After returning from Turkey and wanting to eat nothing but eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, lamb, and garlic-yogurt sauce for several weeks, I have moved into soup mode. This phase hits me every year around this time, as the leaves turn yellow and ochre and I come home with a cold nose after my walk back from work.
Growing up, soup wasn’t something we often made from scratch. Too much fuss, Mom said. Not substantial enough, said Dad. Sure, there was beef stew in the winter and, later, an Asian-style mushroom soup with udon noodles based on a recipe Mom tore out of the weekly newspaper insert. But generally “soup” meant something that came from a can, often contained tiny slippery vegetables of unknown provenance, and barely made enough for two people. Only while living in Russia during college did I begin to think of soup as something you could whip up for dinner one night and continue to enjoy for several days hence.
Russian folk wisdom dictates that regular consumption of soup is essential for health (or “useful for your organism,” as they might put it). Many Russians I met say that soup aids digestion, soothes sore throats, colds, and flues of various sorts, and stokes some kind of inner furnace. While I’m not sure any of this is supported by nutritional science, common sense justifies it. Hot liquids warm us up when it gets cold and fill our bellies before the main course to prevent overeating. When we drink the broth that vegetables have been boiled in, we benefit from all the vitamins that leach into it during cooking, which would otherwise be tossed down the drain.
My host families in both Russia and Georgia kept a variety of soups in the meal rotation, from classic borsch (no “t” on the end in Russian) and ukha (a clear fish soup) to the spicy beef and walnut stew kharcho and the tart solyanka soup, which includes pickles. They varied the contents of each based on the ingredients they had in the fridge (or, more likely, in a bucket on the windowsill or outside on the balcony) and what was available at the market. I came home determined to master this art in my own kitchen
I started soup season this year with the simplest bean soup I know. You could use canned beans for it, but it is cheaper, healthier, and tastier to use dried ones instead. Dried beans come in a wider variety of colors, shapes, and sizes than do canned, and you can buy a mixed bag especially for soup. They are chemical-free (no toxic BPA in the can lining to worry about) and don’t contain added sodium. And they don’t require a can opener: just rinse off the dried beans in a colander, empty them into a bowl, and leave them sitting covered in plenty of water for several hours or overnight to soften them. If you forgot that step and need your beans ready faster, you can use the “quick-soak” method: just boil them in enough water to cover them by three inches for two minutes, turn off the heat, and let them sit in the hot water for one hour.
Basic Bean Soup
Once you’ve soaked the beans (a one-pound bag is standard), bring them to a boil on the stove in enough fresh water to cover them by one inch. Add chopped onions, carrots, and celery (one or two of each) that you have lightly sautéed in olive oil until they are just softened, toss in a bay leaf or two and some freshly ground black pepper, then simmer over medium-low heat until the beans are the texture you like them. I prefer mine al dente, with a little bite left in them, but some people go softer, and that’s ok, too. Sprinkle in some coarse salt to taste, strew some chopped cilantro or parsley on top if you like, and voila—dinner, plus lunch for several days if you’re not feeding a crowd.
The soup freezes well and can be modified to your heart’s content. I like to toss in some kale near the end of cooking to help meet my daily quota of green foods, and I add a pinch of cayenne for extra warmth. Bacon would make a classic complement to the beans, and root vegetables like turnips, rutabaga and parsnips would fit right in, too. (Chop them up and toss them in with the soaked beans right from the start.) Add cumin and ground sumac for a Middle Eastern flavor, or thyme and marjoram for a subtler herbal twist. I love this soup with a slice of crusty baguette and a glass of red wine.