One of the most impactful things I’ve learned over the course of my cooking career is that more often than not, less is more. It’s true for a lot of things in life, but I find it to be especially true when it comes to food. We always hear people talking about simplifying and yet so many of us fail to actually put it into practice. Not only does simplicity result in cleaner, more pronounced flavors, but it can save you a lot of money too. This humble, 5-ingredients bean soup is an excellent example of just that.
In it’s most basic form, this hearty, full-flavored soup has only five ingredients. Five! And believe me when I tell you that’s all it needs to be good. Carrots, celery, onion, bacon and beans. I don’t count salt, pepper and water. You can add garlic, a bay leaf and a parmesan cheese rind to add a little bit more depth, but really, none of it is necessary. So often we try to improve a dish by adding a pinch of this and a dash of that, when in reality, we’re just wasting our time (or more accurately, our money).
This soup is not only dead simple to make, it’s incredibly inexpensive too. Want to feed your family a healthy dinner for less than $10 and still have some leftover for lunch tomorrow? Make this soup. It’s packed with protein, fiber, and vitamins while managing to taste amazing all at the same time.
I’ve fiddled with plenty of bean soups in my day. In fact, bean soups tend to be my favorite kind. Which is sort of funny because growing up, I absolutely hated beans (and soup, too, for that matter). My mom didn’t care for beans, so I followed suit, and then there was that song, “beans beans, they’re good for your heart…” That was enough to send me running in the other direction anytime I even heard someone utter the b-word. But as I grew older, I started to love beans – just like my dad. I don’t know anyone who loves beans more than him. He’d happily eat them cold from the can.
Beans are a humble food, but boy, what a powerhouse! They’re loaded with complex carbs, fiber and protein, along with trace minerals and vitamins. Beans are creamy, slightly chewy, and ridiculously versatile (see: farinata). They’re also dirt cheap, coming in around $1 for a 1-lb dried bag.
Also cheap: carrots, celery and onion. They’re the building blocks of any good soup and all of French cuisine. These three musketeers are not only major flavor enhancers, but they’re also loaded with their own arsenal of nutrition. The Food Network / Rachael Ray types will tell you that you need to add stock (boxed, nonetheless) to any and all soups “to add more flavor”. But who needs it? In culinary school we were taught to only ever use water as the base for a soup. Not only does it save money, but who wants their bacony bean soup to taste like chicken when it could taste like baconey beans? Once you start adding that boxed stock to everything it all starts to taste the same. And have you ever read the ingredients on one of those boxes? You’ll find a lot of “natural flavor” listed, which many people know by now is actually not all that natural (google it).
The true shining star of this soup is of course the bacon. Bacon always steals the limelight. But how could it not? Rich, smoky and meaty bacon adds depth and personality to what would otherwise be a fairly one dimensional soup. It is, unquestionably, the most expensive ingredient in this recipe, but it’s so worth it to use the good stuff. I’m partial to Trader Joe’s uncured applewood smoked bacon. It happens to be one of the less expensive brands out there in addition to being one of the absolute best tasting (AND nitrate free). These beans are just begging for that salty, meaty flavor and this soup just wouldn’t be the same without it.
The old Coley would have meddled with this soup to the point of making it taste worse rather than better. I’d throw in a slew of herbs like thyme, rosemary, and bay in the beginning, then I’d finish it with freshly chopped parsley. I’d first saute the bacon in olive oil to get it going, which is so, completely unnecessary. I’d definitely use stock instead of water, and I might even feel the need to throw in some tomatoes, greens, or other vegetables. But guess what? All of that stuff will more than likely make your soup taste muddied up and mediocre. Simple is better here, you guys. You have to trust me.
Two additions that are completely unnecessary, but are a nice addition to this soup if you have them on hand are a little bit of garlic and a parmesan cheese rind. Garlic goes in almost everything I make, so I always always always have it in my pantry. Its also inexpensive and great at warding off winter bugs like colds and flu. I say add it. But if you don’t like garlic or you don’t have any, it can easily be omitted with no harm whatsoever.
Same thing for that parmesan cheese rind. I always save my rinds from used wedges of parmesan for purposes just like this. I happened to have one in my fridge, so I thew it in. It adds a bit of salty complexity, and creaminess that really heightens the beans. If you have one, go ahead and use it, since otherwise it would probably end up in the garbage. But if you don’t have one, do not even think about running to the store to get one. Keep it easy. Keep it simple, and you will be rewarded.
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- 1 lb bacon, diced
- 1 large Spanish onion, finely diced
- 2 medium carrots, finely diced (about 2 cups)
- 5 ribs celery, finely diced (about 2 cups)
- salt and pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
- 1 lb great northern beans or cannellini beans, soaked overnight* and drained
- 2 quarts water (8 cups)
- 1 Parmesan cheese rind (optional)
- Saute the bacon over medium low heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Cook the bacon slowly, stirring occasionally, over relatively low heat so that it renders out most of it’s fat. After about 20 minutes, the bacon will be crisp and there will be quite a bit of fat in the pan. Drain out as much fat as possible and reserve it for another use if desired.
- Saute the onion, carrot, and celery with the remaining bacon (there should still be a thin coating of fat). Season with salt and pepper. After about 10 minutes, the vegetables should be translucent. Add the garlic, if using, and saute for about 2 minutes more. Add the beans, water, and parmesan cheese rind (if using).
- Taste the broth and then season liberally with salt – since we’re using water, it will take quite a bit of salt to make it taste flavorful.
- Cover and simmer for about 1 1/2 hours or until the beans are tender. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Use the back of a fork to smash a few beans against the side of the pot to thicken it slightly. Remove the parmesan cheese rind and serve.
- If you didn’t soak your beans overnight, you can use the quick soak method: Cover beans with water by about 3 inches and bring up to a boil. Cover and turn off the heat and let soak for 1 hour/ Proceed with recipe as written.