This soup is pretty basic, which is part of the reason I like it. If I saw it on a menu, I probably wouldn’t order it because… how good could white bean soup really be? Well, i’ve been ladling off the broth and drinking it cold. It’s really good. But what elevates it is the brussel sprouts and the bread.
The creaminess of the beans and viscosity of the broth make a perfect foil for one of my favorite vegetables, brussel sprouts. Brussel sprouts are also one of the quickest and easiest vegetables to cook perfectly. And bread is a cooking ingredient that constantly amazes me. It can go anywhere - sandwich, salad, sauce, filling, crusts, casserole, as crumbs, and here in a soup. In fact, I just bought this book, La Cucina, which has at least a dozen recipes for bread soup. Wheat really is a beautiful, nourishing ingredient that is often either derided or ignored. One note on this recipe is that it’s very important to make the soup ahead of time. Cooling the beans in the liquid makes them feel much more moist in the mouth, gives the broth more body, and it also gives all these flavors time to blend. And by the way, canned beans are not really a valid substitute.
- 1 small bulb of fennel
- 2 medium onions
- 2 sticks of celery
- 2 medium carrots
- 5 cloves garlic
- 2 cups white wine
- 2 cups white beans
- 1 meyer lemon
- 6 fresh bay leaves
- 6 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1 tablespoon of mustard seeds
- 1 tablespoon peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon of coriander seeds
- 2 cloves
- 4 cups of Brussels sprouts, halved
- ½ a loaf of flavorful bread
Brunoise (finely dice) the fennel, onions, celery, and carrots. An alternative would be to roughly chop these vegetables and then pulse them in a food processor, or put them through a meat grinder. Keep any trim from the vegetables at hand. Crush the garlic cloves. Sweat the brunoised vegetables and garlic by putting them in a large pot along with 4 tablespoons of olive oil and a generous amount of salt and slowly cooking this, while stirring for about 10 minutes over low heat. Add the beans when the vegetables taste thoroughly cooked but have not taken on any color. Pour in the wine and turn the heat up. When the wine is almost boiled off, add water so that it covers the beans by 4 inches or so. Turn the heat up to high until the water is boiling and then adjust it to be barely simmering. While the water is coming up to a boil, toast the mustard seeds, peppercorns, coriander, and cloves. When cool, put the spices into a cheesecloth sachet, along with the thyme and bay leaves and any vegetable scraps from the fennel, onions, celery, garlic and carrot. Add this to the soup pot. Simmer the soup until the beans are tender. Check this at around an hour (my batch took almost an hour and a half.) Season with salt, remembering you can always add more right before serving. When the beans are tender, slice the lemon in half and drop it in the pot. Let the soup cool.
Roughly tear the bread and either leave it in a dry place until it’s crusty or fry it in a good bit of olive oil with crushed garlic and thyme, salt and pepper. Ideally, the outside should be crispy crusty, while the inside should still be sorta soft.
When ready to serve, bring the soup just back up to a simmer. Sear the brussel sprouts by placing them in a hot pan with ¼ inch of olive oil, cut side down, and season with salt and pepper. You will probably have to do these in batches. When they are well-browned on the bottom, turn the heat off and splash in 1 tablespoon of sherry vinegar for each cup of brussel sprouts and promptly remove them to a plate.
Spread the Brussels and bread between bowls. Ladle in the soup and drizzle with olive oil.