I was honest with you all at the start of this whole thing, right? Let’s see, I confessed that I am not a chef? Check. That my experience of food is one that’s about emotion and passion? Check. My knowledge of food is all grassroots and most of it is based on an ad hoc rolodex of my grandmother’s recipes that I’ve pieced together? Check.
Well, now that we’re on the same page, and I’ve given you a bit of a refresher on how we do things here, I think I feel comfortable enough to tell you all about how I attempted one of my favorite soups and failed.
It’s dawned on me, that I have yet to give you some crucial background info. When I was about four, we moved next door to my grandparents in a semi-attached house. Since then we’ve never lived apart. A typical weeknight for me growing up was running off the school bus and straight into my Ima’s kitchen knowing that my own house would be empty with my parents still at work. Or worse yet, my brother’s babysitter would be there. I had an irrational hatred of her that I referred to as a “disdain for her ‘parenting style'” to my parents over and over from about 1996 to 1999. There wasn’t a single night where my grandmother didn’t have a pot of soup simmering on the stove. Chicken soup, vegetable soup, the “dairy soup,” cauliflower soup, and my absolute favorite: the string bean soup.
Most of my grandmother’s soups have a similar base: water, tomato sauce, salt, pepper, paprika. From there she’ll layer with ingredients, but I’ve come to know that as her staple pantry. But in her string bean soup those flavors somehow manage to blend into a perfect symphony that I totally failed at mastering on my own. The paprika plays a smoky harmony to the tomato sauce and the simplicity of how far salt and paper can go. I asked my grandmother for the recipe a few months back and I couldn’t believe that my queen of soup only required a handful of ingredients — although I should have known because her pantry is always stocked with the same bunch of ingredients and none of what she calls my “new things” like pounds of Tumeric and sea salt.
So following what I thought was how she made it, I attempted it on my own. I had a bag of frozen string beans at the bottom of my freezer, which I never buy but picked them up for a different recipe that I can’t remember. I wanted to make use of them and thought my grandmother said it was okay (wrong), so I put them in a pot filled with water and only “topped” with tomato sauce ( the tomatoes sauce portion I got right… at the beginning). I added two cloves of garlic (wrong), salt, pepper, paprika (right) and a pinch of sugar to balance out the bitterness of the sauce (jury is still out).
I let the soup cook for a long time, adding and tasting, adding and tasting. I can’t say it didn’t taste good, it did. However, it didn’t taste anything like my grandmothers and the level of disappointment was almost too much to bear. Which is very dramatic and also very true. I thought maybe it’s just because I haven’t had it in a while, or maybe it’s missing that quintessential dash of the secret ingredient: Ima‘s love. While i truly believe that nothing i make will ever taste as good as my grandmother’s, I am also an extreme realist, and so I knew that despite the fantasy, my misstep wasn’t about love. I called my mom and told her something was wrong. Her response: more paprika (not wrong but didn’t help).
With no answers on the horizon and a “better luck next time” swirling around my head, I set off to spend the weekend with my family in a Long Island Marriott for my cousin’s wedding. On Saturday afternoon, Shabbat, I relayed my string bean soup problem to Ima and asked where I went wrong. What followed was an hour-long conversation about every step and ingredient I missed. I got the basics right (somewhat) but there were some major components that I neglected. Thankfully, for you all, I now have the actual recipe in my hand and can give it to you straight. Well, don’t get to excited, we did go over the rules here. My grandmother doesn’t use measurements and so this will be a process of starting with a small amounts and tasting as you go along. I’m sorry.
Canned string beans (14.5 oz but it doesn’t matter really because the liquids are based on it)
(optional: small potato)
8oz can tomato sauce
Bundle of parsley ( I would say about half of a normal grocery store bundle)
1/2 tsp ground Black Pepper
salt to taste
2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
3-3 1/2 tbsp of flour
I chose the featured image very carefully. It’s my first attempt and you might notice the grease that rose to the top, it’s because of my lack of rue and you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did. MAKE A RUE. You’re gonna heat your oil in a soup pot. I use a 3 quart broth pot. Then slowly add in your flour and combine to make a thick paste.
Then add your string beans with the liquid ( you can also remove the liquid, but leave a little in because it adds some brininess but just make sure that if you keep the liquid you might need less salt). Then just over the beans with water, you don’t want to submerge them.
Then add about a third of your tomato sauce. Black pepper, paprika, and parsley. bring to a boil and then turn to low and let simmer covered. Make sure to keep tasting and adding more salt or pepper to your liking.
It’s not easy to relay recipes without having measurements but my grandmother always says “you’ll know when it’s enough.” So if it’s delicious, then you’ve done it right and you’re welcome.