I’m on first a name basis with Ruth Reichl. She’s just plain “Ruth” like Marcella Hazen is “Marcella,” “Nigel” is Nigel Slater, “Nigella” is to other people Nigella Lawson, and “Julia” is, well, you know. There aren’t many food writers who succeed so well that they lose their last names in common parlance. But Ruth is one of them.
I only started to pay attention to Ruth after I had read her first memoir, Tender at the Bone. Not long after that, I really sat up and took notice when she transformed Gourmet into a magazine that was actually usable and not simply food porn, to be bought only for the photos. Her inclusive, sensible attitude towards preparing food and entertaining appealed to me.
When she edited and published The Gourmet Cookbook, I took a chance. Wow, did it pay off. I’m slowly working my way through the volume and have found very few clinkers. Not all of them make me scream with joy, but it contains a greater percentage of repeat recipes than practically any other book I own — with the exception of Dorrie Greenspan, whose genius I still have yet to extol.
Only in recent months have I started to feel my gorge rising, as they used to say. There’s something about Gourmet Magazine that now makes me squeamish. Has it made what was once barely a national fascination with good food into a fetish? Recent months, when I look through the magazine, I’ve wanted to scream, Enough already!
But this soup is this year’s — and probably next’s — Favorite Soup of the Year in my house.
Here’s how it appears in the book:
1 lb dried white beans, such as great northern, cannellini, or navy, picked over and rinsed
2 T olive oil
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
5 cups (40 oz) chicken stock
8 cups water
1 (3-by-2-inch) piece Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
1 tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 Turkish bay leaf or 1/2 California bay leaf
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 lb smoked sausage, such as kielbasa, sliced 1/4 inch thick
8 carrots, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch thick slices
1 lb kale (preferably lacinato), stems and tough center ribs discarded, leaves coarsely chopped
2 tsp salt
Soak beans in water to cover by 2 inches, refrigerated, for at least 8 hours; drain
Heat oil in an 8-quart heavy pot over moderately low heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 min. Add beans, stock, 4 cups water, cheese rind, rosemary, bay leaf, and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until beans are just tender, about 50 mins.
Meanwhile, brown sausage, if using, in batches in a heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring often. Transfer to paper towels to drain.
Stir carrots into soup and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in kale, sausage, remaining 4 cups water, and salt, bring to a simmer, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until kale is tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Season soup with additional salt, if necessary, and pepper. Discard bay leaf.
I follow this recipe pretty closely, but have learned a few things. First, if the beans don’t soften up after 45 minutes, the beans are either too old or I added salt to the beans while they’re cooking. There is a reason why the recipe calls for the addition of salt only in the last stage. Salt inhibits the absorption of water in beans like it does in rice (Marcella first taught me that).
Second, I once tried a spicy sausage in this soup. It ruined it. When I can’t find good organic kielbasa nearby, I substitute organic or freshly made bratwurst.
Third, 8 carrots is far too many. I love cooked carrots, but 6 or 7 are plenty.
Fourth, stirring occasionally as the recipe calls for is not simply to mix together the flavors, but also to scrape some of the melted parmesan off the bottom of the pot.
Fifth, the quality of the Parmigiano Reggiano matters. The better the quality, the creamier the rind will melt. Using cheese rinds is a great device for other thick soups.
The quantity is enormous. I’ve got enough soup to last into winter. It freezes well. But a couple days in the fridge is a big boost to its richness. Make it ahead.