This is the time of year when Dutch ovens come into their own. Even if you use your big, heavy Dutch oven year-round, as I do, it still seems to come down off its shelf a little more often in the fall. Today I want to show you my favorite Dutch oven — and a soup to cook in it. This soup is one of those magical recipes with just a few ingredients, and all the usual suspects — carrot, onion, beans, chicken broth — that nevertheless turns out to have such a deep, wonderful flavor you don't mind that it makes enough to feed you for a week. And a Dutch oven is really the best vessel for it, because this soup is cooked just a little differently.
My favorite Dutch oven at the moment is this beauty from Staub. It was a Christmas present from my husband, and he knows what I like, because this classic oval oven, with its handsome brass knob and smooth black interior, has become perhaps my favorite tool in the kitchen.
Here are a few reasons I especially like this Dutch oven, besides its obvious beauty, which lets me bring it straight to the table from the kitchen. I like that the interior is black enamel, instead of the more common white, because it doesn't show stains. I also like the size — 5 quarts — which is big enough for a haunch of lamb or a roast, as well as most soup recipes, without being so big and heavy that I can't manage it. I like the shape, which offers enough surface area to brown meat while still fitting neatly on a burner and in my oven.
Which brings me to the point of this recipe: the oven. I love cooking beans in the oven, and when it came time to simmer this simple, slow-cooking bean soup, I decided to throw it in the oven instead of leaving it on the stove. I found that the result gave me creamier, more tender beans and a deeply flavorful soup. I think that all-around heat of the oven does this. The gentle heat of the oven also means that soups and stews cooked in it are more hands-off. I just put the heavy, well-fitting lid on this pot and let it simmer away, without worrying my soup will burn or cook down too far.
In the end, this soup can be cooked in any heavy pot or Dutch oven — and on the stovetop, instead of in the oven, for that matter. But I loved it in this pot, which honestly inspires me every day. This time of year, I look for any excuse to pull that pot down, and a pound of beans and some leftover chicken sausage were ample reason to stand over the stove on a chilly morning and enjoy a few minutes with my Dutch oven.
One last note on this soup: As written, it's a hearty, chunky bean stew that makes enough to feed a couple people for a week. But it's also very generous: If you want to stretch it out even further, add another 4 to 8 cups of broth or even water. A little simmering and the rich flavor will quickly spread through the extra liquid.
The night before you want to cook this soup, soak the beans by placing them in a bowl and covering them completely with cold water.
The next day, heat the oven to 300°F. Heat the olive oil in a large (4-quart or larger) Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium heat. Add the sausage and turn the heat up to medium-high. Cook, stirring frequently, until the sausage has browned — about 10 minutes. Stir in the diced celery, carrots, onion, and garlic and cook over medium heat for another 10 minutes until they are soft. Drain the beans and stir them into the vegetables.
Pour in the chicken stock and an additional 4 cups water. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a generous quantity of black pepper. Drop in the bay leaves. Bring the soup to a boil, then cover and put in the oven.
Cook for 2 to 3 hours in the oven, or until the beans are very soft and creamy. (Time can vary widely depending on the size of beans you use.)
The soup can also be cooked on the stovetop over low flame. It will need a similar amount of timing for cooking, and should also be cooked with the lid on. Check a little more frequently to make sure the bottom isn't scorching.
Stir in the cider vinegar and salt to taste (I used about 1 1/2 teaspoons). Continue cooking for another 20 to 30 minutes, or until the beans have absorbed some of the salt.
Serve with fresh crusty bread. Leftovers freeze well.