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Alimentary, My Dear

Bean Soup for Everyone!

By Tamia Nelson

January 20, 2009

Simple and Good! General Winter has invaded Canoe Country, and he's come to stay. He won't be leaving anytime soon. Of course, Canoe Country's a big place. Some of us are facing temperatures that are low enough to turn antifreeze to slush, while others still have open water on their doorsteps. We can all agree about one thing, though: It's cold outside. And we all know that being cold is no fun. It can even get you killed.

Whatever your winter pleasure—whether it's paddling, snowshoeing, skiing, or just splitting wood for the fireplace—you'll burn a lot of calories, and not just because you're using your muscles. Even the simple act of breathing takes its toll in winter. All that frigid air has to be heated up to body temperature, right? And warm clothes, as important as they are, aren't the whole answer. After spending the day out in the cold, you need to thaw your inner self, and there's no better way to do this than to sit down to a hot meal. But who wants to work hard at the stove after a hard day's work? Not me. Luckily, though, there's an easy way around this impasse. Just prepare your meal ahead of time. The good news? There are very few make-ahead meals better than…

A Pot of Hot Soup

Almost any hot soup will do—even canned soups, some of which are surprisingly good. But whenever there's time to make a pot of soup from scratch, I turn to beans to fight the chill of winter days. Dried beans last just about forever in the pantry, so keeping some on hand isn't hard. They're versatile, too. And then there's the nostalgia factor. I walked to school when I was a girl. Many kids did back then, even in rural towns, and even when the walk was a couple of miles or more. The school bus was for wimps and sissies. That said, there were winter days when I longed to join the sissies, days when the 30-minute slog back home seemed to last forever. How wonderful it was, on days like that, to open the door and be met with the delicious smell of something simmering on the back of my mother's huge, wood-burning kitchen range!

Often that "something" was white bean soup. Why white bean soup? Well, beans are cheap, for one thing, and mothers of large families (those without a tiger in the house, at any rate) frequently have to make every penny count. And they usually don't have time to fuss about in the kitchen, either. Bean soup is one of the easiest of quick-and-easy meals. Don't be put off by tales of all-night soaking and similar alchemy. Sure, it takes time to prepare bean soup. But that's stove time. Your active participation in the process is limited to assembling and sautéing ingredients, checking the soup now and then while it simmers, and stirring occasionally. All told, this adds up to about 30 minutes of your day. It's time well spent.

Skeptical? I don't blame you. To make certain that I wasn't being led astray by wistful remembrance, I recently cooked up a pot of bean soup from scratch. The total time from assembling my ingredients to dishing up the first bowl was about three hours. That's plenty long, to be sure, but I was tied up for only 30 minutes, tops. The rest was stove time. Still not convinced? Then give it a try yourself. Here's my…

Bean Soup Master Recipe

It's strictly vegetarian, by the way, though there's nothing to prevent you from adding meat if you want. I sometimes do. But the list of essential ingredients is mercifully short:

  • olive oil, preferably extra-virgin
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 large or 2 medium celery stalks, diced
  • 2 to 3 large russet potatoes, diced
  • 1 pound dried great northern beans
  • cold water
  • 1 tablespoon dried marjoram
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme
  • salt and pepper

What's that? You can't tell if your celery stalks are medium or large? No problem. This is cooking, not chemistry. And feel free to dice coarse or fine, as suits your fancy. Some folks like their veggies in big chunks. I prefer small. It's a matter of taste, though if your knife isn't sharp and your hand isn't steady, it will take you longer to dice small—and clumsy knife work will add to the risk of enriching the soup with some of your blood. I suppose that's what's meant by the phrase "cutting it fine." (You've been warned!) In any case, I cut the onion, carrot, and celery into cubes that are about ¼ inch on a side, while I let the potatoes go at ½ inch. I also leave the skins on the potatoes. That's just personal preference, however. Or is it laziness? Peel them first if you wish.

A Dicey Business

Get the picture? The second of the three photos above shows the relative proportions of the primary ingredients. Once the vegetables are prepped, put about a tablespoon of olive oil into a large saucepan. Then add the onions, season with a hefty pinch of salt, and sauté over medium-high heat. When the onions have softened, add the carrots and celery and sauté for another minute—the third photo shows the onions, carrots, and celery sizzling in the pot.

Next, add the potatoes and mix all the vegetables together. Pour in about a cup of cold water—keep your hands out of the resulting steam—and stir with a long-handled spoon to free any browned bits that might have stuck to the pan. Add the beans and stir again. Toss in the dried herbs, salt and pepper to taste, and pour in enough water to cover the beans and veggies to a depth of at least three inches. Then stir once more to blend the herbs and seasonings.

Stirring Scenes

Now you're cooking! Or you're about to, at any rate. Cover the pan (but leave the lid ajar to permit steam to escape), raise the heat to high, and bring your soup to a boil. This is a critical period. It's not a good time to leave the kitchen. The minute you take your eye off the pot is the minute it will choose to boil over. Once the soup has come to a rolling boil, however, you can reduce the heat and allow it to simmer. How will you know when that time has come? Easy. The beans will rise to the surface—see the first photo in the triptych below.

On a Roll!

