When our Virginia Creeper begins to turn, its leaves tinged a scarlet red, we dig out our store of dried cannellinis and head straight for the stove. Beans are a warehouse of nutritional storage. They are slow energy releasing and high in essential minerals, protein and fibre.
Cannellini beans hail from Italy and are dainty little things (if beans can ever be dainty). When cooked, they have a fluffy texture and a mild, nutty flavour.
This soup is one of our favourites – it brings together humble ingredients in a simple, no fuss sort of way. After a gentle one and a half hour simmer, the broth is full of flavour and the crushed chili adds just the right amount of bite. The last minute addition of fresh greens (pak choi, frisee or whatever you happen to have on hand) gives that fresh element which we cannot go without. It needs only a generous grating of Parmesan to be a substantial lunch or dinner, though we are often left wishing the pot were just that much bigger.
All that being said, a potential love interest once described this soup as “peasant food.” Well, that was the end of that.
It is worth mentioning our choice of Parmesan cheese. Parmigiano Reggiano – the king of Italian cheeses – has a nuttier and slightly saltier taste than its Lombardy counterpart (Grana Padana). We find that extra strength of flavour vital to this dish. Always be sure to have it within arms reach – the first grating is never enough.
1 ½ cups of dried cannellini (haricot, baby lima or other small white beans)
2 litres water
3 dried bay leaves
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons sea salt
¼ teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
400g pak choi, roughly chopped
8 garlic cloves, crushed
to serve: Parmigiano Reggiano
Cover the beans with at least 10cm of cold water and allow to soak for 8 hours or overnight. Drain and transfer to a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Pour in the 2 litres of water, toss in the bay leaves and salt and bring to a boil.
Skim any excess foam that may appear on the surface. Add the chili, half the olive oil and adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook until the beans are tender, 1 – 1 ½ hours. Heat the remaining olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until golden. Remove from the heat and carefully – it will sputter quite a bit – pour a spoonful of soup into the skillet. Swirl and then stir the seasoned soup back into the large pot. Add the pak choi and gently simmer until it begins to brighten.
Top each bowl with a generous grating of Parmesan.
A twist on Ina Garten’s escarole and white bean soup