Last Sunday I promised that this week’s recipe would be lean and mean. Not trying to be cruel; I’m just worried we’ll all end up with gout.
But calling this soup “lean and mean” would be misleading, even though it technically fits the description. It contains olive oil, vegetables, and herbs, plus water or vegetable broth. I didn’t even toss in a Parmigiano rind, practically unheard of for me. And yet, it is hearty of texture and robust in flavor. If you add a couple of slices of grilled bread, rubbed with garlic and moistened with olive oil, you have yourself a nice Sunday supper. (Not all Sundays require a four-course meal.)
There are two stars in this dish. The first is Savoy cabbage, cavolo verza in Italian. It has gorgeous crinkled emerald outer leaves and a creamy pale green interior. It is sweeter and more tender than standard green and purple cabbage and is a key ingredient in ribollita, Tuscany’s celebrated vegetable and bread soup. When you cook it gently at length, it turns meltingly soft, almost velvety.
The other star ingredient is the beans, called “tondini del Tavo.” They are cultivated in Abruzzo along the valley of the Tavo river, which flows from the Gran Sasso mountains through the province of Pescara and, in fact, right near our town of Penne. (I brought a vacuum-sealed package of them back to the U.S. with me last fall.) The bean’s name refers to its shape, which is small and round (the Italian word for round is “tondo”). It has a thin skin and a creamy texture when cooked, with a delicate buttery flavor.
Why am I telling you about a bean you can’t find outside of Abruzzo? Because it’s kind of special: the tondino del Tavo is protected by the Slow Food presidia, a collection of communities (farmers, food artisans, wine makers, etc.) in Italy and around the world that are focused on promoting biodiversity and preserving native ingredients and foods. Like other protected foods, the tondino was cultivated for centuries before being nearly abandoned in favor of varietites like borlotti that were cheaper to grow. It was rediscovered in the 1950s and has been gradually making a comeback thanks to dedicated farmers.
We cooks often deny beans the consideration they deserve. A bean is a bean is a bean. Open a can, dump the contents into your soup. I’ve done it plenty of times myself. But, if you have the time and inclination, it pays to put some thought into it. There is so much variety in the world of beans. They can be meaty, grainy, or creamy; thick-skinned or thin; earthy, vegetal, or buttery. And they are always better when you cook them yourself, not just for flavor and texture but also because you get the gift of bean broth.
While you may not be able to find tondino del Tavo where you are, there are plenty of other choices. In thinking about what might make a good substitute for the tondino in this soup, I found myself clicking around on the Zursun website. I’ve been buying heirloom beans from this Idaho company for a couple of decades. My friend Nancy used to sell them at her kitchenware shop in Alexandria. When she retired and closed the shop closed a few years ago, I started ordering online. One of my longtime favorites in the Christmas lima, which is reminiscent of chestnuts both in flavor and texture. You should definitely give it a try, but not in this soup, as it is hefty and would just weigh down the cabbage.
Instead, try one of these “lighter” options (whether you get them from Zursun or another source):
Cannellini: an obvious choice, since they are already a staple in many Italian soups. Their mild flavor and creamy texture are similar to that of tondini.
French Navy Bean: these actually look like tondini del Tavo, so maybe there is a family connection somewhere down the line. And like tondini, they have a creamy texture.
Peruano: I first tried these some years ago because their pale yellow color was calling to me. They are as good as they look, creamy and slightly sweet as described.
Small white: these aren’t identified specifically on the Zursun website, but they are right size and they absorb flavor easily, so they would work well.
Readers: What’s your favorite bean to cook with?
The other important component is the broth. You don’t need rich meat broth for this soup. If you happen to have homemade vegetable or even chicken broth on hand, by all means use it. You can make a quick vegetable broth by simmering cut-up carrots, celery, onion or leek, potato, and herbs in 8 cups of water for 45 minutes or so, until reduced by nearly half. Salt lightly towards the end of cooking and strain through a fine mesh sieve. I confess to keeping a stash of these bouillion cubes in my pantry and, in fact, when I made this soup recently I used 4 cups water and one cube to make a light broth.
Resist the temptation to toss a Parmigiano rind into the soup, or to sprinkle in Parmigiano or Pecorino at serving time. If you can, let the soup sit for a couple of hours off the heat before reheating and serving. This extra time allows the flavors to mellow and come together in harmony.
Thank you for your support, which allows me to thoroughly test the recipes I share here. Click on the green button to become a paid subscriber and gain access to all Buona Domenica recipes and archives.
RECIPE: Zuppa di Verza e Fagioli Tondini del Tavo
Fagioli Tondini del Tavo are an heirloom bean from Abruzzo, especially around the province of Pescara. If you visit the region, be sure to pop into an alimentari and buy a bag to bring home. In the meantime, use any good white bean, such as cannellini or French navy beans, for this soup. I almost always recommend starting with dried beans over canned, especially when the beans are a star ingredient, as they are here. You’ll need to soak them overnight and then cook them before adding them to the soup, along with their cooking liquid.
