Today, at the Tate Gallery in London, my attention was caught by a late Victorian painting titled Mammon. Painted in 1884-85 by George Frederic Watts, the painting depicts Mammon, the god of money, as a "cruel tyrant on a throne." Two young figures are prostrate at his bloated, gouty feet, presumably crushed by their service to filthy lucre.
Sound familiar? What with the financial meltdown of seeming colossi like Lehman Brothers, and the couple of trillion dollars it will take to rescue the mortgage defaults underwritten by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the subject of money, money, money has never been more topical. Perhaps Watts would argue that the more things change, the more they stay the same -- as he used both painting and writings to "criticize modern commerce and its de-humanising effect on the nation" (Tate Gallery, notes on the painting). Of course Watts lived in a world innocent of derivatives and short-selling, but presumably the problem of living beyond one's means and chasing the almighty dollar (or its sterling equivalent) has always been with us.
On the train journey back to the countryside, I read a bracing editorial which suggested that financial "hard times" can actually be an opportunity for a beneficial overhaul. Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto contends that "Abundance is bad for you. A tighter-belted Britain would be less obese, less profligate, less self-indulgent, less stuffed with junk food and trash values" (Evening Standard, p. 13). Having taken consumerism to a whole new level, apparently many of us are going to have little choice but to discover the pleasures of a "less is more" lifestyle.
So, at the close of this tumultuous week in the global financial markets, and in the spirit of "cutting back," I offer up a recipe for black bean soup. It isn't as cheap as stone soup, but it is a healthy and inexpensive dinner which can be fed to vegans, those who can't tolerate gluten, and people who are trying to avoid eating methane-spewing livestock.
Black Bean Soup
(serves 4, with leftovers)
One or two onions, finely chopped
A few cloves of garlic, crushed
Two or three carrots, roughly chopped
Two or three stalks of celery, roughly chopped
A can of diced tomatoes, or Ro-tel tomatoes (if you are lucky enough to have access to them)
Two to four cans of black beans (I usually use four)
A pint of faux chicken stock, made from Marigold Swiss Bouillon
Salt and pepper to taste
Gently fry the onion, garlic, carrots and celery in a tablespoon or two of olive oil until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes, black beans and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, and then simmer (uncovered) for anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour. (I like to cook it for an hour because it makes the black beans get a lovely, creamy texture.) Season to taste.
Serve with brown rice.
Tortilla chips, guacamole and grated longhorn cheddar (red leicester in the UK) are all suitable embellishments, too, although not necessary. If you have them, and I usually don't, a squeeze of lime juice and some freshly chopped cilantro/coriander can be stirred in just before you serve the soup. A measure of sherry in the broth, and sour cream on top, is also very nice -- and makes for a soup which is slightly less austere.
Truly, this recipe is just a blueprint. It is a tremendously flexible recipe that you can add to or detract from without really spoiling. Sometimes I get a better "scald" (does anyone else know this expression?) on it than other times, but it is always tasty. I have been making this soup for ten years or more, and I've never had a bad batch of it.
After we visited the Tate, we walked along the Thames -- enjoying the fine weather and the spectacular sights of Big Ben and Parliament. Since we opted out of going into Westminster Abbey, thus saving 24 pounds, I suggested to my mother that we use the hour before the 4:18 train from Paddington to enjoy the relatively cheap pleasures of cappucino and people-watching. We hopped off the Tube at Sloane Square, because I knew of a place with could offer the above -- along with alfresco seating.
Perhaps it was due to the "Freaky Friday" effect of today's share bounce; perhaps it can be attributed to the rare and glorious sunshine or TGIF; perhaps it is just analogous to the orchestra playing as the Titanic sank. Whatever the reason, and despite the fact that it was mid-afternoon, all of the tables at the Oriel Brasserie were full and everyone seemed to be swilling champagne! Recession, what recession?
But just in case, black bean soup is good roughage.