My Dad used to recite a little rhyme: “Beans, beans, the musical fruit/ The more you eat, the more you toot/ The more you toot, the better you feel/ So let’s eat beans for every meal!” As children, we giggled over the ditty, and over the predictable side effects of the food. Though canned Pork & Beans was a fairly common side dish when I was growing up, my Mom used dried beans infrequently. Homemade bean soup or, more often, split-pea soup were rare treats reserved for those days when Mom had a good, meaty hambone for flavor.
Bean soup is common in my household. From the first cool days of autumn until late in the spring, I make bean soup every other week, usually on the same day that I bake bread. It’s always different, depending on whim, and what I have on hand. It is mostly vegetarian, though I’m not against adding bits of meat for extra flavor if I happen to have it. Italian sausage, ground beef, chicken, or even a hambone have found their way into my kettle of soup at different times.
My recipe varies, but the strategy remains the same. My method speeds up the process, and eliminates the unfortunate side effects that my Dad sang about. I start with about a cup of dried beans. I buy mine at the Co-op in Petoskey, and store them in jars on my kitchen shelves. Sometimes it’s all one type of bean, but more often, I mix them up: a handful of Great Northern beans; a handful of Lima beans; a scattering of Black-Eyed peas for good luck. A portion of lentils or split peas will break down more readily, and provide a thicker broth.
I put my chosen combination in a pan, cover the legumes with water, and add a pinch of baking soda. When the water boils, reduce the heat and let the pot simmer for about ten minutes, then turn off the burner and let it cool. This eliminates the need for soaking the beans overnight; the baking soda gets rid of the bean’s gas-producing properties. After about an hour, I pour the mixture through a colander, give the beans a quick rinse, and return them to the pan.
Next, I add a quart of stewed tomatoes, two quarts of fresh water, and about two cups of vegetables. This usually consists of diced onion and celery. If I have some green pepper, I add that. I always save the tough stems of broccoli, and the core of cabbage or cauliflower for soup; cut into small pieces, they add a great flavor. After this mixture has simmered for a couple hours, I may add chopped spinach or kale, and carrots. Then, I add a handful of grain. Barley is my favorite, but rice, corn meal, or steel-cut oats will thicken and flavor a soup. too. If I have wild rice on hand, it’s a welcome addition. If I’m going to add cooked meat, now is the time.
This mixture will simmer for another hour or so, until dinnertime. If the broth seems too thin, I remove about a cup of soup, whirl it in the blender, then return it to the kettle. If it’s too thick, I add tomato juice or more water. It’s a cheap meal that provides one hearty dinner and a week of lunches afterward. Inexpensive, easy, and impossible to mess up. And how nice to have a kettle simmering on the stove! That combines to make bean soup a standard in my house!