A key: start with spectacular black beans grown in the Pacific Northwest.
Start asking food people how to make the best black bean soup, and all roads will quickly lead to Steve Sando.
Very few can claim the title “celebrity bean grower,” but Sando of Rancho Gordo in Napa, California, is just that. He began by raising beans in his home garden and was immediately impressed (and overwhelmed) by their high yield. To manage the overflow, he began selling them at the farmers’ market in nearby Yountville. (Sharp-eyed food lovers will see where this is headed.) Yountville is home to the famed restaurant the French Laundry; Sando’s beans found their way into the hands of its chef, Thomas Keller. The rest is history.
I’d never thought about why black bean soup is so much more savory than white or red, but Sando knew immediately. “Only black beans make that inky broth,” he said. “Then they have that creamy center and fudgy, earthy flavor. They are really special.”
Clearly, a person who appreciates beans so richly was right for the job of helping redeem black bean soup. The American classic can be a perfect dish: big-tasting, filling, nutritious, easy to prepare and very possibly vegetarian. But it has an unfortunate tendency to turn sludgy or bland, or both. I set out to find a recipe that would resolve those issues.
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The first matter is the type of bean used. Sando, who has 10 farmers in the Pacific Northwest growing dozens of varietals, raises at least three or four kinds of black beans, like the giant Ayocote Negro and the Black Valentine, a wine-dark kidney. But, he said, plain black turtle beans are the best for soup. They are the staple bean in much of southern Mexico and the one associated with classic Brazilian feijoada and Cuban frijoles negros. Basic frijoles de olla, or pot beans, should be swimming in liquid, not sitting in sludge, and the same is true for black bean soup. The velvety, aromatic broth — called sopa negra or caldo de frijol — is prized by experienced bean cooks.
Like all dry beans — whether called borlotti or fagioli, cranberry or cannellini, alubias or frijoles — turtle beans are of American origin, first cultivated in Central and South America. These dry or “common” beans have tough outer pods that protect the beans as they mature. Other members of the bean family, such as favas, limas and cowpeas, grow in almost every part of the world. The Spanish saying “en todas partes cuecen habas,” which figuratively suggests that everybody has the same problems, more literally means “people everywhere cook beans.”
Many New World beans caught on in Europe and beyond, but black beans have stayed stubbornly American. In the past, cooks in the United States treated black beans the same way they did other vegetables for soup: boiled them into submission, then ground them until smooth, in hopes of removing as much texture as possible. A New York Times recipe from 1879 instructed readers to boil the black beans for three to four hours, then rub them through a colander “into a sort of paste.” This kind of soup was smooth and murky, and often thinned with cream, but it was considered elegant enough to serve with sliced lemon and sieved egg.
Sometimes, the problem with black bean soup is too much taste, and it becomes necessary to cut the beans’ intensity. This can be done with acid, like lime juice or vinegar; with the freshness of herbs, like oregano, bay leaves or the traditional epazote; or with heat, like roasted poblanos or chipotle chilies.
The transformative power of a can of chilies should not be underestimated. For the uninitiated, chipotles in adobo are a world away from bland, canned jalapeños. They are a smoky, fiery Mexican elixir that, like Thai curry paste or tahini, brings a blast of flavor and regional character to any dish.
Chipotle chilies themselves are ripe jalapeños that are dried, then smoked. The adobo — a rough translation here would be “marinade” — is a paste of tomatoes, vinegar, onions, garlic and oregano, sometimes with spices like coriander and cumin. The chilies and adobo are sealed and cooked in the can, trading their flavors back and forth, into a rich, tangy mass. A few teaspoons of this mixture is an extraordinarily easy shortcut to a tasty pot of beans, especially when you let its flavors bloom by adding it to the pot early on. Beans, like potatoes, can happily absorb a lot of salt and spice, but go slowly.
The other shortcut to flavor here is the sofrito, aromatics and vegetables softened in hot oil that will flavor the cooking liquid and thus the beans. The sofrito in this recipe is not traditional for black beans; it contains carrots and chilies in addition to onions and garlic, and it is deglazed with red wine. But it is extensively time-tested, having been cooked regularly by myself and many others since 1994, when a version was first published in the cookbook “Bobby Flay’s Bold American Food.”
If you choose not to purée it, this recipe can be served as pot beans instead of soup, on top of white rice or as a side dish for a dinner of quesadillas and avocado salad. For soup, puréeing some of the beans gives it a luxurious mouthfeel, like a cream soup. Either way, your leftovers (which will thicken overnight) can be mashed and cooked in oil (or lard, to be strictly traditional) to make refried beans.
I can already hear some of you asking if this can be made in a pressure cooker. Yes, but Sando advises against pressure because it forces the beans to absorb all the liquid, making them pudding-y instead of soupy. If you don’t mind the loss of the broth, by all means use the pressure cooker, but keep some extra stock on hand. A pudding problem can also arise if you purée too many of the beans: Their starches will flow into the liquid and turn it to mud. Go slowly, and don’t let the immersion blender get away from you to go careening around the pot.
Best Black Bean Soup
Makes 10 servings
Total time: About 2 hours
For the soup and garnishes:
1 small (7-ounce) can chipotle chilies in adobo (see note)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 onions, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup red wine
2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped
1 pound dried black beans
2 quarts mild vegetable or chicken stock
1 tablespoon oregano, preferably Mexican
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Red wine vinegar, to taste
Sour cream or Mexican crema for garnish (optional)
Whole cilantro leaves for garnish (optional)
For the pickled onions (optional):
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
Freshly squeezed juice of 2 limes
1. Empty the can of chilies into a blender or food processor. Purée until smooth, scrape into a container and set aside. Put on a teakettle of water to boil and keep hot.
2. In a large, heavy pot, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add carrots, onions and garlic and cook, stirring, until softened but not browned, 5 to 8 minutes.
3. Pour in wine and let simmer until pan is almost dry and vegetables are coated. Add jalapeños and cook, stirring, just until softened, 2 minutes. Push the vegetables out to the edges of the pot and dollop 2 teaspoons of chipotle purée in the center. Let fry for a minute and then stir together with the vegetables.
4. Add beans, stock, oregano and bay leaves. Stir, bring to a boil and let boil 10 to 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally and adding hot water as needed to keep the soup liquid and runny, not sludgy. Continue cooking until beans are just softened and fragrant, 1 to 2 hours. Add salt and pepper and keep cooking until beans are soft.
5. Meanwhile, make the pickled onions, if using: In a bowl, combine sliced onions, lime juice and a sprinkling of salt. Let soften at room temperature until crunchy and tart, about 30 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Squeeze dry in paper towels and refrigerate until ready to serve. If desired, chop coarsely before serving.
6. Adjust the texture of the soup: The goal is to combine whole beans, soft chunks and a velvety broth. Some beans release enough starch while cooking to produce a thick broth without puréeing. If soup seems thin, use an immersion blender or blender to purée a small amount of the beans until smooth, then stir back in. Continue until desired texture is reached, keeping in mind that the soup will continue to thicken as it sits.
7. Heat the soup through, taste and adjust the seasonings with salt, pepper, drops of red wine vinegar and dabs of chipotle purée.
8. Serve in deep bowls, garnishing each serving with a dollop of sour cream, a scattering of pickled onions and a flurry of cilantro leaves if you like.
Note: If chipotle chiles are unavailable, use 1 tablespoon each ground cumin and ground coriander. Add to vegetables at the same point in the recipe, in Step 3.