Spring is struggling to come through. Once last week, I bundled myself up in sweater, coat, scarf and gloves, only to find it 50 degrees outside. Just the next day, Pittsburgh’s unique mix of slush falling from the sky returned… and sweater, coat, scarf and gloves went right back on. I figure we still need a few more hearty recipes to get us through the cold.

The great thing about all the layers of clothing is that they cover up the… ahem… winter hibernation stores that I have amassed by making a whole lot of desserts and then bathing in cream sauce. After a winter of eating with such abandon, and being wholly committed to not stopping anytime soon, I joined a gym. The scary part is that I have my first meeting with the personal trainer on Tuesday, which will most certainly mean an argument about my diet. I’m trying to be optimistic, but people who work in gyms tend to suggest petroleum-based protein bars as a food source, to which I say, “I’m getting a farm box! There’s actual food in there!”

So in preparation, I’m dusting off some of my favorite hearty-yet-light recipes. I will put this black bean soup up against any low-fat, low-carb, low-calorie, low-enjoyment regimen that may be suggested to me on Tuesday. If one ascribes to nutritionism, the humble legume is a superfood – fiber-packed, low on the glycemic index, high in protein. And if one does not care so much about nutrition science and instead focuses on eating tasty foods full of things that actually come from farms, well, this soup will fill that bill, too. The four strips of bacon – that’s half a strip in each serving – make the whole bowl a smoky indulgence. Add a sprinkle of real cheddar cheese, a dollop of red pepper cream and a few blue corn chips, and you’ve covered a rainbow of vegetables and really enjoyed yourself. Not what you can say for a protein bar.

(OK, fine, I realize that it is not very hard to make actual food taste better than a protein bar. Pond scum and mud pies probably taste better than most protein bars. But this soup tastes much, much better than both pond scum or mud pies, so I still win.)

Black Bean Soup with Roasted Red Pepper Cream

For the Cream
2 whole, roasted red peppers from a jar, chopped
Handful of chives, snipped
8 ounces full-fat* sour cream
Salt and pepper, to taste

Mix all ingredients together and refrigerate until ready to use.

For the Soup
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 strips of bacon, diced
1 jalapeno or 2 red chilis, seeded and chopped
1 large onion, diced (about two cups)
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3 ribs celery, sliced thinly
3 15-ounce cans of black beans, all liquid reserved
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 pint mom’s canned tomatoes or 1 15-ounce can diced or whole tomatoes, with juices
6 cups chicken stock and/or water
Shredded cheddar,** hot sauce and roasted red pepper cream, to garnish

Heat the oil in a large stock pot over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and fry for 3-4 minutes, until fat begins to render. Add the hot pepper, onion, garlic and celery and cook for 5-6 minutes, stirring frequently, until onions are translucent and celery has softened. Add two cans of beans with all their liquid. Use a fork to mash the remaining can of beans (I just do it in the can), then add the mashed beans and all their liquid to the pot. Add the cumin, ground coriander, tomatoes and stock. Bring the soup just to a boil and reduce the heat. Simmer for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour.***

Ladle into large bowls, being sure to get a sizable portion of whole beans into each one. Garnish with a sprinkling of shredded cheddar cheese, a tablespoon of roasted red pepper cream and a dash of hot sauce, if you like. Serve with blue corn chips on the side.


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