My husband had a great-aunt who lived in the coal country of West Virginia. Lillie Mae Williams Taylor was a lovely lady, widowed by the time I met her. Her husband had been a coal miner, and he died of black lung. She lived in a house they had built, not far from Bluefield, on a hill overlooking the tracks where coal trains rumbled by.
My husband and I visited a couple of times, both in summer and in winter, on our way to or from somewhere else. It was a bit like stepping back in time. Part of her hospitality was making sure we ate well, and as I remember it, she always had a pot of something between a stew and a soup simmering on the back burner of her stove. Aunt Lillie kept a large vegetable garden, and a lot of what she cooked came from that garden.
|The vegetable garden|
I guess you'd have to say she was ahead of her time: if you're talking about farm to table, the distance at Aunt Lillie's was about forty feet. She grew no-nonsense things like onions and potatoes, and she also grew a kind of bean that I'd never seen before. If I remember correctly (sorry, I wasn't taking food pictures that early), it was kind of speckled, and she used them fresh, not dried, saving the seeds over the winter for the next season. (I subscribe to the Seed Savers Exchange catalog from Seed Savers Exchange, and it could be one of the beans there, or it could be something with no name that had been passed down for generations.) She didn't do fancy, just good, plain and very fresh food.
|Aunt Lillie's kitchen|
My husband and I were comparing our memories and we couldn't agree whether there was meat involved in that always-simmering soup pot. I don't remember it, but it's easy to picture some ham or bacon going in. I don't remember herbs or spices or even garlic—which is kind of a testament for fresh vegetables. This was a stew/soup that was all about the vegetables, slow-cooked together for a long time, waiting for the next guest to appear.
Aunt Lillie never used a recipe—she just added some of that and a bit of whatever was ripe from the garden. I'm not sure she knew what an herb or spice was. I can't claim that this is Aunt Lillie's recipe, but it's as close as I can come. It makes a good side dish with dinner, or a good soup with some bread or cornbread alongside.
Aunt Lillie's Vegetable Stew
1 pound fresh green beans, cut into 2" pieces
2 lbs potatoes (use russet/bakers, not the waxy kind. If they're large, peel and cut into 1" cubes; if they're small, skip the peeling. I used Yukon Gold new potatoes.)
2 onions, coarsely diced
2 cups water or broth (vegetable or chicken)
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large heavy pot, heat the oil and sauté the onions and potatoes and cook on medium-low for about ten minutes; add the green beans and cook for another five minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the water or broth and simmer slowly, stirring occasionally. When you're ready to serve, taste for seasoning, then mash a few of the potato pieces to thicken it.
And that's it—simple food that tastes good. There's no reason you couldn't add some left-over veggies, or carrots (as I did), or maybe some cabbage. And herbs. A lot of recipes of this kind call for tomatoes, but that makes it a different soup. Summer versions often suggest squash, but that would disintegrate if cooked for long. But don't be shy about adding whatever you have on hand—as long as it's fresh!