If you live in southeastern Pennsylvania, you might have heard the forecasters hype a snowstorm for today. I was a little disappointed to wake to rain, but it brought the chilly dampness that harkens winter, the kind of day when mothers think soup. I'm not talking about a can of tomato or an envelope of chicken noodle. No, a day like today calls for soup simmering on the back of the stove for hours, a rich stock, a tender stew, a bean pot.
I can remember my grandmother making stock on a day like today. With a minimum investment of time and ingredients, she would transform a leftover carcass and a few aromatics into golden broth. The gently simmering liquid added much needed humidity to a winter house. The steam misted the windows, creating a warm cocoon. The homey aroma promised a hearty, healthy dinner.
It’s easy to keep soup ingredients on hand. Onions, carrots, garlic, and celery are staples in most kitchens. Bay leaves are another staple that you can use in tomato soups and many other recipes. I keep a zip lock bag in the freezer with the bits of chicken most people discard (bones with a bit of meat on them, wing ends, the tendons that I cut away from breasts, necks from a whole chicken). I also freeze the carcass of chicken or turkey rather than toss it in the trash. When we have ham, I always buy it with the bone. It’s cheaper, and I have the start for split pea soup or pasta fagiole. Soup is an economical way to feed a family.
Some people believe that soup making is a kind of alchemy, beyond the reach of the average cook. I suspect that these people never witnessed a soup maker at work. Work is probably too strong a word for soup making, however. The only heavy lifting involved is moving the filled pot to and from the stove. While it does take time to make soup, the time is largely unattended. In fact, the best part of making soup is that it gives me an excuse to stay indoors on a nasty day. If I’m asked to run an errand, I can simply say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m making soup.” A fellow soup maker understands. The uninitiated are awed. And I’m left to tend my soup, usually sitting in my recliner with a book in my hands.
So today, I found a bag of beans I bought at the Grower’s Market, and tonight we’ll have pasta fagiole, a perfect meal for a perfectly nasty day.
1 pound small white beans*, rinsed and picked over to remove any dirt or stones
1 bay leaf
1 meaty ham bone
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, thinly sliced
2 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small can diced tomatoes
1 cup uncooked ditalini (or any small pasta)
Cover beans with water in a large, heavy pot with lid and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover pot, and let sit for one hour.
After the beans have softened, drain, and return to the same pot. Add bay leaf and ham bone. Cover all with water by at least 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer, cover pot, and cook until beans are tender, between 2 and 3 hours. (Don’t be tempted to cook beans at a high temperature. The beans will break apart, leaving you with a pot of mush.) Add hot water as needed to keep everything covered.
When beans are tender, remove ham bone and add onion, carrots, celery, garlic, and tomatoes. Continue to cook for another hour, until the vegetables are tender. If necessary, add more hot water to bring to a soup-like consistency. When the ham is cool enough to handle, remove any meat from the bone, chop, and return it to the soup pot.
About 30 minutes before serving, bring pot of salted water to a boil and cook the ditalini until al dente. Drain and add to the soup pot. Allow everything to simmer for about five minutes, then turn off the heat and let sit for another five minutes while you gather the family together, slice a loaf of crusty bread, and pour the wine. Remove bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with a drizzle of full-flavored extra-virgin olive oil.
Vegetarian option: eliminate ham and add extra garlic and onions. Sauté the vegetables in olive oil over low heat until caramelized to add a depth of flavor before returning the beans to the pot and covering with water. Add a generous teaspoon of salt when cooking the beans and the vegetables because otherwise the beans will be bland.
Other options: if you don’t have a ham bone, you can substitute bacon or pancetta. Put the bacon or pancetta in the empty pot while you are draining the beans. Cook until the bacon or pancetta releases its fat and becomes crisp. Continue the recipe as written.
*Fresher beans will cook more quickly than older beans, but there is little difference in flavor.