Sometimes winter food can get a little monotonous because of a lack of fresh flavor and limited produce variety, but one great way to combat the winter food blues is an indoor herb garden. Little pots of thyme, rosemary, sage, and basil sitting by a sunny window can be a great kitchen asset, ready to give even the most bland root vegetables a kick of flavor.
There really is no comparison between fresh and dried herbs, and I think that one of the easiest ways to take your cooking from a 4 to an 8 is to utilize fresh herbs whenever possible. Fresh-cut herbs are outrageously pricey in grocery stores, and you can probably find small potted herb plants for about the same price as you would have paid for three sad-looking sprigs in the produce section. Check around your local hardware stores, nurseries, and higher-end grocery stores for the last potted herbs of the season, stick them by a sunny window, water a few times per week, and enjoy better flavor all winter long.
Spelt is a wonderfully flavorful ancient grain, slightly nutty and earthy with a great chewy texture. Spelt is in the wheat family and it is not gluten-free, but some wheat-sensitive people do not seem to react to it in the same negative way they react to wheat (please note that those with Celiac should stay away from gluten, period). Because spelt is not as widely used and thus not as “inbred” as most wheat varieties, it is higher in some vitamins and minerals as well. It holds its shape and texture well, even when it sits in liquid for a long time, making it a great grain to add to soups. It is commonly available in the bulk bin section of many grocery stores, and I always keep it on hand to add extra heartiness to soups or salads.
This particular soup is a tried-and-true favorite of mine. I make it several times throughout the cold weather season, and it seems to get better after a few days in the fridge. Make it on a Sunday and have great lunches all week.
Tuscan bean soup
Adapted from The Italian Dish
Note: You can use a 15-ounce can of white beans and a 15-ounce can of chickpeas instead of dried soaked beans here if you prefer. Since canned beans are already fully cooked, you won’t need to simmer the soup as long – only 30 minutes or so to infuse all the flavors together.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small celery rib, chopped (~1/4 cup)
1 small carrot, chopped (~1/3 cup)
1/2 of a small onion, diced (~1/2 cup)
3 large garlic cloves, minced
4 cups chicken stock + 2 cups water
28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2/3 cup dried white (cannellini or navy) beans, soaked overnight
2/3 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
5″ Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
3/4 cup spelt or farro
Parmigiano-Reggiano for garnish
- Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the celery, carrot, and onion, and saute until softened, about 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and saute an additional minute. Add the stock/water and the crushed tomatoes. Drain and rise the soaked beans and add to the pot. Drop in the rosemary and the Parmigiano-Reggiano rind. Bring the soup to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for about 75 minutes or until the beans are tender.
- While the soup simmers, bring 2 1/2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Stir in the spelt or farro and cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- When the beans in the soup are tender, remove the pot from the heat and remove the rosemary sprigs and the parmesan rind. Use an immersion blender to puree about half of the soup (if you don’t own an immersion blender, transfer half of the soup to a blender and flend for a few seconds). You can make this soup as smooth or chunky as you like.
- Return the soup to the stove and add the cooked spelt or farro. Reheat gently.
- Ladle the soup into bowls and serve immediately with some Parmigiano-Reggiano shaved on top and some rosemary focaccia on the side.