White bean soup- a subtle, yet flavorful harmonious marriage of beans, herbs, oil, and pork. Italians truly do love their beans, so much so that the Tuscans have been nicknamed mangiafagioli ‘the bean eaters ‘. Fagioli bianchi is a dish that communicates so purely why Italians have loved the bean: nutritious, flavorful, and permeable.
Not only is it simple and tasty, it is extremely adaptable- ranging from a traditional soup all the way to a thick puree that can accompany the best Italian sausage or roast you have.
It all starts with the beans and the aromatics. To stand over a pot of simmering beans with the aromas of sage, onion, garlic, and rosemary wafting forth is a pure delight of mine. It is not overpowering yet you know on another level it is- the beans are working so hard to soften and absorb and contain these aromas, to release them later in such a way that makes your mouth water.
Of course meat is optional, and removing the pancetta would make this a strictly vegetarian dish; however, to be able to taste the gently crisped pancetta on top of the beans just adds a little extra tantalizing aspect to your dish without overdoing it.
Then comes the powerful aromas of your olive oil warming next to your beans, also working so hard to absorb the wonderful flavors of the pancetta and sage leaves. Just gently warm this oil up, as it will be the drizzle on the top that melts everything in your mouth.
If you want you can even throw a heel of your old Parmigiano cheese into the beans while they are cooking to add even a deeper flavor.
Want to go even further with this powerhouse dish? Add into your soup the leftover roast chicken pieces you have with some of the homemade chicken broth you just made and you have a winner. This one is a meal in and of itself, and will stand up to huge chunks of fresh or grilled bread.
In the end it will all be gone, no matter what you added to it or how thick or thin it was. And you and your guests will be left wondering how such a simple thing as a bean could produce such an intoxicating dish of flavor and aroma.
I am so looking forward to seeing how this goes for you all, what your thoughts are on this adaptable white bean soup!
- 1 ½ cups dried white beans (cannellini, borlotti)
- ½ to ⅔ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ½ onion, peeled
- 8-10 sage leaves (save some for the olive oil)
- 1-2 rosemary sprigs (optional)
- 4-6 oz. pancetta, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 bay leaves
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Wash beans in cold water, drain them, place in bowl or pot with enough water to cover the beans by 2-3 inches, and soak overnight, or first thing in the morning before you head to work (tip- if you can change the water 2-3 times during the course of soaking that will help, if not no worries).
- Drain beans and place them in clean pot and cover with fresh water. Add the aromatics to the beans: onion, sage, garlic, and rosemary. Cook the beans over a medium heat until tender (about 1 to 1 ½ hours. If the water begins to boil reduce to a simmer. During the last 15 minutes or so add some salt, as the salt can dry out the skins of the beans. Test the beans periodically to check for tenderness. Leave the beans in the juice till ready to use (this can be done ahead of time and refrigerated for a day or two).
- If using canned beans, just bring to a gentle simmer with the aromatics for at least 30-45 minutes.
- With a slotted spoon or sieve remove the aromatics and discard, then remove about ¾ of the beans and place in food mill or blender to be pureed (a fork or ricer works fine too). Add enough water to the blender to assist.
- Remove some of the bean juice from the big pot and add back the pureed beans- the amount of water added back or removed will depend on the desired consistency: a thick bean puree to be served as a side dish to a secondi, a thinner puree to be paired with bread as an antipasti, or a thin soup to be paired with bread, or even noodles for pasta fagioli (the variations are endless:). Add salt to taste and keep the pot warmed over the stove at a low heat, or in warmed serving bowl.
- In a small sauce pan, warm over low heat the olive oil, chopped pancetta, and additional sage leaves (making sure it does not burn, or boil); cook for at least 10 minutes or so, allowing the flavors to join together and the pancetta to crisp just a bit.
- Pour the warmed, infused olive oil with the pancetta and sage leaves over the beans in the serving bowl. Grind some fresh black pepper on top, and serve.
Raw pieces of onion can be added to sharpen the dish.
Another nice addition, is homemade chicken broth added to the beans while being pureed; this will bring a richer, and more complex flavor to the dish, though masking the delicious flavor of the beans a bit.
Pairs well with Italian sausages and roasts, and red Italian wines.