Smoky Tomato Butterbean Soup, with Herbed Cheddar Biscuits

When I was 9, I was lucky enough to move into a house across the street from my best friend. We’d spend most afternoons at her house playing while my mom worked, and sometimes I got to dine with her family as well. While I didn’t envy her her bratty younger brother who often got her in trouble, I did enjoy the ritual of fixing ourselves Campbell’s tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches, which, like mac n’ cheese, I never would have gotten to eat at home.I loved sprinkling extra cheddar (the orange kind, of course) over the creamy red soup, and dipping the crisp, gooey sandwich into it.

As a (more) grown-up, I began making Deborah Madison’s Smoky Tomato Bisque, which combines fresh, ripe tomatoes with smoked paprika, for a sophisticated twist on the Campbell’s classic.The other night as I flipped through my copy of Jerry Traunfeld’s Herbal Kitchen, I came across an even twistier twist. Resembling the ubiquitous red-and-white-canned stuff only in its main ingredient, this soup makes the most of the end (sob!) of tomato season, and the ultra-flavorful dry-harvested ones I used contributed gorgeous color and bold flavor. The smoky-sweet soup is punctuated with creamy beans, which add body and bite to a lovely Autumn one-dish meal.

To make things even better, the smoke factor is upped by everyone’s favorite (not-so-)secret ingredient:smoked bacon.

Jay’s mom has the good fortune of living near the Corralitos Market and Sausage Company, which is a real meat market. (Not in the sense of a pick-up bar, but rather an old-school store specializing in smoked meats. So old-school, in fact, that they don’t even appear to have a website that I can link to, so I am forced to send you over to Yelp for their info, which makes me shudder.) When visiting, we often make a point of picking up some cheesy bavarian sausages, smoked turkey breast or bacon to squirrel away in the fridge of freezer until the next time we make it down to get another fix. All of that is to say that their thick-cut, ultra-smoky bacon went into this soup, and that if you can get your hands on some, you will be a happy person. (Though if not, no worries: there are other smoked bacons in the sea.)

Though Mr. T (as in Traunfeld, as in Jerry, the recipe author) calls for canned beans (which would certainly be fine) I started with fat, burgundy, heirloom butterbeans from Rancho Gordo, my favorite local source for all things legumey. I cooked them with bay, thyme and sage until creamy-soft and suspended in a thick broth. The aforementioned bacon, finely diced and sauteed, fat and all, with onions, smoked paprika and herbs, combine with the diced tomatoes (which I neither peeled nor seeded – Hey, I cooked my own beans! What do you want from me?), then the beans and their broth are stirred in. The resulting hearty soup bursts with the flavors of smoke, sweetness and umami, that earthy flavor present in aged cheeses and cured (especially smoked!) meats. In fact, Jay and I have been calling this ‘umami soup’, and topping it with a grating of fresh parmesan to prove our point.

As the chef/owner of The Herbfarm in Washington, Jerry Traunfeld always adds plenty of fresh herbs in his recipes to spice (herb?) things up. This soup contains both sage, added to the sauteing onion and bacon, and marjoram, mixed in at the end. The soup would not suffer from substituting oregano or parsley in place of the marjoram, and a swirl of pesto would make an oh-so-Italian finish.

Inspired by the goodies pictured here and by those grilled cheese ‘wiches of long ago, I baked up some herbed cheddar biscuits to accompany the soup. Flaky and crisp, they were just the thing to dip into it, though these bacon-cheddar-beer scones or a hunk of crusty bread or focaccia would do the trick, too.

Or a good old grilled cheese, of course.


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Smoky Tomato Bean Soup

Adapted from The Herbal Kitchen

Feel free to substitute canned beans (drained and rinsed) for the dried, and one 28-ounce plus one 14-ounce can of tomatoes for the fresh (reduce the salt accordingly). Other herbs I’d imagine might be good additions or substitutions are rosemary or thyme (added with the sage) and oregano or parsley for the marjoram. Jerry says you can omit the bacon for a tasty veg version.

For the beans:
1 cup dried beans (such as butter, garbanzos, white, cranberry, or anything else you fancy), soaked overnight
1 bay leaf
a sprig or two of thyme
a sprig of sage
1/2 teaspoon salt

For the soup:
4 ounces smoked bacon, finely diced
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon sweet smoked paprika
3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
1 teaspoon salt
3 pounds ripe, red tomatoes (preferably dry harvested, romas or san marzanos), chopped (peeling/seeding optional)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram
extra marjoram and freshly grated parmesan for garnish (optional)

Drain the soaked beans and place in a medium saucepan. Cover with two inches of water and add the herbs. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook, partially covered, until almost tender, anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour. Add the salt and continue cooking until very tender, 20 minutes longer or more. As the beans cook, add more water as necessary to keep them just covered. When they’re done, they should be suspended in 2 cups or so of viscous broth.

While the beans are cooking, get on with the soup. Heat a large soup pot or dutch oven over medium heat. Add the bacon, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to crisp and the fat has rendered, 4 or 5 minutes. Carefully pour off about half of the fat. Add the onions, garlic, paprika and sage. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is tender and translucent, adding back some of the bacon fat if the pan looks dry, or if you’re just really into bacon fat. Add the salt and tomatoes. Turn the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer, then lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 30 minutes. The tomatoes should be broken down into a thick soup.

Remove and discard the herbs from the beans. Use a slotted spoon to lift the beans out of their broth and add to the soup. Thin the soup to your liking with the bean broth. Stir in the marjoram, and taste, adding additional salt and pepper if necessary. Serve with a good grating of parmesan and a sprinkling of fresh marjoram.

The soup keeps excellently, refrigerated, for up to a week. Or freeze for up to several months.

Herbed Cheddar Biscuits

Makes 8 – 10 bikkies

Chives or dill would be tasty substitutes for the sage and marjoram, if you so desire. You can make these biscuits by hand or in a stand mixer.

1 cup whole wheat or spelt flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, diced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
3 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram
6 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese (1 1/2 cups packed), divided use
1 cup buttermilk (well shaken)

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425º. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the diced butter and rub with your fingers, or on low with the paddle, until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Mix in the herbs and about three-quarters of the cheese (a little over a cup), reserving the rest for topping the biscuits. Drizzle in the buttermilk, stirring on low, until the dough just comes together – you may not need all of it. Gather the dough into a ball and plunk onto a floured counter. Gently press the dough into a rectangle 1 inch thick, and twice as long as it is wide. With a sharp chef’s knife, trim the edges, then cut into 8 squares. Press the scraps together to make one or two more biscuits, if possible.

Arrange the biscuits on the lined sheet pan, and sprinkle the cheese over the tops. Bake until the tops and bottoms of the biscuits are deeply golden, and the cheese is bubbling, about 25 minutes. Let cool slightly.

The biscuits keep well for several days at room temperature. Reheat before serving.

6 thoughts on “Smoky Tomato Butterbean Soup, with Herbed Cheddar Biscuits”

  1. Looks like I know what I'm making for dinner now! That sounds delicious, and I just happen to have all the ingredients (though mine will be made with all the late-season sungolds and san marzanos that are hangin' on the vine in the back yard, begging to be taken in away from the rain.

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