2018 was some year for me. In the early part of the year we lost my Dad. His health had declined over the past couple of years, but you are never really ready I suppose. Then right about the same time our sweet dog got desperately sick. We spent the next six months back and forth to the hospital with him trying any number of medication combinations and blood transfusions. Chihuahua-vampire I liked to say. Then right after Labor Day he lost his battle. In-between it was a solid year of cooking for me, adding new recipes, new clients and new friends. I still found time to devote to my volunteer work at the New York Junior League and spin at Soul Cycle with my friends. While there was much sadness there was much happiness … as it should be in life.
I ended my 2018 catering with a final dinner party on December 23 and then took a break. I jetted to Pittsburgh to check in on my mother for a few days and then back home for New Years. Not much cooking was happening last week, save a couple of breakfasts and cookie baking. Every now and then I need to force myself to walk away from the cutting board and take a break. It’s good for my brain and body. Today, I am easing in to the New Year by “almost cooking.” I dusted off the slow cooker, a gadget I use every now and then to make some soup for us. Like the Instant Pot, it’s a great kitchen helper for people that are short on time and energy. That said, let’s get to it!
I subscribe to Sam Sifton’s email-blog on the NY Times cooking website. I will admit I have a (ridiculous) number of cook books on the shelf and subscribe to many blogs. Mainly, I read them like I would a book, providing me with different perspectives on cooking, flavor profiling and presentation. If you are not familiar, the NY Times cooking site is just fantastic. I can’t recommend it enough! When I cook it’s usually intuitively and “on the fly,” but every now and then it’s good to follow a recipe. Speaking as someone who creates recipes constantly, there is a lot of time and effort that goes in to them, so paying attention the first time you do something is important.
A couple of days ago there was an Editor’s Collection post sent with several slow cooker recipes. The slow cooker white bean soup caught my eye: first, because I absolutely adore making beans from scratch, and second, well, who doesn’t like a solid soup recipe?
I always have a variety of canned and dry beans on my pantry shelf. To make beans from scratch only takes a little bit of extra planning, but it’s really very easy. Honestly!
The beauty of this recipe by Sarah DiGregorio is the ability to either make it as the recipe suggests, or you can do a little pre-cooking the night before and assemble it in the cooker the next morning.
The ingredients for this soup are simple, and packed full of flavor. She suggests that you saute the fennel, celery, onion and garlic, essentially making a soffritto base for the soup. You can skip this step, but I would suggest doing it. Anytime you sauté things you are creating more flavor. Sautéing these vegetables will make the difference. As I was going through that step, taking about 30 minutes, I was thinking that you could easily accomplish the sauté in the evening. Then, in the morning, after you drain the beans, add the sautéed vegetables, the rest of the ingredients, and set the timer for 8 hours. When you get home the soup will be done.
This is a great recipe with two great ingredients you would not necessarily see in a cannellini bean soup: fennel and winter wheat berries. The fennel almost disappears into the soup while it cooks and leaves a mellow flavor. The winter berries lend a wonderfully chewy counterpoint to the creamy beans.
As for the recipe, I really only changed the order of cooking slightly, based on the way I cook. I took the step of measuring things out for you too – but you really don’t have to be that precise. Celery stalks come in varying sizes and so will the fennel and onion. Allow yourself some flexibility. My other change is skipping the box/canned stock and using Organic Better than Bouillon vegetable base. I find that pre-made stocks are either too salty or too strong, overpowering the soup. By using the paste you have much more control over the flavor and seasoning. I am never without it in my pantry ‘fridge, easily found at Costco or the grocery store.
A few more thoughts to consider:
• Pay attention to your slow cooker. Some run hotter than others. I found that with mine. I can’t explain it, and honestly for the amount of times I use it I’m not all that concerned. The original recipe says 8-10 hours. My soup was done in 6 ½ hours on LOW. I also needed an extra cup of water to thin it out. You be the judge of yours and your desired texture.
• I used 1 teaspoon of chili flakes. Mine are always bright red and fresh, delivering a good kick. I could definitely feel the heat. If you prefer a mild heat start with ½ teaspoon and add a pinch later. Remember, you can always add seasoning – you can’t take it out. If you opt to leave it out then add a little ground black pepper. You need the balance.
• The original recipe calls for only the juice of a lemon. I almost always add lemon zest, using a microplane, when I need to add the juice. Why waste the zest?! You can’t beat the brightness it delivers too.
Bottom line: this is a fantastic recipe – a real keeper in your arsenal of slow cooker dishes. Do give it a try and perhaps one of the other wonderful slow cooker recipes in the Editor’s Collection link above.
Wishing you and yours a happy and delicious 2019.
Slow Cooker White Bean Parmesan Soup
Recipe by Sarah DiGregorio, slightly adapted
1 pound dry cannellini beans, soaked overnight
¼ cup olive oil, plus more as needed
1 fennel bulb, cored and finely chopped, about 1 cup
3 celery stalks, chopped, about 1 cup
1 large red onion, finely chopped, about 1 cup
6 garlic cloves, rough, but evenly chopped
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
½ to 1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes, depending on your heat tolerance
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup winter wheat berries
Organic Better than Bouillon Vegetable base
2 oz. piece of Parmesan rind, plus grated parmesan for garnish
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
Ground black pepper
Leaves from 1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped, about 1 loose cup
Zest and juice of ½ – 1 large lemon
1. Place the cannellini beans in a bowl and cover with 3 times cool water. Leave on the counter overnight.
2. The next morning warm the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the fennel and celery with a very good pinch of salt. Sauté for 5 minutes. Add the onion and garlic and continue to saute for another 5 minutes. Push the vegetables to the outer edge of the pan and pour about a tablespoon of oil in the middle. Add the fennel seed and chili flakes. Let them sizzle for about a minute, and then mix everything together. Deglaze your pan with the white wine and let it cook down for until the wine is almost evaporated. Turn off the heat.
3. While you are cooking the soffritto drain the beans and add them to your 5 to 8-quart slow cooker, along with the wheat berries, Parmesan rind and 6 cups of water. Scrape the vegetable mixture from the skillet into the slow cooker and add 1 heaping tablespoon of bouillon, ½ teaspoon salt and the rosemary. Stir to combine cover and set the cooker on LOW for 8 hours.
4. Check your pot after 6 hours to see if the wheat berries are cooked and the beans creamy. My slow cooker runs a bit hotter so things cook a little faster. Taste for seasoning and add a little more bouillon, salt and/or pepper as desired. Continue cooking for another hour or two if needed. Once done remove the rosemary sprigs but leave the parmesan rind.
5. Add the zest of the whole lemon and juice half of it. Mix in a loose ½ cup of parsley and save the rest for garnish. If the soup is really thick add a bit of water to thin it out. I ended up adding 1 cup. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary. Serve with a sprinkle of grated parmesan, parsley and a tiny bit of lemon.