As the days go by, I am being forced to become more creative with my cooking. I’ve always been a fan of stews and hearty soups, and I make them all year round to stock my freezer. That stash has started to run low lately. So it was time to see what I could make out of the slim pickings I had and replenish the freezer stock.
Rooting around in my pantry, I came upon a mixed bag of soup beans. I don’t even remember buying these dried beans, but I was happy to find them.
The recipe on the back was uninspiring, so I decided to use the beans to make a hearty soup in honor of the children’s folk tale “Stone Soup.” In the story, a hungry stranger persuades people in a hungry town to each bring what little food they have to add to a soup he started with a stone. The result is a delicious meal that everyone enjoys. It’s a fable about the value of sharing, and how the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.
So, I thought of the bag of beans as the “stone” I started my soup with. If you have children at home, you can read the story and get the kids involved. Start with a bag of beans if you have it, and build the soup with whatever is in your kitchen. Ask everyone in your locked-down household to find a carrot, an onion, a potato, etc., to add to the soup.
I began the way I do whenever I make stews and hearty soups, with a foundation of vegetables known to chefs as mirepoix. That’s French for a mix of diced onions, celery and carrot. You saute it, and use it as the base of a dish.
I had some raggedy celery, a few carrots and an onion. Once they were chopped, I put them in a large Dutch oven with olive oil. A ham bone is a classic seasoning for bean soup; I didn’t have one, but I did have some salty pieces of country ham, which I sliced and sautéed with the vegetables. I added a few cloves of roughly chopped garlic and an extra glug of olive oil for richness.
After the vegetables and ham had cooked and the onions had become translucent, I added mostly water, the last of my chicken stock, a packet of French Onion Soup Mix (because I had it, and it is a good flavor addition for soup) and a large can of stewed tomatoes. After that, I washed the dried beans and added them.
I didn’t soak them the night before because, truthfully, I never soak dried beans. I prefer the way they cook when they start dry, but I always felt like I was doing the wrong thing until I saw a tweet from my friend Joe Yonan, who just wrote a book on beans, “Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking with the World’s Most Versatile Plant-Based Protein’’ (Ten Speed Press). He tweeted that “cooking (beans) is faster than soaking.” And he was quoting Steve Sando, the bean master from Rancho Gordo heirloom beans.
Let the soup boil for a few minutes and then turn the heat to low. Let it cook slowly for most of the day or until the beans are creamy. It will take at least three hours to re-hydrate and soften the beans. I put the lid on the pot with just a tiny opening to let the steam escape, so it didn’t boil over.
I tasted the broth and decided it would benefit from some acid and the depth of flavor that wine brings. I had the end of a bottle of red in my refrigerator, so I added a cup. You could use a beer, too, or even a bit of red wine vinegar if you don’t want to add alcohol.
Almost anything tastes good with beans. You can add what you have in the house, from mushrooms to potatoes to corn. Fresh herbs are nice additions as well. And if I had kale or spinach, I would swirl it in at the end. Remember to salt at the end of the cooking time. If you don’t use an onion soup mix packet, you might need a lot of salt. Bean soups generally need quite a bit of salt and a good shake of Tabasco to balance out the flavors.
This is an easy soup to make meat-free if you are vegetarian. It is also a perfect base for adding chicken, smoked sausage, andouille, etc. If you are adding uncooked chicken, do so at the beginning of the cooking time. If you are adding leftover cooked chicken or other meat, slice it and add it during the final 30 minutes of cooking time. Remember, if using sausage, that the spices in it will season your soup, so wait until the sausage simmers for 30 minutes to adjust the salt and other seasonings.