Scrumptious, smooth, creamy. Herb-scented, olive oil-enriched, crouton-garnished. I need to create quite an impression of the simple bean soup I made last weekend, because the pictures, well, the pictures aren't so great. And if you don't try this (brown soup with beige croutons) you'll regret it.
Spectacular fall weather inspired a bit of bean cookery over the weekend. I ventured into the pantry and broke out a bag of better-than-average heirloom beans — snowcap beans — from Rancho Gordo. Beans I ordered and got all worked up over in June, and with good reason. The heirloom varieties I've tried thus far have been amazingly good. Like all great ingredients, the Rancho Gordo beans haven't needed much help, just the addition a few aromatic vegetables and an herb or two.
Snowcap beans remind me of cranberry beans with their rich, velvety texture — perfect for soups. When I make this type of pureed bean soup I typically use a little pancetta, cooking the vegetables in rendered fat before adding the beans, herbs, and water or chicken stock, using the crisped meat as a garnish. Feel free to do that here if you'd like, but if you go to the trouble of procuring heirloom beans, try it first without the meat. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
You'll find many different opinions on the best ways to cook dried beans. Some people recommend adding dried seaweed or crushed espazote to the water to aid digestion; others insist that a pinch of baking soda does the trick. Many advise that you not add salt to the bean pot until they're done, lest you toughen the skins and prevent them from ever truly cooking through. I haven't found that any of these things are true, and I've tried them all. Seaweed and espazote are nice for flavor, but I'm not convinced that they help the, er, bean problem. Dried beans benefit from a soak prior to cooking — this simply speeds up the process.
Velvety Bean Soup
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound dried snowcap or cranberry beans
1 large onion, diced
5 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 rosemary sprigs
10 sage leaves
freshly ground black pepper
Cover the dried beans with cold water and soak, refrigerated, 8 hours. When it's time to cook the beans, drain and proceed with the recipe. If you're pressed for time, place the dried beans in a large pot and cover with water by about 2 inches. Bring to a boil, cover with a lid, then shut off the heat and allow the beans to soak for one hour. Drain, then proceed with the recipe below.
Warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottom stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft, about 5-7 minutes. Add the celery and carrots, stir, and cook another 5 minutes. Add the herbs and soaked beans, and cover with fresh water by about 2 inches. Simmer the beans until tender, adding more water if necessary. My batch of beans cooked in about 35 mintues, but please note that the cooking time varies, as some beans are older (and therefore more dried out) than others.
Remove the herb sprigs and puree with an immersion blender or standing blender. If using an upright, work in small batches with the lid loosely covering the top, and allow the soup to cool a little bit before pureeing. Hot splatters are painful as well as messy. Add more water to thin the soup if necessary and season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Garnish with freshly made croutons (toast small cubes of the best white bread you can find in a little extra virgin olive oil on the stove top) and a drizzle of olive oil.