[Bronx 1/15/2021 From the Methods & Techniques Department.] Recently, I decided to make a deliberate effort to cook more beans, because I had been given a huge stash of various beans, mostly pinto, red kidney beans, some black-eyed peas, lentils, and some black beans. It reminded me of the FAO Year of the Pulses five years ago, and I set to work on identifying recipes. It has evolved into a sort of a research project on bean recipes, primarily around a traditional Dutch dish, Bruine Bonensoep (Brown Bean Soup), which is so popular in Holland, it even has its own website. The challenge now was what beans to use, since I was unable to find the proper Dutch bruine bonen in dry form, only in glass jars. I like to work with dry beans and I like to cook two gallons worth of soup every once in a while on a Sunday.
Besides the Dutch site dedicated to Bruine Bonensoep (brown bean soup), there is another group of bean fans, called Bruine Bonen Bende (the brown bean gang), which is tantamount to a Dutch equivalent of Rancho Gordo in the US. Apparently they started their group in 2016, the FAO year of the pulses. Legumes and pulses are tremendous powerhouses of nutrition and should be part of a healthy diet, so it is worth finding and developing bean recipes you like. For me, bruine bonensoep was a favorite from my youth, and now I have revived the art, and it is becoming a regular part of my diet again. I am just working to perfect the recipe.
Previously, I might cook such a large pot of two gallons of soup once a month, and eat it a few times that week and freeze the rest, but now I am doing it every weekend and sharing most with a bunch of friends and neighbors for an elaborate taste test. The main issue is simply to establish the differences between bean varieties, based on feedback from Dutch expats around the world, as to what bean varieties are or are not suitable for bruine bonensoep. The candidates are Red Kidney Beans, Pinto Beans, Borlotti Beans and finally of course the original Dutch Bruine Bonen, which means “brown beans.”
There are youtube videos of the traditional soup with pork sausage and bacon… but we’re not doing that anymore, nor did I ever, for I was raised vegetarian, but of course I have tasted it, though even when I still ate meat these greasy soups never appealed to me.
- Kidney Beans (and all of the beans discussed here) are in the common bean family, Phaseolus Vulgaris and the red kidney bean is very popular in such dishes as Chili Con Carne. In Holland the bruine boon is often used in such recipes. Some people agreed that this was a good substitute, but there were others who thought the red kidney bean was clearly an inferior choice.
- Pinto beans are another member of the common bean family, the Phaseolus Vulgaris. And again, it received a lot of votes as a good substitute for the Dutch Bruine Boon. I tend to agree, and based on my experience sofar, I would be hard pressed to choose between these two, but I probably would give the pinto bean a slight edge.
- The Roman Bean comes next. Regionally, it seems to be known also as the Cranberry Bean. Some sources equate it with the Borlotti bean, and some actually consider the Borlotti just a regional variety of the Cranberry Bean. It is another member of the common bean family. Also known as the Red or White Cargamanto in Colombia, though that seems to be considered another variety, and then as Roman Beans, another variety is the Saluggia bean, the Indian name is Gadra bean, or rosecoco beans.
- Then comes the Dutch Bruine Boon, yet another member of the common beans, Phaseolus Vulgaris. Apparently, bruine bonensoep became popular in World War II, as it was easy to make, cheap and nutritious, during a time when there was often not enough food to go around as the German occupation army had commandeered most of the food supply.
In short, all of these beans are close relatives, but there are taste differences, which may also be accentuated by your method of preparation. As I started writing this, I had made a whole meal type soup with the red kidney beans and pinto beans, in the Whole Foods, Plant-Based style, but inspired by a traditional Dutch recipe.
Nomenclature in English and Spanish
If you thought the names of beeans were confusing in English, wait till you learn how confusing it is in Spanish – here’s from a Colombian friend:
The word “fríjol”, with an accent on the í is how we say it in Colombia, The original word is “fréjol”, which is the correct word for the fruit and the seed of the Judía plant but nobody uses the words fréjol or judía. Goya was founded in Spain and they quickly realized that their products needed to be named according to the majority of the Spanish-speaking population, which extended way beyond Spain. The word frijol (without the tilde and accentuating the ‘o’) “frijol” or “frijoles” is used in México, it’s a mexicanismo. Now, in Venezuela they are called caraotas; in Chile & Argentina, porotos; in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, habichuelas; in Perú, frejoles, and so on. So the most neutral word manufacturers use is frijol – with no accent.Lu Biemiller, personal communication
So, there you have it. Hopefully I unconfused you a little bit now. Living in a very multi-ethnic neighborhood, I try to learn all the names, but when in doubt, I go by looks.
The Bruine Bonensoep Project
My idea became to make the same soup every week, with just a different variety of bean, as part of my commemorating the 5-year anniversary of the year of the pulses. In the process, I clarified a lot about the methodology of cooking this type of soup, which I like especially in winter, for you can really combine a heavy soup like this with a salad and maybe some whole grain toast and you have a meal.
From a standpoint of methodology, preparing this soup naturally can be broken into three segments:
- Soaking and pre-cooking the beans. If you cook them traditionally, you may have to cook them for 1.5 or 2 hours, but if you do it in a pressure cooker (Instant Pot), it is down to 10 minutes. Set it and forget it, so that is easy. In my book it still helps to soak them overnight. I cook them with a piece of kombu, which is supposed to help make them easier to digest.
- The next part is the base for the soup, which really lays the foundation for the aroma and flavor. I am now doing this part with my HestanCue IH-cooktop and cookware, which allows me very precise and repeatable steps. It boils down to caramelizing onions and adding in peppers and garlic and turmeric and whatever other spices you might like to use. At the end, I add the pre-cooked beans into this and let it simmer for 15 mins.
- In the meantime I start a pot with veggie broth and cut up the vegetables, which I add in while it comes to the boil. I like to cut them up very fine. As the veggies start to get soft, I then dump the beans with base into that pot and let the whole thing simmer for another half hour. I might add in some barley. At the end, you can add more water for the desired consistency, and finish it with a cup of water with a tablespoon of miso, or if you like spicy, you can use gochujang. You can also take about half the soup and puree it with an immersion blender, that simply makes a smoother, sicker soup.
The sky is the limit. Meanwhile there is lots of confusion about the proper names of various beans, depending on the ehthicity of the stores where you buy. It took me a while to find out that Borlotti beans and Cranberry beans are the same thing, and are also known as Roman beans, which in turn seem to be the same as Cargamanto beans. So just look up the different names. Don’t get confused by beans!
The conclusion so far is that this is the order of preference for beans to make this type of soup is as follows:
- Dutch Bruine Bonen – They are without a doubt the creamiest.
- Roman beans (Borlotti, Cranberry, Cargamanto) – a close second.
- Pinto beans – still pretty good
- Red Kidney beans – perfectly usable but it might not be my first choice.
For reference, here is the series of recipes: