The original recipe from Cucina del Sole by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (Morrow 2007) includes grape or cherry tomatoes, sweated with the aromatics and added at the end. (Cucina del Sole is a southern Italian book, but perhaps it was the tomatoes that qualified this rather northern Italian soup to be included.) I use them when I can get nice ones in the summer. But when none are to be had, I simply skip them, for the recipe is delicious enough just as it is.
Makes 4 servings
1 cup dried white beans (cannellini, or Great Northern if no cannellini are available), soaked for 6 hours or overnight
1 large bunch escarole (about 1 pound)
1 or 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 crisp green celery stalk, coarsely chopped
5 or 6 flat-leaf parsley sprigs, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
12 cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 dried red chili (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Toasted slices of bread
Drain the beans, put them in a saucepan, and add fresh water to cover by about 1 inch. Bring to a simmer over low heat, cover, and cook for 40 to 60 minutes, or until the beans are tender. Drain the beans, reserving the bean liquid. Measure the bean liquid and add enough water to make 2 1/2 cups.
Rinse and core the escarole. Chop the leaves into pieces about 1 inch long. Add them to the saucepan in which you cooked the beans, cover the pan and cook the escarole over gentle heat in just the water clinging to its leaves until it is tender. Be careful not to let it scorch, adding a little boiling water to the pan if it starts to burn. When it is tender, set it aside with any liquid remaining in the pan.
Chop together the garlic, celery, and parsley to make about 1/2 cup finely minced aromatics. In a small skillet, cook the aromatics gently in the olive oil for about 10 minutes or until they give off fragrance but are not brown. Stir in the halved tomatoes and continue cooking until the tomatoes have shriveled somewhat and given off lots of juice.
Add the vegetable mixture to the escarole in the saucepan and set over medium-low heat. Break up the chili and add it, then stir in the beans plus the bean juice and water. Bring to a simmer, and season with sea salt and pepper. Let all the ingredients simmer together very gently while you toast the bread.
To serve, place a toasted bread slice in the bottom of each soup plate, then spoon the hot soup over. Pass a bottle of good olive oil at the table so diners can dribble on their own.
A small bowl of grated pecorino or caciocavallo cheese, passed at the table, would be welcome with this.