There comes a time every year when the urge to make soup grows stronger. Maybe it's because children are back in school and nourishing family meals seem even more important. Maybe it's that the days are noticeably growing shorter, and there's an occasional hint of crispness in the air.
Whatever the reason, now is the time when big soup pots migrate to the stovetop, just begging to be filled with robust soups.
My favorite soup ingredient is probably dried beans. They've been a staple of so many cultures for good reason. As the peak growing season for fresh produce ends, dried beans are still there, easy to store for many months. They are packed with nutrients and full of earthy, satisfying flavor and texture.
Best of all, beans provide a perfect canvas for creative cooks. They're a great flavor carrier, and by selecting whatever other ingredients you want to add, you can easily give a bean soup a Latin American personality, or Moroccan, Italian, Asian, Austrian -- whatever you like. You can prepare them vegetarian style, using vegetable broth or water as the main cooking liquid. Or add your favorite protein, especially in the form of smoked or salt-cured products like the Italian bacon called pancetta, spicy Spanish chorizo or Cajun andouille sausage, country-style smoked pork shank, or smoked turkey thigh.
Those cured meats raise an important tip about preparing beans: Season them from the start. By adding salt, or salty ingredients, to the cooking liquid along with the beans, you'll insure that the seasoning penetrates, resulting in a much better flavor than you'd get if you seasoned to taste just at the end of cooking.
Another important thing to remember is to soak the beans first. Some cooks use fast-soaking methods, involving bringing the rinsed beans to a boil in cold water to cover and leaving them to soak for a couple of hours before draining and cooking. But why not make it even easier on yourself and do the old-fashioned overnight soak in cold water to cover, leaving the beans to wait for draining and cooking when you get home a couple of hours before you plan to serve the soup?
My final secret for a delicious bean soup is the other vegetables you add to it toward the end of cooking. I like classic aromatics like celery, onion, leek, and garlic, which I saute separately to develop their flavor before adding them to the beans. And ribbons of Swiss chard leaves, briefly wilted in the soup before serving, add even more color, texture, and flavor to each serving.
The results are so delicious and satisfying that you'll find yourself hoping for a cold, blustery day, the perfect weather for cooking and eating bean soup!
WHITE BEAN SOUP WITH PANCETTA AND SWISS CHARD
Makes 8 to 12 servings
1 pound dried white beans
3/4 pound unsliced pancetta
2 sprigs fresh thyme, tied together with kitchen string
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 organic celery stalks, cut into small dice
1 medium-sized yellow onion, cut into small dice
1 medium-sized leek, trimmed, split lengthwise, thoroughly washed, and cut into small dice
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup dry white wine
3 ounces white wine vinegar
6 cups organic chicken broth
1-1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
3/4 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 pound Swiss chard leaves, cut crosswise into strips 1/2 inch wide
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
The night before you plan to make the soup, sort through the beans, removing any misshapen beans, stones, or debris. Rinse the beans under cold running water. Put them in a mixing bowl and add enough cold water to cover them by about 3 inches. Leave to soak overnight at room temperature.
About 2 hours before you plan to serve the soup, cut 1/2 pound of the pancetta into 1/2-inch dice, and set the dice aside in a covered container in the refrigerator.
Drain the beans thoroughly. Put them in a pot, add enough cold water to cover them by at least 2 inches, and add the remaining whole piece of pancetta along with the thyme sprigs. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low and cook until the beans are barely tender, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Set aside.
In a separate soup pot, heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the reserved diced pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Carefully pour off about half of the fat from the pot. Add the celery, onion, leek, and garlic to the pot with the pancetta dice and saute over medium heat just until the onion turns translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high, add the wine and vinegar, and boil until the liquid has reduced by half, about 10 minutes more.
Meanwhile, drain the cooked beans, discarding the chunk of pancetta and the thyme sprigs. Put half of the beans in a food processor fitted with the stainless-steel blade and pulse them until pureed.
Add the whole and pureed beans to the vegetable mixture along with the broth, parsley, and thyme leaves. Stir well. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the whole beans are completely tender and the soup is thick, about 15 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Just a few minutes before serving, stir in the strips of Swiss chard. Continue cooking just until they have wilted, 2 to 3 minutes.
Ladle the soup into individual heated bowls and pass freshly grated Parmesan cheese to add to each serving at table.
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