Sopa Tarasca: A Bean Soup 20 Years in the Making

We've been blowing through series television lately—rewatching the entire umpteen seasons of Deep Space Nine, being charmed by the more recent Ted Lasso and drawn in by the Canadian show Kim's Convenience—and, when we need a break, watching a documentary here and there. Recently we took in a biography of Diana Kennedy, the famed English-born authority on Mexican cooking, filmed in her home in the hills of the state of Michoacán and who, in her 96th year, is still as feisty and fiery as ever.

It was twenty years ago that our son took a three-week foreign studies tour to the town of Morelia in Michoacán, a city of almost a million not far from Ms. Kennedy's home. He and five of his fellow high school students from his Spanish class stayed with Mexican host families in the city, taking language classes and touring the area with their teacher.

Organic beans for Diana Kennedy's soup? Perfect!

The other students were mostly consumed with going to bars (though the official drinking age was 21), eschewing Mexican food in favor of hamburgers and pizza. Our son was more intrigued with exploring Mexican regional specialties like the varieties of moles—he still waxes poetic about one exceptionally bitter version—as well as a garlic bread soup called Sopa de Ajo and another, a puréed bean soup called Sopa Tarasca. (His teacher was quite impressed.)

After watching the documentary about Kennedy, I was browsing through my not-insubstantial collection of her cookbooks and came across a recipe for that very bean soup. I happened to have a quart of cooked borlotto beans from Ayers Creek Farm left over from a dinner earlier in the week, so it presented an opportunity I couldn't well refuse.

Sopa Tarasca is named after the Tarascan Indians of Michoacán—the popular, if somewhat derogatory, name for the indigenous Purépecha culture which continues to maintain a significant population of nearly 200,000 in the state. It is a deeply flavorful bowl of puréed beans, tomatoes and chiles topped with fried chiles, tortilla strips and other condiments.

The soup itself is a fairly simple affair and comes together quickly, and the idea of the fried chiles crumbled on top will come in handy in the future as a crunchy topping for salads, tacos, nachos, dips or other dishes needing a crispy, smoky saltiness. See what you think!

Sopa Tarasca (Tarascan Bean and Tomato Soup)

Slightly nodified from a recipe in The Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy

For the toppings:
Vegetable oil (canola or grapeseed)
3 dried chiles pasilla (dried ancho chiles work here, too), cut with scissors into small pieces
4 corn tortillas cut into strips
Queso fresco, crumbled
Sour cream

For the soup:
2 dried ancho chiles
2 medium tomatoes or 1 1/4 c. roasted tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
1/4 onion
3 Tbsp. lard or filtered bacon drippings
4 c. cooked pinto or borlotto beans with their liquid
2 1/2 c. pork or chicken stock
1 tsp. oregano (preferably Mexican oregano)
Salt to taste

For the condiments, place large frying pan over high heat and pour in 1/2" or so of vegetable oil. When a small piece of tortilla strip is dropped in and sizzles with lively bubbles, it's hot enough. Put half of the tortilla strips into the oil and brown slightly, remove them from the oil with a wire scoop (spider) onto paper towels. Salt as soon as they come out of the oil. Repeat with remaining half of tortilla strips. While tortilla strips cool, put the pasilla chile pieces into your wire scoop and submerge in hot oil for three seconds. Remove to paper towels and salt.

In a heat-proof bowl, tear the ancho chiles into pieces, removing the seeds and veins. Add one cup boiling water and soak for 20 to 30 minutes.

In a food processor, blend the tomatoes, garlic and onion into a smooth purée. Melt the fat in a large Dutch oven or soup pot over high heat. Pour in the tomato purée, being careful since it may splatter when the mixture hits the hot fat. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring to make sure it doesn't stick. While the tomato mixture cooks, purée the beans, bean liquid, softened ancho chiles and their liquid in the food processor. Turn down the heat under the tomato mixture to medium-low and stir in the the bean purée and oregano. Cook for another 8 minutes, stirring frequently to keep it from sticking.

Add stock and stir to combine. Add salt to taste. Simmer on very low heat, stirring frequently, until ready to serve. This is supposed to be a thick soup, and it will thicken as it simmers, but you can add more stock as needed to get it the consistency you prefer. Serve with crumbled cheese, sour cream, tortilla strips and fried chiles.

You can also make the soup ahead of time, then fry the tortillas and chiles while you reheat the soup.

Got Beans? Make a Pot of Chili!

