Well. That was an adventure.
Back in August, I wrote about being overwhelmed and making jam. Sad to say, the jam-making tapered off soon afterward, but the being overwhelmed continued for a while. In the four months since I last blogged, I’ve been working through a little cascade of life changes. I moved in with my boyfriend. I quit my job. I started a few tentative steps along a new career path. I’ve spent an awful lot of time lately unpacking boxes and sending out applications and jumping on every networking happy hour invite that comes my way, all while slogging through a particularly grey bout of SAD. It’s been a challenge.
But things are settling now. The move, at least, is done. We’re slowly making our new place into a home. And as a big part of that, I’ve been cooking almost every day. Our new kitchen may be tiny, but it’s getting a workout.
The very first thing I cooked, the day after we moved in, was a pot of my grandmother’s bean soup. This is one of those recipes that speaks instant comfort to me, that tastes like winter and rain and the holidays. I can picture my grandmother standing at the stove, with a stained apron tied over her lavender sweat suit, wearing a pair of bedroom slippers that might be as old as I am, stirring an enormous pot of beans and tomatoes. This was a staple every Thanksgiving, and often on Christmas Eve (my aunt’s birthday) as well. It’s simple, nutritious, and freezes like a dream. It felt like the perfect thing to make to turn our new apartment into a home.
This is one of those soups that’s so much more than the sum of its parts: dried white beans, soaked and simmered until they’re starchy and tender, mixed with a sauteed mirepoix and some diced tomatoes. Using dried beans makes the broth fragrant and thick, and cooking the vegetables down into a sauce before adding them to the pot makes the whole thing deep and resonant. Then there are the finishing touches: a spoonful of cooked orzo and a drizzle of olive oil to top off each bowl. The orzo must be cooked separately, rather than boiled it into the soup itself, so that it stays firm and toothsome rather than relaxing into the broth. And the olive oil adds fruitiness and gloss to the bowl, making it vivid and hearty all at the same time. This is how I ate soup as a child, and how I ate it that night in our new home, staring down the barrel of a new stage of adulthood and willing myself to be ready.
Marilyn’s White Bean and Tomato Soup (serves 6-8)
1 lb (about 2 cups) dried white beans (navy, cannellini, or Great Northern)
2 quarts water, plus more for soaking the beans
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp olive oil (regular or extra virgin)
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 medium celery stalk, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
Salt to taste
2 large or 4 small cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp dried oregano
1 (28 oz) can whole peeled tomatoes
1/2 cup dry orzo pasta
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
Soak the beans overnight in cold water, or do a quick soak: put them in a pot with water to cover by at least 2 inches, bring to a boil, turn off the heat and let sit, covered, for 1 hour. Either way, once the beans are soaked, drain and rinse them well.
In a large pot, combine beans, 2 quarts water, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and let bubble vigorously for a few minutes, then skim off any foam that comes to the top. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until the beans are starting to get tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
While the beans simmer, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, celery, and a pinch of salt, and sweat for 8-10 minutes, or until the onion is translucent. Add garlic and oregano and saute for 1 minute, or until fragrant. Add tomatoes, breaking them up into smallish pieces as you go. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the mixture has reduced and most of the liquid is gone. Set the mixture aside until the beans are ready.
Add the tomato mixture to the bean pot, along with a couple large pinches of salt. Cover and simmer until the beans are completely tender (start checking them after about 20 minutes; they could take as long as an hour).
While the soup simmers, cook the orzo in boiling salted water according to the package directions. Drain, toss with a bit of olive oil to prevent sticking, and set aside.
When the beans are tender, stir in parsley, and season the soup with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into bowls, and top each bowl with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a spoonful of cooked orzo. Leftover soup (minus the orzo) will keep, tightly covered, in the fridge for up to 3 days, or in the freezer for up to 4 months.