The holidays are over once again. Menorahs have been packed away. Solstice fires have turned to ash. Christmas trees lie at the curb, awaiting a new life as a pile of chips, perhaps to cover the ground where the next generation of trees will sprout.
The old year has been reviewed, hopefully with gratitude for the moments of joy and the ability to survive the imperfect ones. Just a few days into 2011, tiny little green noses are poking out of the soil in my garden, for now hidden under a cozy pile of leaves (I peeked). Only a month from now, they will start turning into bright yellow tete-a-tete daffodil blooms. What a great reminder that spring will eventually come.
But I am getting ahead of myself. In these cold, rainy and often dreary days, a pot of hot soup on the stove warms far more than our tummies. The fragrance fills the house and reminds me of decades of simmering stock pots going back to my earliest memories.
Things were so different back then. My dad had a delicate stomach and wouldn’t let my mom use anything but salt and pepper to season our meals. Once she bought a bottle of oregano and my dad made her dump it out and promise to never buy it again. He wasn’t an ogre. He was just raised on simple German peasant food. He liked meat, potatoes and gravy. Period.
When he was a boy, during the coldest, snowiest winter months in Central Wisconsin, they were unable to get out to go shopping. Instead, a heavy horse-drawn sled would come around every couple of weeks. It was loaded with meat to supplement the canned goods everyone put up in those days. It also carried the kerosene they needed to keep the lamps lit and fulfilled special requests.
My grandmother liked to crochet. One time she was nearly finished with a beautiful tablecloth. When the sled came around, she needed a few more balls of the off-white linen thread she was using. All they had was a light tan shade. She wasn’t about to wait another two weeks to complete her project. So I have a much-loved off-white tablecloth with one light tan edge.
In the summer, my grandmother planted a big garden to feed a family that included four children. My dad always hated working in the garden. Once, when he was a kid, he was supposed to be picking potato bugs but he was goofing off, perhaps throwing stones at his sisters. Gramma clobbered him on the head with the hoe. He had a little scar there for the rest of his life. There were no books on correct child-raising back then and the occasional clobbering was quite normal.
In his later years, my dad spent winter days in his workshop, a fire blazing in a little pot-bellied stove. He made dozens of beautiful, sturdy doll houses for the local senior center to sell. I sent him a small spice rack I admired but which was far too small for my collection of bottles and jars. I asked him to make me one that was about three times as big. He agreed to do it, but asked me what on earth I was going to put in it. He could never have visualized the herb and spice collections good cooks have these days.
What would a pot of soup be like with only salt and pepper for seasoning? It’s unimaginable in my kitchen. My method for making a delicious bean soup is not really a recipe.
It starts with the beans and then depends on ingredients that are on hand. It isn’t until the end that the flavor is adjusted by the addition of salt and a few twists of black pepper.
Feel free to adjust my bean soup recipe with your own favorite (or leftover) ingredients.
Karyn Lindberg has called Olympia home since 1988. She is passionate about cooking and entertaining. She believes good recipes are meant to be shared.
Bean Soup with Kale
2 cups cannellini beans, dried or three cans cannellini beans
2-quarts chicken broth
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped into small pieces
4-5 stems fresh thyme, tied together with string
2 tablespoons butter or cooking oil
1 large or two medium onions, chopped
3-4 stalks celery, chopped
1 cup chopped Italian kale
Salt & pepper to taste
Bacon, thick cut or a quarter-inch thick slice of good quality ham
If you happen to have a ham bone and any scraps left from the holidays, start making the soup by boiling the bone and all the scraps, including fat, in a large stock pot. When all the meat falls off the bone, cool and then strain out the bone pieces and meat. Toss this out. All their flavor is in the stock. Cool the liquid until you can skim off most of the fat. Clean out the stock pot and return the strained ham broth. Cook over medium heat until it reduces to about two cups. Cool. Use half for your soup and freeze the rest for future soup.
Cannellini beans are also known as white kidney beans. The beans are flavorful and hearty, especially when cooked in broth. They absorb the flavor of the broth as they cook.
Soak the beans overnight or just start them out in about a quart of broth and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat so a slow simmer is maintained. It takes at least an hour for them to soften if you started with dried beans, less if you soaked overnight. Add more broth throughout the cooking process as needed. It’s OK to mix ham and chicken broths.
If you are starting with canned beans, rinse and drain them and then add three cups of the chicken broth. From here on, follow the from-scratch instructions, adding more broth as needed.
Add the sun-dried tomatoes and the thyme stems. Let them simmer together while you chop the onions and celery. In a separate sauté pan, add the butter (or cooking oil if you prefer) and melt over medium heat. Add the onions and celery and cook until softened. Add to the stock pot.
Simmer until the leaves have dropped off the thyme (at least 30 minutes). Fish the remaining stems out of the pot and discard. Add the kale. Add a tablespoon or more of non-salt seasoning.
Italian kale is dark green and has very curly leaves. I recommend chopping up the whole bunch, adding one cup (or more if you like) to the soup and freeze the rest. It will be handy the next time you make soup.
If you want to add meat, cut four or five slices of good quality bacon into small strips. Fry until well-browned and drain on paper toweling. Add to soup.
Alternatively, ask the deli clerk to cut one slice of good quality ham about a quarter-inch thick. Cut into quarter–inch cubes and add to the soup.
Continue simmering until the kale is tender. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.