Soupe de haricots blancs

French white bean soup

This hearty soup with earthy flavors makes a great winter lunch dish and can be varied according to your pleasure. You can use dried white beans of any variety or a mixture of white and pinto beans, as I did when I made the soup shown in the photo above.

You can enliven the soup with croutons and a swirl of herb-and-garlic infused olive oil. For a richer version, you can cook the beans in broth (chicken or vegetable) instead of water. For a northern French version, you can stir in some cream. For a southwest French flavor, you can add chorizo chips. And for a vegetarian/vegan version, simply omit the bacon.

The quantities below will serve 4-6 people. Add a salad, some cheese or fruit, and a robust bottle of red, and lunch is served.

2 cups dried white beans, or 1 cup each white beans and pinto beans
2 onions
3 garlic cloves
2 tbsp. olive oil

4 strips of bacon
1 bay leaf
1 branch of rosemary
freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. sea salt or regular salt

Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water. Or, if you’re in a hurry, place the dried beans in a large bowl, bring two quarts (liters) of water to a boil, pour the water over the beans and soak for an hour.

Drain the beans. Peel and mince the onion and garlic.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large soup pot. Add the onions and garlic and sauté, stirring, until the onion is wilted, about 5 minutes. Do not let it brown. Add the bacon and sauté for another minute.

Add the beans. Fill the pot with water or broth to a level about 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the surface of the beans. Add the bay leaf and rosemary branch, and grind in some pepper.

Bring to a boil, skimming off the scum that forms on the surface. Reduce the heat, partially cover the pot and simmer for 90 minutes, or until the beans are very tender.

Turn off the heat. Remove the bacon, bay leaf and rosemary branch. Add the salt.

Purée the soup using a hand blender or counter-top blender. The soup will be very thick at this point. Add about 1-1/2 cups water and purée again. Transfer to a clean pot.

Reheat gently. Taste and adjust the seasonings as necessary. If the soup seems too thick, add some water. Variations are described below. Serves 4-6.

1) For the herbal sauce, chop up 2 cloves of garlic and purée in a blender with 3 tbsp. olive oil, a dash of salt, 1-2 tbsp. chopped fresh herbs (basil, cilantro or parsley) and 1-2 tbsp. water. Drizzle a little sauce over each bowl of soup.

2) For croutons, preheat the oven to its highest temperature. Cube some bread to the size of dice. Line a pie tin with parchment paper, add the bread cubes, drizzle with olive oil, add salt and pepper, and stir. Bake for 10-15 minutes until the bread cubes are golden.

3) For the northern French version, stir a cup of heavy cream into the soup just before serving.

4) For the southwest French version, you will need about 2 inches (5 cm) of chorizo. Slice it into fine rounds. Heat olive oil to sizzling in a skillet and fry the chorizo rounds over moderate heat for about 5 minutes, stirring. Remove to a paper towel to drain. Top each bowl of soup with the chorizo chips.

5) If you happen to have some duck or goose fat on hand, you can make an ultra southwest version by using it instead of olive oil at the start of the recipe.

6) For a vegetarian/vegan version, omit the bacon and swirl a couple tablespoons of olive oil into the finished soup.

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