A musician friend of mine has told me that he reads these dispatches but not necessarily for the recipes since, as he said, “I pretty much throw things together.” He is classically trained and is also a skilled jazz player well versed in improvisation. I am not sure if one’s musical abilities completely transfer to the kitchen but I understand. Good cooking, like music, has balance, dynamics and shadings (of flavor), a range of contrasts, and when you’re lucky, it should seem effortless like a natural extension of yourself.
Cooking aspires to this degree of spontaneity, of being inspired by ingredients and having the technique to make what you can imagine.
Soup is the perfect ‘food” improvisation. I based this on ingredients I found at the farmers market. What follows is a “transcription” of my improvisation, a recipe. You can choose to follow it or change some things and create according to your inspiration.
For instance, I used dried white beans but you could just as easily use canned white beans. It would shorten the cooking time. You would drain the beans and add them after the vegetables have softened. Don’t want to use beans? Use diced potatoes, (about 1½ pounds, peeled and diced) cooking them along with the vegetables. If you do either of these, you might need less water than what is called for in the recipe; the extra liquid is because of the use of dried beans. That is an easy adjustment.
I used Spanish chorizo, but you could substitute another kind of sausage. The Portuguese version of the soup would use linguica, a smoked, cured sausage that would be cooked in the same way as the Spanish chorizo. Any sausage will work in this recipe.
Or keep it vegetarian.
You could use spinach instead of the kale but you would add it to the soup only a few minutes before serving since it needs less cooking time than the 15 minutes that kale requires.
I know that this seems like a lot to think about just to make soup but everyone makes such decisions when they are cooking. In their way they’re similar to of all of the split second decisions made by an improvising musician. Soup is very forgiving. Adjustments are easy to make and in the end you end up with something deeply satisfying and personal, which is what a good improvisation should be.
Is it any surprise that French chefs often refer to the stove as “the piano?”
Like any soup recipe, this makes plenty.
Kale and White Bean Soup
1 cup dried white beans (such as Great Northern or cannellini)
(or one 28 ounce can of white beans)
1½ cups chopped onion or leeks
1½ cups sliced carrots
½ cup Spanish chorizo, thinly sliced (or ½ pound sausage, sliced ¼” thick)
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
One 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes, crushed by hand
4 cups water
8 leaves curly kale (will yield about 8 cups, chopped, loosely packed)
Salt and ground black pepper
3 to 4 cups cold water
Olive oil, for cooking
Grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish (optional)
1. If you are using dried beans, you will want to “speed soak” them to shorten the cooking time. Place the beans into a bowl and add enough boiling water to cover. Set aside and let the beans sit for about an hour. In that time, you can do all of the preparation of the other ingredients.
2. Place a 6 Quart Dutch oven onto the stove over medium-high heat. When hot, swirl 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil into the pot. Add the onions/leeks, carrots, and chorizo to the pot and sauté for about 5 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed. Season the vegetables with some salt and pepper. (If you are using a sausage other than Spanish chorizo such as an uncooked sausage, add it to the pot and cook for 3 to 4 minutes and then add the onion/leeks and carrots and continue cooking for another five minutes). After the onions/leeks have begun to soften, add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
3. Add the crushed tomatoes to the pot and stir. Drain the soaking beans and add them to the pot, along with the water; do not add additional salt at this point as it will toughen the outside of the beans as they cook. (If you are using potatoes instead of the beans, add them into the soup, and season with some salt). Cover and let the soup come to a boil, then reduce the heat to a steady simmer. Stir the soup from time to time as it cooks. Cook until the beans are soft; check one or two by squeezing them; they should give with no resistance. This will take about an hour or longer, depending on the presoaking. (If you are using canned beans, drain them, then add them to the soup after the carrots are tender).
4. At this point, the soup will be ready for the kale. Strip the kale leaves from the stems. Discard the stems and tear the leaves into small pieces; there should be about 8 cups, loosely packed. Add the kale to the soup, along with some salt. Cover and cook until the kale is tender, about 15 minutes. If the soup is too thick, add additional water. Taste the soup for seasoning. Garnish each serving with freshly grated Parmesan cheese if you choose, serve and savor. And then go back for more.
Any leftover soup can be stored in containers and frozen for use at a later time.