It’s the first week in January after a world-class period of at-home indulgence, and we need a jumpstart to healthy eating in the new year, so let’s eat soup. And let’s be clear, I don't mean soups laden with cream or cheese or even meat. The soups I’m sharing can be made with water instead of broth and are full of vegetables and/or protein-rich legumes and beans, and they’re quick to make.
One of my favorite soups in the Italian culinary canon is “zuppa di scarola” — escarole and white bean soup. It relies on the deep flavor of escarole, which is in stores now. Escarole is a sturdy leafy green that looks like a lettuce but is actually a member of the chicory family with that characteristic mild bitter flavor. It’s often used to soothe upset tummies or for general comfort in Italian communities. The interior of the head is blanched to keep the leaves light yellow and milder, while the exterior leaves are a deeper green and more bitter. Flavor-wise, it’s similar to radicchio, but the texture when cooked has a satisfying chew. Together, they make a lovely soup that is really easy to create. I find this soup filling enough that it’s a meal for me, but you can add sausage and potatoes if you wish.
The other soup I’ve been making on repeat throughout this colder Southern California winter is Shorbat Adas. It’s a red lentil soup claimed by every country in the Middle East. I’ve been using a recipe from the cookbook “Sumac” by Atas Atassi. Red lentils have a lot going for them. First, the color. It’s fun to use lentils that aren’t brown, and even though the color fades when cooked, in this recipe the yellow of the cooked beans is reinforced with a bit of turmeric. They are the fastest cooking lentil, breaking down quickly into a texture similar to a rough puree. Shorbat Adas is often the soup used to break the Ramadan fast, so it’s the beginning of a large meal. When I make it for myself, it is the meal accompanied by a salad and bread.
Minestra di Scarole e Fagioli (Escarole and white bean soup)
Adapted from “Cucina Rustica” by Evan Kleiman and Viana La Place
If you want to remove some of the bitterness of the escarole, plunge it into water you’ve brought to a boil, and then removed from heat. Let it sit for a couple of minutes, then drain and refresh with cold water. Then simply add it to the wilted onion and continue with the recipe. Personally I love the slight bitterness when paired with the creamy white beans. The texture once cooked is tender, but there is still a nice chew to it, which makes for a hearty filling soup, despite the lack of a lot of different ingredients. If you’re looking for a heartier soup, add diced potato and/or sausage.
- 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 2 celery stalks, thinly sliced crosswise (optional)
- Handful of chopped Italian parsley leaves
- 1 - 2 15 oz cans cannellini beans, drained
- 1 large head escarole, well washed, leaves cut across into 2” slices
- Water or broth
- ¼ cup tomato sauce or 1 tablespoon tomato paste mixed with ½ cup water (optional)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano for finishing
- In a medium-sized soup pot, saute the onion in the olive oil just until it wilts.
- Add the celery and garlic and saute just until the garlic releases its characteristic aroma.
- Add the escarole and 1 teaspoon of salt and turn it in the pan with tongs until it is covered in the oil.
- Add pepper to taste. Add water to cover by 2 inches and bring to a simmer.
- Add the parsley and the beans, and continue to cook until the escarole is completely tender, approximately 20 minutes.
- Taste for salt and pepper. Serve topped with grated cheese if desired.
Shorbat Adas (Red lentil soup)
Adapted from the cookbook “Sumac” by Anas Atassi
- 4 tablespoons (60 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 onions, peeled and chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) each ground turmeric and ground roasted cumin
- 1 teaspoon cayenne or to taste
- 2 1/3 cups dry red lentils, rinsed
- 2 quarts water, chicken or vegetable broth
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) sumac
- 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 1 tablespoon nigella or sesame seeds
- 1 lemon, cut into wedges
- Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat and fry onions for about five minutes until soft and golden brown.
- Push onions to the side of the pan, and fry the turmeric, cumin and cayenne for one minute.
- Stir in lentils, add stock or water and bring to a boil. Then turn heat to low, cover and simmer lentils for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until they are tender and falling apart. I find that when well-cooked, the texture is perfect, but use a hand-held immersion blender to purée until smooth if you desire.
- Season with lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Red lentils tend to keep absorbing liquid, so you might need to add more broth or water if the soup becomes too thick.
- Serve hot in deep bowls. Top with sumac, parsley and nigella or sesame seeds, with lemon wedges on the side.