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Recipe: Bean soup inspired by lack of inspiration

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Alison Roman prepares broccoli rabe to add to her white bean stew.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Alison Roman prepares broccoli rabe to add to her white bean stew.

One of the questions I get asked most often is, “How do you stay inspired to create new recipes?”

In the movie version of my life, I tell people that inspiration hits me when I’m strolling a market overseas, or rereading old cookbooks while I sip tea on my comfortable couch. But the actual answer is, sometimes I don’t stay inspired. Sometimes I have no ideas at all, and start furiously mapping out plans for a second career, Googling how long it would take to become a botanist.

In these moments, I find it most useful to do anything but try to be creative. I repot a plant, take a yoga class, attempt minor accounting work. But where I often land after these activities is at home, sans groceries and extremely hungry, turning to my (admittedly well-stocked) pantry. Here, I let the primal, emotional need for something delicious take over, rather than my intellect, which demands that every opportunity for making dinner somehow relates to work.

Turns out, the primal, emotional need almost always involves beans. Probably the brothy, spicy variety, loaded with bitter greens. I will not apologize for my predictability.

Depending on how much time I’ve got, the beans are either dried (preferred!) or from a can (realistic!). But regardless, they are cooked in lots of olive oil with whatever combination of fried onions, shallots and garlic I have on hand. I might add some tomato paste or a few anchovy fillets, but here, I’m adding harissa, which I like to caramelize in the olive oil just as I would tomato paste, and some fresh or preserved lemon. If you want the spiciness but aren’t stocking harissa paste, red-pepper flakes, a little bit of cumin and a tablespoon or two of tomato paste will get you close.

From there, I simmer everything in chicken broth because it’s what I keep around. (You can use vegetable broth if you are vegetarian.) The final texture can be soupy or stewlike, depending on how much you cook down the beans — I like to sort of smash them with the back of a wooden spoon, encouraging their creamy interior to thicken the broth.

Once the beans are as soupy or stewy as I please, I add an entire bunch of broccoli raab or kale, which I always have in my refrigerator because I love my dark leafy greens in any and all applications. Whatever I’m working with, I strip the leaves from the stems, chop the stems and add them to the beans as they simmer. I toss in the leaves at the very end, just to wilt them down.

This satisfyingly creamy bean stew is lovely and perfect all on its own, but you can also garnish it like a bowl of chili. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s a fridge clean-out free-for-all, but I do use this as an opportunity to use up the last of that odd bit of feta or pecorino, whatever fresh herbs I have lingering (parsley, cilantro, mint, dill), and sometimes that last egg (fried and crispy, or medium-boiled and sliced, please).

This pot of pantry staples might not seem like much, but it is a nice reminder that it’s OK to empty yourself of ideas from time to time: The act alone might lead you to your next good one.

THIS flexible stew is vegetarian by nature, but feel free to start the pot with sausage, slab bacon or leftover ham if you’re feeling more omnivorous.

SPICY WHITE BEAN STEW WITH BROCCOLI RAAB

large bunch (or 2 small bunches) broccoli raab or kale, thick stems separated from the leaves

1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 medium red or yellow onion, thinly sliced

Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons harissa, or substitute tomato paste with pinch of red-pepper flakes

Red-pepper flakes (optional)

3 (15-ounce) cans large white beans, such as cannellini, butter or great Northern, drained and rinsed

4 cups vegetable or chicken broth

1 preserved lemon, thinly sliced, or juice of 1 lemon

2 ounces feta or other salty cheese, such as pecorino, crumbled

1 cup parsley or cilantro, leaves and tender stems

Fried or medium-boiled eggs, for serving (optional)

Tear broccoli raab or kale leaves into bite-size pieces; set aside. Chop stems into about 1/4-inch pieces; set aside.

Heat oil in large pot over medium. Add garlic and onion; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and sizzled at the edges, 4 to 6 minutes.

Add harissa and stir to coat in oil. Cook until harissa is a brick red and oil turns a vibrant fiery orange, about 2 minutes.

Add beans; season with salt and pepper. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, crush a few beans to thicken stew.

Add broth and reserved stems; season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook to reach your desired consistency (less time for a brothier soup, more for a thicker stew), 15 to 20 minutes.

Add broccoli raab or kale leaves and preserved lemon or lemon juice; stir to wilt greens. Season with salt, pepper and more red-pepper flakes if needed.

Garnish with feta and parsley; serve with eggs, if you like. Serves 4.

Nutritional information unavailable.

AND TO DRINK

The earthy flavor of beans, regardless of color, makes them wonderful to pair with wines. The type of wine often depends on the other ingredients in the dish.

With a classic beans-and-greens dish like this, I’d lean toward a dry white: a rich chardonnay without oak or tropical fruit flavors, a good dry chenin blanc or a richer style of gruner veltliner. You could even enjoy a sparkling Vouvray.

If you really want a red, I’d opt for a bottle that isn’t overly fruity, like a dolcetto or a Crozes-Hermitage.

— Eric Asimov, New York Times

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