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Recipes and Stories

23 January 2013: A Trilogy of White Bean Soups

White Bean Soup II, with Garlic and Rosemary. If you're feeling the need for pig, ramp it up with pancetta or bacon

A welcome nip in the air has conspired with a touch of homesickness to bring on a craving for hearty, old-fashioned bean soup. There are so many good ones—from my father’s simple mélange of copper-brown pintos with ham and onion (eaten with hot cornbread crumbled into the bowl) to the suave, sophisticated puree of black beans that once graced so many Savannah dinner tables. I love them all, but my favorite is a simple, hearty white bean soup. Made with cannellini beans (or if those can’t be had, great northerns), it’s based on a classic Italian bean soup, but over the years I have added touches of my own.

What goes into the pot varies according to mood, time of year, what we had the night before, and how homesick I happen to be. Most of the time its seasonings are not much more than broth, garlic, and a little sage, but if I’m a little homesick, it could be rosemary and pancetta or bacon, or, if I’m a lot homesick, ham and onions. What accompanies the soup is similarly driven: crisp pan-broiled toast when I’m in a hurry or crusty hot skillet cornbread when I miss my mother so much it aches.

But regardless of what goes into the pot and what I dip into the bowl as I eat, there is nothing that satisfies quite like this.

A word on the ingredients—First, meat broth or, as the Italians simply call it, brodo: In traditional Italian cooking, homemade meat broth is always made with a mixture of beef, poultry, and pork bones—actually, with whatever the cook has on hand. If you don’t have homemade broth, use equal parts canned chicken and beef broth and water (even if the broth is labeled to use full strength). Secondly, the beans: the best flavor and texture will of course come from dried beans that you reconstitute and cook yourself, but when pressed for time, a canned beans will make a perfectly good soup and are a blessing to have on hand in the pantry.

White Bean Soup I
With Garlic and Herb Garnish
Serves 4 to 6

2 cups dried cannellini or great northern beans or 2 20-ounce cans of either bean
½ cup good olive oil, divided
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced small
2 large carrots, washed, peeled, trimmed, and diced small
4-6 cups homemade meat broth (see notes above)
1 sprig sage, plus 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
2 large cloves garlic, minced fine
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

If using dried beans, sort through them, discarding any pebbles and damaged beans; put them in a colander and rinse them well under cold running water. Pour them into a 4 to 6 quart non-reactive porcelain enameled or stainless steel pot and cover them with cold water by 2 inches. Let them soak overnight or for 8 hours. If using canned beans, drain and rinse them and skip the next step.

Add enough water to the beans to again cover them by 2 inches and bring them slowly to a simmer over medium heat. Lower the heat to a steady simmer and cook until the beans are tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. Drain the beans, reserving their soaking liquid, and wipe out the pot.

Put 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the onion, and the carrots in the pot in which the beans cooked (a 4-6-quart enamel-lined or stainless steel pot) and warm it over medium heat. Sauté, tossing often, until the onion is golden and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add he beans and toss until they are warmed, then add the broth and sprig of sage, bring it to a boil and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and simmer until the beans are tender and infused with the other flavors, about 20 minutes. Puree a cup of the beans through the fine disk of a food mill back into the pot. If the liquid has gotten too thick, thin it with a little of the reserved bean liquor. Bring it back to a simmer, taste, and adjust the seasonings. Remove and discard the sage sprig and pour the soup into a heated soup tureen or individual bowls.

Put the remaining olive oil and garlic into a small heavy-bottomed pan and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Heat until the garlic is pale gold then toss in the chopped sage and parsley. It should sizzle when the herbs hit the pan, but don’t let the garlic get brown. Stir until the herbs wilt and immediately pour this over the soup in the tureen or spoon it into the individual bowls. It will sizzle as it hits the soup. Serve immediately with pan-toasted bread (recipe follows), or hot cornbread.

White Bean Soup II
with Rosemary
Serves 4 to 6

2 cups dried cannellini or great northern beans or 2 20-ounce cans of either bean, drained and rinsed
3 tablespoons good olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced small
2 large carrots, washed, peeled, trimmed, and diced small
2 large cloves garlic, minced fine
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, plus about 1 tablespoon of whole leaves, for garnish
4-6 cups homemade meat broth (see notes)
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

Following the method in the preceding recipe, sort, rinse, soak and precook the beans. If using canned beans, drain and rinse them.

Put the olive oil, the onion, and the carrots in the pot in which the beans cooked (a 4-6-quart enamel-lined or stainless steel) and warm it over medium heat. Sauté, tossing often, until the onion is golden and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and rosemary and toss until fragrant, about half a minute. Add he beans and toss until they are warmed, then add the broth, bring it to a boil and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and simmer until the beans are tender and infused with the other flavors, about 20 minutes. Puree a cup of the beans through the fine disk of a food mill back into the pot. If the liquid has gotten too thick, thin it with a little of the reserved bean liquor. Bring it back to a simmer, taste, and adjust the seasonings. Remove and discard the sage sprig and pour the soup into a heated soup tureen or individual bowls. Serve with pan-toasted bread (recipe follows) or hot cornbread.

White Bean Soup III
With Pancetta or Bacon

Following the recipe for White Bean Soup II, reducing the olive oil to 1 tablespoon, or substituting for it 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter, and add 4 extra-thick slices of pancetta or bacon cut into small dice. Put the oil and pancetta into the pot and sauté over medium heat until the pancetta is golden and its fat is rendered. Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat, add the onion and carrot, and proceed as directed for the remaining recipe.

To Pan-Toast Bread: cut hearty, 1-inch-thick slices of crusty European-style bread. Heat a seasoned heavy iron skillet over medium heat for 3-4 minutes. Brush the bread on one side with olive oil or melted butter and put it in the pan, fat side down. Pan-broil until golden brown on the bottom, about 2-3 minutes, then brush the top with oil or butter, turn, and toast until evenly browned.

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