February is the time of year for comfort food, and we're making soup. It's rugged, simple and full of flavor.
Because of its white bean base, this recipe is reminiscent of a traditional Tuscan bread-based soup called ribollita. Ribollita is Italian for "reboiled." Traditionally, the soup was made by reheating leftover minestrone soup from the day before, and thickening the mixture by adding vegetables and bread.
Like much of Italian food, ribollita comes from humble beginnings. Over centuries of poverty on the Italian peninsula, small farmers and serfs created soups, making use not just of water but bread and vegetable bases, making thick and delicious combinations. During the Middle Ages, meat was reserved for the noble and the wealthy. Peasants cooked with what they had; they combined leftover bread with any available vegetables and made soup. Its contents changed based on what was available. This soup is hard to mess up. Incorporate whatever's left over. Every family's ribollita is different, and the same family makes it differently every time. Easily double quantities for a dinner party or save some in the freezer for a week.
The ribollita mentality is one the Batali clan heartily embraces, especially in the winter, when we're burrowing in from the Michigan or New York City cold. The concept of cooking what's available and fresh is not reserved for the summer.
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This recipe is unlike ribollita in that there is no cavolo nero (often called Tuscan kale or Lacinato kale). This dish can be served in many ways. It could easily be a lunch in itself, or a nice antipasto. Low in fat and high in protein, beans are the choice ingredient. If you season and cook them properly, they're delicious, too.
Soup is essential to a home cook's repertoire because of its versatility. Soups work in every season. The broccoli used in this recipe could easily be substituted with kale or spinach, as the market permits. And it's easy to incorporate items that otherwise collect dust in your cupboard or mold in your refrigerator. Basic ingredients like dry or canned beans and Parmigiano-Reggiano are items my kitchen is never without.
Broccoli and white bean soup
1 pound fresh broccoli
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Spanish onions, chopped into ¼-inch dice
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
5 fresh garlic cloves: 2 thinly sliced, 3 halved
One 3-inch piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
2 (16-ounce) cans cannellini or other white beans, rinsed and well drained
10 hand-cut slices of crusty whole-grain bread, toasted
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Remove and discard the tough end from the broccoli stems, and coarsely chop the broccoli.
Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and sliced garlic, and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add broccoli and 1 tablespoon sea salt, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 6 cups hot water and the cheese rind. Raise the heat to medium-high, bring to a boil, and cook for 3 minutes. Then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
Remove the cheese rind, cut it into ¼-inch cubes, and set them aside. Transfer the soup, in small batches, to a blender or food processor, cover tightly, and blend until smooth. Return the soup to the Dutch oven and add the cheese rind pieces. Season to taste with salt, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the beans, and simmer for 10 more minutes.
Rub both sides of the toasted bread with the cut sides of the halved garlic cloves. Tear the toasts into bite-size pieces, and divide them evenly among warmed soup bowls. Ladle the soup over the toast pieces in each bowl. Top each serving with grated Parmigiano, and serve.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.