Sometimes through luck or merely endless repetition we hit on something that seems to have been perfectly designed. That's the way I feel about this soup, a delicious melding of earthy white beans and the sweet flavors of onion, carrot and fennel.
I've made the soup so many times I no longer remember when or how it occurred to me to add the fennel. But I think the faint notes of anise lift the humble beans into another realm.
There is a bean soup served in the U.S. Senate dining room that has become famous over the years. Called, appropriately enough "Senate Bean Soup," it is often imitated as a sort of holy grail of the white bean potage. But I wager that my soup is every bit as good, if not better. I make a large quantity of it and freeze it in smaller containers, ensuring that we will have enough to last us through spring.
This recipe calls for chicken stock as a base. But the beans and vegetables are so flavorful, I'm sure you could use plain water for a vegetarian version. I highly recommend it if you have time to sit yourself down with a bowl and watch the snow drift outside the window.
1 pound dried cannellini or Great Northern beans, soaked overnight in plenty of water
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and diced small
1 medium fennel bulb (tops removed), diced small
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced small
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (or several sprigs, tied in a bundle)
freshly ground black pepper to taste
7 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
½ cup toasted bread crumbs for garnish
Drain the beans and set aside. Over moderately low heat, heat olive oil in a large, heavy pot. Add onion, fennel, carrots and garlic, season with salt and pepper. Sweat the vegetables, stirring frequently, until onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in thyme and season with pepper.
Add beans and stock. Raise heat and bring soup almost to a boil. Then lower heat and simmer gently, covered, until beans are very tender, 2-3 hours. Remove from heat. Carefully ladle half the soup into a blender and blend until smooth, holding the lid in place with a kitchen towel, or pass the mix through a food mill. Stir puree back into the pot. If it seems too thick, add more stock or water.
To serve, ladle soup into large, shallow bowls and garnish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and toasted bread crumbs.