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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.
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).
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
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 red onion or leek, sliced into thin half-moons
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
- 5 cups rich chicken stock or vegetable stock
- 2 tablespoons good wine vinegar (sherry or Champagne is great)
- 1 cup cooked beans, chickpeas, or lentils
- 2 cups cleaned and roughly chopped cooking greens (kale, spinach, chard, bok choy, napa cabbage, watercress, amaranth, broccoli raab or mix of any)
- 1 dried chile, optional
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons really good extra-virgin olive oil
- Grilled bread, for serving
What's your favorite beans and greens combination? Share it in the comments below.