How to Make Healthy White Bean Soup That Also Tastes Amazing

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 26 2013 10:03 AM

You're Doing It Wrong: White Bean Soup

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What to eat between Christmas and New Year's? White bean soup, obviously.

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It can be hard to figure out what to eat between Christmas and New Year’s. I mean, yes, leftovers, of course. But eventually leftovers run out, and then you're stuck with a decision: Continue the holiday overindulgence with more cheese and cookies? Or get a head start on new year asceticism with carrot sticks and fat-free yogurt?

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

The answer, first of all, is not to set any masochistic New Year’s resolutions that involve carrot sticks and fat-free yogurt. But there is a way to heed your body’s plea for a reprieve from liver-taxing fare without flirting with a crash diet. White bean soup is the perfect recipe for the post-Christmas slump: nourishing, but at the same time richly flavored, comforting, and filling.

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To create that rich flavor and comforting texture, you have to keep a few things in mind. First, home-cooked dried beans are less metallic tasting and mushy than canned beans; it’s worth it to take the time and effort to cook them from scratch. (It’s literally a question of boiling water and then watching to make sure the pot doesn’t bubble over.) Second, fresh herbs make a big difference: Adding a few sprigs of fresh thyme to your soup gives you all of the herb’s aromatic warmth without the hassle of stripping those tiny leaves from the easily breakable stems. And a handful of basil at the end provides an extra hit of bright stimulation, the flavor equivalent of Camera Obscura’s peppiest tracks.

Finally, and most importantly, you have to amp up the broth with extra savoriness. There are two tricks well known among vegetarian cooks for making vegetable broth taste meatier and richer, and together, they work like a charm. (And they also work with chicken or beef broth.) The first is to add some Parmesan rind to the broth. It softens and releases its cheesy flavor into the liquid, and it’s perfectly edible, if a bit chewy. (If you’re not interested in chomping down on cheese rind during dinner, leave it in a large hunk so you can fish it out when the soup is done; if you do want those chewy bits of goodness, cut the rind into bite-sized pieces before adding it.) The second trick is to add a splash of soy sauce near the end—this adds not only crucial saltiness but also subtle complexity.

This recipe calls for kale, because someone decided at some point along the line that white bean soup should have kale in it, and that person was right.

White Bean and Kale Soup
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Time: 1½ to 3 hours, partially unattended

1 pound dried white beans (such as cannellini, Great Northern, or navy), rinsed and picked over
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and black pepper
6 cups vegetable stock
One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
One 2-by-1-by-¼-inch Parmesan rind, cut into bite-sized pieces, if desired
3 fresh thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
1½ pounds kale
1 tablespoon soy sauce
¼ cup roughly chopped basil leaves
Grated Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional)

1. Put the beans in a large pot and add enough water to cover them by 2 to 3 inches. Cover and bring to a boil, then adjust the heat so the water simmers gently. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender, 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on their size; season with salt. (You can do this step a day or two ahead of time: Cool the beans, transfer them to an airtight container with their cooking liquid, and refrigerate until you’re ready to make the soup.)

2. Put the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are very soft, 12 to 15 minutes. Add the drained beans along with the stock, tomatoes, Parmesan rind, thyme, and bay leaf. Stir, cover, and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat so the soup simmers steadily, and cook for 15 minutes.

3. Remove the thick stems and ribs from the kale and discard them; roughly chop the leaves. Stir the kale and soy sauce into the soup, cover, and cook until the kale is tender, about 10 minutes. Remove the thyme stems, bay leaf, and Parmesan rind (if desired). Stir in the basil and taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot, garnished with grated Parmesan cheese, if desired. (Store leftover soup in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to several days.)