Everyone in my family has turned vegetarian. They saw a film called Cowspiracy and immediately decided meat was out. I’m proud of their choice and now cook only vegetarian meals. It’s a healthy, earth-friendly, inexpensive diet. We eat more fiber. We lower our carbon footprint. (Full disclosure: I get my meat fix privately, hunkered over the occasional hamburger in a restaurant. Or I make a few strips of bacon to have with my eggs. The family tolerates me being an omnivore.)
Cooking without meat poses challenges I hadn’t anticipated. It’s not a deprivation kind of challenge. It’s that I sometimes lack ideas. When we’re tired and I need to throw together a fast meal, I can’t just throw a slab of animal protein in a pan. One has to think.
In winter, I often want soup. But I don’t want it to be a production. This is the recipe to turn to for a pantry soup, something you can whip up on a weekend morning to enjoy for lunch. It makes great leftovers.
When making a soup, stay in categories of flavor. This one is kissed by Mexico, with a little bit of heat and spice, crunch and corn from quick fried tortilla strips, and those earthy black beans. Other soups tend towards Asia, with a complex broth (enhanced by soy sauce, ginger and nutritional yeast – a trick I learned from Deborah Madison whose cookbooks I couldn’t live without), and items from the “ethnic” section of your supermarket (think tofu, bean sprouts, fish sauce). My default is Mediterranean flavors: root vegetables sautéed with garlic, sage and/or rosemary, blended with a simple vegetable broth and topped with crispy fried croutons.
Some soups don’t need broth at all. The vegetable flavors are distinct enough to carry their own weight. For example, Jerusalem artichokes are one such ingredient. Bay leaves (above) add flavor but be sure to remove them before you blend the soup.
When you need a vegetable broth, please don’t buy it packaged. They taste awful. Instead, make a 30-minute homemade stock. In a stock pot with a splash of olive oil, sauté about 6 cups of chopped vegetables (onion, celery, carrots and garlic, at least; leeks, turnips, parsley stems and much more will add complexity). After about 5 minutes, add 8 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 25 minutes. Strain. Done.
Black Bean Soup
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 medium white onions, trimmed and peeled, cut into chunks
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 jalapeño pepper, trimmed (seeded if you want less spicy heat)
2 cans black beans (25-ounce cans)
½ cup canned tomatoes
1 small onion
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. ground cumin
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2-4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, or water
Sour cream, one spoonful to garnish each bowl (skip, if you’re vegan)
Fried tortilla strips, for garnish
½ cup cilantro leaves, for garnish
Red chili pepper, minced, for garnish
Lime, squeezed on top before serving, for zing
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium skillet over a high heat. Cook onions until blackened in parts, about 10 minutes. Add garlic with jalapeño in the last few minutes of cooking, to char slightly. Transfer to a food processor or blender, and purée until very smooth, at least 2 minutes. If needed, add a little stock to loosen the mixture for easier blending.
While the vegetables are cooking, put the beans with their liquid, and tomatoes, into a food processor or blender. Purée until very smooth, about 2 minutes. If needed, add a little stock to help liquefy and blend the beans. Transfer to a bowl.
Cut the small onion into a fine dice. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions, oregano, cumin, salt and pepper, and sauté until onion is soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the pureed beans and the vegetable purée. Add stock – if you want a thicker soup, add less stock – and bring to a boil; reduce heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly reduced, about 20 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
To serve, divide soup among bowls and spoon in sour cream. Scatter tortilla strips, cilantro leaves, and minced chili pepper. Squeeze a little lime juice on top.