Friends, I am pleased to announce that we have a brand new addition to our family. [No, this is not going to be a shotgun wedding.] He's a cat, and his name is Stevie.
Alex and I met Stevie on the road, in the dark, on the way home from a dinner party last Saturday night. It was absolutely beautiful out, one of those September stunners of a night, and we had decided to walk the mile and a half through the woods to the house on Old Chequesset. In the pitch black coming back, we heard a meow behind us, and then another at our feet, and before we knew it, an orange cat was marching steadily toward home. We tried to send him back, or away, or wherever it was he might have come from, but he was Not Going to Budge. When we arrived at the door he weaseled his way inside, and then onto the bed, and although a certain Mr. Fisher looked none too certain, it became very clear very quickly that he was going to stay.
We called the animal officer and got him scanned for a micro-chip, and they said he was up for grabs. Today, I took him to the vet, and we officially rolled out the welcome mat. Or at least, most of us did. Some of us still aren't quite so sure.
At any rate, we are finding out very quickly what Stevie Does and Does Not like. So far, we know for certain that he is very amenable to teaspoons of dulce de leche and small bits of ham. Sunday morning we baked a fresh ham for brunch—slathered it in brown sugar and cloves and dry mustard and salt and pepper—and Stevie looked as though he had just landed on a soft, billowing cloud of pure, straight-from-God bliss. In fact, the hope of ham just might be why he decided to follow us home.
This morning, when I collected the leftover bone and scraped off fat and cracklings of skin to make black bean soup, I thought he might just dive right in. I don't blame him, of course—if I weighed 11 pounds, I'd go swimming in my ham and black bean soup, too.
I adapted this particular batch from a recipe I found in the Joy of Cooking with the very intriguing title U.S. Senate Bean Soup. According to the header, a white bean and ham hock soup has been served in the U.S. Senate restaurant since 1901. At first, I wasn't quite sure if that was a good sign or not—the words Senate restaurant sound sort of like code for cafeteria to me—but as it turns out, our elected officials have excellent taste. U.S. Senate Bean Soup is like a hijacked split pea soup, with whole white beans replacing the soupy green mash. I went ahead and took things one step further by throwing black beans in instead.
The resulting soup was just the sort of thing I would imagine a senator eating for lunch. It's nothing hoity toity—nothing high-powered or white linened or too sit-down—but the sort of thing I picture John Kerry sitting down with in a paper bowl and a plastic spoon and reading the newspaper alongside over lunch. It is simple, delicious, and solid—very much a by the people, for the people sort of soup. It's just the thing, come to think of it, that you might make to take over to a friend who just had a baby, or lost an aunt, or maybe got a new cat.
Around here, it has proved an excellent way to welcome Stevie home.
BLACK BEAN AND HAM HOCK SOUP
I made this soup with a bone from a fresh ham that had been baked for several hours. Fresh ham isn't as salty as cured ham, so be careful with the seasoning and taste as you go depending on what sort of meat you use.
1 and 1/4 cups dried black beans, soaked overnight
7 cups cold water
1 small ham hock
1 large onion, diced
3 medium celery stalks with their leaves on, chopped
1 large potato, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Place the beans, water, and ham hock in a large soup pot. Bring everything to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the beans are tender (roughly an hour and a half). When the beans are soft, remove the ham hock. Discard the skin and any extra fat and the bone (read: give them to your dog or cat) and return the meat to the pot.
Add the remaining ingredients to the pot as well, and simmer for about a half an hour, or until the potatoes are soft. Turn off the heat and mash the soup with a potato masher until the potatoes form a thick broth. (Some of the beans will be mashed, too, but most should stay in tact.) Serve warm, with chopped fresh parsley and a dollop of sour cream.