Thursday, January 23, 2014

Tweaking an Old Favorite
What’s cooking? Zuppa di Fagioli Neri (Black Bean Soup)

So January is Soup Month. I don’t know who makes these assignments, or by what authority, but I’m happy to celebrate soup in any season, especially in winter. The simplicity of it – one pot, one dish, one utensil for eating – appeals on so many levels. Of course, the Kitchen Goddess usually manages to work a bit of complexity into the mix, but what is life if not a bit complex?

Take black bean soup. I love the color and the texture, but as with most bean soups, it can be a bit boring. So I took a cruise through the half a dozen of my books on soups – I don’t actually cook from all of them, but if you’re looking for ways to branch out, it’s helpful to have some reference material. Also, the Kitchen Goddess just loves a recipe with a lot of ingredients.

Some of my books suggested including ham or bacon. But I like sausage. Italian sweet sausage. I’d never had it before I moved to Manhattan, as I don’t remember my mother ever cooking sausage, or adding it to a dish, unless it was venison sausage from when my dad went deer hunting. And even then, we probably just grilled it. When I get right down to it, there are a lot of dishes I don’t remember my mother cooking. She wasn’t afraid to try new tastes, but she knew nothing about the great cuisines of the world in the way that most cooks do today. And it wasn’t just my mother. I think she cooked the way other cooks in the South did in those days. In the world of Italian food, for example, we had spaghetti and lasagna. Period. Everything else was called noodles, not pasta. They were good Methodist meals, not Italian.

Now, I don’t mean to claim that this version of black bean soup relates in the least bit to Italian food, but it does use Italian sweet sausage. So I’ve taken a bit of license with the name. Most U.S. grocery stores will carry two types of Italian sausage: hot and sweet (mild). According to Wikipedia, both are flavored with anise and/or fennel. The hot variety is distinguished only by the addition of red pepper flakes. So it’s really up to you which one you use, as the essential flavors will be the same.

Italian sweet peppers

To keep the soup from resembling a mud pie, I added a couple of Italian sweet peppers. If you can’t get them or are feeling a bit chicken (cluck, cluck!), a red bell pepper will do as well, since red bell peppers are just Italian sweet peppers’ muscular cousins who spent all their time in the gym. The taste is equally mild.
Red bell peppers

The dry sherry made its way in because I like booze in my food. When your guests say, “There’s a nice flavor here that I can’t quite identify. What is it?” That’s the sherry.

In my final tweak, I tried something that you must keep just between us: canned beans. By the time I got to the grocery store, I was so hungry I knew I couldn’t wait to make this soup. And starting with dried beans was going to make the soup into an overnight project. “What the heck?” I said to myself, remembering the Kitchen Goddess’s first rule of cooking: “If it tastes bad, we’ll throw it out and order pizza.”

For the canned beans, I had to adjust the amount of broth, and I rinsed the beans so as not to overdo the sodium. But they tasted just fine. Better than that, in fact – the soup was fabulous. So here it is. Mangia!

Zuppa di Fagioli Neri (Black Bean Soup)

Serves 6-8.

1 pound sweet Italian sausage
⅓ cup olive oil
2 leeks (white and light green parts only), rinsed well and diced
1 small onion, diced (½ cup)
2 teaspoons garlic, minced (about 4 medium cloves)
2 29-ounce cans black beans, drained and rinsed
5 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon + ½ teaspoon cumin powder, divided
½ tablespoon dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
pinch of cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons parsley, divided
2 Italian sweet peppers or 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
¼ cup dry sherry
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Garnish: creme fraiche or light sour cream or low-fat plain yogurt

Remove the skins from the sausages and, in a large French/Dutch oven, sauté the sausage over medium-high heat until done (all pink has disappeared). Using a slotted spoon, remove the sausage to a bowl and set aside. Wipe the pot with paper towels to remove the grease.

Heat the oil in the pot. Add the leeks, onion, and garlic, and sauté over medium/medium-low heat, covered and stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes until the vegetables are soft and translucent.

Add the beans, the broth, 1 tablespoon of the cumin, oregano, bay leaves, salt, pepper, cayenne, and 1 tablespoon of the parsley. Raise the heat to bring the mixture to a simmer, then reduce the heat to allow the soup to simmer, partly covered, for 30 minutes.

Kitchen Goddess note: Black bean soup is thick, and the beans will have a tendency to settle in the bottom of the pot, where they will stick and burn and ruin the flavor of the soup. Use a wooden spoon to stir the soup as it simmers and occasionally scrape the bottom of the pot to keep the beans from sticking.

Using a hand-held strainer, remove up to half of the solids from the broth and process in a blender or food processor until relatively smooth. (The quantity of solids to purée is your choice, and it need not be completely puréed.) Return the mixture to the pot along with the cooked sausage.

Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of parsley, the red pepper, ½ teaspoon cumin, the sherry, brown sugar, and lemon juice. Simmer, partially covered, another 30 minutes, stirring and occasionally scraping the bottom of the pot as before.

Taste, correct seasonings, and serve with a dollop of sour cream/light sour cream/plain yogurt/creme fraiche (whatever you choose).


  1. This sounds marvelous! (Note to self...The Kitchen Goddess likes booze in her food.
    I KNEW I liked her!)

    Eileen in Atlanta

  2. i have 10 bottles of dry sack, all gifts. any time i can use sherry in a recipe, i will. yes to canned beans, and yes to sherry.

  3. Well, Hen, I would be happy to help you work down some of that inventory next time I'm in NJ.

  4. Just made the soup and love it. Instead of using the food processor, I used my imersion blender. Since I don't like the taste of cumin, I added a fresh jalepeno along with the onions and garlic. Congratulations on your 200th post....I've loved everyone of them, especially when you talk about your mother, grandmother and aunt. They sound like real characters that I would like.

    1. So glad you could make the recipe work for you. I hadn't thought about the immersion blender -- good idea. And thanks for the compliment on the posts. The women in my family were truly memorable -- I'm sure I'll have more about them in the future!