Flavors and Ingredients : Seasonal Method (part 3) - White Bean and Garlic Soup & Organic Versus Conventional

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White Bean and Garlic Soup (Winter)

In a bowl, soak for several hours or overnight:

2 cups dry white beans, such as cannelloni beans

After soaking overnight, drain the beans, place them in a pot, and fill it with water (try adding a few bay leaves or a sprig of rosemary). Bring to a boil and simmer for at least 15 minutes. Strain out the water and put the beans back in a pot (if using an immersion blender) or in the bowl of a food processor.

Add to the pot or bowl with beans and then purée until blended:

2 cups (500g) chicken or vegetable stock

1 medium (150g) yellow onion, diced and sautéed

3 slices (50g) French bread, coated in olive oil and toasted on both sides

½ head (25g) garlic, peeled, crushed, and sautéed or roasted

Salt and pepper, to taste


  • Don’t skip soaking and boiling the beans. Really. One type of protein present in beans—phytohaemagglutinin—causes extreme intestinal distress. The beans need to be boiled to denature this protein; cooking them in a slow cooker or sous vide setup  will not denature the protein and actually makes things worse. If you’re in a rush, use canned white beans; they’ll have already been cooked.

  • Variations: try blending some fresh oregano into the soup. Toss some bacon chunks on top or grate on some Parmesan cheese as well. As with many soups, how chunky versus how creamy to blend the soup is a personal preference.

  • Make sure to toast the French bread to a nice golden brown. This will add the complex flavors from caramelization and Maillard reactions in the sugars and proteins from the bread. You can pour olive oil onto a flat plate and dip the bread in to coat it.

If you’re not much of a soup person, try making savory sorbets using seasonal ingredients. A summer sorbet with tomatoes and tarragon? Yum. Carrot ice cream? Why not? And for winter, while unusual, bacon ice cream has been enjoyed by diners at Chef Heston Blumenthal’s UK-based restaurant The Fat Duck, and taken further with candied bacon bits in a recipe on David Lebovitz’s blog (search online for “candied bacon ice cream recipe”).

Finally, here are a few tips related to seasonality to keep in mind:

  • Use fresh herbs whenever possible, because most dried herbs don’t have anywhere near the strength of flavor. The volatile oils that are responsible for so much of the aromas in herbs oxidize and break down, meaning that the dry herbs are a pale substitute. Dried herbs have their place, though; it makes sense to use dried herbs in the dead of winter when annual plants like basil aren’t in season. Store dry herbs in a cold, dark place (not above the stove!) to limit the amount of heat and light, which contribute to the breakdown of organic compounds in spices.

  • Grind your own spices as much as possible. Fresh-grated nutmeg will be much stronger than preground nutmeg, for the same reasons that many fresh herbs are better than their dried counterparts: the aromatic compounds in a preground spice will have had time to either hydrate or oxidize and disperse, resulting in flavor loss. Most spices also benefit from being bloomed—cooked in oil under moderate but not scorching heat—as a way of releasing their volatile chemicals without breaking them down.

  • If you’re looking for convenience, commercially frozen vegetables and fruits are actually pretty good. Freezing produce right when it is harvested has a few advantages: nutritional breakdown is halted, and the frozen item is from the peak of the season while the fresh version in your store may have been harvested early or late. Using frozen produce is especially useful if you’re cooking for just yourself, because you can pull out a single portion at a time. If you’re growing your own food and intend to freeze it, look up online how to use dry ice to pack and quick-freeze the produce; freezing in your home freezer takes too long and leads to mushy veggies.

  • When selecting produce at the store, think about when you’ll want to use it. For example, if you’re buying bananas to eat throughout the week, instead of buying one cluster of mostly green bananas, buy two smaller clusters, one mostly yellow (for sooner) and one mostly green (for later). Picking in-season produce and selecting it so that it will be ripe when you’re ready to use it are good ways to guarantee quality.

Organic Versus Conventional

Organic foods are those grown or raised to USDA National Organic Program (NOP) regulations on farms or ranches certified as following those regulations. Organic produce has restrictions on which pesticides can be used; animals butchered for organic meats are required to be given access to the outdoors and are prohibited from being given antibiotics or growth hormones. Because of these restrictions, the cost of producing organic food is typically higher.

Conventional foods are those not certified for sale under the label organic, regardless of whether they are grown to the same standards and regardless of their place of origin. They must still be grown to acceptable USDA/FDA standards, though.

When it comes to produce, just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s automatically safer, just as software labeled as open source isn’t necessarily of higher quality than proprietary software. Of course, there are other reasons to buy organic, but if your concern is food safety and pesticides, the benefit of organic isn’t necessarily clear-cut: whether exposure to traditional pesticides is always worse for you than exposure to their organic replacements is not yet known. The detectable levels of pesticides in our bodies are well below anything approaching toxic, and as chemists have told me, “it’s the dosage that matters.” To put some numbers to it, consider what Dr. Belitz et al. wrote in Food Chemistry (Springer): “[T]he natural chemicals [in a cup of coffee] that are known carcinogens are about equal to a year’s worth of synthetic pesticide residues that are carcinogens.”

Given the option, farmers would rather not have to spray any type of pesticide on their crops: it costs money, takes time, and increases their exposure to the chemicals. Just keep in mind that if there were an easy answer—say, if organic practices were always better and always cheaper—everyone would be doing it that way.

If you do feel going organic is for you but are on a tight budget, here are some general rules of thumb. For fruits, if you’re going to eat the skin, buy organic. If you’re going to peel them, buying organic appears to offer comparatively little advantage when it comes to exposure to pesticides. For veggies, organic bell pepper, celery, kale, and lettuce test as having lower levels of pesticides than their conventional counterparts. 

If you’re interested in seeing for yourself if organic food tastes different from conventional food, try this side-by-side experiment. Make two versions of a simple pasta dish with sautéed chicken and red and yellow bell peppers, using organic ingredients in one and conventional in the other. How does organic chicken compare to conventional chicken? Can you taste the difference in the bell peppers? For that authentic scientific experience, serve the side-by-side meal to a bunch of friends without revealing which bowl contains the organic version to run a true “taste test.” You might find the variance in flavor to be greater—or less—than you expect.

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