January — A Winter’s Tale

Many years ago, my friend, Gary, and I decided after an especially indulgent December, that we weren’t going to drink for the month of January. We lasted around eight days, which was really good for us at the time. In the intervening years, however, I got better. And each year, I added more austere measures to my January regimen until it included not only no alcohol but no meat, no dairy, no sugar, no caffeine. It was challenging, but forced me to be creative with my cooking. And it felt kinda good… especially when January ended and I had that first glass of wine.

I don’t do that anymore. With a hungry family, it’s too much work. But I still like to dial it back a bit, tuck the corkscrew away, drink tea, make long-simmered soups with starchy vegetables. So far this January, we’ve had homemade New England clam chowder with fresh baked bread, crab bisque, tortelloni in brodo (a Bolognese specialty — fat tortelleni in a rich chicken broth).

From a food perspective, January is an interesting time. It is the beginning of a new year, yet it is also the depth of winter. There’s a dueling metaphor in there somewhere. And although in Southern California we do have milder winters than other places, it is still a time to hunker down. As I write this, it’s 37 degrees outside. I could get a tomato if I wanted, but it might’ve been flown in from Peru. Instead I feel an almost instinctual desire to prepare hearty dishes, things with root vegetables and meat bones. Meals made from the stuff that in the old days used to last the winter through in the larder.

This winter, when guests knock unexpectedly on your door to come in out of the cold, give them a big bowl of this soup and a thick slice of crusty bread slathered with butter. Serves many.

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Winter Vegetable Soup

2 quarts good chicken stock (made from scratch, if possible)
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 large parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large onion, cut into quarters
1 cup chopped kale
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup heavy cream
salt & pepper to taste

In a baking dish, toss carrots, parsnips, onion and potato in olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, and roast in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes, tossing once or twice, until golden. Place in a large saucepan and add chicken stock. Add kale, bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, lower heat and cover, cook for 20 minutes.

Remove the soup from the stove. Allow to cool for 30 minutes, then puree in a blender. Return to pan, return pan to stove over medium-low heat, and add cream. Heat for 10 minutes, then season with salt and pepper to taste.

I Believe in the Bean

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know that I’m a big fan of beans.

I like all kinds of beans — soupy black beans with garlicky, citrussy Cuban food (that’s the next post, so stay tuned), earthy borlotti beans from Italy (see two posts back), big meaty faba Asturiana beans from Spain, delicate and floral flageolets from France, fermented Chinese black beans, edamame, Mexican pinto beans…

Today I’m writing — or actually talking — about cannellini beans. In the following video, I’ve cooked a pot of these versatile beans, and prepared them four different ways… so you get an idea of how easy they are to make, and how many different things you can do with them. Of these four preparations, I’ve created two in an Italian style, one Spanish and one French. All take no more than a few minutes to make, once you’ve actually cooked the beans. You can even cook a big batch of beans and keep them in the fridge for a week or so, and make different bean dishes on different nights. Enjoy!

Me & Mr. Bean

“When young professionals and the socially hip raise chickens in their backyards, newspapers do articles with slideshows. When us Mexicans do it? People call code enforcement.” — Gustavo Arellano

So it must be for the resourceful peasants of Italy when they see their leftover bean soups appearing on the menus of fashionable trattoria in New York and Los Angeles. Something born of necessity and created from leftovers in Tuscany became something craved by starlets after their yoga class in Santa Monica.

