For most of us, the dishes that become our "comfort foods" when we grow up are the ones that we remember most fondly from childhood. I've got plenty of them, but it's hard to think of a dish that brings back more happy memories than a bowl of thick and hearty bean soup on a winter day.
Happily, by tinkering with the procedure, I've developed a variation that's pretty good if I do say so myself, and it shouldn't take longer than an hour, provided you have cooked beans on hand.
Frankly (ssshhh!) you can use canned beans in this soup and it will come out okay. But it's so easy to make a pot of beans, and the result is so much better, that it's really worth the additional effort. For the past six months or so, I've been buying fresh dried beans from Rancho Gordo of Napa, Calif. (http://www.ranchogordo.com), and I've been so happy with them that we now just about always have a pot of cooked beans in the fridge, ready to use in recipes.
At $5 a pound, they're not cheap, but then, Napa wine isn't cheap either. More to the point, these beans - heirloom varieties from Europe, the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico - are well worth the toll. A pound makes enough beans to feed two people at least three meals; and they make healthy meatless main dishes at a fraction the cost of steak or lamb chops. (This is not an advertising message. I'm speaking strictly as a very satisfied consumer.)
This soup is best with white beans, and I find Rancho Gordo's large marrow beans, which are meaty white beans about two or three times the size of navy beans or Great Northerns, are an excellent choice. You could certainly go with any of those alternatives, though, or Italian cannellini beans. Bean soup is fine as a vegetarian dish, but I love it with a little pork flavor - ham hock or diced ham or crumbled smoky bacon. The other night I made some with pancetta, because I had it on hand and because it gave the dish a slight Italian accent. That's comfort food, too.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves 2)
1 medium baking potato
1. Peel the potato and cut it into smallish (1/2-inch/1cm) dice. Put them in a pot with water to cover and bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer and cook briefly until they're just crisp-tender, about 5 minutes or so.
2. Mince the pancetta, bacon or ham (or skip this step for a vegetarian dish). Heat the olive oil in a saucepan or soup pot and put in the meat, cooking until it browns slightly.
3. Chop the onion, celery and garlic fine and add them to the pot with the oil and meat. Season with a shake of dried red-pepper flakes (don't overdo it). Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables start to brown. Add the tomato paste, then the beans, and finally the broth.
4. Drain and add the cooked potatoes and simmer the soup, stirring occasionally, for 10 or 15 minutes or until the flavors blend.
5. Using a stick or stand blender, blend a little of the soup briefly to thicken. Don't blend the soup into a puree; you want plenty of whole beans and potato dice to remain in it. Shoot for blending about one-fourth of the soup and the texture should be just right. Check seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste, and serve hot, with crusty bread and a salad or green vegetable.
ABOUT COOKING DRIED BEANS:
Around midday, then, I'll put a pound of beans in a mixing bowl and rinse them several times, checking for sticks and small stones (which I rarely if ever find). Then cover them with enough cool water to stand about 2 inches deep over the surface of the beans. It's not necessary to stick a ruler in, just eyeball it. Now you can go away and ignore them for four hours. When you come back, you'll find that the beans have swelled to pretty much fill up the water.
Pour the beans and their water into a heavy bean pot - I use a heavy cast-iron dutch oven. Do not pour off and replace the water. You're just wasting nutrients if you do, and it makes no difference in the beans', er, digestibility. Don't add much more water, either - just enough to cover the beans with a half-inch of water is plenty. Don't salt them. For that matter, there's no need to put any flavoring in at this point. Remember what I said about simplicity?
Bring to a hard boil and let them boil for one minute, stirring once or twice. Then turn the heat down as low as it will go, and cook on a very low simmer for two to three hours. Check and stir occasionally, adding water only if necessary. You don't want to use excess water so the juice around the beans - called "pot liquor" or "potlikker" in rural parlance - will end up undiluted, thick and flavorful. Don't cook by the clock, just taste a bean now and then and turn off the heat when the beans are done. At this point you can add salt and black pepper to taste and eat them immediately as is, or use them in any recipe you like. They'll keep in the refrigerator for a week or so ... if they last that long in your house.
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