Saturday, January 29, 2011

Winter Soup Makeover

When I first made this soup back in the fall, it was to combine the compatible flavors of vegetables in our CSA box in a dish that was hearty, warming and delicious. I probably added the bacon because I was on a squash-and-bacon kick after eating this dish. It was quite successful and I was going to post it, but there were a few minor issues, one of which was that I realized the soup could really be seen as a winter makeover of White Bean Soup with Fresh Herbs.

It has become my habit to start seeing and writing recipes as variations on basic themes. (If you read enough food and cooking literature, you might start to see things this way, too.) I don’t suppose I’ll ever reach a Grand Unified Theory of recipes, but there was no point in writing up a completely independent white bean soup recipe just because I had added some seasonal ingredients. I looked at the soup again, compared the recipes, re-wrote it, and finally tested it recently with a butternut squash from our winter CSA share and a giant bunch of kale that I found at a local store. I think this time it was even better because I was thinking about it in a more streamlined fashion. The way was clearer to me.

Okay, so there was another reason the soup was better this time around. When I made it before, I stirred all the bacon into the pot of soup at the end. The result was flabby, water-logged bacon that contributed so poorly to the texture of the soup that I considered not making it again. It was even worse in the portion of the soup that I froze to eat later. Sometime between then and now, it occurred to me to just sprinkle crisp bacon on top of each serving of soup (not particularly enlightened, but I’m a bit slow sometimes), and the result was much, much more pleasant.

Since there’s usually just two of us eating, we never eat an entire pot of soup in one meal, so I reserved some of the bacon in the refrigerator and heated it up to serve on top of leftover soup. I only cooked 3 strips of bacon, though the soup serves 4 to 6, because I knew I would be freezing about half the soup. When I thaw out the soup and serve it again, I’ll just cook up some more bacon to garnish each serving. Sure, it’s a little more work than just heating up frozen soup, but the porky rubber that was floating in that frozen soup was something I’d gladly make a little effort to avoid.

Of course the soup could also be served without the bacon garnish. In fact, you could skip the bacon altogether, and use your favorite cooking oil in place of the rendered bacon fat to sauté your vegetables. The bacon really just plays back-up to the mild white beans, sweet squash, earthy kale and herbs. I used what herbs I could get in fresh form, that is, those that are still surviving the season by gleaning as much light as they can from the gloomy winter windowsill. I ended up with sprigs of sage and rosemary (the thyme was a casualty), but use what you can easily get, even dried herbs if that’s what’s available. Just use a small amount of the dried herbs and taste the soup as you go to see what more it may need.

And while you’re varying the soup, you could add some cooked grains to make a complete protein with the beans, use either vegetable or chicken stock, add some canned tomatoes to approach something like minestrone, use sweet potatoes in place of the squash, or put in whatever vegetables or meats you like. Need I go on? It’s likely that I will, but the next makeover of this soup will probably be looking forward to spring.

White Bean Soup with Bacon, Squash and Kale
I usually use lightly salted homemade broths, and add more salt to taste when making soup. Adjust the salt and other seasonings to your own taste. If you do not have fresh herbs, you can use dried, but consider using them sparingly.

You could use another kind of winter squash. I find butternut squash to be easiest to peel and chop.

6 strips thick-cut bacon
½ cup finely chopped onion
½ cup finely chopped carrot
½ cup finely chopped celery
1 teaspoons coarse salt, divided, or to taste
2 cups peeled and chopped (1-inch cubes) butternut squash
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
a few sprigs fresh herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, or whatever is available
1 dried bay leaf
4 cups vegetable broth (or chicken broth)
4 cups cooked or canned white beans, such as navy or Great Northern (drained and rinsed if canned)
4 cups chopped kale

1. Decide the number of servings you will need on the first day the soup is served. Select 1 to 1 ½ slices of bacon for each serving. Refrigerate the rest to cook and serve with leftovers. Place the bacon strips in a large pot over medium-low heat. Cook, turning often, until crisp. Remove the bacon from the pan. Set aside to drain and cool. Remove all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat from the pot.

2. Raise the heat to medium. Add onion, carrot, celery and ½ teaspoon salt. Saute about 5 minutes or until the onion is translucent and the carrot and celery are beginning to become tender. Add the squash and sauté another 5 minutes, or until the squash begins to soften and the vegetables begin to brown, stirring occasionally. Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook 1 minute more.

3. Tie the herb sprigs and bay leaf together with kitchen twine. Add this bundle and the chicken broth to the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and boil gently for about 30-40 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

4. Stir in the beans and kale, and cook, stirring occasionally 10 minutes more. Remove the herb bundle. Taste for salt and add more if desired. Crumble the reserved bacon and sprinkle some on each serving.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Other recipes like this one: White Bean Soup with Fresh herbs, Sausage and Spinach Soup

One year ago: Roasted Red Pepper, Garlic and Onion Dip

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