No-Fail Black Bean Soup


Normally, a recipe for soup would seem to be superfluous to me. But not long ago, when I said I never used a recipe for soup, some one of my pals rolled her eyes and said, “Of course, you don’t,” which was the reminder I needed that if a person isn’t accustomed to making soup, then maybe a little hand-holding through the soup process might be a good idea.

A good opportunity came up when I was sifting through the enormous collection of recipes people have sent me over the past few years, and I bumped into a black soup in a yummy collection of Tex-Mex flavored recipes Josephine Belknap sent me years ago. As it happens, I grow black beans, and had some I wanted to use up. And the recipe, Xeroxed from a magazine particle perhaps, had a little note scrawled on it, “Debby’s recipe—delicious.” That’s good enough an endorsement for me.

The ingredients for this soup could not be more straightforward, easily found in any grocery store, and may even be things you already have around the house. You can finish the job in an hour, but don’t have to pay attention to it every minute.

Let’s talk about beans first. A fifteen-ounce can of black beans is useful, not just for soup, but to sprinkle over salads; to mix with corn kernels and chopped red peppers for a black bean salad dressed with vinaigrette; to mash up with onions sautéed in vegetable oil as a filling for tacos. As convenience foods go, a can of beans is really handy. Do drain and rinse them because usually the liquid is wicked salty. Better to add salt to taste after the fact.

If you want to use dried beans soaked overnight, by all means go for it. It is cheaper, for sure. To arrive at the two cups or so that a can contains, soak three quarters of a cup to one cup of dried beans overnight, then boil them until tender.

Chicken broth is another handy item to keep in your kitchen cupboard. It comes canned and in septic packaging. You can also buy it in paste form or in bouillon cubes and add water. But if you ever, ever roast a whole chicken (or even buy a ready-made roasted chicken) it is also really easy to make your own broth.

When you have eaten all the meat from the chicken that you can get off of it, put the bones (and giblets which you ought to keep), in a deep pot and nearly cover it with water. Add a chopped onion, carrot, rib of celery, and a bay leaf, and simmer it gently until the bones fall apart. Strain it, let it sit until the fat rises, which you skim off. Toss the bones and the by-now overdone vegetables. Consider cooking broth down to half the quantity in the pot; you can always add water later. The best broths will turn into a jelly when cold. Pour your broth into plastic containers to store in the freezer. I use old pint-sized sour cream or cottage cheese containers or quart-sized yogurt containers because that is one way to pre-measure it.

In the following recipe, the usual process for making almost any soup is gradually revealed: in this one, start with onion, garlic, and optional jalapenos sautéed in a vegetable oil– in other soups, you might use onion and celery. Then you add the beans, broth, and some more water plus seasonings. How much liquid you need depends on your taste in soups. If you like thick soup, reduce the liquid.

Mainly, remember everything else in this soup, about ten items, are there for seasoning and that the seasonings are a matter of your taste. Start with the recommended amounts, taste the soup, then if you wish, add more. If you don’t like or have one of the seasonings, leave it out. Look around the kitchen. Don’t have many spices? Add a little salsa, or even ketchup to flavor it.

In this recipe, the soup is pureed then at the very last, finished with some sherry and lime juice. If you added them earlier in process, they would lose some of their character in long cooking; sherry is almost always a big improvement to bean and pea soups but dry white wine is perfectly OK, too.

By the way, remember if you dump hot soup into a food processor, it has a tendency to expand and blow up, so let it cool a bit before you dump it in. Or, better yet, you can use a stick blender at any time.

Make this soup a couple times to catch the drift of the process then consider what you can do to vary it. Use white beans instead of black? Use red beans? Add some corn after you puree it? Add shredded greens like spinach or kale? Drop in some chopped up ham or cooked sausage after it is pureed? Only partially puree it so there are some whole beans floating around in it? Mash it with a masher instead of pureeing it? Add some zippier spices like chili or chipoltle?

For garnish, consider using cilantro, scallions, sour cream, or broken corn chips (the ones in the bottom of a bag).

Humankind has been making and eating soup for millennia and doing it in ordinary homes without recipes for most of that time. If you are making soup in the privacy of your own home, be brave about experimenting and varying it. After all, no restaurant critic is going write a review, give you only two-and-a-half stars out of five. No one is going to write “Eeuw” on Yelp or dis you on Facebook.

No-Fail Black Bean Soup
Serves: 4-6
  • 1 tablespoon of vegetable or olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, chopped or a small can of chopped jalapenos (optional)
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 fifteen-ounce can or 2 cups of black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 tablespoons dry sherry
  • 2 teaspoons lime juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Chopped cilantro and/or scallions for garnish
  1. Heat the oil in a two quart sauce pan. Saute the onions, jalapeno, and garlic for about five minutes, just to soften them.
  2. Add the beans, broth, cumin, coriander, and water, and bring to a boil.
  3. Reduce the heat and simmer for about forty-five minutes.
  4. Take off the heat, allow to cool somewhat, then puree with a stick blender or in a food processor.
  5. Add sherry and lime juice, and taste for salt and pepper. Return to the heat to warm for serving.
  6. Serve garnished with cilantro, scallions, sour cream, chips to taste.


Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.