A Cheap and Satisfying Red Bean Soup

I just had a long holiday vacation where I visited friends and family in Reno, San Francisco, and South Lake Tahoe, and when I arrived home last night, it seemed ever clear that 2012 is going to be spelled b-u-d-g-e-t. This soup—which ought to get me through a couple meals—is one of the first things I made.

If on first glance it doesn’t strike you as very cheap, that’s probably just because we outfit our kitchens differently. I always have these ingredients, aside from the chard and maybe the beans, on hand. Harissa, a spicy North African pepper paste, goes into many dishes, sometimes with unorthadox flair: stirred into some olive oil as a drizzling or bread-dipping sauce, added to scrambled eggs, and even to carbonara-style pasta. And whole cumin seeds, rather than ground, turn up in most savory dishes that I cook. Neither are all that expensive, and if you take to these ingredients as I have, you’ll find yourself cooking with them often.

Here, the bean cooking liquid doubles as the soup stock. This not only saves stock as an ingredient, but it adds richness and body to the soup. And the bean cooking method, which I mentioned in Veggie Burgers Every Which Way, is one I read about in a New York Times article by Amanda Hesser. You simmer the beans in just enough water to cover them, and then use a heat-proof bowl containing some water as the lid to the pot. As the beans begin absorb the water and rise above the water level, pour in—using oven mittens! the bowl will get hot!—just a bit of the simmering water from the bowl into the pot. It results in a rich and concentrated liquid. If the method seems too fussy to you, I suppose you could just use a regular old lid, and then add piping hot tap water to the pot as needed.

I don’t have too many photos for this soup, so I’m including some from my trip. We went on a hike while we were in Lake Tahoe—there’s no snow so far this year—and came across this beautiful, frozen mountain lake. It was a dynamic start to 2012. I’m wishing you the best for new year!

A Cheap and Satisfying Red Bean Soup

Serves 4 or 5

3/4 pound (scant 2 cups) dry red beans, soaked overnight (I used “Red Merlot Beans” from my CSA, but kidney beans, or any other red or even black ones you have on hand, would be fine)
Olive oil
1-1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt
1 medium white onion, diced
1 bunch chard
4 or 5 plump garlic cloves, slivered
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon harissa
1 tablespoon tomato paste

1. Place the soaked beans in a pot. Add enough water so that they are just covered—this will probably be between 4 and 5 cups water. Bring to a boil. Meanwhile, add a few cups of water to a large, heat-safe mixing bowl (I use a cheap metal one) that’s wide enough to act as a lid to the pot the beans are in. After the pot is boiling, add a glug—a tablespoon or so—of olive oil, and reduce the heat so that the liquid is simmering. Cover the pot with the bowl of water. Check on the beans every 15 minutes, using oven mittens as you pick up the bowl, and as the beans begin to plump up and rise above the water level, pour water from the bowl into the pot so as to keep them covered. Cook for 45 minutes and taste. They should be getting close. Add the salt then cover the pan and continue cooking, adding more water if necessary, until totally tender. Don’t undercook the beans—as Cathy Erway wrote on her blog a while ago, “there’s little attraction to ‘al dente’ beans.”

2. When the beans are tender, turn off the heat. Use an immersion blender and puree for a few pulses, just to give the liquid a creamy consistency; leave most of the beans whole. (If you don’t have an immersion blender, puree a ladleful or two of the beans in a blender or a food processor with some cooking liquid until creamy, then scoop the mixture back into the pot.)

3. As the beans cook, separate the chard leaves from their stems. Slice the stems thinly, as you would celery, and set aside. Slice the leaves into thin ribbons and set them aside.

4. After you add the salt to the beans, heat a generous amount of oil—I used 3 to 4 tablespoons, but you can use less—in a skillet over medium or medium-high heat. Add the onion and the chard stems and cook until caramelized, adjusting the heat if they begin to burn. This will take 20 to 30 minutes. Taste them and make sure they’re tender and sweet. Add the garlic, cumin, harissa, tomato paste, and a big pinch of salt to the pan and cook for 2 or 3 minutes more, until fragrant. Add a ladleful of the bean cooking liquid to the skillet and deglaze it, using a wooden spoon to scrape up all the browned bits. Transfer this mixture to the pot of perfectly cooked beans.

5. Bring the pot back to a boil, then reduce to an active simmer. Add the chard leaves, cover, and cook until the chard is silky and tender, another 3 to 5 mintues. If the soup seems too thick, add a bit of water to thin it out. Taste for salt and acid—you may want to add a few drops of lemon juice to brighten it up.


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