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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Tuscan white bean soup with greens


the last camping trip of the summer

We’ve just returned from an incredible trip to Denali…  and I hardly know where to start. We have a camping journal that we use to record our adventures, and in nine days I wrote 18 pages. Don’t worry, I’ll give you the abbreviated version! When we left Anchorage ten days ago, it was cloudy and cool, and just kept getting cooler as we drove north to Denali State Park. Despite the overcast skies, we were astonished and delighted by the fantastic reds, yellows, and lime-greens of the foliage as we drove north. We had clearly struck peak color! We spent three mostly rainy days at the State Park, enjoying hiking and running on the Little Coal Creek and Byers Lake trails, road biking along the highway, and canoeing on Byers Lake and watching the spawning red salmon.

Then we headed north to Denali National Park, and headed in to the Teklanika River campground for three days. We were thrilled when the weather seemed to be brightening… and then it just kept getting better! All three days in the park were completely cloudless, and on the first day, our ride into Eilson Visitor Center on the Park bus showed us The Mountain from tip to toe in all its astounding glory. We were also lucky enough to see a wolf, two bears, some faraway sheep, and a couple of caribou. Subsequent days were even more magical, with fantastic bike rides in the park pulling Meredith in her bike trailer (Thank goodness we have a tandem bike, so we can pull the trailer together!), beautiful hikes and runs, and slow, lazy days in the sunshine, admiring the bright leaves against the backdrop of the blue, blue sky.

The last three days we spent with our friends Shannon & Peter at their cabin just outside the Park. Our unbelievable luck continued, and the weather held, clear and sunny, freezing at night as the full moon beamed down on us. More hiking, biking, and running; more lazy, slow days; plus the pleasure of great conversations and meals with our friends. The reason I’ve included this particular soup recipe is that it’s one of the meals I brought along with us on our trip. To feed us on our ten-day journey, I froze a lot of soups and stews, packed a very large cooler full of them (plus bread, of course), and then slowly thawed them out over the course of the trip. By the time we hit Shannon & Peter’s cabin, this soup was perfectly ready to eat! We shared many meals, but this was one for which they requested the recipe.  Thanks, Shannon & Peter, for a fantastic three days, and for inspiring us to come north for our last camping trip of the summer!!





Tuscan white bean soup with greens

I think you’d have to be crazy to make a single batch of this recipe, since it freezes so well, and because it’s SO DELICIOUS and it tastes even better the next day… In fact, if you make it the day before, and saute up a pile of fresh chard with garlic to put in it right before you eat it, I’m betting you’ll swoon with joy. I think this might be the best soup I’ve ever made. But anyway, about the double batch… it does take a pretty large pot, so do what you think is best. And then go out and buy a REALLY BIG POT (with a heavy, stout bottom) for next time!

This recipe is loosely based on one from a recent Cook’s Illustrated magazine. The interesting twist that they’ve found to get really tender, perfect white beans is to soak the beans in salt water! I was really excited to try this, because often times my white beans don’t come out perfectly. Some will be disintegrating and others in the pot will be hard and crunchy still, or have hard, tough skins. This brining the beans really works! I’m completely sold!

The other key to perfectly beautiful beans is to keep them from boiling hard, which tends to explode the beans. So you cook the beans over very low heat. The Cook’s Illustrated people do it in a 250 degree oven, but I think it works just fine in a big, covered pot in the stovetop, turned way down so the soup is just barely bubbling.

kosher salt or sea salt
1 pound dried large white beans (about 2 cups), like Great Northern or cannellini
½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 tablespoon olive oil
1-2 large onions, chopped medium
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 ribs celery, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
8 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 bay leaves
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 large or 2 small sprigs rosemary
1-2 medium bunches kale or collard greens, or chard
ground black pepper

1. Rinse the beans in a colander. Dissolve 3 tablespoons salt in 4 quarts cold water in large bowl or container. Add beans and soak, at room temperature, for at least 8 and up to 24 hours. Drain and rinse well.
2. Place mushrooms in a heat-proof bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover. Cover the bowl with a plate so it stays hot, and let sit for at least 10 minutes, while you chop the vegetables.
3. Pour the mushrooms through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth (saving the liquid!), then lift mushrooms out of the strainer and mince them. Set mushrooms and liquid aside.
4. Heat oil in large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, celery, and carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened and lightly browned, 10 to 16 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in 8 cups of water, bay leaves, soaked beans, and reserved mushrooms and their cooking liquid. Increase heat to high and bring stew to simmer. Turn the heat down, cover the pot, and keep the pot at a bare simmer (you’ll have to take the lid off and check occasionally) until beans are tender, 40 minutes to 1 hour, or longer, depending on the age and type of bean.
5. Stir in the tomatoes and their juice.
6. Strip the rosemary leaves off their stems and chop them very, very finely. The easiest way to do this is to pulverize them in a coffee grinder. It really works! Stir the rosemary in, too.
7. Taste the stew for salt, and add as much as needed to perfectly flavor it. Add pepper, too, to taste. After the soup sits, you may need to add more salt.
8. If you’re making the soup ahead (my recommendation—it always tastes even more divine then), just let it cool and refrigerate until the next day.
9. When you’re ready to eat the soup, prepare the greens. Trim the stems from the leaves and chop them into 1-inch pieces. Sauté them in a pan in a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt (add minced garlic, if you like) over medium-high heat. If you’re using mature kale or collards, after you’ve wilted the leaves, you’ll need to add ½ cup of water or so and cover the pan, letting the leaves steam and simmer until they are completely tender. The chard will cook much more quickly, and probably won’t need water added. Add salt to taste as you cook them.
10.  Reheat the soup if it’s not already hot, and decide if you like the consistency of the soup. Do you want to add more liquid? Just add a bit more water. I like it soupy, while others may like it more like a stew. Do what seems best to you!
11. When the greens are tender, stir them into the stew, taste once again for salt and pepper, and serve. This soup is fantastic served with hearty sourdough whole-grain bread or toast, dipped in some really nice extra-virgin olive oil.

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