This season I’ll be joining forces with local urban farmers, Green City Growers. Each month, Green City Growers will feature a new fruit or vegetable on their site, along with tips for growing and caring for it. I’ll bring that same fruit or vegetable into my kitchen and show you how to turn it into something delicious!
When I was growing up, bean soups were a staple on my mother’s table. They were a simple and affordable way to deliver vegetables, protein and delicious leftovers.
My mother’s bean soups were light and brothy with a slight creaminess from the beans that couldn’t hold their shape. As we were getting ready to eat, she would stir in a leafy green and then ladle the hot soup over a bowl of pasta. Then came a swirling glug of olive oil with her usual heavy hand. I’d answer her with a heavy hand of grated cheese.
Part of what made this meal so delicious was that it could be adapted for every season. Its silky, belly-warming richness was hearty enough for a winter meal, but with some spinach and fresh parsley—or even tomatoes and fresh basil—pasta e fagioli could just as easily represent the spring and summer months.
Now that it’s early spring in New England, we’re entering a brand-new growing season. We’ve got a long way to go before we can rely on fresh produce to fill our bellies. But in the meantime, there are a few plants popping out of the ground that can be perfect for marrying with our winter pantry staples.
A few weeks ago I visited local urban farmers, Green City Growers, at their Somerville headquarters. One of the crops they’re growing abundantly right now is sorrel. It’s a thriving perennial (meaning, it comes back every growing season) in a garden where a lot of the other vegetables are slowly “waking up”. I watched Jeff, one of GCG’s team members, harvest a small bunch. He handed me a leaf, and as I took a bite, it reminded me of a baby spinach leaf with a tart, lemony flavor.
It was a gray and misty day, and I immediately thought of my mom’s pasta e fagioli. I took some sorrel home with me, and on the very next gray and misty day, I wilted it in a pot of brothy bean soup. I served up a couple of bowls with pasta, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, parsley and a few grinds of black pepper. The soup was smooth and comforting with a surprising lemony punch. It was a much-needed pick-me-up for such a dreary, early spring evening!
The key to building a flavorful pasta e fagioli is sauté the beans along with aromatic vegetables to break them down and allow the flavors to meld. If you can get your hands on some sorrel**, throw it into the pot for a tart, lemony boost of flavor. This dish is just as good (if not, better) on the second day, so if you’re shooting for leftovers, store the soup and pasta separately.
Pasta e Fagioli with Sorrel
2 15-oz cans cannellini beans*
1-2 bunches sorrel**, leaves and stems chopped into 1″ pieces (about 3 heaping cups)
1 cup dry ditalini
1/2 medium onion, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
1 celery stalk, roughly chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped (about 1 tbsp)
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 bay leaf
freshly ground black pepper, to garnish
freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to garnish
chopped parsley, to garnish
red pepper flakes (optional, to garnish)
*Borlotti (cranberry) beans are most commonly used in pasta e fagioli, but they are harder to find in a can. You can also use chick peas (add 5-10 minutes), navy beans (subtract 5-10 minutes), or great northern beans.
**Spinach, escarole and chard are all fine substitutes. You can even add a squeeze of lemon at the end to replicate the tartness of sorrel.
In a 3-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter and heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions, celery and a pinch of salt. Sauté the onions and celery for 5-7 minutes, or until they are translucent and rounded at the edges.
Meanwhile, pour the beans into a colander and rinse them under cool water to remove their starchy liquid.
Add the garlic and sauté for another minute or two, taking care not to brown the garlic.
Raise the flame to medium-high. Add the drained beans, bayleaf and a heaping 1/4 tsp Kosher salt to the saucepan. Stir the vegetables and allow them to sizzle for one minute, undisturbed. Continue sautéing the vegetables for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. The beans should have broken down a bit.
Pour in the chicken broth and water, and bring the soup to a boil. Scrape the bottom of the saucepan with a wooden spoon to release any starches or brown bits or flavor.
Once the liquid is boiling, lower the flame to medium-low and simmer for 30-35 minutes, or until the soup has thickened and reduced slightly (note: it will taste a bit saltier once it has reduced).
Meanwhile, bring a small pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Boil the ditalini according to the instructions on the package. Drain the pasta and set aside.
Drop the sorrel into the soup, give it a stir, and remove from the heat. Taste and adjust salt as necessary.
Divide the pasta among serving bowls and ladle the hot soup over the pasta. Garnish with the oil, cheese, parsley, black pepper and red pepper flakes, if desired.
Visit Green City Growers for more information on sorrel.