Serbia: Pasulj Čorba (Hearty Bean and Sausage Soup)

A bowl of pasulj

Pasulj is Serbian for "bean": the word seems to have come into the language from an ancient Greek word, fasali, which meant "bean" or sometimes "kidney bean". In modern usage the bean in question is usually a white bean of the cannellini type.

This might not qualify as the Serbian national dish, but it's certainly much loved. Pasulj has a slight reputation as "poor people's food", something you can make a lot of for very little money. But it also carries with it some of the slightly nostalgic overtones of a comfort food.

However you think of it, pasulj is one of those seriously stick-to-your-ribs soups that's easy to make. There are a number of variations on the basic theme, which normally involves the white beans (either canned or dried), onions, tomatoes or tomato paste, and then paprika and pepper to flavor the broth. Most versions add some vegetable besides the onion: these can include bell peppers / capsicums, carrots, potatoes (or other root vegetables), or celery.

Meat is normally part of pasulj as well -- ideally smoked meat. This can be smoked bacon or a good smoked sausage. In this version of the recipe, we're using both, the sausage being a good smoky kielbasa.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb dried white beans (navy beans or cannellini): or 1 lb of canned white beans
  • 2 tablespoons olive or sunflower oil
  • 1/4 pound smoked streaky bacon
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper / capsicum, red or green: cored, seeded and chopped
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
  • 6 whole peppercorns
  • 2 heaping teaspoons sweet paprika
  • 1 heaping teaspoon hot paprika
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 pound kielbasa or other smoky simmering sausage, thickly sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, more if required

(If you're using canned beans, naturally you can skip the instructions for cooking the beans, and after combining all the ingredients but the kielbasa, simmer the soup for about an hour to an hour and a half. Add the kielbasa at the one-hour point.)

Meanwhile, for those doing it the old-fashioned way: put the beans in a colander and pick them over to get rid of any grit or discolored beans. Rinse them a couple of times in cold water. Then put in a large saucepan, cover about an inch or two deep in water, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and let the beans cook gently for half an hour.

At the end of that time, remove the pot from the heat and pour a liter or so of cold water over the beans to stop the cooking. Allow them to rest for ten minutes or so, then drain the water off and set them aside for the time being.

Dry the big pot out and add the olive oil or sunflower oil. Add the chopped bacon and saute it gently until it starts to brown and its fat runs. Then add the chopped onions and fry until translucent. Add the chopped garlic, the bay leaves, the chopped parsley, and the peppercorns. (Make sure you do not add the salt at this point. If you add it now, the beans will refuse to get tender when you cook them.) Finally add the paprika, frying everything gently for about five minutes thereafter.

Add about a liter of boiling water and the beans. Stir well and add the tomato paste: cover.

Turn the heat down and allow the soup to simmer very gently for at least 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the beans are soft. (You will need to keep checking the beans for their degree of doneness: they may take as long as three hours' simmering to become soft, depending on the particular batch of beans.) About an hour before the soup will be ready, add the kielbasa.

A little before serving time, check the taste and then add the salt. Do it a little at a time, being careful not to oversalt.

Finally, before serving, use a potato masher or a broad spoon to mash some of the cooked beans against the side of the pot so they will thicken the soup somewhat.

Serve with slices of a good thick farmhouse rye or other dark bread. A big red wine will go well with this, too.