It’s very easy to hide a great deal of things in a pot of black beans. Good things, bad things, all kinds of things — and no one may notice. Cooked to a velvety sauce, with strange lumps that once used to be part of a bean suspended throughout, the soup is thick as tar and opaque brown-black as fudge. You don’t know what’s hiding in it.
I took a more altruistic if spendthrifty approach to letting black beans mask all in this soup. Alarmed by the amount of pieces of things — vegetables, mostly — in my kitchen, I determined to make an all-consuming soup with them, perhaps minestrone, or just vegetable broth. Does your crisper drawer ever get filled up with stuff like this? Mine does, occasionally, and it’s good reason to pull out the soup pot.
But a thin, watery broth didn’t sound quite so soothing at this point in time. What I craved instead these long, weary nights of winter was something a bit richer, more filling. It was black beans, those savory little nuggets, which need very little seasoning to taste good, yet could be fed almost anything and they would still taste good. So, I threw in just about everything there was.
I’m sure most have encountered black bean soup and are perhaps now wondering what else was in them besides beans. The fact is this soup needs to be cooked an egregiously long time at a slow simmer, to achieve the creaminess of texture desired without any pulsing or manual breaking of the beans. They eventually break down, releasing a savory, bean-y flavor that seems to grow, rather than decrease, the longer you simmer it. With the amount of time it would take to render dried and soaked black beans to this state, I knew it was more than long enough to submit chopped vegetables into thick liquid, too. These would grace the soup with subtle flavor, more vitamins, and the sound feeling of using things up; the beans would encompass them into its fold like a gracious host.
How about sausages? Leftover shredded pork, you wonder, too? Sure, but you’ll lose the monotone look and feel of this soup, as they won’t quite dissolve. Better to toss these on top of the soup as garnish. Fresh, chopped tomatoes, herbs like cilantro, and some crumbled queso fresco work nice as well. For all that’s stuffed inside the soup, it isn’t overwhelming in taste, and these make sharp bites of contrast to scatter throughout.
Black Bean Soup (with the Kitchen Sink)
(makes about 8 servings)
8 oz. black beans, soaked overnight in at least three inches of water to cover
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery core, with leaves, chopped
1 tomato, chopped (or 1/2 cup tomato sauce)
variable ingredients: finely chopped cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, bell pepper, spinach or other leafy greens, parsnip, radish, turnip, rutabaga, potato
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon chipotle sauce (or to taste)
1 quart vegetable stock
1 quart water
fresh lemon or lime juice to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1 chopped fresh tomato for garnish (or handful grape tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon crumbled queso fresco per bowl for garnish
Sweat the onion, carrot and celery, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and the remaining “kitchen sink” vegetables and cook another 3-4 minutes, stirring. Add all the spices except the salt and citrus juices. Add all the black beans, stock and water water. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, covered, for 3-4 hours, stirring occasionally. Add more water as necessary and add salt and pepper to taste. Cook, adding water as necessary, until vegetables have disappeared and beans have broken down to chunks (this will depend somewhat on how fresh the beans were to begin with). Stir in the lemon or lime juice. Serve with the fresh tomato and queso fresco.
(for 8 servings)
8 oz. black beans: $1.50
1 onion: $0.30
1 carrot: $0.35
1 core celery: $0.40
2 tomatoes: $1.00
4 cloves garlic: $0.20
leftover scraps of vegetables: $2.00
1 quart homemade vegetable stock: $2.00
1 lemon: $0.35
queso fresco for 8 servings: $1.75
3 tablespoons olive oil, salt, pepper, cumin, cayenne, chili powder: $0.50
Three brownie points: You can feel good about eating this soup as a meal. With fresh black beans, rather than sodium-rich canned ones, it’s full of heart-healthy protein, fiber and carbs that will fill you up. Though you’ll hardly taste the extra vegetables cooked into this sludge, they will have lent it some necessary vitamins like Vitamin C, Vitamin K (especially if using broccoli), potassium, and beta-carotene. It’s not quite a vegetable soup, with only a small serving of them per bowl, but it’s a good start.
Eight maple leaves: Extra points here for using up scraps of vegetables that might otherwise go to the compost pail, with stems and ends and all. Carrot peel trimmings are not a bad addition to this (as well as vegetable stock); trim the tough, outer skins from broccoli stems if using to make sure they cook down enough. With local vegetables and Upstate-grown beans from Cayuga Organics, it’s thoroughly seasonal, vegetarian and low-carbon footprint.