The consistency of a well-made bean soup can reach giddying heights of sophistication. This time last year, I went to Paris with Lindsey Bareham (who had helped me write Roast Chicken and Other Stories, and who I promised to treat to a great meal if we won the Andre Simon award). We had not booked anywhere in advance (something I loathe doing), but once in Paris, where we were staying close to the celebrated restaurant Joel Robuchon, I almost wished we had. Then Lindsey said, "Oh, what the hell," and that decided it. We just nonchalantly wandered next door to see if they had a table for lunch.
Well, heed my advice when you next want to secure a table at these you- can't-get-a-table-for-three-months establishments: you never know unless you try. It was here that we enjoyed what turned out to be probably the best soup either of us had ever eaten - and also the top dish of a seven- course lunch, served by marginally arrogant waiters in a dining room that is French belle epoque Gothic with knobs on.
The soup in question was one of pureed white beans, softened by slips of creamed potato and generously flecked with fresh black truffle. It was sublime and we could have spooned and swooned all day on it. But this was not just some old soaked beans whizzed in the blender with a bit of cream; a bushel and a peck of Perigord's finest truffles would not sweeten any old slop. Any soup that is worth the trouble of making, is something to linger over and love a little.
Of the three recipes that follow, two are pureed. The third is a chunkier one made with red kidney beans and chorizo sausage, and the topping, using sour cream and some perky salsa, is an excellent last-minute addition to a soup using ingredients that could be readily available in a well stocked store cupboard, supermarket or local gourmet shop. The construction of it is almost by assembly rather than actual cooking.
You may use lightly-flavoured stocks for the creamed soups instead of water and stock cube, but it is not entirely necessary as the flavour should really be in the beans themselves. Slow cooking is of the essence here, so on no account use tinned beans for these two.
Creamed haricot bean soup with bacon and garlic butter, serves 4
250g/9oz dried haricot beans
1.1 litres/2 pints water
225g/8oz smoked bacon, in the piece
1 large peeled onion, stuck with 5 cloves
3 cloves garlic, peeled
2 carrots, peeled and cut in two lengthways
12 chicken stock cube
150ml/5fl oz whipping cream
for the garlic butter
80g/3oz softened, unsalted butter
2 rounded tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed to a paste with a little salt
a few shakes of Tabasco
Soak the beans in plenty of cold water overnight, or for at least six hours. Drain and put into a roomy pan with the measured water. Add the bacon, onion stuck with cloves, garlic and carrots. Bring to a boil, skim off any resultant scum, and allow to simmer very very gently, covered, for about 112 hours or so, until the beans are very soft and almost falling apart. Add some salt and pepper and the stock cube and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Check for seasoning. It is important not to season until this stage, as salt included during the cooking of the beans can result in their developing tough skins.
Meanwhile, make the garlic butter by combining all the ingredients together in a bowl until well mixed. Leave in the bowl at room temperature until the soup is ready to be served.
Lift out the onion, remove the cloves and return it to the beans. Remove the bacon, take off the skin and cut into small cubes or slices. Tip the beans, vegetables and liquor into a liquidiser and process until very smooth. Pour through a sieve into a clean pan, stir in the cream and keep hot. Fry the bacon with a little oil in a frying pan until crisp and then drain on to kitchen paper.
To serve, pour into large soup plates or bowls, drop a spoonful of garlic butter into each, and then add some of the fried bacon pieces.
Cream of butter bean soup with rosemary and anchovy butter, serves 4
250g/9oz dried butter beans (Spanish ones are particularly good)
1.1 litres/2 pints water
2 large onions, peeled and sliced
3 sticks celery, chopped
2 sprigs rosemary
12 chicken stock cube
salt and pepper
150ml/5fl oz whipping cream
for the rosemary and anchovy butter
110g/4oz softened, unsalted butter
2 sprigs rosemary, leaves only
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 x 50g/2oz tin anchovies
juice of half a small lemon
Soak the beans in plenty of cold water overnight, or for at least six hours. Drain. In a roomy pan, melt the butter and fry the onions and celery until lightly coloured. Add the rosemary sprigs, stir around and allow their aroma to lift. Tip in the drained beans, add the water and cook as above, until the beans are almost falling apart. Add pepper and the stock cube and simmer for a further ten minutes. Check for seasoning - don't add salt until this stage as it can toughen the beans if used earlier - and remember that anchovy butter is added later on.
Meanwhile, make the rosemary and anchovy butter by combining all the ingredients in a food processor until very smooth. Pass through a small sieve to remove any spiky rosemary bits. Tip into a small bowl and leave at room temperature until the soup is to be served.
Lift out the rosemary sprigs and then put the beans, vegetables and liquor into a liquidiser and process until very smooth. Pour through a sieve into a clean pan, stir in the cream and keep hot.
To serve, pour into large soup plates or bowls, drop a spoonful of the rosemary and anchovy butter into each and serve with croutons.
Red kidney bean soup with chorizo and salsa serves 4
for the salsa
6 ripe tomatoes, skinned, de-seeded and chopped
1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
half bunch of coriander, leaves only, chopped
juice of two limes
2 green chillies, de-seeded and chopped
14 tsp sugar
for the soup
3 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
200g/7oz thin, dried chorizo sausage, thinly sliced
12 tsp dried chilli flakes (optional)
900ml/112 pints well flavoured beef stock (available at the supermarket, or home-made, naturally)
2 x 400g/14 oz cans red kidney beans, drained
2-3 tbsp sour cream, thoroughly stirred with a spoon so it loosens up to a pouring consistency
leaves of fresh coriander for garnish
To make the salsa, mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Cover with a plate or clingfilm, and leave at room temperature for one hour before using.
In a large pan heat the olive oil and fry the onions and garlic until lightly coloured. Add the chorizo sausage and stir until its paprika-infused oil starts to run. Stir in the chilli flakes, if using, and then add the stock. Bring to a simmer and tip in the beans. Cook for 15 minutes at a gentle simmer. The soup should not be too thick, apart from its chunky bits, but if the liquid consistency is too watery take a ladleful of the soup (trying not to get the chorizo) and puree in a liquidiser. Sieve back into the soup and stir in. This will give the soup more body.
Pour the soup into individual deep bowls or large shallow plates, top each serving with a spoonful of salsa, add a swirl of soured cream and garnish with coriander. Hot and crusty garlic bread is a whiz with this soupReuse content