Sunday, 30 October 2016

White bean and chicory soup

White bean and chicory soup

When the chill air of late autumn arrives, so too does my craving for the bitter qualities of chicories.  And this is their season.  Descended from wild greens, sometimes considered weeds, they add a colour and flavour punch to the diet just when the harvesting options for us gardeners have otherwise shrunk to mainly root crops.

As Jennifer McLagan points out in her book Bitter - a taste of the world's most dangerous flavor, with recipes, we have a natural wariness to 'bitter'.  Many poisons are bitter so it's an understandable inherited aversion developed for our own protection.  The reaction is strongest in babies but with age comes a loss in taste buds and the learning that not all bitter foods are bad but can be enjoyable and good for our health.  We can even develop a craving for bitter - chocolate, coffee and tea being the most obvious examples.  It's known that bitter flavours can stimulate the appetite and if our early food experiences exposed us to them we are more likely to enjoy the qualities of bitter - Bee Wilson's book First Bite - How We Learn to Eat is excellent on the subject of our likes and dislikes.

The list of 'bitter' foods is subjective as not everyone experiences bitterness in the same way.  Seville oranges and beer surely are, but what about turnips and swedes?  It's an interesting subject, tackled well by Jennifer McLagan who goes so far as to suggest that "food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity".  If we consider the wide range of foods that have a bitter quality, it's an interesting theory.

The first fog of autumn has arrived today and with it has come requests for soup.  Not the first bowl we've had this autumn but the first call for its warming, soothing virtues.  This one demands a little thinking ahead so is not for today but it is ideal for countering the late autumn/winter gloom stretching ahead of us.  It takes dried beans for its structure and bitter chicory to wake up the taste buds.

Cicoria Catalogna Pugliese

My recommendation to use 'chicory' here is loose as chicory, endive and radicchio are all members of the broad chicorium family but local names vary.  It's the dark green chicories that work best in soup, for me.  For the soup I photographed at the top of this page, I used an Italian Cicoria Catalogna Pugliese, a large upright chicory with long serrated leaves.  I wish I could say I grew it but it's not a variety I've tried on my patch of ground.  I suspect heavy clay is not ideal.  You could use the outer leaves of either Cicoria Puntarella or Escarole.  The milder hearts of both are good in a salad, particularly with bacon or anchovies.  All of these are not too difficult to find in a good greengrocers. If you use a red variety of chicorium, bear in mind it will turn a khaki-brown when subjected to heat.

I favour white Cannellini beans for this recipe.  Also known as haricot, go for the the longer of the two main varieties of this white bean (rather than the more rounded one which is favoured for baked beans).  It has a creamier consistency, I think, which works better in soups.  Butter beans would be a good alternative, or the white bean typical to your area.  You could use pre-cooked tinned beans too, but they won't absorb flavours in the same way.  The longer you store dried beans the more time they will take to cook.  I try not to buy them too far in advance but we've all found a forgotten bag of beans in the larder.  Here is a good tip from Monika Linton's book Brindisa - the True Food of Spain for beans that are being slow to absorb liquid: "you need to 'frighten' or blast the beans, so once they break into their first boil, throw in some cold water to halt it" then bring the pan back to the boil.  Never add salt until they are fully cooked as it hardens the beans.

White bean and chicory soup
(serves 4)

250g dried cannellini beans (500g cooked) or other white beans, soaked in plenty of cold water for 12 hours
1 small carrot/1 small onion, halved/1 small stick of celery (for cooking the dried beans)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 stick of celery, diced
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
A small dried chilli, crumbled (optional)
A large handful of chicory leaves and stems
Salt and pepper
Parmesan and olive oil to serve

Drain the beans.  Put in a pan with the small carrot/onion and celery and cover well with fresh water.  Bring to a fast boil and cook for 10 minutes before turning the heat down to a simmer.  Cook about an hour or until the beans are soft (time will vary according to freshness), topping up the water to ensure the beans are well covered.  Discard the vegetables but not the cooking liquor.  Season with salt and pepper.  

In a large pan, heat the olive oil gently, add the diced onion, carrot and celery.  Cook for 10 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook to soften but not brown.  Add the dried chilli now, if using, and cook for 1 minute more.  Add the beans and their liquor and bring the soup to the boil before turning down and simmering for 20 minutes.  Blitz briefly with a hand whisk, just enough to turn the consistency a little creamy.