Ask a hundred Italians how to make it, and you’ll get a hundred different recipes. And they’ll all be equally good. I’ve had countless variations of this soup in Italy, and in the states. I’ve made countless variations — some with bread, some with carrots and meatballs, meatless variations for vegetarians, and so on. Here’s a simple recipe that’s sure to please your guests. If you don’t eat meat or if you’re having yoga students over, leave out the pancetta. It won’t be quite as good. But that’s the burden you’ll have to carry…

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Sopa de Fagioli
Serves 4 -6

1 quart chicken stock
1 cup borlotti beans (or cannellini or red kidney beans)
A few slices of pancetta or bacon, chopped up
1 onion
1 cup roughly chopped cavolo nero (Tuscan kale)
1 sprig rosemary
1/2 cup small pasta (orrechiete, macaroni, etc.)
1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
salt & pepper to taste

Soak the borlotti beans over night. Then cook covered in water over medium heat for about an hour to an hour and a half, or until tender (add more water if needed). Simmer until most of the water is gone, and turn off heat.

Cook the pancetta in half the olive oil (1/8 cup) in a small pan over medium heat until it is well cooked, but not crisp. Add chopped onion and rosemary and cook for a couple minutes until onion is golden. Remove rosemary. Add onion/pancetta mixture to the chicken stock, along with the kale and the beans. Add remainder of olive oil, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add dried pasta, cover, and cook over medium low for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt to taste.

To plate, ladle a good scoop or two of the soup into a bowl, drizzle with more olive oil and top with a twist of freshly ground black pepper. You could also add a sprinkle of crushed red pepper to give it a little heat, or sprinkle some parmesan over the top for an additional layer of flavor. Enjoy!

And here’s a fun kids outtake:

Rome’s Best Soup

I was about 11 when it happened.

Spending the summer in Europe with my family, I was gazing out the window of a restaurant high above Florence in the Etruscan town of Fiesole (where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas used to spend their summers entertaining Picasso and other friends, of which Stein wrote, “The days were long and the nights were long and the life was good.”). The waiter brought a soup that was one of many illuminating moments on that trip which would change my life. It was called stracciatella, “little rags” in Italian. It was a specialty of Roma, we were told. I’d never tasted soup like it.

Keep in mind this was the late 1970s, a time when “Italian” in the U.S. — even in sophisticated Southern California — meant Papa Tony’s, greasy meatballs in tomato sauce, pizza and overblown Jersey-style minestrone. Here was a soup that was the antithesis of everything I’d known to be Italian.

It was also miraculously simple. A clear, resonant golden broth in which floated those little rags — shreds of egg and spinach flavored with parmesan, nutmeg and pepper. A soup that would come to illustrate perfectly my core cooking belief in highlighting simple, fresh flavors that sing like a symphony together. Beautiful to see, and memorable to taste. Make this soup — I can make no promises but it may change your life too. Especially if done properly.

As I often say on this blog in regard to the simplest recipes, success depends entirely on the quality of your ingredients. This is a soup, for example, that benefits highly from a good homemade stock. Fresh farmer’s market spinach, the best parmesan reggiano you can find, and really good eggs don’t hurt either. And there may be no experience in the kitchen as immediately gratifying as grating a pod of nutmeg directly into your food.


1 quart homemade chicken stock
3 eggs
1 cup finely chopped spinach
1 tbsp semolina flour (optional)
1/4 cup parmesan reggiano
a few grates fresh nutmeg

If you don’t have chicken stock, get yourself a whole chicken. Throw it in a pot with an onion, a bay leaf, a carrot and about a gallon of water. Bring to a boil, skim off froth, turn down to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes. Add salt to taste (you’ll need a good bit of salt here). Remove the chicken (use the meat for sandwiches or tacos). You can continue reducing the broth over medium heat for another hour if you want a stronger broth. (I would recommend doing this.) Strain through a fine sieve into another pot. Let cool. At this point, take out your quart for your soup and freeze any remaining stock in freezer back for future use. (I always keep three or four bags of chicken stock in the freezer.)

Heat your stock over medium to a simmer. Beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the spinach and the semolina and stir together. Add the parmesan, grate a little nutmeg over the top (or throw in a pinch of pre-grated nutmeg), combine thoroughly. Turn off the stock, slowly pour in the egg/spinach mixture, and cover. Let sit for five minutes. Then, gently break up to “rags” in your soup with the back side of a ladle. Serve.

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