Baby, it's cold outside...time to make some soup. This is a nice change from a typical bean with ham soup, easily prepared with a little cheater - canned, pre-cooked beans. You won't need sophisticated kitchen skills for good results. This has actually been independently tested - I cobbled this together for someone who had never made soup from anything but a red-and-white can. She was crazy enough to organize a discussion group that included a soup dinner, and didn't get enough volunteers to make the main course. This soup was a great success, and made us both minor celebrities in a small corner of the San Joaquin Valley. Rather funny, since it's the only part of California I've never visited.

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There are many elegant, smooth Tuscan-style bean soups, but this is hearty and rustic fare. Serve it to good friends who linger too long in your home, forever yammering about books, politics and the plight of humanity.

8 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
1-1/2 pounds sweet, American-style Italian link sausages, casings removed1
4 (15.5 ounce) cans Cannellini beans2, undrained
2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, minced3
2 medium onions, peeled, medium dice
2 medium carrots, peeled, medium dice
2 medium celery stalks, outer strings removed, finely diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 quart chicken stock
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 dried bay leaf
Freshly ground pepper, a few generous twists

Heat oil in a large, deep Dutch oven or soup kettle over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the sausages. Turn links until well-browned on all sides - sausages will not be fully cooked. Remove pot from heat. Remove the sausages, cool briefly on paper toweling, then cut into 1/4-inch slices.

In a large bowl, mash two cans of the beans into a chunky paste - do not purée. Add the two additional cans of beans to the mashed mixture and set aside.

While sausages are cooling, return the pot to a burner and set to medium flame to reheat the oil and pan drippings. Add the prosciutto, onions, carrots, celery and thyme. Sauté mixture until vegetables turn a medium-brown. Toss in the garlic and cook briefly - do not brown.

Add the chicken stock, whole and mashed beans, rosemary sprigs, bay leaf and sausage. Add freshly ground pepper, to taste; it will mellow during the cooking process if you add it at this point, giving flavor, not a spicy heat. Reduce heat to low. Simmer, partially covered, for at about 30 minutes - stir occasionally to avoid burning.

Remove the Dutch oven from heat and let rest (off the stove) at least 20 minutes4. Remove rosemary sprigs and bay leaf; serve hot in your largest soup bowls. Garnish suggestion: include a twist of prosciutto and a couple fresh rosemary sprigs, just to break the beige landscape.

1You can substitute chorizo, andouille, or kielbasa for the Italian sausages; your kitchen, your rules. Perhaps avoid the standard, sage-flavored breakfast sausages.
2 Great Northern or navy beans can be substituted, but you won't experience the unique, buttery goodness of the cannellinis.
3Diced ham or bacon can be used instead of prosciutto, depending on your taste preference, local availability or your bank account balance.
4 Soups are usually better after an extended rest period; you can cool and refrigerate at this point, and reheat to serve. Don't leave it in the fridge for more than a couple of days.

(If you prefer to avoid canned beans, use about two generous cups of dried Cannellini, and use some chicken or vegetable stock to replace the canning liquid. Wing it, proceeding with caution if you are an inexperienced cook.

Credit where credit is due: this is based on recipes from Pam Anderson (the cookbook author and editor, not the Baywatch actress), and Ina Garten - "The Barefoot Contessa."

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