Tuesday, August 21, 2012

On the Separation of Kitchen and State

In the mid-1990s, I was the assistant to the president and publisher of an influential, award-winning magazine and website based in San Francisco. It was a demanding, high-stress job; I often had to come in on the weekends and even sprained my ankle in the line of duty (i.e., while sprinting across the street with lunch for my boss). On the plus side, the company was full of smart, inspired, and inspiring people in a fun environment that encouraged community and creativity. (Some might describe it as “cultish,” but that’s another story.)

There were lots of perks, too. Though in-house happy hours, massages, and game rooms were soon to become de rigueur at workplaces all over the Bay Area, such amenities felt special then. I particularly appreciated having our own professional chef on staff. Not only did “Phil” and his sous chef, “Ivan,” make delicious organic meals for us every day, but my interest in cooking had been growing steadily over the years, and having such close access to these experts to talk with about food was pretty neat.

At one point, my boss (I’ll call her “Joan”) was out of the office for an extended period, a couple weeks or so. While I was holding down the fort in her absence, I managed to find a few pockets of time when I didn’t have any pressing matters to attend to. This was in the early days of Web 1.0—not just pre-YouTube or even pre-Friendster but pre-Google—so I had to seek out other ways to occupy myself.

I gladly found diversion in the kitchen: For a few minutes here and there, I volunteered to prep vegetables and picked up some rudimentary tips along the way. For instance, I learned the correct way to position my left hand while chopping with my right to keep from accidentally julienning my fingers. Also, finally giving in to my incessant requests, Phil relinquished the recipe for his chilled black bean soup. Accented with fresh lime and a shot of Tabasco, the cold puree makes for a perfect summer lunch. It takes up to 2 days to prepare (including chilling overnight) but requires only a handful of ingredients, is totally vegan*, and contains absolutely no fat*. It quickly became one of my favorites.

I forget how it came up: Either I happened to mention to “Steve,” my counterpart in the editor’s office, that I’d been spending some of my down time with Phil and Ivan, or he might have been walking by and seen me there. What I do remember is that he pulled me aside and said in a very serious, almost menacing, tone, “JOAN'S ASSISTANT DOES NOT WORK IN THE KITCHEN.” I’d always liked Steve, and in all fairness to him, maybe in his own weird, elitist way he was just looking out for my professional interests, or trying to protect those of my boss (who was sort of his boss, too, after all). But seriously, what the shit? In any case, I gave up my casual culinary apprenticeship when Joan returned to the office, and somehow we both lived through the experience without scandal. PHEW.

It's been unbearably hot around here the past couple of weeks, so naturally this chilled black bean soup has been one of my go-to meals. I’m not at liberty to share Phil’s (far superior) recipe, but I’ve adapted it into a simplified, scaled-down version with canned beans that takes less time to make. That said, use only organic products if available because—as Phil advised—in such a simple soup, the best ingredients shine through.

Chilled Black Bean Soup

1 small carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
Half a medium onion, chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
¼ cup water
2 15-oz cans black beans, drained and rinsed
1 quart vegetable broth
1 bay leaf
1 tsp salt
Tabasco sauce
Juice of 1-2 limes
A few sprigs fresh cilantro, finely chopped
*Sour cream (optional)

In a sturdy pot over medium heat, sweat the carrot, celery, onion, and garlic in the water until onion is translucent. Add beans, broth, bay leaf, salt, and a few dashes of Tabasco, and gently cook for about an hour. Remove from heat, discard bay leaf, and let cool. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours (or overnight if time allows). When soup is cold, puree it in batches in a blender. Add lime juice to taste and, if needed, more salt and Tabasco to taste. Return soup to refrigerator until ready to serve. Just before serving, ladle into bowls and garnish with cilantro and an optional dollop of sour cream.