Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Pretty Darned Good Black Bean Soup

You see, unlike Cook's Illustrated, I would never claim to have "the perfect" anything with a recipe. And in all honesty, I don't think they should either (but they do...if you are interested in more on this topic, read this post). So, I have taken their recipe for Black Bean Soup, from January 2005, and improved it.

Doesn't that look wonderful?

I started with some really amazing beans from Rancho Gordo. I found out about the wonders of Rancho Gordo beans from Alosha's Kitchen when Melissa did this post about her Rancho Gordo love. I read the comments and it was unanimous that the beans are fabulous. Well, if you know me, that was too much to resist. So, I got online and ordered a variety of beans and some chili powder. Great company, Rancho Gordo! I say this being in the mail order business myself, as part of our retail store. They were just super to deal with and I hope you will give them a shout and order some beans too! I can't wait to cook more.

On to the soups. Here are the recipe ingredients from Cook's Illustrated:

1 pound dried black beans (2 cups), rinsed and picked over
4 ounces ham steak , trimmed of rind
2 bay leaves
5 cups water
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon table salt

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions , chopped fine (about 3 cups)
1 large carrot , chopped fine (about 1/2 cup)
3 ribs celery , chopped fine (about 1 cup)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
5 - 6 medium cloves garlic , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 1/2 tablespoons)
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons lime juice , from 1 to 2 limes


lime wedges

minced fresh cilantro leaves

red onion , finely diced

avocado , diced medium

sour cream

Oh, yeah...don't try to get on to get the recipe from that site. You have to be a paying member. Or you can get a 14 day free trial, but you have to give them a credit card. Cook's Illustrated is like my mother, she doesn't share well either.

Okay, so here's my theory about bean soups and what I see as a major flaw in the Cook's Illustrated recipe. If you have to use a thickener, you started with too much liquid to begin with. The key is to give the beans the amount of liquid they need. As they absorb the liquid, they will tell you when they need more. You only give them as much as they need to get tender, and after that, as much as you want to achieve the thickness you desire.

It's perfectly great to remove a portion of the soup and puree it. That just makes it creamier. I didn't do that for this recipe. I wanted to see those beautiful beans in their full glory.

Another flaw in their recipe, as I see it, is their choice of liquid. Water? Low Sodium Chicken Broth? How boring.

Here's my adaptation:


1 pound dried black beans (2 cups), rinsed and picked over
Water enough to cover beans with 2" over the top of the beans


1 huge or 2 large onions, generous chop (about 3 cups)
2 carrots, generous dice (about a cup)
3 ribs celery, generous dice (about a cup)
1 tsp salt
5-6 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon ground cumin
3 12 ounce bottles of lager (I used Yuengling lager)
1 32 ounce box vegetable stock
1 hunk of tasso*
2 shakes of hot sauce (I used Marie Sharp's)***


Sour cream
Red onion, chopped
Fresh cilantro leaves

Beans: Cover with water and soak for 4-6 hours, until tender. Discard soaking water. You can do a quicker method by putting the beans and water in a pot with a tight lid and simmering them briskly for about 1.5 hours until the beans are tender. Still, ditch the soaking water.

Soup: Dump everything into your stock pot, with the exception of one bottle of lager which you will use as your reserve liquid to be added as needed. It looks like this starting out:

Cook, covered, at a low heat for about an hour. Remove the lid (now is a good time to taste it and adjust your salt, if needed) and continue cooking on low heat and adding lager, as needed, for about 1.5 hours. I was off work, so I let it slowly simmer most of the afternoon.

Remove the ham (it will be falling apart), pull it apart with a fork, add it back to the soup.

Ladle the soup out and garnish!

Hey, I'm sure it's not perfect (can't everything be improved upon?), but it was pretty darned good!

Feel free to change it up to suit your tastes!

And join me as I dine on some Pretty Darned Good Black Bean Soup!


  • *Tasso is cajun ham, read the link, and I got a chunk of it from a friend who brought it to me from Louisiana. The cajun seasoning and the smokiness of the meat is perfect for this soup. Here's a site where you can buy it. Absent that, I would throw in any ham piece or a spicy sausage.
  • **Guacamole is a favorite of mine. I'll post my recipe soon. There are some good ready made ones out there, such as Wholly Guacamole. Diced avocado works well too.
  • ***Marie Sharp's is a hot sauce made from habanero peppers. Fear it not! I promise it's not too hot! I just recently got a bottle as a gift from a friend...I'm hooked.
Oh! I almost forgot! Shout out to The Wooden Spoon. Maura is the one who inspired me to use lager in the soup. She's got a killer red sauce recipe that she uses it in.


melissa said...

What I find kind of funny, probably only to me, is that black bean soup was my post right before all the CI mishap. It was my first time making it and I looooved it. I would never have thought to put lager in it either. Interesting tip from Maura.

