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.