Jim Dixon wrote about food for WW for more than 20 years, but these days most of his time is spent in his specialty olive oil food business A market well spent. Jim has always loved to eat and encourages his customers to cook by sending them recipes every week his newsletter. We’re happy to have him back creating some special dishes just for WW readers.
While some diners view soup as an appetizer—something to whet the appetite before the rest of the meal hits the table—for me, soup is the meal. And that’s why it has to be essential: a bunch of delicious things cooked together that fill me up. Most of the time, this means that beans are a key player.
Soups I ate in Italy inspired this bean and grain soup, where several ancient varieties of wheat produce husked fruits that are not easily digested but are often cooked whole and called farro. Whether the wheat is spelt, emmer or spelt, the usually whole or partially pearled berries provide a nutty, chewy addition to the simple bean soups found in Tuscany and Umbria.
Once the beans are stewed to a creamy tenderness, the farro is added and simmered for another hour. And while the vegetables can be added straight to the pot, I borrow one of Marcella Hazan’s techniques for concentrating the flavor and cook them lightly in olive oil first. This recipe only uses onions, carrots, celery, and cabbage, but potatoes, celery root, parsnips, cabbage, or Swiss chard would be good additions.
A splash of vinegar at the very end adds the acidic sheen that’s often missing from soups like this. The soup is not sour; just better. Toast some crusty bread for dipping, or even better, tear a piece into pieces and drop it right into the bowl. And always add a drizzle of good olive oil to the table.
1 1/2 cups (about 1/2 pound) pinto, borlotti, or cranberry beans
6 cups water, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons kosher sea salt
1/4 cup whole wheat farro (see note)
1 onion, minced
2 carrots, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1/2 head of green cabbage, chopped
1 14 oz can crushed tomatoes (see note)
2 teaspoons of salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
A pinch of MSG, optional but highly recommended
1-2 teaspoons of wine vinegar
Note: Most imported farro has had some of the entire outer shell removed, a process called pearling, and the grain will be labeled perlato or semi-perlato. Whole wheat farro retains all the nutrients of wheat and has a firmer texture. Check the labels and get tomatoes without added calcium chloride, which is used as an astringent but also prevents the tomatoes from falling apart in the soup.
Combine the beans and water in a large saucepan, add the salt and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until beans are very tender, about 2-4 hours. When the beans are done, add the farro and cook for another 45-60 minutes, or until the farro is tender (it will still have some snap).
While the beans are cooking, combine the onion, carrot and celery with the olive oil in a heavy pan. Add a pinch of salt and cook over moderate heat until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato puree, add the cabbage and cook for another 10 minutes.
Add the vegetables to the beans and farro. If the soup is particularly thick, add more water as needed and simmer for another hour or until the vegetables are very tender. Taste and add salt and, if desired, a shake of MSG (or a dollop of soy sauce or similar umami-heavy seasoning). Stir in the vinegar, taste again and add a little more vinegar or salt if needed.
While the soup is ready to eat, it will taste better if you turn off the heat and let it sit for an hour or more. Drizzle each bowl with more olive oil before serving and toast some crusty bread.