Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cannellini bean soup.

Another of my favorite soups is bean soup. In particular, I like cannellini bean soup. Creamy, filling, and loaded with protein, cannellini are a versatile and nourishing food. Making cannellini soup isn't a difficult or time consuming task, either. It can be made within a couple of hours using dried beans, or within minutes, if using canned beans and ready made stock.

To begin with, start with two cups of dried organic cannellini (great northern or navy beans can be substituted). Spread them out on a baking sheet and pick through them looking for stones and other foreign matter (you'd be surprised at some of the things I've found in dried beans). Place the beans in a colander and rinse under cold running water. Place a large pot of water on high heat. When it's hot (but not yet simmering), add the beans. Cover and bring to a hard boil. Let them boil for about 2 minutes, and then remove from the heat. Let them sit, covered, for about an hour. This allows the beans to rehydrate, cutting cooking time, and eliminating the need to soak them overnight. When the beans are almost done resting, peel and chop a medium onion (about 1-1/2 cups); trim the fronds and woody upper stems from a large bulb of fennel, slice in half along its axis, and thinly slice (about 2 cups), saving the fronds for garnish; clean 2 medium or 1 large carrot (about 1-1/2 cups). Note: If you're using organic carrots, it's only necessary to scrub them clean. If using conventional, it's recommended that you scrub and scrape them. Finally, peel and fairly thickly slice 3 to 6 cloves of garlic. Heat some olive oil in a large pot. Add the vegetables and cook, stirring, until they've started to brown. Add one (or two) naturally smoked ham hocks to the pot. Alternatively, you can use a pig's foot (if so, bring a pot of water to the boil, and add the pig's foot; boil it for 5 minutes, and rinse it before adding it to the soup pot), pork belly, pork chops, fat back, 1/3 of a turkey leg, or a turkey wing (again, any of these meats can be smoked or fresh). Avoid using conventional bacon, as it's made with way too much salt and artificial smoke flavor. Of course, you could make this a vegetarian dish by omitting the meat. Substitute smoked seitan or tofu, but add them at the very end of the cooking process, so that they just warm through, and don't break down completely.

Once the vegetables have started to color, add the beans and enough cold water to cover by about an inch. You can also use chicken or vegetable stock, if you're not using any kind of meat. I usually also add about 2 cups of white wine which adds some acidity. Add 2 bay leaves. Don't add salt. If you're using any kind of smoked meat, it's got salt in it. Besides, as the water evaporates, the salt doesn't; it gets absorbed into the beans. There are those who say that this toughens the beans, but I disagree. I think it merely makes for a salty soup. Cover the pot, bring the water to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a bare simmer. Allow to cook, with the cover slightly ajar, stirring gently to prevent the beans from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Add more liquid as necessary. You want a thick soup, but remember, it is soup, not a stew. After about half an hour, add some fresh thyme sprigs (2 or 3, to taste). When the beans have begun to break open and become creamy, taste. If they're tender, they're done. You don't want them to be mushy, though, they should still be a bit al dente in the center, without being hard. Yeah, yeah, it's a fine line, but you'll know it when you taste it. By this time, the meat should be cooked through. Remove it from the pot, and debone it. Return the meat to the soup, add 1/4 teaspoon (or to taste) of freshly ground black pepper and stir to mix. Ladle soup into large bowls. Garnish with the fennel fronds and serve with crusty bread and lemon wedges. This soup keeps well, and will taste even better the next day.

If you're in a rush, you can streamline the process by using canned beans. Use high-quality canned cannellini beans (I recommend Eden Organic). Hopefully, you'll have some of your own homemade chicken stock on hand, but if you don't, a good low-sodium, free-range, organic chicken stock (Pacific makes a good one) can be used. I also recommend using spinach or kale in this soup, rather than fennel. They take less time to cook than the fennel does, and they add a nice bite that the beans won't have. Drain two cans of beans in a colander, and rinse well under cold water. You want to get rid of as much of the canning liquid as possible. Let drain. Chop onions, celery, carrots, and garlic. Heat oil in a large pot. Add about a 1/2 cup of minimally processed, naturally smoked slab bacon that you've cut into 1/2" cubes (in general, slab bacon is cured with fewer bad things like nitrates, nitrites, artificial smoke flavor, and high-fructose corn syrup). When it begins to render add onion, celery, carrots, and garlic. When they begin to color, add between 1 and 1-1/2 quart of stock, some fresh thyme, freshly ground blackk pepper, and spinach or kale. Bring to a simmer, and allow to heat through, stirring very, VERY gently (you don't want the beans to totally break down). Ladle into bowls, and serve with crusty bread and lemon wedges. Voila! A healthy, hearty, satisfying soup in about 20 minutes.

Whether you take the long way, or the shortcut, there's no reason not to serve this delicious soup. It'll warm you while you wait for the snow to melt, and spring to finally arrive.


  1. Yummy! But a question - the slab bacon you mention in the quick version, how is it different from the "conventional bacon" you say we shouldn't use? Does it have less of the bad stuff?

  2. Blog amended to say "minimally processed, naturally smoked" slab bacon. In general, slab bacon is cured without as much bad stuff (i.e., nitrates/nitrites, artificial smoke flavor, high fructose corn syrup, etc.).

    Good question, and thanks for keeping me honest!

  3. I love bean soup, and while I've never heard of canellini beans, I'll put it on my list of things to look for.

    I'll try the soaking technique you mentioned. I've long used the "boil the hell out of it" method when I forget to soak my beans overnight.

    I swore off instant and powdered bullion a while ago and instead have been using the stuff that comes in cartons or cans.

    So what's the trick to making chicken (or beef) stock? Is it just a subset of the chicken soup recipe? Also please mention recommended storage methods (freezing, canning, etc.)

  4. I cannot wait -- you know I've been wanting to try one of your bean soups for a long time. Thanks!