Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Zuppa di farro e fagioli (Tuscan farro and bean soup)

I know June is not usually the month when you'd think of making a hearty country soup like this, but the weather here has been unseasonably gray. Besides that, this soup is really really good. So good I think it can be made in any season, unless it's so hot that you can't even bear the thought of turning on your stove!

Hearty is definitely the first word that comes to mind when you take your first spoonful of this. It's the sort of soup you would want after biking through a bevy of hills in a rainstorm - thick, warm, and revitalizing.

A classic Tuscan dish, this soup focuses on two main ingredients: farro, a form of wheat (I think it's also called emmer in English), and fagioli, i.e., beans. Though you can use whatever type of beans you want, I think the most common kind, and the kind I used, are fagioli borlotti. In fact, the main reason I made this soup was because when I was in Lucca in December I bought a giant sack of fagioli borlotti (they're dirt cheap in Italy and unreasonably expensive in the U.S.), and they'd been sitting in my cupboard untouched since then. They're a very good bean - I don't know how to describe them except that they taste exactly the way a bean should taste. Here's a picture of them if that helps:

Anyways, zuppa di farro e fagioli had been on my list of recipes to make for months, and I finally decided it was time. And it turns out that the soup tastes great (of course, every Italian recipe I've ever tried has tasted great), and I now have a large pot of wonderful soup that will last me through most of the week!

I looked through a bunch of different recipes, and naturally no two were quite the same. After getting a general feel for what needed to be done and taking stock of the ingredients I actually had on hand, I made my own version as described below. However, soup is very versatile, so feel free to substitute things, for example using water or peeled tomatoes, adding celery, using leeks or shallots instead of onions, etc.

Ingredients (makes 3-4 portions):
200 g. dried beans - fagioli borlotti if you can get them, other beans if you can't
200 g. farro (you can find it at Italian grocery stores and at some supermarkets, like Whole Foods - may be near the pasta section or perhaps in other grain sections)
1 small yellow onion
1 carrot
Herbs of your choosing, fresh whenever possible, but dried if not. In this case, I used fresh thyme, as I had just bought a large bunch of it, along with dried rosemary and sage, and a bay leaf thrown in for good luck
A couple spoonfuls of tomato paste
Several cups of vegetable broth
Olive oil

The night before you make the soup, rinse the beans under cold running water and then put them in a pot and fill the pot with water so it covers the beans and then some. Let the beans soak overnight and throughout the next day, changing the water every so often when you can.

Approximately 3 hours before you want to eat the soup, bring the water with the beans in it to a boil and then let them simmer for 2 hours.

Towards the end of the simmer, peel the onion and carrot and chop them finely. Wash and chop any fresh herbs.

After the 2 hours are up, drain the beans. Set 1/3 of the beans aside and mash up the remaining 2/3, either by hand or in a food processor (it's pretty easy to mash them up by hand, so the food processor isn't really necessary here).

Bring the broth to a boil, and pour a bit of it into a small cup. Add the tomato paste to this small bit of broth to dilute it and let it spread more easily into the soup.

In a large pan, heat some olive oil, and then add the onion, carrot, and fresh herbs. Sauté them for a few minutes, then add the beans (both the mashed-up ones and the ones left whole), the broth, the tomato paste, and the dried herbs. Add salt and pepper, cover, and turn heat down to a simmer. Let cook about 20 minutes, then rinse the farro and add them to the soup. Let cook another 20 minutes and serve warm.

As the soup is very hearty (did I mention that before?), there will likely be plenty left over for the coming days, which is just fine!

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