It’s Tuesday, Feb. 16, and Mississippi is closed today.
As I type, a winter storm has just passed through the entire state, leaving a blanket of snow and ice. The people in the northern part of the state have had it much worse than we have down here in south Mississippi, though everything – for the most part – is shut down in my hometown of Hattiesburg.
We hoped to open the restaurants today, but all of the supply trucks with groceries to resupply our inventory after the busy Valentine’s Day weekend aren't running. So, I will spend a second day at home, and to be honest with you, it’s kind of nice just chilling and relaxing.
Our restaurants are open 360 days a year. We only close on New Year’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I go to work at 6:45 a.m. every morning seven days a week when I’m in town. I’m not complaining, I absolutely love what I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My wife often tells me, “Why don't you sleep in? You don’t have to go in today.” I enjoy what I do and love being at our breakfast joint when we open in the morning.
Today, I will be working from home. Ice has covered the streets of Hattiesburg. There are a few snowflakes falling. We don’t get too many days like this. When I was a kid, it seemed like we got snow once every four years or so. “Snow” would be a loose term in most parts of the country to describe what we get down here. It’s really an icy, slushy mix, but schools always closed, and my friends and I had a blast.
As much fun as we had playing in the snow as kids, my childhood memories aren’t even close to the best memory I have of a local snow day, not by a long shot. My best local snow day happened when I was in my early 40s and a new father of two. My daughter was probably 5, and my son had yet to celebrate his second birthday. We had an unexpected Hattiesburg snow day, and my daughter and I built a snowman together. Actually, it was a snow woman dressed in clothes from her closet.
That was one of those days I had dreamed of as a teenager. I would imagine most teenage boys don’t look forward to being a dad one day, but I always wanted to be a father as far back as I can remember. It probably had something to do with growing up without a father, and I could probably spend a few thousand dollars on a psychiatrist’s couch trying to resolve that issue, but to what end? I always wanted to be a dad, and I have always loved being a dad.
As fate would have it, I became a father later in life. I was 36 years old when my daughter was born. Most of my friends had kids in junior high by that age. I was the “old dad” at most functions. That never squelched my enthusiasm for being a father. Actually, I think having kids a little later in life allowed me to get all of the other unimportant stuff out of the way in my 20s and early 30s so I could fully focus on being a parent.
Back to the snow woman. It was crude – with pine straw mixed in with the snow – and would never win a snow woman contest, but it was a thing of beauty in my eyes because my daughter and I made it together in the stillness of a cold gray morning in our front yard.
After playing in the snow all morning, I went back into the house and rounded up a bunch of leftovers and made a vegetable beef soup. Of all of the items I cook at home, things that fall into the soup category are probably things I cook the least. If I didn’t own a restaurant that made gallons and gallons of gumbo every day, I would probably cook a lot of gumbo at home. But I’m around it all day at work, and if I need to bring any home, it’s always there.
As simple and basic as a vegetable beef soup recipe is, vegetable beef soup wasn’t something I had ever cooked before that day. The resulting recipe was one of those magic moments in which I was definitely hitting on all cylinders in the kitchen. The finished product was one that I was so pleased with that I wrote it down and brought it to the restaurant, where we have been serving it for the past two decades.
Sometimes it takes a few passes at a recipe to nail it perfectly and get it to the point to where I think it’s a finished product. But on this day, using scraps and leftovers, the recipe was perfect right out of the chute. I attribute it to the inspiration of a memorable morning with my daughter.
Recipe inspiration comes from many places. When it is rooted in family and loved ones, the end result can’t be matched. I have a lot of job titles – restaurateur, author, columnist, travel guide and others – but being a dad is, by far, the best job I have ever had.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He has written a syndicated weekly newspaper column for more than 20 years.
VEGETABLE BEEF SOUP
• 3 tablespoons olive oil.
• 1 1/2 pounds beef shoulder, small dice.
• 2 teaspoons salt.
• 2 teaspoons pepper.
• 1 cup onion, small dice.
• 1 cup carrot, small dice.
• 1 cup celery, small dice.
• 1 tablespoon garlic, minced.
• 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme.
• 1 tablespoon steak seasoning.
• 1 bay leaf.
• 15-ounce can tomato, diced.
• 6 cups beef broth.
• 1 cup corn, fresh, scraped from the cob.
• 1 cup potato, peeled and diced.
• 1 cup Zing Zang Bloody Mary mix.
• 1 tablespoon Kitchen Bouquet sauce.
• 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce.
• Heat 1 tablespoon of oil over high heat in a large skillet. Season the meat with half of the salt and pepper. Brown the meat in olive oil. Do not overload the skillet; overloading the skillet will cause the beef to steam instead of brown. Brown meat in batches. Add more oil when necessary, and then place cooked meat in a large stockpot.
• Add 1 tablespoon of oil to skillet and saute the onions, carrots, celery and garlic for five minutes over medium heat.
• Add thyme, steak seasoning and bay leaf.
• Deglaze the pan by adding the canned tomatoes (with the juice), using a wooden spoon to remove any stuck-on proteins.
• Cook five minutes on high, and add to the meat in the stockpot. Place beef broth in the stockpot and cook over low heat. The soup should just barely simmer.
• After 1 hour, add Zing Zang mix, corn and potatoes. Continue cooking another 45 minutes.
• Remove from heat and stir in remaining salt, pepper, and Worcestershire and Kitchen Bouquet sauces. Yield: 1 gallon.