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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hearty Soup and Fall Weather--Definitely A Winning Combination

After one of the hottest summers I can remember, autumn has at last arrived in New England.  Temperatures have started to drop, there’s a crispness in the air, and days are getting shorter.  I’ve even noticed that my fellow New Englanders--typically reserved and quiet--have broad smiles on their faces and are uncharacteristically chatty, initiating conversations with “Fall is here!”

So, along with taking out my sweaters and jackets, and setting the thermostat to warm instead of cool, I’ve pulled out my recipes for robust dishes. Among them is a Tuscan-style white bean soup topped with crusty croutons. A breeze to make, this hearty Italian “zuppa,” assembled with cannellini beans, carrots, onions, celery, and kale plus a hint of bacon, is perfect for the new season. 

You’ll need to soak the beans, and then count on 30 minutes of prep time plus an hour or more of unattended simmering atop the stove until the vegetables and beans are tender. But, you’ll be rewarded with a rich rustic potage, satisfying enough to offer as a main course. Add a romaine salad plus juicy pears and biscotti for dessert to round out the menu.

Tuscan-style White Bean Soup with Crisp Croutons
2 cups dried cannellini beans
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 cup finely diced bacon
1 cup finely diced onion
1 cup finely diced carrots
1 cup finely diced celery
8 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons dried crushed rosemary
2 dried bay leaves, broken in half
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
12 baguette slices cut 1/2-inch thick
3 cups (packed) coarsely chopped fresh kale, tough stems cut out and discarded
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano

1. Place the dried beans in a colander and rinse under cold water to remove any dirt or grit. Then place beans in a large heatproof bowl, and cover with 5 cups boiling water.  Set aside to soak for 1 hour, then drain beans in a colander.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, heavy pot set over medium heat.  Add the bacon and sauté until golden and crisp; remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.  Add onion, carrots, and celery and sauté until slightly soft, about 5 minutes.
3. Return bacon to the pot and add beans, stock, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, 1 teaspoon salt, and several grinds of pepper.  Bring to a simmer, lower heat, and cook at a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans are tender 1 to 1 1/2 hours. (Soup can be prepared 1 day ahead to this point.  Cool, cover, and refrigerate.  Reheat over medium heat.)
4. For croutons, arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place baguette slices on a baking sheet, brush on both sides with remaining olive oil, then toast until lightly browned, 3 minutes per side. (Croutons can be prepared 4 hours ahead; leave uncovered at room temperature.)
5. When ready to serve, add kale to simmering soup and cook until it has wilted, about 3 minutes.  Remove bay leaves; then season soup with additional salt and pepper if needed. To serve, ladle soup into 6 soup bowls and garnish each serving with 2 croutons and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Serves 6.

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