Have you ever looked at a bag of beans and sighed, thinking “what am I supposed to do with these now?” No? Just me? I suppose not everyone cooks a weekly pot of beans, but I do. A lot of my cooking happens on the weekends, and then we eat out of the fridge through the week; it makes weeknights much easier. And few things reheat so well as a nice pot of beans. The problem is keeping it fresh. I have my old standbys — Creole red beans and rice, frijoles a la charra, plain jane workhorse black beans — and I do love those recipes, but sometimes you want to mix it up.
And so this time the fridge came to the rescue, as it so often does. I had some mint hanging around in the crisper, leftover from… actually, I have no idea why it was there. But it was, and I had a sudden flash of inspiration: sopa de albondigas! Sort of. Sopa de albondigas means “meatball soup,” which sounds pretty vague, but I mean very specifically a Mexican-style sopa made with rice and, crucially, some sort of minty herb. (I’ve always made it with regular ol’ spearmint, but most Spanish-language recipes actually call for “yerba buena”; I invite you to go down that minty-fresh Wikipedia rabbithole if you’d like to know more about the many, many different plants that can mean.)
In western European cookery, and thus in much of American cookery, mint is mostly relegated to the dessert table, and sometimes to beverages. But in other parts of the world mint finds its way into many savory dishes — think of the ubiquitous Indian cilantro-mint chutney, or the platters of herbs that accompany Persian meals. And that’s the case with sopa de albondigas, too: the mint takes the whole thing in a different direction, light and springtimey and yet also complex and inviting. I make Elise Bauer’s version of albondigas soup every so often for friends and family, and it never fails to delight. (For serious.)
“But Mike,” I hear you asking, “I thought this was a bean soup!” Oh, yeah, about that — let’s break this down. In the traditional meatball soup, you make meatballs and fold rice and mint right in with the raw beef. Obviously you’re not going to roll rice and mint into dry beans, but it’s easy to get those flavors in: just add the mint later like you would with any other finishing herb, and serve it over rice. (This is the way my brain works, and the reason my husband thinks I’m crazy when I say of two dishes whose only overlap is, say, onions, “oh, they’re basically the same dish.” It’s all in the niches the ingredients fill.)
So yes, mint and beans. And peas, and green beans, and a rather French mirepoix, and not a chili pepper to be seen. If that doesn’t sound like any Mexican food you know: good! Try it! I hope you’ll like it; buen provecho.
Mexican bean soup, albondigas-style
These beans take their inspiration from Elise Bauer’s version of sopa de albondigas, a traditional Mexican meatball soup. They’re bright and herbaceous, light and yet still very satisfying. And if you’re a stranger to Mexican food beyond enchiladas and carne asada, they’re eye-openingly different. I stumbled into this recipe by accident, but you can be sure that it will have a permanent place in my bean soup rotation.
1 lb. pinto beans
Salt for the soaking water
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
2 large celery ribs, diced
6 c chicken or vegetable stock
1 small (8 oz.) can tomato sauce
1/2 lb. green beans, trimmed and snapped to bitesize lengths (about 2 cups)
2 c peas, fresh or frozen
1/4 c chopped mint
1/2 c chopped cilantro
2 Tbsp lime juice
The beans need to be soaked beforehand. You can soak them overnight in salted water, if that’s convenient. Or you can put them in a pot with enough salted water to cover by two inches, bring to a boil, and then let soak off heat for an hour. Either way, drain them before moving on.
Salted water? Yes. There’s a broad belief that salt toughens beans, but it’s just not true, no matter what your grandmother says. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, among others, has been crusading against this since at least back in 2010, and my experience bears his out: salted beans have better texture and flavor.
In a pressure cooker pot over medium-high heat, saute the onion, carrot, and celery in the olive oil until the onion is translucent, about five minutes, then add the soaked beans and the stock. Lock the lid and bring to pressure; cook 15 minutes once it begins whistling, then run under cold water in the sink until the pressure releases.
Return pot to stovetop and add tomato sauce, green beans and peas. Simmer for ten minutes, until the green beans are tender. Remove from heat and add the mint, cilantro, and lime juice. Add salt to taste and serve as is, or over rice.
First off, no, you don’t need a pressure cooker — it just speeds things up, is all. To cook this dish without one, once you add the beans and stock simply bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for a couple hours, until the beans are fully tender. Then proceed as written!
This dish absolutely doesn’t need any meat. But that said, if you wanted to start by cooking some chopped bacon, and then adding the onion, carrot, and celery to the rendered fat, and proceeding with the recipe from there… that could be pretty great.
Also potentially great? Adding a one or two chopped canned chipotles, along with a bit of their adobo sauce.
A non-option: removing the mint. I know it sounds weird if you’re not used to mint in savory applications, but it really makes this dish!