One for the Cold: White & Green Beans Soup

Lucky for us, when the power went out yesterday this über-hearty two bean soup was already keeping warm in the oven. It was meant to be for dinner, but since it was already hot we had our first bowl for lunch before we sat down to our card game. Thick with potatoes, starchy great northern white beans, fresh green beans, sweet parsnips and carrots, as well as thick chunks of ham hocks, this is a meal-in-a-bowl guaranteed to chase winter (or autumn!) chill from the inside out.

Not sure when it finally stopped snowing last night — it was still snowing when I went to bed at 8:30. This morning the sky is clear as a bell and bright blue, though it’s still below freezing. Surprisingly, there is little snow accumulation considering it snowed over 12 hours yesterday. All there is now is an icy mess. So, still no raking or leaf-bagging today… darn…. See how many leaves are still on the trees? There’s at least another month-of-weekends worth of raking and bagging in those trees. Oh, well, it’ll all have to wait for another day.

This soup is based on a recipe I first tried about a dozen years ago when we lived in Germany. Both the ingredients and method have evolved over time, but one thing that remains intact is the defining contrast of the 2 different beans and the incomparable flavor of marjoram. Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is not an herb that is widely used here in the U.S. so it is something that I still associate with German cuisine. Though a close relative of oregano, marjoram has a sharper, almost pine resin, flavor that makes it quite distinctive. If you must substitute, go ahead and use oregano — your soup will taste good, but will lack the character that belies its European heritage.

For most of the last 3 years we lived in Germany, we used to have mutual language-improvement meetings with a German friend every week. In addition to helping each other with our pronunciations in the other’s language, we were also free to share cultural highlights and dispel myths. One evening, I served this soup to our friend. He was surprised by how much it tasted like a soup his mother used to make, and declared it quite authentic. He used the Pfälzisch (local dialect from the Palatinate region) name for the soup, Brockelbohnensuppe. And that’s still how I think of it when I make this soup.

Guten Appetit!

Inspired by a recipe from The New German Cookbook, by Jean Anderson and Hedy Würz
Serves 8-10 persons

1 lb (450g) great northern beans
2.5 qt/L cold water

Rinse and pick through beans. Soak in cold water overnight.

(If you need the beans in a hurry, place them in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water, set pan over medium high heat and bring to boil. As soon as the water reaches a boil, remove from heat, cover and set aside for one hour to rehydrate.)

For the broth:
1 large fistful of flat-leaf parsley
2 smoked ham hocks or 1 large smoked shank
4 qts/L water
2 bay leaves
1 onion, cut in half
3 stalks celery
2 carrots, scrubbed well

Pick off leaves from parsley stems, and reserve for soup. Put parsley stems and all other ingredients in a 6 qt/L slow-cooker. Set on HIGH and leave for at least 6 hours (I usually leave it overnight while the beans are soaking, and finish the soup in the morning).

Continue Soup:
¼ lb salt pork, cut into ½-inch pieces
3-4 medium, or 2 large leeks (about 1lb/450g), sliced and rinsed well
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
3 parsnips, peeled and diced
1 lb (450g) green beans, snipped and cut into 1″ pieces
½ lb (225g) red potatoes, scrubbed and diced
1 tsp dried thyme, or 4-5 sprigs fresh
1 TBL dried marjoram
2 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. fresh-ground black pepper

Remove ham hocks/shank from broth, strain broth, and return broth to slow-cooker. Separate meat from bones and return meat to broth.

Drain beans, and add to broth. Add remaining ingredients, and set slow-cooker to LOW for 6-8 hours, or HIGH for about 3-4 hours, or until beans soften and are creamy when pressed with a fork. Alternatively, you can do this part on the stove: place all ingredients in a large Dutch oven (8qt/L or more) or stock pot and bring to boil over high heat, then lower heat to simmer and cover for 2 hours. Meanwhile, prepare the roux.

To Finish:
4 TBL unsalted butter
4 TBL flour
parsley leaves reserved from making the broth, above

Met butter in heavy-bottomed pan, preferably cast iron, over medium heat. Add flour, and stir well to absorb butter. Turn heat down to low and cook gently, stirring often, until the roux is the color of peanut butter. This will take about 1 hour if the heat is low enough. Keep aside until needed.

When the beans test ready, remove fresh thyme stems (if using), then add roux to soup. To get every bit of the roux, you can use hot soup broth to clean the roux pan. Roughly chop parsley leaves and add to soup. Stir well to combine, and cook together 5-8 minutes to thicken soup. Taste and correct for seasoning.

Serve immediately, alone or with your favorite bread for the perfect cool weather warm-up. I think a nice hard cider is best with this — Strongbow from the U.K. if we can find it, but Hornsby’s Amber is more readily available. Of course, you can’t go wrong with your favorite local brew either!