Sunday, February 01, 2009

Bulk Soup

Soup is usually an opportunity to improvise. It gets concocted out of a little of this, a little of that, and whatever odds and ends seem compatible and need using up. All in the pot, simmer til done, eat, and move on with a cleaner fridge and a fuller belly. My dad is an expert at this kind of soup improvisation. If asked what's in one of his creations, he'll just smile and say, "Have some first. Then I'll tell you." Secret ingredients of his that I can recall include jam, old salad, and ketchup. But the soup pot always manages to transform the mixture into a meal worthy of the family, if not reliably something you'd want to trot out in front of guests.

But the other day, faced with the prospect of a tablefull of wintertime lunch guests, I needed a more predictable soup. Far be it from me to follow someone else's recipe, I started from scratch. I was out of homemade broth (thanks to an intestinal bug that made the rounds), and I didn't have the patience to make a whole new batch that would be used up in one meal. And I wanted something easy. So I started with the tricks I knew worked: sausage (it's pre-seasoned, pre-cleaned, and contains enough fat to carry a soupsworth of flavors), dried garlic and onion (optional, of course), browning, long simmering, and the magic of the overnight wait.

About that overnight wait: soup and soup-like foods are always better the next day, after the flavors have had time to swim around each other for a while, so it only makes sense to harness the power of that phenomenon and serve day-old soup to guests. The problem arises when you have a lot of guests and not a lot of space in the fridge. So in the recipe below, only part of the soup sits overnight: the ingredients that have the most to give (sausage, onion, garlic, spices) and the most to gain (beans, potatoes,) by the wait.

Sausage and White Bean Soup
serves 8-10
cooking time: 2 days (mostly waiting and simmering)

2 pounds sweet Italian sausage links (or 2 pounds bulk sausage)
3 cans cannellini beans, drained
4 white potatoes, diced
one or two bunches of kale or collards (you could use frozen)
1 tablespoon dried onion flakes
2 teaspoons chopped dried garlic
3 boxes low-salt chicken broth (or 12 cups homemade)
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
sherry or white wine, to taste

The day before you want to serve the soup, brown the sausage links well on all sides. Once they're cooked through, chop them up into small bite sized chunks. If you have time and the inclination, brown the chunks again. In a large pot, combine the beans, sausage, potatoes, onion, garlic, red pepper, and one box (or four cups) of the broth. Simmer for an hour or so. Refrigerate overnight.

The next day, de-stem and steam the greens and chop them (do this neatly to avoid long stringy green bits trailing from people's soup spoons). Heat the bean/sausage mixture in a large pot and add the rest of the broth and the chopped greens. Let the soup simmer for at least two hours, if not four. There is nothing in this soup that can be over-cooked. You want the greens to go from bright green and springy to dull green and tired to dark greenish-gray and thoroughly limp. The potatoes and beans should fall into mush at the lightest touch. The sausage should be but a shadow of its former self, having given its all for the good of the broth.

Once the soup seems good and cooked, and you want to eat it soon, start tasting and adjusting. With all the simmering, it may have lost a good amount of liquid, and may benefit from the addition of water. Depending on how salty the broth and sausages were, the soup may need dilution even if it didn't get cooked down much. And it will likely need some acidity to perk it up a little. I tend to add wine or dry sherry, but vinegar would do it too. If you want it spicier, a little hot sauce would help.

And a word about volume... Thanks to our one-cup measure which works nicely as a ladle, I happen to know that this recipe, as made by me this week, made a little more than twenty cups of soup, and two cups make a nice serving size, with bread and salad and dessert.


Garth said...

Wait? You can buy frozen greens? Like at a grocery store. This could change everything.

Ok, not for me personally, but in theory.

Another Anna said...

Yes! At least here you can, in the most Italian state in the nation. Thanks to the power of Little Old Italian ladies, who I'd bet do at least 64% of all the home cooking statewide, we can buy frozen kale, frozen collards, fresh pizza dough, frozen pizza dough, pickled everything, and seventy (or so) kinds of sausage in the regular grocery store. But what you lack in quirky italian ingredients, you make up for in asian ingredients (not to mention your unforgivably long growing season) so don't feel put out if you have no frozen kale.

lauren said...

Well, we do have some that froze when there was a foot of snow ... they came right back though. Does that count?