I had no idea what time it was when I pulled out a pint of this soup from the freezer the other evening, but I needed a little food before crawling into bed.
About four years ago I had the good fortune to work for a chef named Annie Wayte at the opening of the New York outpost of a very popular London restaurant called 202. (The name, frankly, made a little more sense across the Atlantic: It is the restaurant’s address, on Westbourne Grove. In New York, it sits in the front of the Chelsea Market, at 75 Ninth Avenue.)
When 202 was reviewed in the New York Times, the writer called Annie a “soup genius,” and I have to concur with this evaluation. When I wasn’t to busy making pancakes (grrrr), I’d cast an eye over to see what she was up to. One day it was a white gazpacho, rich with almonds balanced by a racy streak of sherry. It’s because of that soup that I always try white gazpacho when I see it on a menu, and why I’m always disappointed after I do. It’s never as good as hers.
In 2006 Annie’s cookbook Keep It Seasonal was published. It’s a four-section collection of sandwiches, salads and, of course, soups, and it is beautiful.
I love a good white bean soup, aromatic with rosemary, perhaps cooked with a rind of parmesan. I am also a sucker for soup à l’oignon. This soup combines the two, and it works. It works very well, in fact, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from Annie. It has a luxurious feel but is ultimately very frugal: Beans and onions are among the cheapest things at the grocery. Dried beans are best here because their cooking liquid is used in the soup. But if you lack foresight, don’t worry: Well-rinsed canned beans will do just fine. Annie’s recipe uses Gruyere, but I made it with Fontina and that worked well, too. Any smooth-melting cow’s milk cheese would be worth a try, I think. The book calls for fresh sage but I used rosemary. Why? Because that’s what I had. Sage, rosemary, or thyme: These would all work.
If you’re feeling flush, it seems to me that a little bacon or pancetta would be an excellent addition to this recipe. I would cook it, remove it from the pan, and use the same pan for the onions, then add it back to the puréed soup. Like many soups, this can be made a day or two in advance. It might even be better that way.
White Bean and Onion Soup
adapted from Keep It Seasonal by Annie Wayte (Morrow Cookbooks)
3/4 c dried white beans, such as Cannelini or Great Northern, soaked in the refrigerator overnight (or use canned beans: See note below)
1/2 yellow onion (from the 2 lbs called for below)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2-3 sprigs rosemary or sage
1 t salt
3 T butter or olive oil
2 lbs. yellow onions, roughly chopped or sliced
salt and pepper
4 oz (about 1 1/4 c) grated Gruyere or Fontina cheese
Chopped fresh rosemary or thyme, to garnish (optional)
1. Drain the beans from their soaking liquid and place in a medium saucepan with 6 c water, the 1/2 onion, the garlic, and the herb sprigs. Bring to a boil, skim any foam that accumulates on the surface, and then reduce the heat and simmer the beans for 30-40 minutes.
2. Add the salt and continue to cook the beans until they are very tender, probably about 10-20 minutes more. (Your teeth are a better guide then a timer in this case).
3. When they are done, drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid. Remove and discard the onion and herb stems from the beans.
4. In the meantime, cook the onions: Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat and then add the onions. Season with salt and pepper and cook, without letting them color (you may need to reduce the heat) until they are very tender and translucent, about 15 or 20 minutes.
5. Add 4 cups of the reserved bean cooking liquid to the onions and bring to a boil (if you don’t have 4 cups add some water). Reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, then remove it from the heat.
6. Puree the soup using either a hand held stick blender (my favorite — the soup can stay in the pan) or a traditional blender. NOTE: If you use a traditional blender, puree the soup in very small batches. Too much hot liquid in a blender is a very dangerous thing!
7. Return the soup to the stove (you can use the same pan) and add the reserved beans and the cheese. Heat gently until the cheese is melted and the soup is hot. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary. Serve immediately, drizzled with olive oil or topped with the fresh herbs, or cool the soup and refrigerate it for later, reheating it gently before serving.
Notes: If you use canned beans, you will need about 2 1/4 cups, from slightly less than 2 – 15 oz cans. Rinse them well and substitute 4 cups of vegetable or light chicken broth for the bean cooking liquid in step 5. This soup can be stored for a few days in the fridge and reheated. It can be frozen but it will lose a bit of its creamy texture.