The Classic Soup Combination You'll Riff on 100 Times This Winter

January  1, 2017

Beans and Greens are a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet and a classic combination that can be made a thousand ways depending on what’s on hand. No matter if it’s chickpeas and cabbage, white beans and Tuscan kale, or lentils and broccoli rabe, you’ll have a comforting, nutritious, and filling dish.

The building blocks are easy: some sort of broth, a green, and a legume. It's how you combine them and what you build onto that combination that will define your soup. Let's walk through it together.

1. Pick Your Broth

I usually start by thinking about the broth and asking myself whether I'm in the mood for a lighter or richer soup. Most of the time, I prefer a rich blond homemade chicken stock (made from raw chicken bones), which I strive to make and keep in soup-sized quantities in my freezer. Homemade chicken stock will create a medium-rich base that’s suitable for fall, winter, and even spring, but maybe not summer.

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For a darker, deeper broth more suited to the cold months, I'll use a stock made from browned chicken bones or browned beef bones. And should you have a deep roasted veal stock on hand, you could make a really rich wintry stew—something you would probably only crave in the darkest winter.

But if it’s summer or you don’t eat meat, a vegetable broth or even salted water (added judiciously) will work. Dashi could work, as could a mushroom-based broth or one made from corn cobs or Parmesan rinds (you could add a Parmesan rind to any as an addition to any any stock for additional savory creaminess).

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Top Comment:
“Lima Beans and Greens is our go-to soup this season. Relatively quick cooking large limas (1 hour pre-soak and 1 hour cooking time) make a most rich, flavorful broth. And they're incredibly tender and creamy. Spinach, kale, chard have all added color and flavor. A sprinkle of grated Pecorino Romano, a thin round of soft goat cheese or a dollop of pesto have garnished our soup one time or another. Truly a classic.”
— cook4fun

If you use water as a liquid base, I recommend increasing the amount of onions and garlic to build the flavor and selecting a green that cooks for a longer amount of time, which will give it a chance to flavor the broth.

2. Get the Greens

Now I select my greens, and again, it all depends on whether I want some fresher or heartier. For a light, refreshing broth with just a whisper of green to it, I might choose pea shoots or watercress. But if I wanted a stronger flavor, I would choose spinach or dandelion greens. And if I were going to make the darkest, heaviest soup or stew around, I would choose kale, cabbage, and/or broccoli rabe. Any kind of green that stands up to cooking will work—from mustard greens to collards to chard—as long as it is cooked appropriately.

You want to simmer the soup long enough to wilt and cook the greens, yet you'll also need to be careful not to overcook them. Depending on what kind you use, you'll end up cooking the soup a little more or less. Spinach and watercress would cook in a minute or two, for example, while kale and broccoli rabe would take more like 3 to 4 minutes (or as many as 5 to 8).

You can even cook the green before (or use leftover cooked greens you've already got in the fridge)—roasted cabbage or braised broccoli rabe would work well, for example. Once you add a previously-cooked green to the broth, you'll only need to warm it through.

3. Choose (& Cook) Your Beans

My final selection is the legumes, and really they are all a little interchangeable—although I find lentils the lightest of all.

I spend money on legumes, seeking out small boutique importers or local producers to get the freshest “dried” beans available. It might seem an oxymoron, but the difference between beans that have been dried within the year and beans that have been in storage for as many as three years is incomparable. Young and fresh dried beans cook up to a delicious sweet, creamy texture, while older beans tend to be harder and less sweet. Whereas the large dried bean companies buy up entire harvests and hoard them in silos to make sure they're always stocked, small local farmers sell their dried beans the same year they grow them—and the differences in flavor and texture are impossible to miss.

The legumes will need to be completely cooked before you add them to the soup. I am not a fan of canned beans, but if you are going to use them for sake of convenience, do make sure you rinse them well before adding them.

If you cook your beans from scratch, you can incorporate their cooking liquid into the broth of the soup itself (or you can cook the beans in broth—or in water to which you've added aromatics like garlic, ginger, and bay leaves—for an even more flavorful end result).

