The mild nutty flavor of white beans lends itself well to a variety of seasonings, from the richness imparted by molasses in baked beans to the brightness of fresh garden herbs in bean soup. Recipes for white bean soup abound and include basic version served each day in the U.S. Senate Restaurant, as well as more exotic tomato-based soups that have a distinct Mediterranean flair.
Dried beans are available in a rainbow of colors that include white, black, pink, light or dark red and speckled. This is most obvious in packaged soup mixes that contain numerous varieties of dried beans and peas, along with a flavoring packet. White varieties are available as small, or pea, navy, great northern or cannellini beans and are milder in flavor than their brightly colored counterparts. All can be used in white bean soup, because there isn't much difference between them in taste and texture once cooked. Before using any beans in soup, check them for small stones or other debris overlooked during processing, and rinse them well to remove any fine dirt or dust. If you would rather not cook your own dried beans, many white bean soup recipes call for canned beans that cut preparation and cooking time in half.
Sign of the Seasonings
As white beans cook slowly in a simmering broth, their outer coverings soften to allow for the absorption of seasonings and the flavor from vegetables such as garlic, onions and celery, which form the basis in many recipes. The most basic versions of white bean soup often use only the barest of seasonings and flavors, such as salt, pepper, garlic and onion, relying on some type of meat such as bacon, a ham bone or a smoked ham hock for most of their flavor. Other seasonings, such as fresh or dried rosemary, sage or thyme, impart a Mediterranean flavor to the soup and can be used individually or as blends.
It's in the Broth
For many soups, the broth and the seasonings make the dish, and white bean soup is no exception. Beyond basic flavoring from vegetables, herbs and spices, you can heat things up with cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, oregano or bay leaves. Add more substance, flavor and color to a basic white bean soup by incorporating spinach, kale, tomatoes or carrots, and sprinkle individual servings with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Adding tomato flavor can be as easy as peeling and mashing ripe fresh tomatoes, adding a spoonful of tomato paste or pouring in canned tomatoes with their juices.
A Word About Herbs
Using fresh herbs in any soup is preferable, because they impart a brighter fresher flavor to the broth. While dried herbs can be used, some, such as rosemary, may need a little prepping before being added directly to the soup. Taken from an evergreen plant, rosemary leaves are small, sharply pointed needles that are pliable when fresh but become even sharper when dried. If fresh rosemary isn't available, try crushing the dried leaves using a mortar and pestle with a little kosher salt or pulverizing them in a small food chopper or coffee grinder. The soup can then absorb the flavor of the rosemary without the unpleasant effect of biting into sharp, dry needles.