THE ART OF ITALIAN DINING
Is there anything more soul warming on a cold (okay, and not so cold) day than a bowl of soup? One wisp of its aromatic steam, laced with woodsy rosemary, flavored with the earthiness of San Marzano tomatoes and richly perfumed with garlic and onions and a wonderful (and beautiful) bouquet of herbs! it’s no wonder this crema became one of my clients’ favorites at the last CULINARY MISCHiEF. Quick and easy, too.
Nothing could be simpler or more satisfying. Beans are now in season and you should use fresh ones! But if you are using canned beans—which…. you can, why not?—the soup can be done in minutes. There is no cream in this soup, by the way, the Italian word crema does not mean cream, as in the dairy product, but simply refers to any smooth, creamy textured purée.
This recipe is incredible flexible and versatile. Usually, it can be served with some crusty bread on the side, or top of a piece of toasted bread laid at the bottom of the plate, or topped with croutons fried in olive oil, and—as picture above—with boiled rice mixed in. Or some soup pasta instead of the rice.
The same method lends itself to just about any other bean or legume: borlotti, lentils, fagioli all’occhio (black eyed peas), chickpeas… you name it. For a more ‘refined’ taste, you substitute a soffritto of onion, or onion, carrot and celery, for the garlic, in which case don’t remove them from the pan as you would the garlic. For a bit more substance, you can also fry some cubed pancetta in the seasoned oil. Or top your crema with some sautéed shrimp or scallops, which makes for an elegant presentation fit for company.
Boiling dried beans takes some time but is very easy. If you have the time, soak the beans in water to cover them amply, either overnight or save yourself some time by bringing them to a boil and let them soak in the hot water for an hour. Pre-soaking is not strictly necessary, but it does save time and helps the beans to retain their taste and texture—although that’s not too important if you’re going to use them in a purée, of course. Then simmer them in water to cover generously, along with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprig of fresh sage (if you have some on hand) until tender. Season with salt a few minutes before the beans are done. The simmering liquid has lots of flavor and can be used to thin out the crema.
If using canned beans, on the other hand, make sure to rinse them off and drain in a colander. The canning liquid has stuff you don’t want to ingest and, besides, it gives a funny ‘canned’ taste to the dish. When using canned beans, it is best to use broth to give the crema some extra flavor. Crema di cannellini, when it is kept quite thick, makes for a nice topping for crostini.
So, matey…get yourself in the kitchen and whip up a steaming pot of Italian love!
TUSCAN CANNELLINI BEANS SOUP
Ingredients (serves 4)
Place beans in large bowl. Cover with cold water by 3 inches and let soak overnight
Drain beans. Place in heavy medium pot. Add 5 cups cold water and onion. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and gently simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans are very tender, adding water as necessary to keep beans covered by about 1/2 inch, 50 minutes to 1 1/2 hours (depending on freshness of beans).
Meanwhile, in a medium pot, sauté in abundant extra virgin olive oil the chopped carrots, celery and garlic until lightly browned. Add the tomato paste and allow for flavors to blend (2-3 minutes).
When beans are tender, drain them making sure to save the cooking liquid including the onion.
Transfer the cooked beans in the medium pot and allow the beans to flavor with the vegetables for a few minutes (5-10), then add enough cooking water, or broth to thin out the bean purée to the consistency of a soup. Add the bouquet of herbs, salt and pepper and let cook at low flame, covered for at least 1 hour adding cooking liquid or broth as needed.
Remove the aromatic bouquet and carefully purée until smooth. Strain purée through a fine-mesh sieve back into pot; discard bean skins. Whisk in 1 1/2 tablespoons oil and heat gently to warm through; season generously with salt and pepper. Stir in the chopped parsley, add water or broth to thin soup to your liking, if desired.
Garnish with sauté’ diced pancetta, a teaspoon of pesto and grated parmigiano reggiano.
In a large nonstick skillet, heat remaining tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add barley and garlic clove; cook, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes. Stir in herbs and cook 1 minute more. Remove and discard garlic clove.
Ladle soup into bowls; spoon barley on top. Sprinkle with a little extra salt.