Chop the chicory leaves and stems roughly and add to the pan.  Simmer for a further 10 minutes, adding more fresh water if you feel the consistency is too thick.  Taste and adjust seasoning. 

Serve in bowls with grated parmesan and a slick of good olive oil for an extra kick of bitter.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Autumn harvest of beans and walnuts

Wet Walnuts

Working the ground last autumn left me in no doubt that squirrels were using the badly neglected plot as a winter larder. Empty walnut shells lay scattered across the ground, crunching underfoot at almost every step.  We'd agreed to take on a nettle patch along with our existing plot.  Our heads were filled with plans for roses with scents of musk, anise-like myrrh, sherbet lemon and strong classic old rose fragrances of blackberry and damson plum.  Huge-headed peonies and fragrant, colourful sweetpea arches would feature too.  But first there were giant nettle roots to be chased, ubiquitous plastic bottles to be unearthed and ground to be levelled.

The source of the nuts, I had concluded, lay 100m metres away in one of the private gardens surrounding the allotments.  Dull green globes littered the path where its branches pierced the boundary.  I too squirrelled some away.  Back home, paring away the soft outer jacket exposed the hard brown pockmarked casing.  A nutcracker revealed the almost pliable, sweet, milky 'wet' nut within.  Be warned, that soft green jacket turns a hand-staining brown as you work - in the past this quality was harnessed for making both dye and ink - so rubber gloves are essential.  Wait long enough before harvesting and nature will peel back the green husk for you but the well-guarded kernel will be dryer and less sweet.

This autumn I took an unorthodox route onto the allotments.  There on the boundary, a mere 50 metres from my now flowering plot, I found an even more covetable walnut tree.  Small, it's true, but its boughs hung heavy with green-husked bounty, almost skimming the tall grass.  Far easier to harvest.  The squirrels and I are feasting.  Nature untended has faired better than my nurtured plot this year.  Bringing anything to the point of edibility has been challenging but right now, in this mildest of autumns, I am harvesting beans.  Borlotti and Scarlet Runners were peaking on my plot only 2 days ago.  Cropping of beans has coincided with finding a particularly delicious, nutty Ossau-Iraty, a hard sheep's milk cheese from the Pyrénées.  It was a visit to Brawn restaurant on London's Colombia Road (one of my favourite restaurants anywhere) where I ate a simple-sounding dish of fresh green and yellow French beans, dressed with a shallot vinaigrette, with sweet wet walnuts and thin shards of Ossau-Iraty.

So when I harvested Runner Beans a few days later, it was obvious what I should do with them.  No, the dish doesn't taste exactly the same, but here is my rip-off version of Brawn's beautiful dish using what I had.  Ossau-Iraty isn't essential to the recipe, a hard ewe's milk cheese like English Berkswell or Spenwood would work well.  All these cheeses have a nutty quality that goes well with the earthy beans and sweet, milky nuts.  Jane Grigson would not have approved of my beans in this dish being Scarlet Runners.  They are undoubtedly the least interesting of green beans but they are easy to grow.  She felt "early gardeners had the right idea when they kept the Scarlet Runner to decorate a trellis with its brilliant flowers ...".  I used to agree with her but found out for myself that if you pick before they get too large and slice the pods lengthways, it makes all the difference, and I note she also conceded this.  Simon Hopkinson, I think, just might eat this dish with relish (at least his Introduction to his book The Vegetarian Option leads me to hope).  Choose whichever green beans you prefer, just avoid the big stringy ones.

Runner Beans, wet walnuts and Ossau-Iraty

Salad of fresh beans, wet walnuts and sheep's milk cheese
(serves 4 for a starter or light lunch)

500g green beans, sliced lengthways if using Runner Beans (de-string if necessary)
1 good tablespoon Moscatel vinegar
3 good tablespoons walnut oil or extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
75g Ossau-Iraty (or other semi-hard sheep's milk cheese), pared into strips
10-12 shelled 'wet' walnuts, roughly broken (use matured walnuts if necessary)

Bring a pan of water to the boil, add salt and boil the beans for 3-4 minutes until tender but still with a little "bite".  Drain and plunge in a bowl of cold water before draining well again.  Combine the vinegar, oil and seasoning to an emulsion.  Toss the beans well in the vinaigrette.  Place on plates and add the cheese and walnuts. 

I hope to still be picking beans into next week, along with my ever-blooming roses and, unbelievably late-flowering sweetpeas sharing space with the squirrels' larder.  Those huge-headed peonies remain in my dreams, but next year, next year...