Tuscan bean soup

This summer, I started a tiny patio garden with Mike on his (now our) apartment balcony. We had 3 types of tomatoes and 7 varieties of herbs growing out there, and it was so exciting to see everything take off when the weather heated up. Then we decided to leave Denver for a few weeks to get married and go on a honeymoon, and when we came back, the patio looked like a plant graveyard. It was a sad time. I stayed in denial for awhile, still watering my super dead plants regularly. Occasionally I'd be reminded of how good I had it, like when a recipe called for a teaspoon of fresh thyme and for a second, I'd think "Ok, I'll just cut some from the pati-- Oh. Right." And then I'd sadly dig out my dried thyme leaves from the pantry.

Normally, winter food gets a bit depressing for me because of a huge lack of fresh flavor. Don't get me wrong - I love me some potatoes and roasted carrots and hearty lasagna. But sometimes in January I really wish I had a good tomato and some berries, and that's just not happening. This winter, I've found a way to help combat the food blues: indoor herbs. Little pots of thyme, rosemary, sage, and basil sitting by a sunny window, ready to give even the most bland root vegetables a kick of flavor.

There really is no comparison between fresh and dried herbs, and I think that one of the easiest ways to take your cooking from a 4 to an 8 is to utilize fresh herbs whenever possible. Now, those darn fresh-cut herbs are outrageously pricey in grocery stores. On more than one occasion, I've bought a small potted herb plant for about the same price as I would have paid for three sad-looking sprigs in a plastic package in the produce section. Check around your local hardware stores, nurseries, and higher-end grocery stores for the last potted herbs of the season, stick them by a sunny window, water a few times per week, and enjoy better flavor all winter long.
Spelt is a wonderfully flavorful ancient grain, slightly nutty and earthy with a great chewy texture. Spelt is in the wheat family and it is not gluten-free, but some wheat-sensitive people do not react to it in the same negative way they react to wheat (please note that those with Celiac should stay away from gluten, period). Because spelt is not as widely used and thus not as "inbred" as most wheat varieties, it is higher in some vitamins and minerals as well. It holds its shape and texture well, even when it sits in liquid for a long time, making it a great grain to add to soups. It is commonly available in the bulk bin section of many grocery stores, and I always keep it on hand to add extra heartiness to soups or salads.

This particular soup is a tried-and-true favorite of mine. I make it several times throughout the cold weather season, and it seems to get better after a few days in the fridge. Make it on a Sunday and have great lunches all week.
I see you, worrying about that mold on my cheese. Don't sweat it. On cheese, mold is only surface-deep. Cut it out, and it's as good as new. 
Tuscan bean soup
Adapted from The Italian Dish
Serves 6
Note: You can use a 15-ounce can of white beans and a 15-ounce can of chickpeas instead of dried soaked beans here if you prefer. Since canned beans are already fully cooked, you won't need to simmer the soup as long - only 30 minutes or so to infuse all the flavors together.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small celery rib, chopped (~1/4 cup)
1 small carrot, chopped (~1/3 cup)
1/2 of a small onion, diced (~1/2 cup)
3 large garlic cloves, minced
4 cups chicken stock + 2 cups water
28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2/3 cup dried white (cannellini or navy) beans, soaked overnight
2/3 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
5" Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
3/4 cup spelt or farro
Parmigiano-Reggiano for garnish
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the celery, carrot, and onion, and saute until softened, about 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and saute an additional minute. Add the stock/water and the crushed tomatoes. Drain and rise the soaked beans and add to the pot. Drop in the rosemary and the Parmigiano-Reggiano rind. Bring the soup to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for about 75 minutes or until the beans are tender.
  2. While the soup simmers, bring 2 1/2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Stir in the spelt or farro and cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and set aside. 
  3. When the beans in the soup are tender, remove the pot from the heat and remove the rosemary sprigs and the parmesan rind. Use an immersion blender to puree about half of the soup (if you don't own an immersion blender, transfer half of the soup to a blender and flend for a few seconds). You can make this soup as smooth or chunky as you like. 
  4. Return the soup to the stove and add the cooked spelt or farro. Reheat gently.
  5. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve immediately with some Parmigiano-Reggiano shaved on top and some rosemary focaccia on the side.

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