Happy New Year to all! It’s awfully cold up here in the North Country, and we’ve got the year’s first whopper of a snowstorm blowing in. It feels every bit the first of January, and, to quote Winnie the Pooh, I’m in the mood for food. Comfort food. I very often make a big batch of soup early some morning when I’m working at home, and then I eat it for lunch all week long. This week, as the snow fell and the world outside disappeared under a blanket of white, I made up a hearty-and-healthy batch of Tuscan white bean stew.
With “white bean” in the name of this stew, “Tuscan” is rather redundant. Or, as my witty college music professor used to note in the margins of our essays when the writing left something to be desired in the way of clarity: “The department of redundancy department.” Tuscans love beans. They’re famous for it. And they’re famous for cooking them to absolute, buttery, never mealy perfection. A white bean soup, especially one loaded with garlic and served with toasted bread, screams “Tuscan.” This said, I’m sure this recipe falls far short of the mark of Tuscan authenticity, and I’m not ashamed to say that some of my beans did burst while cooking. But this isn’t really meant to be a truly authentic Tuscan bean soup. And I don’t believe in being afraid of cooking beans. Some might burst. Some might emerge mealy instead of buttery. But it will be good not matter what, and that’s what matters most.
This is a rich, hearty stew with thick cut vegetables and frilly kale. The recipe has a few steps and takes some time, but nothing is arduous, and much of the time is simply spent waiting for the stew to stew. After the initial cooking on the stovetop, I let the stew simmer in a very low oven — 250-degrees. The virtue of this approach is significant: whereas the beans will definitely explode if boiled too vigorously, the low oven maintains the ideal bare simmer with no babysitting, stirring, or gas-flame-fussing. It also lets me carry on with my day without constantly wondering if I left the oven mitts too close to the burner.
All of this may tend to paint beans as a terribly finicky thing to cook. It’s true that many folks are afraid of cooking beans from dry. I was, too, for a long time. I passed the bags of petrified legumes in the grocery store without even thinking that they might be of use to me. Say nothing about elevating my bean cuisine to heights that canned beans just cannot achieve. Since diving into the dry bean department, I say with confidence: Don’t be afraid. It’s easy. It doesn’t have to be fussy. And the results are far superior to anything you’ll get from a can.
There is much debate about the best way to cook beans. To soak or not to soak? To salt or not to salt? I don’t worry about debates. I do what works for me, and so should you. Sure, the texture might be a teeny bit better when beans soak overnight, but I never remember to get my beans soaking the night before. As in, never ever. Even when I know I’m planning to make bean soup. It just doesn’t happen. So I opt for a quick soak: water brought to a boil, removed from heat, beans added to the water and soaked for one hour. It’s enough to lessen the cooking time, thus improving the texture and preventing burst beans. I also add salt to the water. This is unconventional, and there is much argument about when, or if, to salt. I don’t think a Tuscan would like this method, but I picked it up from a cookbook I love, and the method works for me. You don’t want to salt the cooking liquid, because that does interfere with the beans’ ability to properly absorb water. But soaking the beans in salt water, sort of like a brine, and then rinsing them thoroughly before cooking, helps the skins stay intact and thus aids the texture of the beans. But you know what? You can forget the salted water. You can forget to soak entirely. You can go ahead and throw un-soaked, dry beans right in the soup pot if you want to and everything will be just fine. You’ll just need to cook the soup a little longer. What I’m saying is: Don’t fear the bean! The little legumes aren’t nearly as fussy as you might think.
