Try 15 Bean Soup for a hearty warm-up

September 29, 2023

During the height of last weekend’s wind-lashed rainstorms, I found myself craving a hot bowl of soup. Because of the weather, there was little chance I would be successful engaging a delivery from one of the various shopping apps, so I was forced to see what was on hand in the cupboards. Success! There was a package of 15-bean soup mix, a chubby cellphone-wrapped collection of colorful beans with a flavor packet.

The instructions to make the soup were not complicated, but I do think the recipe might have required too many additional ingredients. It called for kielbasa sausage, a ham hock and chopped chicken breasts in addition to onion, garlic, celery and tomatoes. If I had the “soup mix,” why did I need to collect so many other items to actually produce the soup?

I elected to modify (streamline) the soup, focus more on the beans themselves and add just the basics to round out their creamy texture and hearty flavors. Chopped onion and garlic were appropriate seasonings, and the aroma of them sautéing gave the kitchen a lovely warmth while the bean mixture simmered over very low heat for almost three hours.

Once the beans had softened, I stirred in the sautéed alliums and enough tomatoes to give the broth a rosy hue. I elected to keep the soup vegetarian and didn’t add any of the suggested meats, but I did incorporate the spice packet along with a generous pinch of salt and black pepper. After the final 30 minutes, the soup was ready to eat.

While I enjoyed the complex flavor from so many different types of beans, their texture was a bit disappointing. The sturdier varieties such as kidney beans, white beans and black beans stood up well to the long simmer, but the lentils had completely disintegrated and gave the liquid a not-so-lovely brownish hue. I loved the earthy flavors and the toothsome texture, perfect for a dreary day.

However, I think the idea behind the 15-bean combination might have not been completely considered. One of the things you learn quickly when assembling a dish is how helpful it is to have the various ingredients cut or chopped into a similar size to ensure their cooking times are comparable. Here, the kidney beans were creamy, while the lentils were mushy.

Because this recipe required boiling different types of dry beans together, some were cooked perfectly, while others were seriously overcooked. Another, more successful way to make this kind of soup might be to select just a single type of bean, or perhaps two types that are similar in size. Consider the white bean and spinach soup below that incorporates spinach as a foil for the beans and carrots for a splash of color.

When I researched the origins of the 15-bean soup mix, the internet kept giving me details about Senate bean soup, so the history of both is somewhat murky. Several websites cite Idaho Sen. Fred Dubois as the reason the soup is offered each day in the Senate cafeteria, while other stories claim Minnesota Sen. Knute Nelson’s fondness for the soup contributed to its longevity on the menu. In case you’d like to try it, here’s the “official” recipe.

Senate Bean Soup

1 lb dry navy beans
3/4 lb smoked ham hock
2 qts cold water
1/2 t baking soda
1 T butter 
1 diced onion
salt and pepper, to taste

Rinse the beans and remove any unwanted items. Place the beans and the ham hock in a large pot with water and baking soda. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Cover and cook for 3 hours, until the beans have softened. If the liquid seems to become too low, add a little more to reach a nice thick consistency. Remove the ham hock to a dish to cool. Melt the butter in a small skillet; add onion and sauté until translucent. Stir onions into the soup. Strip meat from the ham hock and cut into bite-size pieces; add to the soup. Bring soup to a brief boil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

White Bean & Spinach Soup

1 T olive oil
1 C chopped onion
2/3 C chopped carrot
1/2 C diced celery
3 minced garlic cloves
3 C vegetable broth
1 1/2 t Italian seasoning
1 rind of Parmesan cheese
salt & pepper, to taste
2 14-oz cans cannelloni beans
2 C fresh baby spinach
juice of 1/2 lemon
grated Parmesan for garnish

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium. Add onion, carrot, and celery; sauté for about 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute. Pour in broth, add cheese rind, and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover pan with a lid and simmer over medium-low for about 15 minutes. Drain and rinse beans; add to the pot along with spinach. Cook just until spinach wilts, about a minute. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper; spritz in lemon juice. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with grated Parmesan. Yield: 6 servings.


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