It's ironic that the first recipe I'd post here would be for bean soup, because I don't like bean soup. Or at least I think I don't. In fact, I'm generally not all that fond of beans. I don't exactly dislike them, it's just that they seem boring to me.
I have this experience with many foods: I actually enjoy them when I'm eating them, but when I think of cooking them, the idea leaves me cold. Tofu is like that. I never say, "Wow. I could really go for a dish of tofu right now." If you do, why then, you have my admiration. I do enjoy Ma Po Tofu when I make it, but I just don't get the hankering. Same with beans. (In fact, it just occurred to me that tofu is a bean product, too. Maybe there's a pattern here.)
It's further ironic that this recipe even sounds boring. When you read it, you will probably think, as I did when I started, "Sounds bland." (I was doing something I often do--taking bits and pieces from other recipes to decide what I'd put in it and how to cook it.) But somehow, trust me, it isn't. It's quite toothsome, in fact, and just the ticket on a wintry night. The secret may be the hunks of parmesan rind you throw in there. (Never throw those hard rinds away. Just keep 'em in a baggie in the back of the fridge or in the freezer. They're a great addition to soup.)
My only difficulty here was that the beans took forever to cook. I'm not sure why: the last time I made this, they took about an hour. It could be that the beans were old (even dried beans get stale; when they do, they may never really soften when cooked). Perhaps the difference was that I used cannellini beans this time; last time, I used Great Northern.
Most of the soup can be done ahead, even the day before. So why not make it the day before or at least in the morning? That way, if you have recalcitrant beans, your dinner won't be late. When you're ready to serve it, heat the soup and toss in the chard. Let that cook for a few minutes, and you're all set.
TUSCAN BEAN SOUP
The night before: soak 1 lb. (approximately 2 cups) white beans (Great Northern, cannellini, etc.) in cold water to cover by at least 2 inches.
They'll look like this the next morning:
When ready to cook:
Lightly coat the bottom of a large, heavy pot with olive oil. Over medium heat, sweat 1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups). Then add 4 - 5 cloves chopped garlic and saute for a minute more. (You have to cook garlic a little, but it's better if it doesn't brown too much.)
Drain the beans and add them to the soup pot. Add 1 quart stock (store-bought chicken--I like the stuff in boxes better than canned--or homemade [see below for instructions]), 1 quart water, several sprigs of fresh rosemary, and a hunk of parmesan rind, about 3 inches square, give or take. (Or add a couple of pieces; this is not exact. After I grated the cheese for garnish, I threw in some more rind and that cooked for a while, too.) Simmer this, uncovered, for about an hour, or until the beans are tender. Add more stock and water if it gets too dry, but the final product should be quite thick and not too brothy.
(If you want to make this vegetarian, just use vegetable broth in place of the chicken stock. If you're vegan, you could leave out the parmesan, but I warn you: it won't be as yummy!)
(May do ahead to this point.)
When ready to serve:
Fish out the cheese rind and any rosemary stems (the leaves are OK to leave in).
To the hot soup, add about 1/2 lb. Swiss chard, cut up. (I took out the stems and chopped them up like celery and threw that in first. Then I cut the leaves in half and sliced them into thin ribbons. Actually, to be fair, Sue did most of this step.) Cook for 5 minutes or so, until the chard is tender. Taste for salt and pepper, adding some if necessary. (I advise waiting until now to add salt and pepper: the amount will depend on how salty your stock is, and too much salt keeps the beans from cooking well.) Serve hot. Pass a bowl of freshly grated parmesan for folks to use as a garnish.
Here's the finished soup, still in the pot:
With a bit of crusty bread on the side, this is a nice, simple winter supper.
TO MAKE STOCK:
There is no great art to making stock: just throw some stuff in a pot with a lot of water and let it simmer for a few hours. You'll have something decent at the end. If it's too weak, you can always boil it down a bit to concentrate it. Just go easy with the salt, because you really can't take salt out (you could add more water, though, and there's some trick about putting a raw potato in it, but I've never tried that).
1. I generally use some stock as part of the liquid when I make stock. You read that right. I keep stock in the freezer and always add some of the old stock to the pot when I make a new batch. The stock will come out rich and flavorful that way.
2. I usually make stock with the carcass from a turkey. If you use bones from cooked meat like that, your stock will be a bit weak. Therefore, I always keep the odd bits of raw poultry in the freezer: the tips of the wings, any fat from the cavity, the backbone if I'm cutting up a chicken, the giblets. Just stick them in baggies or small plastic containers and dump them (frozen is fine) into the pot when you make stock.
So here's what I do.
Get the biggest pot you've got. Mine is 16 quarts (4 gallons).
Meat: Stick the turkey carcass into the pot. If it won't fit, cut the carcass apart with a meat cleaver. (This is great for getting out your aggressions, if you have any.) Add any stray chicken parts you've kept around.
Veggies: I use celery (several stalks, with the greens on top when possible--grocers always want to hack those off these days for some reason), a couple of carrots, a couple of turnips, a couple of parsnips, and a whole onion. I don't even peel the onion: the skin adds some color to the stock. Just wash everything well. No need to peel it or cut it up. Leaving it whole (or breaking the celery and carrots in half) makes it easier to fish out later.
Herbs: I put a bunch of dill and about half a bunch of flat-leaf parsley into the pot. Rinse them well, but there's no need to chop them. You could throw a bay leaf or two in there if you want.
Liquid: I put at least a quart of stock into the pot (2 is better). Then I fill up the pot with water to cover everything. Skip putting wine or anything like that in at this stage. It keeps the stock more versatile.
Seasoning: I wait to salt the stock until it's cooked. There's no advantage to putting it in earlier, and the evaporating liquid can play havoc with the amount of salt. (Plus it's hard to account for any salt that may linger in the turkey carcass, especially because I brine my turkeys before I roast them.) Some people think that pepper has a different flavor when it's boiled. If you're one of them, and you like that difference, go ahead and throw some pepper in there (you could use whole peppercorns if you want). Otherwise, there's no problem with waiting until the stock is finished to add the pepper. For a nice touch, you can toss a dozen or so whole cloves into the pot. Experiment! This is a very forgiving enterprise.
Here's everything in the pot, ready to cook:
To cook: Bring everything to a boil, then turn down the heat until the stock is simmering gently. You want to see bubbles breaking the surface pretty often, but no actual boiling going on. Skim off any foam that develops in the early stages of cooking. Set a lid askew on top of the pot, but don't cover it tightly (doing so can sour the stock). Let it simmer for at least 2 hours. 3 is better, and 4 or 5 won't hurt it! Keep cooking it until it's rich and tasty.
Here's how it looked about 3 hours later:
Fish out as much of the solids as you can, using a slotted spoon. Then strain the broth (I use cheesecloth in a large colander). Skim off excess fat: if you have the time, chilling the stock will make this easier. The fat will rise to the top and solidify, and you can just take it right off. But skimming it with a spoon is pretty easy. I am not fanatic about getting every molecule of fat out of it. Salt and pepper it to taste, and you're done, ready to use it for gravy, soup, or whatever your fancy may be!
Stay warm, eat healthy, and be willing to take time over things that are worthwhile.