When Big Fella and I were young marrieds, we ate bean soup for dinner at least four times a month because it was cheap. Which is why it took me so long to realize I don’t like it. It invariably disappoints. Either it’s watery, or strongly beany tasting, or bland. Or if the mixture includes a lot of meat for flavor, the soup is greasy or salty. I quit making it and quit ordering it in restaurants.
But food writer John Thorne opened my eyes. Thorne, food fetishist and author of the serious food newsletter Simple Cooking, spends all his time thinking deep thoughts about food.
He didn’t like bean soup either, but he untangled the threads of his dislike and discovered he’d been using the wrong approach. The object of soup, he observed, is not to flavor water.
I must have read Stone Soup too often, because my soups always started with a pot of water, plus onions, meat and seasonings, and always turned out bland.
Thorne’s is different. The object is to cook down the beans until they’re velvety soft, then to saute a whole lot of vegetables until they’re sweet, mellow and slightly caramelized. When you have a flavorful foundation built, then you add the liquid.
It’s the best bean soup recipe I’ve found. I like everything about it, including the fact that it can mostly be done in a Crock Pot.
No-name butter bean soup
I’ve also tried dry pinto beans and they work just as well. Bring 1 cup of dried limas or butter beans to a boil in a generous amount of water. Let stand 1 hour, drain, and cover with 3 cups fresh cold water. Cook until meltingly tender. (Which is possible in only 12 minutes if you use a pressure cooker.) (I’m just sayin.)
Meanwhile, chop 4 ounces ham, 4 big carrots and an onion. Cut the carrots fairly thin. Saute over low heat until onion is browned at the edges, then continue sauteeing until the color of the carrots deepens and the onions are somewhat caramelized.
Add a minced garlic clove, a little black pepper, salt and red pepper to taste and a pinch of thyme. Cook 2 or 3 more minutes or until garlic is translucent. Stir in the reserved butter beans and their cooking liquid and heat to simmering. Add 2 cups of milk and heat to steaming. Turn heat as low as possible and simmer 15 minutes before serving.