Unlike the mysterious run on toilet paper—no pun intended there—when folks found out that they may have to "shelter in place" for several weeks due to the coronavirus, it made sense to stock up on dried goods that can last in the pantry for at least that long. As local food missionaries Katherine Deumling of Cook With What You Have and Jim Dixon of Real Good Food have preached from their respective pulpits, you can cook up a pot of beans at the beginning of the week and use the beans in several different dishes, or whip up a big batch of one dish to divide and freeze for later.

My recipe for chili takes a middle road, cooking the beans separately from the meat and chile sauce. The beans versus no-beans in chili seems to depend on whether you hail from north of the Mason Dixon or to its south, but there are also cultural elements at play, not to mention the most important indicator: how your mom made it. Me, I grew up with beans in chili, but because I'm a natural contrarian, sometimes I just feel like keeping the two unsullied until they consummate their union in my bowl, showered with the happy blessings of chopped sweet onion and grated cheese.

I'm also not doctrinaire when it comes to the type of beans to use. I've even been known, in straitened moments, to use canned kidney beans, but my preferences run to heritage varieties like cranberry or scarlet runner, or organic Borlotto Gaston from Ayers Creek Farm. The night before, put three-quarters of a pound of beans in a pot, cover with water by one inch, put a lid on the pot and leave on the counter to soak. The next day, drain them, put them in a pot, cover them with fresh water and cook on the stove until tender, or you Northerners can drain the soaking water and add them to the chile sauce to simmer with the meat.

Beef Chili

For the chile sauce:
6 dried ancho chiles, seeded and torn into pieces
2 dried cayenne chiles, seeded and torn into pieces (optional)
3 1/2 c. boiling water
1 Tbsp. cumin seeds, toasted (see below)
2 Tbsp. (6-8) garlic cloves
4 tsp. oregano
1 Tbsp. smoked Spanish pimenton
2 Tbsp. paprika
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. salt

For the chili:
1 large onion, chopped in 1/2" cubes
2 Tbsp. flour
3-4 lbs. chuck roast, cut in 3/4" cubes (pork shoulder also works)
2 bay leaves
1 qt. roasted tomatoes, or 28-oz. can whole tomatoes
Salt

In a small, dry frying pan over medium heat, toast the cumin seeds briefly, stirring constantly, until they release their aroma.

Place the torn chile pieces in a heat-proof bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Soak for 30 min. until they are soft and pliable. Drain them, reserving the soaking water, and place them in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Add remaining ingredients (including the toasted cumin seeds) and 1/2 c. soaking liquid and process till smooth, gradually adding the remaining soaking water.

Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium high heat. When it shimmers, add the chopped onion and sauté until tender. Add flour and stir continuously for up to 2 minutes until the flour loses its raw taste. Add meat, chile sauce, tomatoes and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Stir occasionally, adding water if it seems too dry. Add salt to taste.

Serve with cooked beans and rice on the side, along with finely chopped sweet onion and grated cheese to sprinkle on top.

Farm Bulletin: Soak Beans Before Cooking, the Farmer's Plaint

Some cooking techniques are writ in stone. Preheating your oven before baking. Rinsing basmati rice in several changes of water before cooking. Stuff like that. Others are matters of debate, with pros and cons argued vociferously on either side. One of those is soaking dried beans overnight before cooking. To no one's surprise, I give credence to contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm's explanation (see below), who, in my opinion, with Carol Boutard, grows some of the finest beans in all the land.

Why has the practice of soaking grains and beans prior to cooking persisted for several millennia? Biologically, two separate events occur when the bean awakens in the presence of moisture.

Ayers Creek Farm borlotti beans.

Germinating seeds release into the surrounding soil nasty compounds when they germinate. These compounds discourage insects, fungi and bacteria from attacking the seedling before its own defenses are developed. Some seeds also release compounds that prevent neighboring seeds from germinating, a phenomenon called allelopathy. Some people claim these compounds are nutritious and tasty.

Poppycock, I say.

I suggest tasting the soaking water and decide for yourself whether the stuff is tasty…it isn’t. This is one reason why people traditionally soaked grains and legumes, and then drained the soaking liquid before cooking them.

Soaking makes beans sweeter and smoother.

