Wednesday, March 17, 2010

trust-your-instincts gruel

I realized the other day that most of my food-related posts lately have been about cake, cupcakes, cookies, or doughnuts. I blame this on February, or as we call it around these parts, Hang-Yourself-in-the Barn Month. February lasted for ninety-two days this year, and during that time I relied on recipes I'd already shared with you, gruel I know I love and know I can count on. Because winter in Vermont is not a time to try new things, unless they involve dough or batter and are baked by someone who does not suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. No, winter in Vermont is a time for stiff upper lips and sweet tooths and old standbys and seeking succor wherever it can be found. For example, in a cake.

But it's been springlike here lately: warmer, sunnier days; that extra hour of daylight; crocuses. Foolish crocuses that will surely die when spring rips off its mask and reveals that it's really still winter. There will be more snow, of this I'm sure. But the worst is behind us, I think. Oh, who knows. Anything could happen: A blizzard. Locusts. Crocuses.

One of the few new dishes I did make this past interminable February (for myself and, unfortunately, six people we had over for dinner) was very...blah. The recipe was from a cookbook I love and trust, but while I was making it I had a bad feeling: It wasn't well seasoned, the proportions seemed off, certain ingredients didn't make sense. But I trudged through the recipe as it was written (welcome to winter in Vermont) and ended up with a bland soup that I was a little embarrassed to serve. Lucky for my guests, there were warm chocolate chip cookies for dessert.

But instead of writing the soup off as a bust, I've been thinking about it every since, cursing myself, in between bites of cake, for not trusting my instincts. Because the dish had potential, and included some of my favorite gruelish ingredients: creamy beans, chewy bites of farro, kale... So when false spring arrived a couple weeks ago, I gave it another try. The recipe below is less a recipe than a set of guidelines. It reflects what I did the second time I cooked the soup, but next time through I'm sure I'll tweak it some more. For example, depending on what the weather brings I may add sauteed locusts.

A few notes:
* As I mentioned above, the first time I tried this soup it was quite bland, so my goal this time was to build flavor. There are numerous ways to do this with a soup, and I used several of them here: I added a bay leaf, garlic cloves, and salt to the water in which I cooked my beans; I cooked the soup in a combination of both water and stock; I sauteed the onions, garlic, carrots, and celery for longer than originally called for; I added some sage, a bay leaf, and a Parmesan rind. Not all of these steps are necessary, though my soup didn't suffer from their aggregate use.
* For beans I used some beauties I bought at the farmers market. They looked like this,

but any white-ish bean (e.g., cannellini) would do. I used 400 grams (~2 cups), but next time I'll probably use less beans and more farro. Canned beans would also work just fine.
* I cooked the onions with a sprinkling of dried chili flakes, but next time I might try that pimentón I told you about awhile ago.
* I cut the carrots and celery into smallish bite-sized pieces. The original recipe also called for potatoes, which I have no use for in vegetable soups, but if you'd like some, add them when you add the carrots and celery.
*I used a combination of store-bought veggie stock and water as a base (probably about half and half); next time I might try some of my favorite bouillon instead of the stock. I also added some chopped fresh sage because I had had it and a Parmesan rind, but a second bay leaf could replace the sage and the Parmesan isn't essential, just nice. The amount of liquid you're going to need will depend on how much beans/farro you use, and whether or not you want a more soup-like or stew-like dish. I went for more of a stew this time, as I'm no crocus.
* There are no rules here. It may or may not be spring. Trust your instincts.

Trust-Your-Instincts Gruel (d/b/a White Bean and Farro Soup)
~2 cups dried beans, soaked in water overnight
4–8+ cups of stock and/or water
5 garlic cloves: 2 peeled and smashed; 3 peeled and finely chopped
2 bay leaves
olive oil
2 onions, peeled and chopped
red chili flakes
2 celery sticks, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
a few sage leaves, chopped
1 Parmesan rind
¾ cup farro

My new 5-pound bag of farro; jealous, bitches?
1 28-oz. can of tomatoes and their juice [I buy whole, canned San Marzanos and chop them, but there's probably no real reason not to buy any old can of diced tomatoes.]
1 bunch of lacinato kale, roughly chopped
a few drops of balsamic vinegar, a splash of good olive oil, a dollop of pesto, or a sprinkle of Parmesan to finish

1. Drain the beans and place them in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add enough water to cover the beans by a couple inches, throw in the 2 cloves of smashed garlic and the bay leaf. Cook the beans over medium-low heat, adding some salt after the beans have started to soften a little bit. Cook until the beans are soft but stop before they fall apart (is there such a thing as al dente beans?); they're going to get some more cooking time in the soup. Drain and set aside.

2. Over medium-low heat warm a few glugs of olive oil in a Dutch over or other pot that is large enough to comfortably hold all the ingredients. Add the onions, a sprinkling of dried chili flakes, and a pinch of salt. Seat gently until the onions are soft and translucent, then add the carrots, celery, and garlic. Saute three or four minutes and then add the farro; saute for another couple minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice and a couple pinches of salt. Cover and simmer over a low heat for awhile; 20 minutes, maybe.

3. Add the cooked beans and enough broth/water to at least cover everything in the pot. For a soup, add more liquid. For a more stew-like pot of gruel, don't. Add a bay leaf, the chopped sage, and the Parmesan rind to the pot.

4. Cover and cook on low heat until the farro is done to your liking and the vegetables are all soft. The amount of time it takes to cook the farro in the soup will depend on whether it's semipearled; for me and my unpearled farro this took about an hour.

5. Add the kale and cook for a few minutes until it is soft but still toothsome.

6. Eat as is or garnish with a splash of balsamic vinegar or good olive oil; a spoonful of pesto; or a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.


  1. Oh my god! Where did you get that 5 pound bag of farro? I want it! Did it cost $86? By my calculations and based on what I've been paying, that is what a 5# bag of farro would cost. Boooooooooooo!

  2. Rapunzel bouillon IS the best. I ran into mojie one day at city market and she showed it to me. i'll never go back. rapunzel -- let your hair down!

  3. I ate the second soup, and it was deeeeeeeelicous. I do not know about the first round, but I would say that "trust your instincts" has some future bearing for the readers of this blog. Not that the esteemed cookbook "writer is wrong", but is it possible that someone else is "more right"?
    I have to go now. I am on my third batch of chocolate cupcakes, having made two batches, from the new and trendy sites, which I then threw in the garbage. I pulled out my trusty Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, a wedding gift from my marriage to the yachtsman's father (too many years ago to announce), and they came out perfectly. So, don't tell me about trendy!

  4. How do I get one of those cupcakes, H.M.? Although I guess I can't be greedy, as I've already eaten two bowls of your soup today (delicious)...

    L.L., I got that five-pound bag of farro on the internets. It cost $20 plus shipping and handling, which were not cheap. Another $11 maybe? I cannot for the life of me understand why it's not sold unpearled and in bulk anywhere in Burlington. As you put it: Booooooooooo!

  5. Loved this! Followed instinct to add butternut squash and remove tomatoes. The farro makes for a toothsome gruel. Thanks for the recipe!