It was a woman. She was the one who gave me the gift. She was not gentle. But she was giving. And so it is on Thanksgiving that I want to pay respects to Betty Howard. She lived in Key West and was the Head, (and only) Breakfast Cook at The Pier House in 1978 when I left, (…actually I was fired) from a place at the corners of Duval and Angela. I was (due to circumstances that included a man going to jail) “The Head Chef” at the Duval eatery when I accepted the radical demotion to ‘assistant breakfast cook’ at the beautiful resort on the Ocean. I wanted to get int that Pier House in the worst way! I’d been hearing from one of the guys that was working with me at ‘700 Duval’ that they were cooking ‘awesome classical food’. I’d been cooking for 7 years by then and, though I was extremely slow to get the message Life was sending, I finally realized that I was a cook. And that was what I was going be be for a long time. Might as well start to learn how it might really be done.
In addition to cooking breakfast Betty made the Black Bean Soup at The Pier House. It looked like a pot of mud to the eye but when a spoonful entered my young mouth I was transported to another world. It was one far away from the hot, sweaty, lettuce strewn station of that kitchen I was standing in that late morning. Betty slammed down the first 16 ounce Busch “Blue Runner” beer of her day on her cutting board and laughed at my stunned face.
“Some good shit, eh White Bread?!” I accepted the name she bequeathed on me with more equanimity as I went after another spoonful. Bliss takes away the blisters.
Over the next week she assigned me with the task of making the vegetable base that her recipe required. Little did I realize that the washing, scraping, peeling and cutting of the many vegetables would be carried out by many hands that eventually were given the task by me over the ensuing years. I don’t remember at what restaurant it earned it’s name. “White Bread” had no words for it for years. Then one day I was putting away a tray full of it for someone to turn into the next steps of the Black Bean Soup making in a kitchen in Illinois I’d become Chef of, (life is circular) and christened it “Bean Kit”.
There are chefs from Key West to God-Knows-Where making or instructing others to make Bean Kit now. (When I sent this picture to a few of my chefs from past days one emailed back quickly from Las Vegas, “The fastest I ever saw that made was 22 minutes Chef”.)
I was wheeling around the kitchen I preside over now at ‘The Miami Culinary Institute’ and was stopped dead in my tracks by the site of a beautifully crafted Bean Kit. The cook who made it respected the Zen of the moves in a way that I hoped to impart on scores of cooks over the years of my kitchen life. It was a lesson I got from Betty. The recipe grew a bit in complexity from Betty’s. But the spirit lives on as does Betty’s.
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!
Recipe: The Bean Kit
© 1995 All Rights Reserved by Norman Van Aken
- 2 ounces smoked bacon, rind removed (if there is one), diced small
- 2 Tablespoons pure olive oil
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- 4-6 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
- 3 jalapenos, stems and seeds discarded, minced
- 1 red bell pepper, stems, ribs and seeds discarded, diced medium small 1 poblano chile
- 1 medium red onion, peeled and diced medium small
- 2 large stalks celery, cleaned
- 1 large carrot, peeled
- 1 small bulb fennel, trimmed
- 1 Tablespoons toasted and freshly ground cumin
- 1 Tablespoons black pepper 2 bay leaves, broken
Heat the pot you are going to use for the recipe that this is the beginning for on a medium heat to start. Add in the bacon and the olive oil. Allow the bacon to cook until almost done. Now add the butter. When the butter foams add the garlic and jalapenos. Allow them to flavor the fats first, stirring (only about 1 minute). Now turn the heat to medium-high add in the remaining vegetables. Stir to coat. Cook until some nice carmelization occurs, (stirring only occasionally) about 20 minutes. When the vegetables are nicely caramelized add the cumin, black pepper and bay leaves. The bean kit is now at the “ready stage”.
Where do you want to go next? Bean Soup? Add the soaked beans. Then home made stock… head South.