There is a second reason, more of an aesthetic gesture. The seed is very carefully packaged to provide energy in the form of simple sugars and building materials in the form of amino acids when it breaks dormancy and the embryo begins to grow. Millions of simple sugars are connected together to form starch molecules. The amino acids are connected to one another to form proteins. The starches and proteins are densely packed around the embryonic plant. When the seed germinates (i.e. soaked overnight), specialized enzymes snip apart the starches and proteins, and those unpacked units are then assembled to grow the plant. Imagine a pallet of lumber that is strapped together, efficiently packaged for storage and transport, but not yet a house. The enzymes are akin to carpenters, pulling the pallet apart and reassembling it. They also need energy to fuel their work in the form of simple sugars until the seedling is ready to photosynthesize its own food.

Black beans.

Cooking without soaking relies on the brute force of heat to break apart the package rather than the elegant, gentle, natural mechanism given us in the simple seed. Akin to running over the pallet with a bulldozer. I find the flavor and texture are better with soaking, a bit sweeter and smoother. I cannot fathom the objection to soaking them overnight, as though it is some major inconvenience. Bear in mind, the farmer spent several months tending the crop for your table.  What’s a few more hours to do justice to the farmer’s careful effort? 

So that's it.

You can find a good selection of Ayers Creek Farm dried beans at Rubinette Produce.

Braising Weather: A Pot of Beans

It's officially fall. The ash trees surrounding our house are turning golden, coloring the light that spills in the kitchen windows. The leaves that have fallen are dry and crispy, crunching under the feet of the neighborhood children walking to school. The urge to kick through the drifts of leaves on the parking strip is almost impossible to resist, and I can hear that most autumnal of sounds as the kids (and sometimes their parents) succumb to their siren song.

Nighttime temperatures are getting down into the 40s, requiring the addition of thick comforters to the beds, and mornings are brisk, with just enough of a chill to require pulling on a fleece jacket to walk the dogs first thing. The days warm up to the 70s by noon, and a glass of wine on the porch of an evening as the sun sets isn't out of the question just yet, warmth-wise.

This is what my parents used to call nigh-perfect Indian summer weather in the Northwest, though I'm beginning to think of it more and more as the onset of braising weather, time to pull out the Dutch oven for the season of low and slow-cooked meats and vegetables.

This year's crop of dried beans have begun showing up at the farmers' markets, and I was recently gifted some Rockwell beans from Willowood Farm on Washington's Whidbey Island. This variety was originally grown by an island pioneer, Elisha Rockwell, in the late 1800s, and it was brought back into production recently by farmer Georgie Smith when she took over the land her family had been farming on Ebey's Prairie since the 1890s.

Beans don't need much besides water, onions and garlic to make a mighty tasty main course, served with a hunk of hearty bread and maybe a drizzle of olive oil, but I happened to have a pig trotter (top photo) from the Square Peg Farm pig I'd butchered last winter. Beans and pork are a natural pairing, and the fattier the cut of pig the better. Trotters are almost all fat, and over several hours it gave a porky unctuousness to the pot. A half pound of bacon works well, too, and can be chopped or shredded before or after braising. Even a pound of pork shoulder will do its work on the beans, and can be shredded afterwards to make a beany, porky chili.

Regardless of how you decide to cook them, grab a few different kinds of beans from your local farmers' market and take them for a spin in a pot. I guarantee you'll find one (or more) you'll love, not to mention they'll warm up your family's bellies on these crisp fall nights.

Basic Braised Beans

1 lb. dried beans
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped roughly
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
Water
1 Tbsp. salt, plus more to taste

Optional:
3 bay leaves
Pork (pig trotter, 1/2 lb. bacon, 1 lb. pork shoulder)

Depending on the type of bean, you may need to soak them overnight in water (cover by 2"). Check with the farmer or follow directions if they're packaged. Drain and rinse prior to cooking.

Preheat oven to 300°.

On top of stove over medium heat, add oil to pot and heat until it shimmers. Add onion and sauté until tender, then add garlic, sautéing briefly until it's fragrant but not browned. Add drained beans and cover with fresh water by 1". Add salt and stir briefly. Add bay leaves and pork if using.

When it comes to a simmer, cover the pot and put it in the oven for at least four hours or until beans are tender and meat (if used) is falling apart. Check occasionally and add water to cover if the beans have absorbed it all (the amount of water needed will vary with the type of beans and if they have been presoaked). If meat has been used, remove it to a cutting board and chop or shred it, then add it back to the beans.

This can also be done on top of the stove. Simply keep the beans on a low simmer, covered, and check occasionally to make sure all the liquid hasn't absorbed.

More bean recipes: Baked Beans Italian Style, Backyard Barbecue Beans, Mexican-Style Black Bean and Greens Soup.