Tuscan Bean Soup with Basil and Lemon

Last fall, my friend and I went down to Oregon to visit her mom. It was a damp and dreary October day, and rain followed us for the eight hour drive from Seattle to the central Oregon coast. Her mom promised that bowls of bean soup and her homemade bread would be waiting for us when we arrived. We called her when we hit the coast at Lincoln City, and she said “Ok, see you girls in a couple of hours. I’ll have the soup on!”  What wonderful words to hear as we sat in the car, rain pounding on the roof.

I think that soup is one of the more satisfying comfort foods. What’s better than sitting down to a steaming, fragrant bowl of soup on a cold night? Soup is elemental and soothing. You eat it with a big spoon so you feel like a little kid, you can slurp it if you want, and you can curl your hands around the bowl to warm them. It’s expected that you will put your head over the bowl and inhale the fragrant steam. Soup is a food hug.

Bean soups have always been a favorite of mine. I usually use a ham hock or bacon to infuse the soup with meaty goodness. Of course, I start by sautéing an onion, some garlic, celery and carrots. The beans go in and cook until they’re almost mush. It’s rich and hearty and a meal in itself. Any bean makes a good soup – Navy bean, Split Pea, Lentil, and Black Bean garnished with salsa and sour cream are all wonderful.

This is the sort of soup that I expected when I drove those tight curves along the coast that wet day. Even in the rain, the Oregon Coast was stunning, moody and foggy with the ocean appearing and disappearing into the mist.

I turned the car east at the turnoff and negotiated the 47 hairpin turns on the road around the lake, and we finally pulled up to the house at about 8:00 p.m. Her mom greeted us as we hauled our luggage up the steps. I stopped for a moment to listen to the 200 year old western cedar trees sway in the wind and breathe the damp, sweet air.

When I entered the slate-tiled kitchen, I smelled something good, but it didn’t seem to involve meat. Curious, I remained silent and waited to see what was going on. After we put our things away, her mom disappeared outside with a pair of scissors and returned a minute later with sprigs of fresh basil. She deftly shredded them and popped them into the soup pot, stirring them well into the liquid.

We set the table and cheered when the homemade baguettes came out of the oven. Then her mom served the soup in her simple white bowls. The soup was white with green flecks of herbs, but smelled complex. I took a spoonful and felt liquid velvet, then perfectly cooked beans, and tasted the hint of basil. “But what’s that other flavor?” I asked her. “Lemon!” she answered. Well, she’s always been an excellent cook, so it made sense that she surprised me with this combination. With just a few simple ingredients – and no meat or stock whatsoever- she had made an elegant, sprightly bean soup that was perfect on a rainy night on the Oregon Coast.

I begged the recipe off of her and made it this weekend for my Card Group. This is a vegan soup so everyone can eat it. Don’t be tempted to put meat in it, or make it with a chicken stock. Don’t add extra vegetables. Let this simple soup surprise you as the earthy beans flirt with lemon and basil in your mouth. You’ll be amazed at how just a few ingredients can make such a delicious soup.

The secret is to add the herbs twice, layering the flavors, then add the lemon juice at the very end. You want the fresh, bright flavor to serve as a contrast to the creamy beans, so don’t cook it for very long after you add the juice.

Tuscan Bean Soup with Basil and Lemon

The night before:
2 lb dried Great Northern Beans
Pick over the beans and put them in a large pot. Cover the beans with cold water and put the pot in the refrigerator overnight. If you don’t have time to do this, you can cover the beans with water the day that you want to serve the soup and bring the pot to a boil. Turn the heat off and let the beans soak for an hour. Drain the beans, but do not rinse them.

The day of:

1 large garlic clove, peeled and cut in half
4 bay leaves
Large sprig (8”) fresh basil
Large sprig (8”) fresh parsley

Drain the soaked beans and rinse them twice. Put the beans back into the pot and cover the beans with fresh water, with an additional four inches of water above the beans. Add the garlic and herbs. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, cook 30 minutes. Remove the garlic and fresh herbs. They will have flavored the broth, which will flavor the beans. You want a hint of garlic, and a background flavor of the herbs.

Fresh herbs flavoring the soup

Simmer for another 30 – 60 minutes until the beans are cooked. You want the beans still whole, but tender. Puree 1/3 of soup in a blender or food processor until velvety, put back in the pot.

Cook the beans until tender, but not broken up

¼ C good olive oil
1 Tbs sea salt (Start with 2 tsp, taste, and add more if you want it. Beans can take a lot of salt)
½ tsp freshly ground pepper
Add oil, salt and pepper and heat through.

Juice of two lemons
1 Tbs packed parsley, measured then chopped
¼ C basil, measured then chopped

Mix lemon juice and herbs into the soup, let heat for 10 minutes. Taste to check the salt and pepper and adjust if needed.

Makes 8 entrée servings. The recipe can easily be cut in half. Serve with a crusty bread and a simply dressed salad.

Some people prefer a creamier soup, or don’t like the texture of whole beans. If that’s the case for your eaters, go ahead and puree all of the soup.

This recipe was inspired by a recipe from Bunny Dain.

This simple soup has a bright, fresh, herbed flavor with that kick of lemon juice. I like these wines with it: Pinot Gris, Gamay, Beaujolais, Vouvray, or Sparkling Pear Cider.

This soup is vegan and free of many allergans. Cybele Pascal has a wonderful site for eaters with allergies. If you want more allergen-free recipes, click on this link: http://www.cybelepascal.com/?p=2299

Onlinerel Facebook Twitter Myspace Friendfeed Technorati del.icio.us Digg Google Yahoo Buzz StumbleUpon