So, onward with the recipe:
HEARTY TUSCAN WHITE BEAN STEW
**Note that this stew can be made vegetarian by omitting the pancetta and replacing the chicken stock with either water or vegetable stock**
1 pound dried canellini beans, picked over and rinsed thoroughly
1 tbsp olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, diced into 1/4 inch pieces (omit if you want a vegetarian stew)
1 large onion, diced
3 carrots, cut into 1/2 inch disks
2 celery stalks, cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 head of garlic (about 8 good sized cloves), minced (save one clove for the garlic toast, if you’re making the garlic toast)
3 cups water
4 cups low-sodium or unsalted chicken stock (or water/veg. stock if you want a vegetarian stew)
parmesan rinds (optional but divine, if you can find them)
2 bay leaves
1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1 bunch of kale, tough stems removed, leaves chopped
Step 1: Quick soak the beans
First, pour the beans onto a sheet pan and sort through them. Beans are well sorted before you buy them, but little stones can make it into the bag. You want to remove them if you find them. You’ll also want to pick out any beans that don’t look quite right, perhaps broken, damaged, or an off color. I’ve never found a stone, but I always end up picking a few less-than-stellar beans out of the bunch.
Then, into a colander for a thorough rinse. Get that bean factory dust off.
While you’re sorting and rinsing, bring 2-3 quarts of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. When it boils, remove it from the heat. Stir in 2-3 tablespoons of salt, if you want to try the salted soak method. Add the beans. Cover and soak for one hour.
At the end of the hour, the beans will be slightly puffed and wrinkly, as in the photo above. Drain them and rinse them thoroughly (extra thoroughly if you’ve used the salt soak method).
Step 2: The stovetop work
First, preheat the oven to 250-degrees.
Next, get all of your ingredients chopped, minced, diced, and organized. This isn’t just for the sake of organization, however noble a goal that is. Having everything to hand and ready to go means that the soup will come together with ease instead of frenzied race-the-clock chopping.
Next, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil over medium-high heat in a heavy pot, like a dutch oven. Add the pancetta to the oil. Cook until brown, 5-6 minutes.
When the pancetta is brown, stir in the onion, carrot, and celery. Cook until soft and starting to brown, 8-10 minutes.
Add the garlic. I know it seems like a lot, but trust me, it’s really good. And garlic is really good for you, especially during the cold winter months. It’s a natural support for the immune system and a warrior against colds and flus, among other health benefits.
Cook the garlic for no more than 1 minute. You don’t want to overcook it or, *gasp!*, burn it.
Add the water and stock to the pot. Bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to a simmer. Stir in the beans.
Add the bay leaves and parmesan rinds.
If you’ve never cooked with parmesan rinds, you must. I always throw them in my soups and tomato sauces. They add an incredible depth of savoriness. It’s a thoroughly Italian trick. You can save the rinds from cheese you buy yourself, or, if you’re lucky, your store will do as mine does and sell the rinds in little containers next to the ready-grated parm. If you can’t find them, it’s okay. But keep an eye out for them at your market, and vow never to throw away another rind. They really are amazing.
That’s it for the stovetop portion. Cover the soup and stash it in the 250-degree oven for 1 hour.
Step 3: The waiting. Then the kale and tomatoes.
While the soup simmers in the oven, chop the kale. The bunch I bought resulted in a small mountain.
You can also drain the canned tomatoes.
When the hour has passed, take the soup out of the oven and add the kale and tomatoes.
I did not use that entire mountain of kale. I added as much as I felt appropriate, then I turned the rest into kale chips (tossed in olive oil, sprinkled with salt, baked at 350 until crispy). I did not want this to turn into a kale soup, but I did want enough for it to be hearty and healthy.
Cover the soup and put it back in the oven for another 30 minutes, or until the beans and kale are tender.
If you want to create a slightly thicker texture, scoop out about 1/2 cup or so of the beans. Mush them up with a fork, then stir them back into the stew.
Fish out the bay leaves and parmesan rinds. Their work here is done.
Taste the soup and season it, if necessary, with salt and pepper.
Step 4: The optional, but totally worth it, garlic toasts
To make garlic toasts the Italian way, slice up some bread.
Drizzle it with olive oil and toast it under the broiler (or on a grill)
Rub the toast with a peeled clove of garlic. It’s the best garlic toast you’ll ever eat.
And warm up, body and soul, with a steamy bowl of soup on a snowy winter’s day.
Happy New Year!