Italian White Bean Soup with Rosemary, Farro, and Winter Greens

tonyr_pot_k Helen writes: I want to make Italian white bean soup. I have almost no experience with dried beans so I’d love some direction. I’m serving 4, but I’d like leftovers, too.

tonyr_cook_k  Tony’s take: Thanks for the question, Helen! I’m glad you did. I don’t make white bean soup often, but every time I do, I always have one of those “why-don’t-I-do-this-more-often!” revelations (same difference with pot pie and souffles and water parks). There is nothing super complicated about my technique: dried cannellini beans, plenty of herbs and aromatic vegetables, and some sort of cured pork product (prosciutto below). It’s a method that I learned in Italy; stirring it together brings back good memories. Here are a couple of notes from my bean belief system as well as an easy recipe:

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– Soaking helps: When possible, I prefer soaking beans; helps them cook more gently and evenly and also speeds up the cook time. If you don’t have the time or foresight, just go ahead and simmer the beans (from their dried state), but do so gently, so they don’t splinter or bust.

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– 2 pots before 1: Regardless of whether the beans have been soaked or not, simmer them on their own until tender (about 1 1/2 hours), before combining with the vegetable base (a mix of diced carrots, onions, and celery). Sauteing the vegetables separately builds caramelized flavor; doing it apart from the beans ensures this browned flavor is left intact and doesn’t get washed out during the beans’ slow cook. 

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– Cured pork power: One thing I miss from living in pork-crazy countries like Italy and Spain is how easy it is to come by the bones or chunky pieces of prosciutto or jamon serrano. These large end pieces are nice because they’re cheap, but still packs the same wonderfully complex, aged flavor. I’ve found an Italian grocer near me that sells 1/2-lb edge pieces of prosciutto in the deli; in a pinch, I will just ask the deli person at the supermarket to cut prosciutto or pancetta in 1/2-inch slices.

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– Finishing touches: I like homemade croutons with white bean soup, though occasionally I’ll look to a grain as a starchy addition instead. Below, I call on farro, an heirloom variety of wheat whose texture is kind of like barley; it adds a toothy counterpoint to the beans. Towards the end of cooking, I like to blend some of the beans to thicken the broth. Use an immersion blender or ladle a cup of the beans and broth into a blender and give them a buzz. Finally, add a splash of lemon juice or red wine vinegar towards the end of cooking to give the soup some balance and zip; white beans (like all beans) are heavy.

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THE RECIPE (Serves 6 to 8)

1. Cook the beans: Rinse 1 lb. dried cannellini beans, transfer to a large pot and  cover with cold water by a couple of inches. Add 3 garlic cloves (smashed), 2 bay leaves, and 1 sprig fresh rosemary. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a steady simmer (medium-low on my stovetop), cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans become completely tender, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Note: add a splash of water as needed if the beans becomes dry; the mixture should be loose and brothy.

2. Meanwhile, cook the vegetables and farro: Fill a small pot with cold water (about 6 cups) and bring to a boil. Stir in kosher salt (about 1 Tbs.) and 1 cup farro (or barley). Return to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the farro becomes completely tender, about 25 minutes. Drain well and reserve.  In another large pot over medium-high heat, heat 2 Tbs. olive oil until it’s shimmering hot, about 1 1/2 min. Add 6 oz. prosciutto (cut in 1/2 inch pieces), reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring, until the prosciutto starts to brown, about 5 min. Add 1 Spanish onion (cut in 1/4-inch dice), 2 carrots (peeled and cut in 1/4-inch dice), and 1 fennel bulb (cut in 1/2 dice), sprinkle with 1 tsp. kosher salt and cook, stirring, until the vegetables brown in places and start to soften, about 6 minutes. Remove from the heat.

3. Combine and simmer:  Using an immersion blender (or working in a regular blender), puree about 1 cup worth of beans. Add this pureed mixture, the cooked beans (and their liquid), and the farro to the vegetable pot. Stir in 3 cups kale (thinly sliced) and a generous sprinkling of S+P, set the pot over medium-low heat, and cook until the broth thickens, the kale wilts, and the beans and farro are completely tender, about 30 min. Add more water as needed to thin the soup.

4. Season and serve: Season to taste with lemon juice (about 2 Tbs.) and S+P and serve with chopped fresh rosemary and a drizzle of good olive oil.

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