The pandemic really changed people’s relationship to beans. In the time before we were all locked into our abodes, bored out of our minds, beans had a negative connotation; as in “that’s not worth a hill of beans” or “you’re full of beans.” Now being full of beans is a good thing. People look at heirloom dried beans like they’re looking at jewels; and getting a membership to the Rancho Gordo Bean Club is harder to get than a membership to The Soho House. Not to toot my own horn (though tooting comes easily when you’re eating a lot of beans), but I was way on the heirloom bean bandwagon way before it was cool. I was cooking Rancho Gordo’s Good Mother Stallards back in 2012. And my cabinets have always been filled with the good stuff; most recently, Borlotti Beans from Italy (via Gustiamo) which I transformed into this robust but springy Borlotti Bean Soup with Swiss Chard.
To Soak or Not to Soak
Look, in this crazy world, you’ll meet soakers and you’ll meet non-soakers. The non-soakers will tell you that you don’t need to soak. The soakers will say: “I’ve been doing it this way for years, and I’m not changing my methods now!”
My attitude is: if you remember to soak, great! If you forget to soak, just cook the beans longer. Borlotti Beans (which are cranberry beans in America) actually cook relatively fast, so if you don’t soak, you’re still in the clear. Your borlotti bean soup will still taste good.
Whole Lotta Veggies Going In
I used to be weird about my beans. I’m not sure whose recipe I read or where I got it from, but my old method was to cook dried beans with a whole onion, a whole carrot, and a whole piece of celery for two hours or so until the beans were cooked through, then I would drain them — saving some of the cooking liquid — and saute a bunch of chopped onions, celery, and carrots in a different pan. I’d add the beans to that, with the liquid, and I guess it freshened things up to have those new chopped vegetables instead of the old soggy ones?
But that’s so unnecessary. Just chop your veg at the beginning and it’ll still taste good at the end. I didn’t have carrots for this particular presentation, but I did have Swiss chard from the farmer’s market, so I chopped the stems along with celery and onions and a lot of garlic (not pictured). Eventually I added the beans and water (plus salt) and when the beans were about 9/10ths of the way there, I added the leaves all chopped up.
As tends to be the case with greens, these quickly cooked down to about half their size. I let them cook for another thirty minutes, just to meld with all of the other ingredients.
Take a Lesson from the French
Once the soup was done, I added macaroni to give it a little more body; ladling out the next day’s portion before I did, so it didn’t get sucked up by all of those thirsty noodles.
And this soup was tasty as it was. I forgot to mention: I seasoned everything right from the beginning, another controversial subject, but one that I feel strongly about. If you don’t season the beans early on, good luck getting any flavor into them later.
But here’s the thing: I wanted this soup to be brighter, a little more zesty. So I took a tip from the French and made a pistou — which is a bit like taking a tip from the Italians and making a pesto, minus the cheese and nuts. This version was super simple: just garlic, parsley, lemon zest, lemon juice, and olive oil. And it brightened things up tremendously.
So whether you’re an old-school pre-pandemic bean nut or a new-school post-pandemic bean newbie, give this Borlotti Bean Soup with Swiss Chard a try. You don’t have to belong to any club to enjoy it and it’ll have you tooting and tooting your own horn at the same time.
Borlotti Bean Soup with Swiss Chard
For the soup:
- 1 pound dried borlotti beans
- 1/4 cup Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 2 carrots, chopped I didn't have carrots, but if you do, it'll add more depth of flavor
- 1 bunch Swiss chard, leaves and stems separated, stems sliced thinly, leaves chopped
- Kosher salt
- 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 pinch red pepper flakes
- 1 Parmesan rind (optional) Brings extra umami to the soup
- 2 Bay leaves (optional)
- 1/2 pound elbow macaroni
For the herb salsa and for serving:
- 1 bunch flat-leaf, Italian parsley
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 lemon zested and juiced
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Aged Parmesan cheese
- If you're a person who soaks your beans, soak your beans in plenty of cold water the night before you plan to make this soup. If you're not a soaker, skip it! Just cook the beans longer.
- Pour the olive oil into the bottom of a Dutch Oven. Heat it on medium-high heat and when it's hot, add the onions, celery, carrots, and Swiss chard stems with a pinch of salt. Saute for five minutes or just until the vegetables are soft, but not brown. Add the garlic and stir together, cooking another minute. Add a pinch of red pepper flakes — more if you like it spicy.
- Strain the beans and pour them into the pot with the vegetables. Add eight cups of water and bring to a boil. Season the water with a tablespoon or two of salt… you don't want to over-season it here, because the liquid will reduce and it might get too salty. But under-season, and your beans might be bland. So try to strike a balance. Add the Parmesan rind and the bay leaves, lower to an active simmer.
- Cook the beans for an hour — adding more water if the soup becomes too thick — and start to study them. Are the skins starting to come off? Do they smush easily against the side of the pot? Taste here. You're looking for incredibly soft and creamy. You don't want al dente beans, this isn't pasta. Also taste for seasoning here — if the liquid is bland and the beans are bland, add more salt. When the beans seem to be close to done, stir in the Swiss chard leaves, another pinch of salt, and cook for another thirty minutes. Remove the bay leaves and the Parmesan rind and add the pasta. Cook just until done.
- To finish, make your herb salsa. On a cutting board, cut the leaves off the parsley the best you can (but a few tender stems are totally fine) and lay the garlic on top of them. Chop the garlic and parsley together for a while until all you have are green and white flecks. Lift them into a bowl, stir in the lemon zest, the lemon juice, and finally the olive oil. You might want to use more oil if you have a lot of bowls of soup to doctor.
- To serve, ladle the soup into bowls, drizzle on the herb salsa, and grate some Parmesan cheese on top.