Vegetable Wrangling (Not Zucchini)

It’s like the potato thing, in a way. 

Fifteen years ago I did the cooking for Pilar and Geordie’s rehearsal dinner on Chebeague Island off the coast of Yarmouth, ME. In planning the menu (roasted beef tenderloins; roasted red peppers, eggplant, summer squashes; warm red potato salad with curried dressing, among other dishes I can no longer remember), Pilar and I went to Hannaford to place orders for what we’d need. After consulting with one of the produce workers, a lovely man from Senegal or Burundi and part of the refugee community here, we decided a medium-size potato and a half per person would be right.  For 35 people, we figured somewhere around sixty potatoes would do fine. When we picked up the order a week later en route to Chebeague, we found ourselves with sixty pounds instead. The potatoes were twice the size we thought we’d get.

Do you know how long it takes to wash and cut sixty pounds of potatoes?  Being stoned helped.

After the potatoes were steamed and cooled, they were placed in plastic bags and stored in refrigerators in six guest houses that were rented for attendees, since Geordie’s parents’ refrigerator couldn’t accommodate them. Come the day of the event, I realized we needed only half of the potatoes. God knows what eventually happened to the others.

Except for one outlier.

I was back home in Abita Springs several days when I got a call from Pilar. Chatty, catching up on their trip, recalling funny stories; then she asked me if I found the potatoes.  “What potatoes?” I asked. “You mean you haven’t found them? We stuck a bag in your luggage!”

It’s a good thin this was well-before the hysteria about toting peanut butter, yogurt, baby formula, etc., on planes, or the query, “Has anyone but you touched your luggage?” I would have had some tall explaining to do, and there I was, innocent as a lamb. Not wanting to know from potatoes for a long time.

To this day, we get a lot of mileage out of that story, never failing to laugh at the memory.  In our family, stories are premium, and the more awkward or embarrassing in the moment, the more precious they are later. Like the time Mama smashed Nanee’s titties down in her coffin because they were standing up like snowball cones, and Nanee never wore a bra in her life.

This time it’s garlic.

I love garlic, cooked or fresh, and am of the belief that, once it’s cooked, you can’t really have too much of it in anything. Witness that divine baked chicken dish cooked with 40 cloves of garlic and white wine, something Don and Kim Marshall introduced me to decades ago, served with crispy French bread for dipping and spreading the mashed garlic on. Or just plain roasted garlic. Yum.

Our UU church service auction fundraiser is coming up in November, and I volunteered to make black beans. Mary Brunette said I should aim for enough to feed thirty people even though sixty were expected. “We’ll only need small portions of everything,” she said. Not that I believed that to be true: my scarcity issues rang alarm bells. Unh unh. Gotta make more than just for thirty, I said to myself.

I bought four pounds of dry beans, four large red onions, four large heads of garlic, a celery and eight red bell peppers. I put half the beans and spices (bay leaves, coriander seeds, oregano) to cook overnight in my crock pot the first day, cooked them longer in the Dutch oven the second day, cooled them and stored them in the refrigerator.  Day two, I repeated the process. I had 24 cups of cooked down beans. Definitely not enough, I thought. So I bought two more pounds, two more onions, two more heads of garlic, and cooked them the same way. Day five, I cut and roasted the red peppers, then peeled and stored them. Day six, I began chopping the seasonings: six red onions, the celery, the roasted red peppers, and after 45 minutes of peeling the garlic, decided I couldn’t bear the thought of standing on my feet while chopping them with a knife, so I ran them through the Cuisinart, reducing the mass to tiny minces.

Bad Move. This released enough garlic essence/oil to fuel a space rocket. Still, undaunted, I sautéed the onions and celery in olive oil in the Dutch oven, removed them, then added more olive oil and the garlic. It immediately stuck to the pot no matter how quickly I moved it around, and the smell–well, let’s just say that the heat did NOT tighten its shorts so as to raise its booming baritone to falsetto.

Nevertheless, I divided the seasonings into three pots and added the cold beans, thinking surely that long, slow cooking would make everything all right. By the time I put the pots outside to cool overnight, the smell was still pungent and the taste too strong–as if the garlic had not been cooked at all.

As a perfectionist, I hate making mistakes, and my spirits plummeted. All that damn work, all those materials! Wasted! And, as a child of a child of the Depression, waste is a cardinal sin.

The following day I tasted the cold beans, and they seemed to have tamed some, but still not to a comfortable level, because when I opened the lids, the aroma was still evident. Now, with the addition of the seasonings, I had 48 cups of black beans, more than enough to feed the masses at the church dinner, but still risky, especially to the garlic-averse.

So, I did what any right-thinking person would do: bought two more pounds of beans, two more onions, four more red bell peppers. But no garlic. And repeated the whole process again.

The original 48 cups are in the freezer at church, and I’ll be bringing the rest over.  A couple of days before the event, I’ll remove them to thaw in the refrigerator, and on Nov. 2, I’ll find a pot large enough to mix them all together and then set them to simmer, sending novenas to the divinities of garlic-taming, that this will solve the problem.

If not, the streets are going to run black beans for a long time to come.



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2 responses to “Vegetable Wrangling (Not Zucchini)

  1. Geordie

    Or, if the simmering and diluting doesn’t do the trick, since the TSA is no longer quite so lenient about such dangerous cargo as surplus potatoes and over-garlicked beans, you could always bag the leftovers in small portions, tie a ribbon around the bags, and leave them on porches throughout the South End. Just tell everyone it’s a traditional New Orleans thing, an offering to ensure a mild winter… Who’ll know?

    • What an excellent suggestion, G. (Sound of smacking my head) Why didn’t I think of that? Or, maybe even dress as a really scary person, like Bill O’Brien or Mitt Romney, and hand them out for Halloween? You know how I hate giving candy . . .

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