[Onion and garlic for soup, June 2007]
As most vegetarians know, beans are an essential part of the meat-free diet. Loaded with protein and calcium, beans are beautiful churned into hummus, sauteed with garlic and seasonable greens, or boiled into soups. Lately I've been making very simple (but delicious) meals of mashed sweet potatoes with sesame oil, some sort of roasted vegetable or salad, and chickpeas cooked in olive oil with garlic, shiitake mushrooms or summer squash, and basil.
A few weeks ago I made a soup I've been dreaming about ever since I finished the last bowlful: a white bean and tomato soup made with Rancho Gordo marrow beans. The tomatoes were heirloom, from my farmers' market, the red onion and garlic organic and freshly-picked, and the bay leaves from my beloved Pt. Reyes did their usual woodsy, get-outside-now thing. But the beans were the real stars.
I hesitate to make this sweeping proclamation, but I think in this case it's warranted: these are the best beans you'll ever eat, no question. Unlike the dried supermarket varieties -- which, when soaked and boiled, are often chalky and tasteless -- these dried beans are fresh (less than a year old) and retain their integrity even after being simmered for a couple of hours (meaning: no mush). They also have a sweet, smoky flavor that made me forgo an addition of vegetable broth altogether (which I love). A variety of restaurants around the Bay Area -- including The French Laundry and Greens as well as the Google Cafe 150 -- are loyal customers. Even if they were not, however, these are worth checking out.
First off, I hate soaking dried beans. Detest. I never remember to do so far enough in advance and I'm left scrambling for menu alternatives because I've run out of time. Then there's the whole rinsing thing, and changing out the water, and then boiling, and then simmering for hours, after which I'm pretty much ready to make something -- anything -- else simple. So for me, these beans were especially appreciated because the soaking time is minimal, you don't need to switch in fresh water (proprietor Steve Sando believes you'll lose flavor if you do so) and they go from tough to edible in about an hour. And they taste so good.
Rancho Gordo is based in Napa and sells its beans at Rainbow Grocery in the city as well as at the Ferry Building farmers' market (and in one of the chi-chi stores in there, too), and online; most of the "heirloom" bean seeds were gathered in South and Central America and are native to the Americas -- best of all, they really do taste rather wonderful.
I made my soup very simply, as per usual, but it was really very good -- almost surprisingly so -- which I attribute solely to my ingredients. I think roasting the tomatoes is key here, though you could just slip them from their skins, chop them up, and throw them in if you don't want to turn on the oven, as were the bay leaves and lots of garlic. If you don't have RG beans, any kind of white bean will do, though try to get ones that are fairly fresh!
If you can stand more bean-y goodness, serve this with bread and hummus, or cheese, and a green salad.
Roasted Tomato and White Bean Soup
1 purple onion, chopped
5-6 cloves garlic (or more), sliced
3 largish tomatoes, roasted and coarsely chopped
2 cups dried white beans (I used Rancho Gordo marrow beans)
2 bay leaves
4-5 cups water
Fresh herbs (I threw in some basil and thyme leaves)
Wash and soak the beans for about an hour (or more, if you have it) in fresh water in a soup pot; they should be covered in about an inch of water.
Roast the tomatoes on 400F for about a half-hour. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, sautee the onion and garlic in olive oil over low heat until very soft. Add the bay leaves and simmer to let the flavors blend.
Add the vegetables to the beans (making sure they are still covered by at least an inch of water) and bring to a hard boil for about 5 minutes. Reduce to a simmer and cover, adding more water if necessary. Salt to taste.
When the beans are cooked through, add the tomatoes and enough water to make a soupy broth. Add a little more salt and pepper to taste (if you like) and fresh or dried herbs.
*Other additions that would be nice here include carrots (cook 'em up with the onions) and (baby)spinach, added at the end.