Makes 4-6 servings
1 cup (200 g) dried white beans, such as Cannellini, French Navy Beans, or Small White Beans (see NOTE)
Pinch of baking soda
1 clove garlic, a branch of rosemary, and a branch of sage for cooking the beans
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium carrot
1 rib celery, with leaves, if possible)
1 large or 2 small leeks, white and light green parts
1 large yellow potato, such as Yukon gold
A few sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
1 small head (1 pound / 500 g) Savoy cabbage
1/2 cup (120 ml) tomato passata (purée), or more to taste
1 quart (1 L) homemade or best-quality commercial vegetable or chicken broth
Thick slices of country bread
1 clove garlic, lightly crushed
Top quality extra-virgin olive oi
1. Prepare the beans. Soak them overnight in cold water with a pinch of baking soda, then drain them and put them in a heavy-bottomed pot with water to cover by 2 inches (5 cm). Crush the garlic clove lightly and remove the peel. Add it to the pot, along with the herbs. Drizzle in about 1 tablespoon olive oil and set the pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and skim off any foam that rises to the surface. Lower the heat to medium-low or low to maintain a gentle simmer. Cover partially and cook the beans until tender. Cooking time will depend on the type of bean and should take anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. Towards the end of cooking, add two pinches of salt, enough to flavor the beans and their liquid. When they’re ready, remove any herb branches and the garlic if it hasn’t fallen apart. If not using right away, transfer the beans and their broth to containers and refrigerate or freeze. (They freeze well and will keep for several months.)
2. Pour 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil into a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot. Finely chop the carrot and celery. Slice the white and light green parts of the leek into rounds and rinse well in a colander under running water to remove any grit. Add the vegetables to the olive oil and set over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring to prevent any browning, until softened and translucent, about 7 minutes.
3. Peel and cut the potato into 1/2-inch (1-cm) dice and add them to the pot, along with 3 or 4 small sprigs of thyme and the chopped parsley. Season lightly with salt and pepper and cook, stirring to coat the potatoes with oil. Add a splash of water or, better yet, broth from the beans, to keep the potatoes from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Cook for about 5 minutes, until slightly softened.
4. While the potatoes are cooking, cut the cabbage into quarters and remove the core. Cut each wedge crosswise into strips. Add the cabbage to the pot (it will fill the pot) and cover for a couple of minutes to allow it to wilt. Uncover and stir it once or twice. When it’s wilted, stir in the tomato purée, and simmer another 5 minutes or so to allow the potatoes and cabbage to absorb some of the tomato.
5. Add the beans and their broth, however much it is, and bring to a simmer. Then pour in the vegetable broth. You may not need to add the full amount, depending on how much bean liquid there is. When the soup returns to a simmer, lower the heat, and cover partially. Simmer gently for about 90 minutes. It sounds like a lot but trust me. The soup will thicken nicely, and the cabbage will become meltingly tender.
6. When the soup is ready, turn on the broiler. Arrange the bread slices on a baking sheet and broil until browned. Lightly crush a clove of garlic and rub it over the slices, then drizzle olive oil on top. Serve the soup with a slice or two of bread tucked into the bowl.
NOTE: I never cook just 1 cup of dried beans (seems a waste of time). I usually cook an entire bag/package, use what I need, and freeze the rest. I cup of dried beans yields about 3 cups cooked, so if, like me, you’ve cooked more, measure out 3 cups for the soup.
I’m not saying you should, but if you were looking for a late-winter dessert to accompany the soup, try this budino di riso (rice pudding), which is spiked with grappa. It comes from my friend Rolando Beramendi, whom I wrote about last year.
My latest book, Williams-Sonoma Everyday Italian, is available here.
There are just a couple of spots left for the Food Writers in Liguria workshop that Kathy Gunst and I will be teaching later this fall. Click here to learn more.
Learn how to make two traditional savory Easter tortes: Pizza Rustica, and Torta Pasqualina. I’ll be teaching this online class on Saturday, March 25. Join me!
Do you follow me on Instagram? That’s where you’ll find most of my social media posts, as well as sneak peeks of what I’m working on.
Finally, if you enjoy this newsletter, please click the little heart at the top of this post, and share it with the Italian food lovers in your life or on social media. Thank you for helping to spread the word.
PICTURE ITALY: Lago di Penne, 2022
As always, thank you for reading, subscribing, and sharing.
My latest "discovery" is locally grown flageolet beans. Picked up a small bag at the farmer's market a couple of months ago. The first time I used them was with a lamb shank braise....I was so happy with the end results. I will definitely be buying more in the fall when they become available again. I also bought a small bag of their black beans and am really looking forward to working with them.
Love the bean co. recommendation!!! Good dried beans are hard to find (so many are too old and don't cook up right) and looks like they have some fascinating varieties. I'm partial to pink beans + rice with all kinds of spices but looks like I need to expand my bean horizons!