When it’s chilly outside, I find myself wanting a big bowl of restorative soup more than anything else. It needs to be chock full of vegetables and hearty beans, but doesn’t necessarily have to include meat, and the broth must be well developed in flavor. But devoting several hours in the kitchen making soup isn’t practical on a weeknight, and I don’t always want to wait until the weekend to prepare a huge batch. Using canned beans is certainly a helpful option, but with the availability of locally grown dried beans at the farmer’s market right now, I generally prefer not to go down that route. With the following three shortcuts, making a healthful, satisfying soup doesn’t have to be too difficult or time-consuming.
Step one: Soak your beans overnight. The process of slowly rehydrating the beans helps them cook faster and prevents the skins from bursting during cooking. I chose to use dried gigante beans, those comically large broad white beans that, once cooked, look like lima beans on steroids. (Italian corona beans are a good substitute.) They’re incredibly creamy, have a sweet, earthy flavor, and retain their shape well.
Step two: Cook the soaked beans in a pressure cooker. Normal stovetop cooking in a regular pot takes an hour or longer, depending on the freshness of the beans. Pressure cooking reduces the actual cooking time to 10 minutes. Add about 20 extra minutes to bring the contents up to pressure and to release the pressure at the end of cooking. During this time, the vegetables for the soup can be prepped, the mushrooms soaked and the aromatics sautéed in a big Dutch oven.
Step three: Save the soaking liquids and add a cheese rind. Developing a richly flavored broth with hints of smokiness without the addition of a ham hock, bacon or sausage isn’t impossible. What it does require, however, is a sneaky combination of ingredients that work together to simulate meatiness: a big piece of Parmesan rind (never throw these away after grating the cheese, as they freeze well and can be used in a number of soups and braises); porcini mushrooms and their soaking liquid; toasted fennel seed (the main flavoring component of Italian sausage); smoked paprika (my preference is Spanish smoked pimenton); and tomato paste. To give the soup body, keep the nutrient-rich bean cooking water and use it in addition to vegetable broth.
After the beans have cooked gently in the fortified broth along with most of the vegetables, add a hearty winter green like kale that doesn’t disintegrate easily. Adding it last allows the kale to cook just until it becomes tender, staying green and retaining some of its toothsome texture.
A toasted slice of rustic country bread with broiled melted cheese on top is the perfect foil to this satisfying cold weather soup. Even better, there will be plenty left over for the next couple of days or to freeze when the next hankering hits.
Gigante Bean and Vegetable Soup
- Place the beans in a large bowl, cover with 3 inches of water, and let soak overnight or up to 18 hours. Drain, transfer to a pressure cooker, add 12 cups water, and lock the pressure cooker. Bring the pressure cooker up to pressure over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low and cook 10 minutes. Remove the pot from heat and carefully manually release the pressure. Unlock the lid, reserve 8 cups of the bean-cooking water, and drain the beans.
- While the beans are cooking, in a medium bowl, soak the porcini mushrooms in 1½ cups hot water for 10 minutes. Remove the mushrooms and chop coarsely. Carefully strain the broth through a double cheesecloth- or coffee-filter-lined fine-mesh sieve; reserve.
- In a large Dutch oven, warm the oil over medium heat. Add the leeks, onion, carrots and celery and cook until just starting to soften, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the bell peppers and continue cooking until just tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, fennel seeds, paprika and tomato paste and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the mushrooms, reserved mushroom soaking liquid, tomatoes, Parmesan rind, bay leaf, beans, reserved bean-cooking water and vegetable broth and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the kale and continue to simmer, uncovered, until kale is tender, about 10 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaf and cheese rind before serving.
Sandra Wuis a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.
Photo: Gigante bean and vegetable soup. Credit: Sandra Wu