Rustic bean soup brings back memories
I first learned to cook in a kitchen ruled by two strong, loving women: my mother and grandmother. They were both amazing cooks, and all these years later my mouth still waters when I think about the food they prepared.
They weren’t fancy about our daily food. Though they both knew how to prepare the finest traditional Austrian dishes, they ran our home smartly and frugally.
They grew most of their own vegetables, relying largely on fresh produce straight from our home garden along with smart pantry staples.
Among their most reliable staples were dried beans. For such an inexpensive ingredient, dried beans provide generous flavor and texture, not to mention abundant healthy nutrients such as B vitamins, potassium, complex carbohydrates and fiber, along with good amounts of protein but little fat and no cholesterol.
More than just a great accompaniment, they’re robust and flavorful enough to serve as a main dish.
Take, for example, my recipe for white bean soup with root vegetables. With generous quantities of vegetables, a little bacon for extra flavor (though vegetarians and vegans could leave that out) and optional garnishes of sausage or freshly grated Parmesan (also easy to omit), it’s definitely a soup that adds up to a meal in itself.
Once you’ve made the soup a few times, feel free to start experimenting. Use different kinds of beans, vegetables and seasonings. Add a smoked ham hock or turkey leg, if you like.
Make the recipe your own, reflecting whatever you have available that’s in season.
In other words, cook like my mother and grandmother did.
White Bean Soup with Root Vegetables
Makes 12 cups
2 cups dried white beans (any type)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2½ quarts store-bought good-quality low-sodium chicken stock or broth, or vegetable stock or broth
2 ounces smoked bacon, about 3 slices, cut crosswise into strips (optional)
2 medium yellow onions, peeled, trimmed and diced
2 large carrots, trimmed, peeled and diced
2 small celery stalks, trimmed and diced
1 small bulb celeriac, peeled and diced
6 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
¼ cup tomato paste
1 large tomato, about 8 ounces, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 or 3 large fresh basil leaves
2 or 3 sprigs fresh Italian parsley
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1/3 cup sherry wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
Freshly ground white pepper
Sliced cooked sausage, for garnish, optional
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish, optional
Start prepping the beans the night before. Little by little, spread them out on a clean work surface, and sort out any grit, debris or malformed beans.
Put the beans in a strainer and rinse thoroughly with cold running water. Then, transfer them to a bowl, add cold water to cover them by at least 2 inches and leave at room temperature to soak overnight.
Start cooking the soup at least 3 hours before serving time, first draining the beans thoroughly.
Heat a large stockpot over medium heat, and add the olive oil. Add the bacon strips and cook, stirring frequently, until they have browned lightly, several minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove and discard the bacon.
In another pot, bring the stock or broth to a boil over medium-high heat; then, reduce the heat and keep warm.
While the stock is heating, add the onions, carrots, celery and celeriac to the pot containing the oil and bacon fat, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they begin to turn tender, 3 to 4 minutes.
Stir in the garlic, tomato paste, chopped tomato and drained beans. With kitchen string, securely tie together the basil, parsley, thyme and rosemary. Add the bundle to the pot, along with the vinegar and sugar. Pour in the hot stock or broth, and stir well. Season lightly with salt and white pepper.
Raise the heat, and bring the liquid to a full boil. Then reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, and add more stock or water as needed to keep the beans fully covered.
When the beans are tender, remove and discard the herb bundle. Ladle out 2 cups of the beans and vegetables, and puree them in a blender or food processor.
Stir the puree back into the pot. Taste and adjust the seasonings with more salt and pepper. If you like, garnish serving bowls with sausage and Parmesan cheese.