Weekend Dinner Project: Sausage Bean Vegetable Soup

IMG_4306While winter is finally over, there are still plenty of chilly spring nights ahead, perfect for cooking big pots of warm, comforting soup. This soup is a great weekend dinner project, using dried beans, Italian sausage, and lots of fresh vegetables to build in rich flavor and hearty texture.

Materials needed:

1 pound dried beans
1 pound sausage
1 onion
2-3 carrots
3 celery ribs
1 leek
1 quarter of a head of cabbage
2 quarts liquid
8 oz leafy greens
salt and pepper

While canned beans are more convenient, dried beans are much less expensive than canned ones, and have fresher flavor. But it takes time to coax that flavor out of them, which is why it’s best to play with them on the weekend. Dried beans cannot be rushed.

IMG_4273This is a pound of dried kidney beans, in a large bowl with plenty of water. They need to soak for several hours; overnight is great. If you get them started before you go to bed Friday night, they will be ready to cook Saturday afternoon. Sort through the beans to remove any rocks, or beans that look moldy or shriveled, rinse them if they look dusty, and then into the water they go.

IMG_4284You can see they plump up quite a bit. Now they’re ready to cook. Drain and rinse them in a colander, and place them in a large pot with plenty of water to cover them.

IMG_4286They are going to absorb even more water, and soften. Don’t salt the water; you can salt the cooked beans to taste when they are cooked. Bring the pot to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, for at least 45 minutes. It could be as long as an hour; it depends on how long you soaked them. When done, they will be tender enough to crush a bean between your thumb and finger, and have a creamy texture. Drain them in the colander again, put them back in the pot and stir in salt to taste. Don’t be surprised if it takes a tablespoon or two of salt to flavor them properly.

IMG_4288That pound of dried kidney beans is now nearly two quarts of cooked kidney beans waiting for your command. One of them is for the soup; the other can be put in the freezer, or you can refrigerate them for use in a quick weekday dinner. Use or freeze them within a few days, so they don’t spoil. If your family is partial to a different kind of bean, go ahead and switch out the kidney beans for the ones your family likes. Pinto, cannellini, or black beans would be fine in this soup.

Weekends are the time to work on your knife skills. Becoming more comfortable and efficient with my knife has been the single most valuable thing I have done to improve my cooking. I heartily recommend America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School’s videos on knife skills. They offer a two-week free trial; go take advantage of it and get to work on your knife skills. Then chop up lots of fabulous fresh vegetables for your soup.

IMG_4292Here’s your basic vegetable combo, a.k.a. mirepoix – onions, carrots, and celery, diced. There’s also some minced gingerroot on the board, and sliced leeks and shredded cabbage in the plastic container. Use whatever vegetables your family prefers, about 3-4 cups of chopped vegetables.

Sausage, of any kind, is a secret weapon of flavor. It already has herbs and spices on board, in combinations proven to be delicious, so it can act as a seasoning shortcut in many dishes. This soup uses a pound of raw sweet Italian sausage, out of its casing, but you could use any sausage your family prefers. If you use already fully-cooked sausage like kielbasa, you may need to add oil to the pan, and the cooking time will be much shorter.

IMG_4289In a large soup pot over medium-high heat, brown the sausage, breaking it into bite-size chunks with a wooden spoon. Once the sausage is well-browned and cooked through, remove it from the pot with a slotted spoon into a clean bowl.

IMG_4294This looks like a great place to dump some chopped vegetables…if your sausage left behind a lot of fat, remove all but about 1 tablespoon of it. Too much fat in the pot will make your soup greasy.

IMG_4295Salt and pepper the vegetables, and stir to coat with the fat from the sausage. Lower the heat to medium if they start to scorch. Vegetables and greens that cook very quickly should not go in the pot yet; hold on to them till near the end of cooking time. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables begin to soften, but not brown. The salt helps them soften and release their juices; don’t leave it out.

IMG_4297Pour in a quart of liquid; I used chicken stock, but vegetable broth or water would be fine, keeping in mind that the more flavorful the liquid, the more flavorful the soup. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are nearly tender. How do you know? Taste them. It won’t take long, maybe 10-15 minutes, it depends on how large your vegetable pieces are.

IMG_4299Look who’s waiting to jump into the pool; browned sausage and cooked kidney beans! But first, add in any leafy greens you’d like; I used baby spinach. If your greens are large, chop them up into bite-size pieces. Stir them in to wilt them, then add the sausage and beans, and another quart of liquid. Stir it all together, and allow to simmer to warm everything together. Taste and season one last time with salt and pepper.

IMG_4301There you have it. The soup is ready to serve. As you can see, it makes a big pot of soup, and that means leftover soup for a weeknight warm-up, or some home-cooked weekday lunches, easily warmed in the office microwave, but full of love and other good things. You can even freeze some of this soup for eating during a particularly busy week.

As you may recall, you still have a quart of cooked beans standing by. Don’t worry, if you don’t know what to do with them, I do. Check back with me in a few days. Meanwhile, enjoy your soup, and your weekend.

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