4. All Together Now!

Once you choose your three building blocks, you'll begin to create the soup. You’ll want to sauté some onion type-things—leeks or shallots or red onion or scallions or just plain onion, plus a little garlic—in fat (butter or olive oil according to taste or availability), with a pinch of salt. You can add the stock, broth, or water just as they soften, or you can cook the alliums longer until they caramelize, which will contribute to a wintry richness.

Once the liquid is added, add the legumes—cooked chickpeas, white beans of all kinds (Great Northern, cannellini, navy, gigantes, Royal Corona), or lentils (choose those that will hold their shape, like Le Puy or Beluga)—and simmer gently together to meld flavors.

At this point, I like to add a little acid, like vinegar or lemon juice, to deepen and brighten the flavor.

In the end, add the greens and simmer until just cooked. Taste for seasoning and salt if necessary. Serve with grilled or toasted bread that's been rubbed with a garlic clove if you have all that. If not. eat just as is. I like to add a little hot chili to my soup, and sometimes I grate a bit of lemon zest on the top just before eating.

And for a little more inspiration...

To get you started, here are a few of my favorite Beans and Greens combinations:

  • Lentils + spinach + vegetable stock
  • Chickpeas + roasted cabbage + veal or beef stock (you can also add braised meat)
  • Cannellini beans + broccoli rabe + chicken stock
  • Risina beans + Tuscan kale + smoked ham hock broth

What's your favorite beans and greens combination? Share it in the comments below.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Blake Joske
    Blake Joske
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    Les Nightingill
  • cook4fun
chef/owner of Nina June Restaurant,


Blake J. March 7, 2018
Sharol January 8, 2018
This is alarming as I have always cooked beans in the soaking water...I sort the beans, rinse them, then add fresh water to soak. The next day I put the pot on the stove add my aromatics and cook.
Frederique M. January 10, 2017
Don't wanna be a downer, but be careful of the water you cook red kidney beans in! It should NEVER be used to flavor soups or anything else for that matter! Kidney beans contain toxins (which is why you should never sprout them) that boiling will get rid of, but the water remains unsafe. They always have to be properly cooked and the rinse/soak/cooking water thrown away!
RanchoGordo March 1, 2017
I've never heard this. Are you referring to the cooked bean broth? I've heard that the beans need to be thoroughly cooked but it's a given that the broth would be as well.
My guess is that the soaking water might be bad but the cooked bean broth is fine.
Frederique M. March 2, 2017
HMM, I never took the chance but you may be right. Seeing as some people cook the beans in the "soak" water, Maybe the info got overly precautious. Let us know if you try!
Les N. January 10, 2017
I have to mention nettles... yes, stinging nettles as a candidate for the greens here. They're more flavorful than you might imagine! Wait until the new fresh young leaves are available. Wear gloves to harvest and de-sting with a quick dip in boiling water. Harvesting wild produce has a certain satisfaction!
cook4fun January 8, 2017
Lima Beans and Greens is our go-to soup this season. Relatively quick cooking large limas (1 hour pre-soak and 1 hour cooking time) make a most rich, flavorful broth. And they're incredibly tender and creamy. Spinach, kale, chard have all added color and flavor. A sprinkle of grated Pecorino Romano, a thin round of soft goat cheese or a dollop of pesto have garnished our soup one time or another. Truly a classic.
ChefJune January 5, 2017
This article made me smile so broadly. I love to make up combinations like this. and this sweet piece made me run over to and order a whole bunch of lovely beans. I'm afraid it's going to be a long cold winter.
inpatskitchen January 4, 2017
This is a family favorite:
AntoniaJames January 4, 2017
I just made, the other night, Sara's Maccheroni with White Beans, Mustard Greens, and Anchovy from her noteworthy cookbook, co-authored with Mindy Fox, "Olives & Oranges: Recipes & Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus & Beyond." How helpful, to provide this template.
Yes, I want to eat this all winter! ;o)
Danielle W. January 4, 2017
What great simple way to put together some amazing soups. I like to make soups for lunches at work, using ingredients to keep them healthy. These are some great ideas for making these healthy soups. Thanks!