Sunday, March 9, 2008

Winter Whites

I'm cutting it pretty close here with the title, it being Daylight Savings Time now and a warm-ish Sunday morning in Arkansas, but I know we're still in for some coldness...

That being said, I thought I'd share a method for making homemade soup out of little more than a few handfuls of dried beans. I have only two cardinal rules for bean soup: 1. start with dried beans, not canned;* 2. don't add salt until the beans are tender (or they might never become tender!).

Here's the "recipe," presented more like a guide, with all kinds of possible omissions, substitutions, and additions. Honestly, I think the simpler you keep a bean soup, the better, so think of a final flavor you'd like to have in the soup, and decide on your seasonings and ingredients before you start making it; otherwise you might end up with a sloggy jumble. The photo soup was made with great northern beans, 1 onion, 2 carrots, 3 stalks celery, 3 cloves garlic, 1 1/2 cups chopped ham, lots of black pepper, salt, a couple spoonfuls each of Worcestershire and red wine vinegar, 1/2 teaspoonfuls each of dried oregano, cumin, and fennel seed, and a little paprika over the top. That's it--I didn't even have a bay leaf. You can make a simple Tuscan soup with only dried cannellini, water, onions, olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper. Dig it.
*I don't mean to contradict myself. You've seen me use canned beans in other soups, and I'll always rely on them for their convenience. But when the whole point of the soup is the beans, I go purist, and cook them from the dry state.

Highly Adaptable White Bean Soup

  • Pick through and rinse 1 pound of dried great northern beans (or pintos, cannellini, red beans, black beans, or a mixture). Put them in a medium bowl and cover with cold water by about 2 inches. Let them soak for 6 hours to a day.

  • Drain the beans and place them in a large soup pot, covering with fresh cold water by about 2 inches. Add a bay leaf and/or a ham bone (or hock or shank), or add nothing but the water. Bring to a boil over high heat; place a lid on the pot slightly ajar and reduce the heat to medium, and cook for about 45 minutes, or until tender but not falling apart (there should be no "hardness" left).

  • While the beans are cooking, chop some vegetables: 1 yellow or white onion (or 2 leeks), a few cloves of garlic, 1 or 2 carrots, 2 or 3 stalks of celery--any basic soup vegetables you have lying around (or bell peppers, jalapeno, parsnips, or fennel). Dice the onions, slice the leeks, carrots, or celery thinly, and mince the garlic. Heat a saute pan over medium heat, add a couple tablespoons of olive oil or butter, and saute the vegetables slowly for about 15 minutes, until they're soft and fragrant.

  • When the beans are tender, add the vegetables to them. Check the water level--you can make the soup very thick or quite thin according to your preference; you'll just need to season it more if you have a lot of liquid. Cook the beans and vegetables together for at least 20 minutes over a medium-low heat to blend the flavors. If you've used a ham bone, this might be a good time to take it out and shred the meat off, returning the meat to the pot; or, you might want to leave it in until the meat is falling off of its own accord.

  • During this last 20 minutes (or so), add whatever other vegetables or meats interest you: diced cooked ham, chicken, pork, or sausage; chopped green chilis; diced tomatoes or Rotel; roasted red peppers; corn; artichoke hearts...And add some seasonings: chopped fresh herbs like parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, or cilantro; dried herbs like thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil; spices like ground cumin, ground coriander, a little fennel seed, cayenne pepper, Cajun seasoning; Tabasco or other hot sauce; freshly ground black pepper; the rind from a chunk of Parmesan cheese; lemon or orange juice or zest; Worcestershire sauce or a splash of red wine vinegar; a dab of mustard; a pinch of sugar; salt (only if the beans aren't hard anymore, remember!).

  • Cook over low heat, tasting and adjusting, til it's good/great/awesome. Don't let anyone eat the bay leaf.

Depending on your additions, you should get at least 6 hearty servings from this pot.