I enlarged your pic and it looks very tasty. Makes me want to make it again! It serves me well for weekday lunches. Delicious and filling.

melissa said...

I was also going to say - I like the sound of that hot sauce. I put habanero flake in mine.

And I'm happy you bought Rancho Gordo! And thank you, thank you for the reminder. Every week I tell myself to order more and I keep forgetting. :)

Paula Dines said...

Melissa - Well, I'd like less drama for my next post, please. ;)

I just looked at your black bean post. D'oh! I should have suggested bacon for a tasso substitute.

I had never cooked with beer until I tried Maura's red sauce. Wine? Absolutely! Beer? No.

The lager really added an interesting and tasty element; I'm going to do more experimentation.

The Marie Sharp's hot sauce is really great stuff! Evidently, it's like ketchup on the tables in Belize.

AND...I'm ordering more Rancho Gordo too! I think I need to get multiples of what I order, though. They won't last long in my pantry!

Thanks for being an inspiration.

Seams Unlikely said...

The soup looks delicious! I'm going to have to try a non-ham/non-lager version. (My husband does not consume alcohol [if he can help it...but it's really in more things than we realize] or pig.)

Paula Dines said...

Thank you, Seams!

I will definitely make this soup without the pig at some point. I had that tasso and really wanted to try it this time.

If you substitute the lager, I would do it with stock instead of just water or broth. Either vegetable or chicken would work fine.

Seams Unlikely said...

Mine came out more brothy than it looks in your picture (or maybe I was just too impatient and didn't let it finish souping). But good nonetheless!

Paula Dines said...

Seams, That could have been because of a difference in the beans and what they absorbed. I should modify the recipe to have the liquid added gradually.

You did the second recipe?

Seams Unlikely said...

Yes, I did the second. Well, modified. I didn't use ham or lager (and I realized that I ran out of bay leaves. But my husband conveniently left the empty bay leaf container in the cupboard to fool me).

Seams Unlikely said...

I'm also really crap at following recipes.

Paula Dines said...

Seams, Let the rest of it simmer on low for a couple of hours. It should thicken up some. Or, take out some of the beans and puree them in a blender if you want the left over soup creamier.

Glad you liked it, sorry it wasn't as thick.

Maura said...

I'm completely embarrassed that I just saw this post, Paula. Thank you for the shout out. My mother taught me to cook with beer. I also put it in my pasta e fagioli.

I haven't made black bean soup in a few years. Now I want some. The only thing I need to pick up is a ham hock. Yum.

Paula Dines said...

No worries, Maura. I happy that you found it!

You have truly been an inspiration with your beer usage. I've been experimenting quite a bit.

I did a cream of potato soup the other night and used a mix of lager and chicken stock. It was heavenly!

Care to share that pasta e faioli recipe? ;)

Maura said...

Happy to share, Paula.
Pasta e Fagioli

1 stalk of celery, minced (use the leaves too if you want)
½ cup of minced onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 15 ½ oz can of diced tomatoes (crushed with hands or processed, if you want)
1 8 oz can plain tomato sauce
1 generous tbls. tomato paste
2 cans of canellini or other white beans. Great northern are the best substitute.
3 cups of ditalini or other small pasta (small shells work well)
1 bottle lager
App. 2 cups stock (I usually use vegetable or chicken stock, but any kind will do)
4-5 cups water
1 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. oregano
1 bay leaf
1 or 2 shakes of red pepper flakes (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil
1 Parmesan cheese rind
Parmesan cheese

Heat olive oil over medium low heat. Sauté garlic, onion, celery, salt and herbs for 5-7 minutes, making sure not to burn the garlic. Add tomato paste and saute for about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, beer, stock, water, bay leaf, pepper and Parmesan cheese rind. Simmer for about 10 minutes, then start water to cook pasta. Simmer while water is boiling and pasta cooks. Drain pasta thoroughly. Set it aside in a separate bowl.(this is optional. You can add it right after you drain it, but the pasta will thicken it considerably. I prefer to let the pasta cool a little first and then add it just before serving. For some unknown reason, the pasta e fagioli doesn't thicken as much if you wait.) Drain and rinse beans. Add to soup and heat through.

This gets better with time, so it can sit for a while.

Amounts for herbs are approximate. Add as much or as little as you want.

You can also prepare dried beans if you have the time. I use canned because I usually decide to make this at the last minute.

If you don't want to use beer, substitute stock and/or water. And you can use less than a full bottle of beer. The rest is for the cook. :)

Paula Dines said...

Oh thank you!

I'll let you know when I make it! Looks wonderful.

And you can use less than a full bottle of beer. The rest is for the cook. :)

And I really like how your mind works. =D