Bean Soups Make the World Go ‘Round

Call it a reverse treasure hunt: go out and search all the cuisines on earth and bring back one that doesn’t love bean soup. It’s hard to picture you having much luck. Bean soup combines what has to be the world’s least expensive protein for nourishment with what has to be the world’s least challenging cooking technique. 

Cooking soup requires no specific style of pot, no specific form of heat, and lots more time than trouble. Best of all, if you have or have access to virtually anything, from meat to broth to vegetables to herbs and spices, it will find a happy home in a bean soup.

As you might expect of a recipe that’s so popular globally, flavor profiles have been known to take beans in almost every direction. Most are broth-based, since the cooking of beans gives off starch that thickens eventually – but there’s certainly no law that says you can’t make a cream- or milk-based version of almost any bean soup.

That’s what happens with so-called Senate Bean Soup, a favorite in the cafeteria of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. This legendary navy bean soup even has cubed potatoes, making for additional substance. Too bad most of the laws passed within the building don’t follow suit.

One of the coolest things about bean soup is that many cultures call it merely that – Bean Soup. They feel no need to get more precise, since most home cooks love the fact that if Soup A is great made with red kidney beans, it’s also great made with lima beans or black beans or chick peas.

The recipe is almost always the same: Cook beans in water or broth with vegetables, seasonings and, if you’ve got it handy, one or more kinds of pork. Cook until the beans are done. And then eat. We prefer actual  visible beans in our bean soups, but virtually all bean soups are also excellent when pureed, if that is your more allegedly elegant preference.

Still, despite this rather delightful generic quality, some soups have become synonymous with certain cultures, so much so that when you visit that culture or even one of its restaurants near you, you feel the need to order that soup.

Do not dare go to Tuscany, for instance, and not have one or more versions of Tuscan White Bean Soup (typically made with the white kidney beans known in Italian as cannellini). Bean soups are important to Greek cuisine as well, especially in the poorer mountain villages where that might be the only crop that grows. Expect wild oregano and thyme to add to the layers of flavor, and a little extra punch from a squeeze of lemon

And don’t you dare go to Cuba, or Nicaragua or El Salvador, or pretty much anywhere in Central America, without enjoying Cuban Black Bean Soup. Anywhere except Cuba, in fact, the soup might well be listed on the menu as Cubano. Just so you never forget where it came from. – John DeMers


This is a white bean soup, meaning it can be made with any white bean with pretty much the same recipe and delightful result. Navy and Great Northern beans are among the favorites readily available in dried form, though finding dried cannellini opens the door to Italian flavors as surely as using dried pintos opens the door to Mexican. Feel free to adjust your spices accordingly.

2 pounds dried navy beans
3 slices thick-cut bacon
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 carrots, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 cups chicken broth, or additional water
1 ham hock (optional)
6-8 leaves fresh basil, sliced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon fresh oregano
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes
Salt and black pepper
¼ cups Mom’s brand Special Marinara 

Soak the beans overnight in enough water to cover by 2 inches, then drain the beans. In a large pot or Dutch oven, cook the bacon in the olive oil until it starts to get crisp, then add the carrot, celery and onion, stirring until lightly caramelized. Add the garlic and stir 1 minute more. Add 4 cups of water plus 2 cups of chicken broth (or 6 cups of water), followed by the ham hock.

Add the herbs, bay leaves, parsley and seasoning. Stir in the tomato sauce. Bring to a boil and cook until beans are tender and liquid has thickened. Remove the ham hock. To complete this process, use a fork to mash some of the beans into the soup. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Serve with a sprinkle of paprika. Serves 6-8.

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