky I felt in that moment.

This is not to make light of the last few days and the losses so many people have suffered. It is simply that in the midst of the inconvenience of being evacuated and having neither power nor any idea of how bad this might get, a precious moment of Sonoma County’s beauty appeared and made me feel both lucky and grateful to be where I am.

Spin the video back a couple of days: I was sitting at my desk, writing today’s column, which was to be about Italian black rice, which has recently become available. Black risotto with poached tongue and golden saffron sauce seemed just the thing for a Halloween feast. It will have to wait.

Halloween, my favorite day of the year since I was a little girl, seems superfluous this week. If you are untouched by the fires, outages, and evacuations and if you feel like celebrating with something good to eat, visit my blog, “Eat This Now,” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com, where I will have posted links to some of my favorite spooky specialties, god willin’ and the crick don’t rise, as they say.

In the meantime, friends with whom I have stayed made a simple soup, using mostly produce from their garden, which is adjacent to a nice little kitchen that is separate from the main house. It is powered by propane and a generator.

Not long before the soup was ready, my friend decided to make cornbread. She whipped it together in almost no time and put the cast iron skillet that held the batter into her oven. Thirty minutes later, we savored that delicious soup, chowed down on the cornbread slathered with really good butter, and shared a bottle of DeLoach Vineyards pinot noir, all while we watched the bright red sun sink down behind the bank of smoke that flowed to the sea like a brown sky river.

“Is this really happening,” I thought now and then, or are we in some apocalyptic Australian film? This has reminded me, more than anything, of the strange storm that was taking place when the late Ernest “Kentucky” Pendergrass committed his infamous murders outside of Sebastopol three decades ago. If you were here, you remember that haunting, ominous night of power outages, crushing rain, and trees falling across Highway 116.

When I arrived sometime before dawn on the first day of evacuations, they plopped me down into a cushy chair, covered me with a nice blanket, and brought what they called disaster cookies, baked when the troubles first began. We watched the sun come up, huddled against the wind, and every now and then, someone handed me a cookie.

It is important, at such times as these, to have a bit of normalcy, which means something different to everyone.

For the friend who hosted me, it has a lot to do with keeping on with familiar activities, with enjoying the aromas you typically enjoy, and with adding little flourishes of thoughtfulness and beauty wherever you can. Instead of just handing me a sleeping bag, for example, she chose a red one, which made her think of me, and put pretty sheets on the cot, too. Little comforts like this help, especially when it comes to keeping calm and trying to get a bit of sleep.

We do what we can in such times. It often involves being a caregiver, my usual role, or a volunteer, but sometimes the most important thing you can do is to let someone else take care of you.

When I first got here, dazed and shaken and dressed so inappropriately – it had been warm at my Sebastopol home – that I was shivering, my friend’s husband, who is also a dear friend, gave me a big hug and said, “Don’t worry. We are going to take care of you.”

As we sat there before dawn, eating cookies, listening to the wind, and gazing at a dark sky full of stars, I realized that no one had ever said that to me before, not once in my life.

With river otters, blue herons, white egrets, good friends, fragrant soup, and good Sonoma County wine, I have made it through. You will, too, even if you are not quite there yet.

_____

I have left out specific quantities intentionally, as this is an imprecise recipe, and you should just cook until it tastes good, not worry about exactly how much of this or that. It’s how our grandparents cooked, and it’s how most good cooks cook, even in normal times. Use your eyes and your sense of smell. The soup should be thick but not too thick and it should smell really, really good. Feel free to add other vegetables from your garden.

Disaster Soup

Serves a Lot of People

— White beans, soaked in water for as long as you can

— Olive oil

— Butter

— Garlic, cloves separated, crushed, and chopped

— Carrots, chopped

— Onions, chopped

— Celery, chopped

— A couple of pinches of herbes de Provence

— Kosher salt

— Several zucchini, trimmed and cut into small wedges

— Lots of cherry tomatoes, cut in half

— Chopped fresh Italian parsley, marjoram, thyme, and oregano

1-2 packages of penne pasta

2 bunches of chard, trimmed

— Black pepper in a mill

— Hard cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or whatever you have, grated

Let the beans continue to soak until you are ready to use them.

Pour enough olive oil into a large soup pot to cover the bottom of the pan by about 1/8 to ¼ inch. Add a good-sized nubbin of butter.

When the butter is melted, add the garlic, carrots, onions, and celery and season well with salt. Cooking slowly, until the vegetables are tender and very fragrant. Do not let them burn.

Add a few pinches of herbs de Provence.

Drain the beans, add them to the pot, along with just even water to cover them. Simmer gently for about 20 minutes or so, until the beans are almost but not fully tender.

Add the zucchini, cherry tomatoes, fresh herbs, and pasta. If things seem a bit dry, add more water, as the pasta will absorb a fair amount as it cooks. Don’t add too much, though; this is a thick soup.

Meanwhile, cut or tear the chard leaves into medium sized pieces and put divide them among individual soup plates, adding a thin layer to each one.

When the pasta is tender, taste it and correct for salt. Ladle soup on top of the chard and top the soup with a few turns of black pepper and a shower of cheese. Enjoy right away and for the next several meals.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The New Cook’s Tour of Sonoma.” Email her at catsmilk@sonic.net.

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