Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Escarole and White Bean Soup with Bacon

Bowl of Escarole and Bean Soup
Winning Combo: Escarole, Bacon, and Beans

Recipe by Robin

Bacon. I can’t understand why so many people are fans of the stuff. Friends who like it tell me that it goes with everything, and even like it chocolate-covered. I don’t get what’s great about the salty fattiness. Oddly enough though, while brainstorming a use for massive amounts of escarole from our CSA, I kept envisioning a bacon with white bean flavor. Perhaps the motivation comes from my Auntie’s baked beans, white beans delicately flavored with bacon and maple syrup. Or perhaps I’ve eaten a similar Italian-style soup in the distant past. In any case, a little bacon did indeed make this the perfect soup, on the first try.

Escarole, Chopped Carrots & Celery, Onion, Garlic, Thyme, Bay Leaves, and Soaked White Beans
All This and Bacon Too
Nitrite-free bacon is best, because sodium nitrite, used to preserve bacon, can react with protein when heated to form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. The USDA says that nitrites in bacon safe because the benefit (preventing botulism) outweighs the cost.  Since many local markets sell nitrite-free bacon, and bacon-related botulism is not a problem these days with adequate refrigeration, I’m sticking with the nitrite-free.

The idea of most escarole and bean soups is to make a flavorful but subtle broth. No particular herb or vegetable should stand out. That’s why I’ve chopped the carrot and celery finely, and why I’ve pressed the garlic. The small amount of thyme and a couple of bay leaves complete the bouquet, along with some instant (organic) chicken bouillon if needed. You can use fresh herbs instead of dried, either a sprig of thyme or one each of oregano and marjoram.

Sauteed chopped carrot, celery, and leeks, with bacon
The Secret of the Soup's Flavor
The beans cooked to my liking in only 30 minutes, after about 20 hours of soaking. These were small white beans, AKA navy beans or northern beans, which are prone to overcooking. Larger beans will likely take longer. Because I knew we’d be reheating leftovers, I didn’t want the beans to get mushy, so stopped cooking when a few started to split. You could cook them longer, but do check them frequently.

This soup is quite thick, and if you like a thinner soup (or to serve more people as a first course or potluck dish), feel free to add another 2-4 more cups of broth.

Of course, you can eliminate the bacon and use olive oil to cook the onion, carrots, and celery. Or use a no-meat bacon substitute, frying it up in olive oil. But I’m not going to do that. Nothing had better get between me and my bacon!

Bowl of Escarole Bean Soup with Grated Parmesan
Topped with Parmesan
Escarole Bean Soup
serves about 12

1 lb. dry white beans
½ lb. bacon
½ cup finely chopped celery
½ cup finely chopped carrot
1 cup chopped leeks (or onion)
3 cloves garlic, pressed
10 cups chicken broth
2 bay leaves
½ tsp. dried thyme
Instant (organic) chicken bouillon
1 lb. escarole
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Soak beans overnight or up to 20 hours, or use a speed soaking method, which takes a little over an hour. Drain beans. You will have about 6 cups.

Cook bacon in the bottom of a heavy soup pot. Place bacon strips in cold pot and heat over medium or medium low heat. Bacon can burn easily, so watch it. Turn bacon when it releases from the pot. Fry till it looks cooked, but is still soft, turning as needed.

Remove bacon from pan and drain or blot on paper towel. When cool, cut or tear into 1-inch or smaller pieces.

You will have about 2 tbsp. bacon fat. Remove some if you have much more, or add some olive oil if you have less. If you prefer, replace half of the bacon fat (1 tbsp.) with olive oil.

Sauté leeks in the bacon fat and/or olive oil over medium-high heat until it starts to get golden, about 3 minutes. Stir in pressed garlic, and cook until fragrant, another minute or so. Add the finely chopped celery and carrots. Sauté, stirring frequently, until slightly softened, another 3-4 minutes.

Add the bacon, beans, broth, bay leaves, and thyme. Cover and bring to boil. Simmer until beans are tender and a few start to split, about 30 minutes.

While soup is cooking, wash and chop escarole into bite-sized pieces.

Adjust seasoning of broth. If it tastes flat, add some instant (organic) chicken bouillon, a teaspoon at a time, stirring and tasting after each addition.

Stir escarole into the hot soup. Simmer on low heat until escarole is cooked, about 5 minutes.

Traditionally this soup is served with a little grated Parmesan or Romano cheese on top, but it’s also delicious on its own.

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