Recipes for Writers: An ‘umble bean soup

Posted by @ 11:31 am on April 25th, 2011

I’m all for seasonal cooking when it counts, but some days, especially good industrious days when I’ve expended as much as I can, I want something homemade and restorative, but there’s nothing much in the larder except dried beans, a can of tomatoes, a dried crust of bread, and a few staple vegetables–carrots, onions, celery.

And so bean soup. It is a lovely thing, that lasts. I made one last Monday and ate on it all week, and it’s Monday again and I’m already tempted to put another pot on. For someone who has as short a culinary attention span as I, that’s saying a lot about the simple rightness of this soup.

What I did was, I dug up this 20-ounce bag whose label said “15 Bean Soup.” But it wasn’t soup, it was 15 kinds of dried beans (and a paper envelope labeled “Ham Flavor” that I discarded). I brought half the beans (so, 10 ounces, and this was everything from lentils to cranberry beans to something even bigger, so any kind of beans you got will work) to a boil with enough water to cover by an inch, turned off the heat once it boiled and let them sit covered for about 45 minutes. This, instead of soaking them all night. I’m told by people who know that beans don’t need to soak or even pre-cook, but this soup was so delicious that I want to give it to you just as I made it.

Then I browned some roughly chopped onion, carrot, and celery (a cup or so of each) in a healthy amount of oil and, when those were soft, threw in three or four cloves of minced garlic. As soon as the garlic turned color, no more than 30 seconds, I added the drained beans, 10-12 cups of liquid, almost all water (and a cup and a half of leftover chicken broth, but that isn’t strictly necessary), a cup or so of tomato sauce that didn’t turn out good enough to be used prominently for anything (any kind of canned tomatoes or bottled sauce would do well), a decent amount of salt, and pepper. It simply isn’t true that beans toughen if they are salted while they cook. Get that superstition right out of your head; the flavor is so much better if you salt early.

I also added about 3/4 cup of farro, an Italian grain that for my money is interchangeable with barley. So, save your cash and throw in some pearled barley. Or rice of any make, model, or color. 3/4 cup will seem like not a lot but it will be just right.

I brought all that to a boil and then took it down to a bare simmer. It’ll take a few hours for the beans to soften, depending on their size. If you use all lentils, of course, it won’t take an hour. But as long as the beans don’t disintegrate, more cooking can only be to the good, with increasing depth of flavor.

Right at the end, I threw in some arugula. Spinach would do nicely, or some fresh herbs (especially parsley, basil, cilantro, perhaps mint) after you take it off the heat. If you have more woody/oily herbs like rosemary, thyme, or oregano, or dried herbs (perhaps Italian seasoning or herbes de provence) instead of fresh, add those at the beginning, when you add the liquid. I had herbs but didn’t choose to use them; I happened to seek that deep, savory, cooked flavor without any contrast. Other times I might add Parmigiano as well, but I wanted a cleaner texture this time.

You might need to add some water when you reheat it.

The photo was taken on the third day of soup leftovers. I wanted croutons, so I cubed some old baguette and browned the pieces in olive oil with a little salt. You can make them in the oven, I suppose, but it’s quicker in a skillet–they were done, crispy with lightly blackened edges, by the time the bowl of soup was heated in the microwave. There are all manner of recipes for more fancy croutons with herbs and garlic, but if you have a flavorful dish to begin with, the croutons can be plain.

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