This time of year always brings with it a dilemma: you want healthy and light after weeks of feasting but at the same time for many of us it is cold outside and we want warming and hearty. Year after year I seem to turn to the same solution: bean soup. Last year it was the absolutely fabulous New Year Noodle Soup and this year it was Potaje de Vigilia, a Spanish “fasting” soup for Lenten days when meat is forbidden.
From what I gather, there are versions of this soup all over Spain. I think, but am not certain, that what they have in common is chickpeas and bread to thicken the soup. They might also usually have spinach and potatoes. If I sound wishy washy, it is because I really don’t know anything about the soup, except I happened to come across 2 different versions of it from 2 different regions of Spain in 2 different cookbooks–and decided I would take what I liked best from both recipes to come up with my own. Which means mine is probably not very authentic but oh my lord it was delicious.
So where did I find it and what versions? First I found an Andalusian version from Clifford Wright in his book The Best Soups in the World. It intrigued me, and when I realized it was a traditional Lenten soup I figured I might find some versions of it in some of my other Spanish cookbooks. I forget if I checked all of them, but I did indeed find it in Claudia Roden’s outstanding The Food of Spain. Her version is Castilian, and she refers to it as a spinach and chickpea soup, with a meat free version during Lent. If you have ever wanted a window into how I cook, this recipe is a great example. When it comes to traditional food, I like to find as many different sources for the recipe as possible and then take what I like about it and fiddle. Wright’s version had more vinegar, which I liked, whereas Roden’s version had more interesting spices, notably the cumin. They both had spinach, potatoes, fried bread, paprika, chickpeas and hard boiled eggs. Because of my own interest in heirloom beans, I chose to use a mix of beans that I thought sounded compatible (chickpeas, and cannellini and rice beans from Rancho Gordo). I also drastically (to my mom’s sadness but my family’s happiness) reduced the spinach. What can I say? I figure having them happily eat a soup with some spinach is better than refusing to eat a soup with a lot. And, ahem, it might be a dislike that was passed from mother to child in this instance–the biggest difference being I have matured and no longer pick around the cooked greens but instead just eat it with everything else. As long as it is not too overwhelming.
As with many of my recipes, this makes a lot. We ate it all over 3 nights. Each night it was better, and I would make just as much the next time. The bread is a hassle, but a minor one, and I would suggest you skip the soup completely if you do not want to take the time to fry it and puree it–it absolutely made the soup. When you are in the midst of frying it, it might not seem like the healthiest thing in the world, but remember you are frying it in olive oil, it will be pureed and split between many servings, and also it is the only real source of fat in the soup aside from some minimal oil and the eggs. Don’t be scared off by the hard boiled eggs either–my husband is not a fan and never even knew they were there. They add some great protein to the soup (unless you are vegan of course). I followed Wright’s instructions and pureed the yolks into the bread puree, but you can also do as Roden suggests and just chop the yolks with the whites.
The soup is not as complicated as it looks–but I find it easier to think of most bean soups, and especially this bean soup with its fried bread puree, as being several recipes that are ultimately combined.
- For the beans:
- 4 cups total mixed dried white beans (should include some chickpeas if you want to be authentic)
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 4-6 cloves garlic, minced
- a drizzle of Spanish extra virgin olive oil
- 1 t salt
- For the soup:
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1-2 T Spanish extra virgin olive oil
- salt to taste
- 6 medium sized red potatoes, chopped (I never peel)
- good quality stock to cover potatoes by an inch or two, around 6 cups
- 1 lb spinach, stems removed, chopped
- 3-4 hard boiled eggs, yolks removed and set aside, whites chopped
- For the fried bread puree:
- 8 thick slices French bread (not baguette)
- 6-8 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- approximately ¼ cup Spanish extra virgin olive oil
- 1½ t smoked Spanish paprika
- 1½ t ground cumin
- pinch of hot pepper, such as cayenne
- ¼ cup sherry vinegar
- Extra smoked paprika and vinegar for serving
- Extra smoked paprika and vinegar for serving
- Begin by soaking the beans the night before. I do this in the pot I am going to cook them in. The next day, cover them with water by 2 inches and bring to a boil. Add the chopped onion, minced garlic and a drizzle of olive oil. Bring to a boil and let boil for 5 minutes. Then cover and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until tender, checking to make sure they remain completely covered by the water. When they are tender, add 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and let cook another 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside until you are ready for them.
- Next (this is a soup that can simmer for a while, so just make this when it is convenient, at least an hour before dinner) heat a large Dutch oven with olive oil. When it is shimmering, add the chopped onion with a pinch of salt. Cook until golden, but not super browned. Add the potatoes and toss with the onions. Cover the potatoes by 2 inches of water with a good quality stock--I used the turkey stock I had in the freezer from the Thanksgiving turkey. Add more salt if using a homemade stock. Bring to a boil, and then cover, reducing the heat to maintain a brisk simmer. Cook until the potatoes are tender (if it is close to dinner, cook until quite tender, if the soup will be gently simmering for a while, cook until crisp tender). Add the spinach and mix it in.
- While the potatoes are cooking, heat a skillet with the ¼-cup olive oil. Add the garlic--when the garlic starts sizzling, add the bread and cook until each side is golden. For the first few slices this took about 6 minutes, but as I went on, the sides cooked faster, so keep an eye on them. Also keep a close eye on the garlic--you want it golden brown but not burnt. As each item (garlic clove or bread) is ready, remove it to the food processor. When all of the bread and garlic has been fried, add the spices, vinegar and hard boiled egg yolks to the food processor as well. Puree until smooth, adding either the cooking water from the potatoes or the beans as needed to thin it out.
- At this point, when everything is ready--the beans, the potatoes and the bread puree--add the beans with their cooking water and the puree to the potatoes. Stir and bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer, stirring, to help dissolve the bread puree into the soup. This soup should be quite thick, more of a stew, but if you want it thinner add more stock. Right before serving, mix in the chopped hard boiled egg whites. Some of us liked the soup with a drizzle more of vinegar and a sprinkle of the smoked paprika.
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