A few weeks ago I happened upon a mention of white bean and leek soup. Although I saw many recipes during my pleasant hour browsing through blogs and recipe sites, that idea of beans and leeks stuck in my mind, even though I hadn’t even read the recipe. This was the springboard for creating a comforting, hearty winter soup, something with substance and spicy flavour.
Most of my soups are meat-free, but this time I wanted to use sausage both for extra protein and texture, and also for the flavour. Aromatics like garlic, onion and leeks would add flavour. I wanted to add chopped kale near the end for its almost meaty green-ness and to bump up the healthiness factor; there wasn’t any at the market so I used Swiss chard instead. My original intention was not to use tomatoes, but about halfway through the cooking time I realized I needed their flavour and colour to improve the soup.
I was eager to blog about the soup, and had many photos of the colourful mise en place and the cooking process. We had it for dinner the night I made it and it was … well, alright is the best I can say. Truthfully (and painfully) mediocre would be more accurate. The next day, however, the flavours had developed in the refrigerator overnight and I served it to family who came to visit for lunch. It was better, but still just okay and far from the flavour levels I usually produce. Let’s just say the response by my guests was muted.
I couldn’t write about that soup until I had a chance to take another run at it. Mulling over what went wrong, I realized I’d used too much water, and I also needed some tomato paste to intensify the tomato flavour. When I went to the market last Sunday morning, there was still no kale, so I came home with another bunch of Swiss chard. I decided to pick up hot Italian sausages instead of the mild version I used last time. I kicked up the heat quotient even more with a whole red chile pepper instead of the half that I used the first time around. The extra spiciness was not only to improve the soup, but also because I was feeling sluggish on Sunday and my metabolism needed a good kick in the pants.
This post gives a sense of how I develop recipes, starting with one version and making tweaks and adjustments each time I make a dish until I get it just ‘right.’ That’s how I’ll make it for awhile, until I start to wonder, ‘what if I add a little of this, or substitute something else for that.’ Part of the fun and adventure of cooking is being comfortable enough to use recipes or a mere suggestion of ingredients, whether from a cookbook or your own, as a guideline.
Thank goodness, I was really happy with how my second attempt at the soup turned out. It was hearty, with just the right intensity of spiciness. The only change I would make is to use a little less sage (I overdid it just a bit and its herbaciousness was a little too pronounced; I’ve factored the lesser amount into the recipe below).
The Culinary Enthusiast quite enjoyed this soup, and went back for seconds. He had some for lunch the next day and pronounced the flavours more fully developed and smoother than on Day One, with a good nose and impudent bouquet. (Okay, so I made up that last part.) Actually, here’s a direct quote: “It’s the kind of soup you never get tired of. Even after a few meals you still want more.” For the record, the only reward provided for this enthusiastic endorsement was another bowl of soup.
Winter Soup with White Beans, Sausage, Leeks & More
This makes a nice big pot of soup. If you insist on a quantity, I’d say about 10 servings, but really, isn’t a serving in the eye of the beholder (or eater)?
- 2 hot Italian sausages
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 red chile pepper, seeded and minced
- 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 baking potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- 3 leeks, dark green parts removed, halved and sliced thin
- bunch swiss chard, stems removed and chopped, greens chopped separately
- 2 or 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 19-oz can white beans (low sodium if you can find it)
- 4 cups chicken broth (I use organic, low-sodium)
- 2 or 3 sage leaves, chopped (or 1 tsp dried chopped sage)
- about 1/2 tsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- freshly ground pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
Squeeze the sausage meat out of the casings and sauté in a large pot until cooked through and broken into small pieces. If you feel there’s too much fat in the pan, remove the sausage and drain on paper towel while removing some of the fat from the pot. Return the sausage to the pot. The sausages I used weren’t too fatty, so I went directly to the next step.
Add the onion, garlic and red chile pepper to the sausage, along with a few grindings of pepper, and stir until translucent. Add the sliced leeks, Swiss chard stems and potato and stir well. Stir in the tomato paste and cook a few minutes to develop the flavour. Toss in the beans, then add the tomatoes, broth and no more than 2 cups of water (you can always add more later if you think you need it). Add the herbs and salt, give it all a good stir, and bring the soup to a boil. Turn the heat to a simmer and cook for about 1 and a half hours.
At that point, check for seasonings, adding salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the chopped Swiss chard leaves, and continue to simmer for another 30 minutes or so.
To give the soup more substance before serving, remove 3 or 4 cups (or as much as you like) to a separate sauce pan or bowl and puree with an immersion blender. (Now that I think about it, I could have just pureed right in the big pot of soup, stopping when I had achieved the desired consistency, and saved myself some dishwashing in the process!) Return this mixture to the pot and stir in. This is a great way to thicken a soup without adding any fillers like cornstarch or flour.
Don’t hesitate to make this soup your own! Want a less spicy version? Use mild sausages and less chile pepper. You can use more beans if you have them, and starting with dried beans that you soak yourself would certainly be more economical. Don’t care for (or have) fresh rosemary and/or sage? Use dried, or else substitute other herbs, like perhaps basil and oregano. It’s your pot of soup, after all! However you make it, I hope you enjoy not only the process of creating it, but even more so eating it!