Monday, February 15, 2016

Tuscan Bean Soup

I read a site devoted to foodies called "Chowhound" because it has one of the more active forums and communities among various food-related web sites. Unfortunately, as is the wont of foodies everywhere, they can be rather snobbish when it comes to food. I once bore witness to some of the more common variety of this in a discussion about garlic. One person turned his nose up at the very notion of using powdered garlic in recipes. Another, quite appropriately, said that he couldn't imagine using raw garlic in his egg or tuna salad.

The irony of a lot of food snobbery is that the attitudes were the opposite in the distant culinary past. The reason we have dried spices rather than use fresh ones was that they wouldn't travel well. People in England who were fortunate enough to have access to dried, ground cinnamon saw it as something worth more than an equivalent weight in silver. They had something rare and precious that would last. 

The only reason we can be snobs about fresh vs. dried spices is that we have the luxury of allowing spices to go to waste. When I buy a bunch of fresh cilantro for 99 cents at the market, I know I'm never going to use all of it before it goes bad, and I make some pretty cilantro-heavy recipes that use more than most. I have to freeze the remainder or toss it when the remains go off.

When I found this recipe for Tuscan bean soup, I had to choose between doing some specialty shopping for fresh parsley, pancetta, and dry beans, or use what I had on hand - dried parsley, regular thick-cut bacon, and canned beans. I opted for the latter, but I did my best to retain as much of the original recipe as possible. 

Usually, I don't list the recipes ingredients here because I don't want to rob the Times of their page views. In this case, I changed enough that I'm going to list out what I used, but I didn't change quantities or essential ingredients; I changed quantities (I cut the recipe in half) and form:

  • 2 slices thick-cut bacon
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons dried parsley
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 (15.8 oz.) can Great Northern White beans
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, pureed
  • salt and pepper, to taste
Since I was using canned beans, I had to cook the onions separately. My method was as follows:

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook bacon slices until crisp and brown. Remove from the pan, leaving bacon fat and drippings behind (this was my substitute for the olive oil in the Times recipe). 

Reduce heat to medium-low. Add the diced onions and cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and saute until the strong smell diminishes (about five more minutes). Stir in the parsley and bay leaf; add black pepper and salt to taste. Cook until the onions are no longer releasing moisture through vapor and are thoroughly (about five more minutes). The mix should be very fragrant now.

Add the can of beans, liquid included, and then fill the can with water, add to soup pot, and stir everything together. Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid, and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the pureed tomatoes and simmer for another 15 minutes. 

Remove half of the soup and puree in a blender. Add the puree back into the soup and stir. Taste and add more salt if desired. Crumble the reserved bacon and either stir back into the soup (adds flavor) or serve as a garnish on top (retains texture). 

I actually used more garlic than I'm listing here, but I realized it was too much and have adjusted the recipe here. It isn't overbearing, but I had to really cook it down to diminish the amount of strong garlic flavor. I think that can be avoided by using less garlic.

I have another recipe for Tuscan white bean soup and this one caught my eye because it is so different. Mine uses thyme and lemon juice. This uses parsley and tomato. When I smelled the finished soup, the aroma reminded me of minestrone. The texture was a creamy,  yet still chunky, delight. There is no picture of this soup on the Times recipe page, but this is what mine looked like:

The flavor is more "beany" than some if you don't drain the beans. I prefer it undrained, but I guess drained beans would provide a less robust white bean experience. I liked that the flavors were somewhat delicate while still being very present. Usually, I use some sort of meat stock flavoring (like bouillon) in my soups to give it a strong, savory backbone. This was relying much more heavily on the vegetables and spices so the sense was less intense, but in no way flavorless or boring. The tomatoes also shone through a bit which lent a nice warmth to the soup.

This is an excellent soup to have as a complete meal and I'm sure I'll make it again some time.

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