Here’s another great winter soup. It requires a little forethought (ie remembering to soak the beans) but once you have that ingredient ready, it takes very little time at all. Of course, you could cheat and use beans out of a tin…
For this recipe I use fagiolino dall’occhio, a small, pale, creamy-coloured pulse with a black ‘eye’ where the bean was attached to its shell. They’re beautifully nutty in flavour and have the great advantage of softening fairly fast: it shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours of gentle simmering (or a swift late-night boil then overnight soak) to make them palatable. If you can’t locate this type, a small cannellino (navy) bean will do.
Small dried white beans (fagiolini dall’occhio are best) – 200 g
Cavolo nero (black kale) – smallish bunch, about 300 g
Dried porcini mushrooms – small handful, about 10-15 pieces
Onion – one large
Garlic – two large cloves
Thyme – small sprig
Bi-carb soda – 1 tsp
Vegetable stock (or cube)
Cheese (parmesan or pecorino) for grating – optional
Rinse the beans, place them in a saucepan and cover them with abundant cold water, which should reach about double the height of the beans. Add a level teaspoon of bi-carb soda to speed up the softening process; if you use salt or vegetable stock cubes, don’t add them at this point because the salt will slow the process down. If you prefer to use home-made vegetable stock, you can cook the beans in this but only if it’s salt-free.
Cover the pot, bring the water to the boil, then turn it down low and allow the beans to simmer gently until they’re completely soft. (A wood-burning stove is perfect for this.) Keep an eye on the beans to make sure they aren’t drying out. As they expand they should absorb most of the water but it’s important to keep them from becoming a sticky mushy lump… they need to be moving about slowly in enough liquid to keep them separate. If there’s no liquid, add a little boiling water as necessary.
When the beans are almost ready, put the mushrooms in a small bowl and just cover them with boiling water (or stock), then set them aside to soak.
Prepare the kale by pulling the green part off the tough centre rib, washing the leaves and slicing them cross-wise into strips about one centimetre wide. Steam the leaves until they are just soft; keep the water in the bottom of your steamer because this can go into the soup – no vitamins are thrown away here!
Roughly chop the onion and garlic and fry them gently in a deep saucepan until they’re soft. Now ladle out about half of your beans (when they’re properly soft and you’ve turned off the heat beneath them, the liquid in the pot should just ooze up through the beans but not swamp them) and add them, and the liquid which comes with them, to the onions. You’ll need to add enough liquid – from the beans, the kale-steaming water or the water/stock you’re soaking the mushrooms in: it’s immaterial in the long run – to be able to put your stick blender in the saucepan and whizz the beans and onions until you have a lump-free liquid.
Now add the rest of the beans, half a vegetable stock cube, the thyme, whatever’s left of the kale-steaming water and the pieces of porcini mushroom with their soaking water, and place the saucepan over a medium-high heat to bubble merrily, uncovered, and reduce for about ten minutes, until it’s the consistency (more or less) of thin cream. Keep it bubbling while you add the kale, and continue cooking for another five minutes or so until the kale has mixed well into the soup, absorbing the flavours of the mushrooms and beans.
I’m still in two minds as to whether this soup needs cheese or not. But if I do add cheese, I tend to grate a little very well seasoned pecorino over it; others prefer parmesan. However you decide to eat it, don’t forget to add a thin drizzle of very good extra virgin olive oil and lots of freshly ground black pepper.
© Anne Hanley, 2012