Relax. You've done the hard bit. From here on out, it's just a question of allowing the soup to simmer for about two hours, while stirring occasionally and checking from time to time to make sure your soup hasn't become too much like stew. (Add more cold water if this seems likely, then bring the soup back to a simmer and continue cooking.) Once the beans have softened, the soup's ready for the table—see the middle photo—though I like to let it simmer a bit longer to blend the flavors. In fact, if you keep a watchful eye on it you can leave it simmering for as long as four hours, but I think two and a half is plenty. You can see the result in the parting shot above. The soup has become thick and silky, with soft, fat beans. Perfect.


Summing up: All told, it takes a minimum of two and one-half hours to go from opening the cupboard door to sitting down to a bowl of soup. Additional simmering improves texture and flavors, as does chilling the cooked soup overnight and reheating it the next day. Now here's a specimen timeline.

  • First 30 minutes…  Chop and sauté vegetables, add beans and water, bring to a simmer.

  • One and one-half hours…  Beans are softening but not yet soft. Carrots and potatoes have softened but still hold their shape.

  • Two and one-half hours…  You could serve up now, but why rush things? The stove's doing the work, after all. Continue simmering for at least 30 minutes longer.

  • Three hours…  Beans and veggies have softened further. The soup is wonderfully creamy, with a silky soft texture. (Want an even creamier soup? Put about a third of the beans and vegetables through a food processor or blender—They're hot, remember? Be careful!—and then return the puréed mix to the pot. I don't bother, though.)

Once your soup is ready, you can eat it immediately or hold it in the refrigerator for a later meal. Stored in a tightly covered container, bean soup will keep in the fridge for up to a week. You can also freeze soup for long-term storage, taking it out of the freezer in the morning and leaving it in the refrigerator to thaw. Then, if it's still part frozen when you're ready to come in out of the cold, don't worry. Just put the icy soup into a large pot, add about an inch of water, cover the pot, and reheat gently. In no time at all you'll have steaming bean soup.

Simmer Time, and the Living Is Easy


What's that? You like the idea of bean soup, but you don't want to mess with dried beans and long simmering? OK. Just hustle up some…

Speedy Bean Soup

While this isn't in the same league as soup you make from scratch, it is simple and good. That's not too bad a combination, is it? Here's what you need:

  • 1 medium onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 large or 2 medium celery stalks, diced
  • 2 to 3 large russet potatoes, diced
  • 4 15-ounce cans great northern beans
  • cold water
  • 1 tablespoon dried marjoram
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste

Proceed as in the Master Recipe, substituting canned beans for dry. I use the liquid from the cans as well, but some cooks prefer to drain this off and discard it. If you go that route, substitute cold tap water for the canning fluid. In any case, when all the ingredients are in the pot, add enough cold water to cover the beans and veggies to a depth of one inch. Now put the lid on the pot (leave it ajar, remember?) and bring the contents to a boil before simmering, as before. Inside half an hour, your soup should be ready to eat.

A few hints: If you can't find canned great northern beans, you can substitute cannellini beans (aka white kidney beans). And if speedy isn't fast enough, you can save even more time by using frozen vegetables rather than fresh—no dicing or sautéing needed.

Soup's On!


How about it? Ready to ring the changes? Good. It's easy to devise…

Variations on the Theme

The great thing about bean soup is its versatility. Here are some examples:

  • Meatless Meals  Kale, chard, and mustard greens all go well with beans. Chop any or all of these delicious leafy greens into bite-sized pieces and add to either recipe before adding water. Continue cooking as directed.

    Want to sweeten things up? Then mix chopped fresh plum tomatoes with the beans. Or maybe you hanker for the smoky accent of roasted vegetables. If so, drizzle olive oil over large chunks of carrots, tomatoes, and winter squash—pick your favorite variety—before placing them in a big pan, seasoning with salt and pepper, and roasting in a 350-degree Fahrenheit oven for about one hour, or until the vegetables become soft, sweet, and browned around their edges (caramelized, in chef-speak). Now add these to the sautéed vegetables in the Master Recipe and continue as described above.

  • Easy Ham and Beans  Just add cubed ham—from a leftover roast, a slice of ham, or a can— to either dry or canned beans before cooking.

  • Ham Hock Soup  Add one or two ham hocks (smoked or plain) to the vegetables and beans when preparing the Master Recipe, before adding the liquid. After the beans and vegetables have cooked through, remove the hocks and place in a large bowl to cool, then slice the meat off the bone and add to the soup. That's it.

  • Warm to the Bone  Add a ham bone left over from a roast to either recipe before simmering. (Cut any remaining scraps of meat off the bone first. Add these to the pot, too.) When it's time to serve, fish the bone out and give it to your dog.


    As good as it is to sit down to a hot meal at home, there are plenty of times when hot food is even more welcome on the trail. Luckily…

    You Can Always Take It With You

    Pre-heat a thermos flask with hot water while you bring your soup to a simmer. Then dump the water out of the thermos and spoon in the soup. Cap the thermos, wrap it inside your spare hat or a fleece vest, and tuck it into your pack. Lunch at trailside was never so good—or so easy! Who says you can't take it with you?

Bean Soup to Go


It's winter in Canoe Country, but cold weather doesn't keep paddlers down for long, even if they can't wet a blade. Snowshoeing, skiing, and ice fishing are favorite ways to pass the time—and that doesn't begin to exhaust the possibilities. No matter what lures you outside, however, it's wonderful to come home to a hot, revivifying meal. And what's better than a steaming bowl of soup on a cold day? You can even take it with you. So why not make a pot of bean soup right now? You'll be glad you did. That's alimentary!

Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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