A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to be able to participate in a professional cooking course in Siena. We spent all morning, all afternoon, and into the night cooking. We prepared traditional Tuscan food and learned how to select, prepare, and cook the freshest ingredients. I also learned at a gut level (maybe I should say at a FEET level) how physically demanding restaurant work is. I went back to our apartment
every night exhausted, with my feet hurting and my head full of wonderful ideas. Some nights I couldn’t sleep because my hands ached from having rolled out pici (a round,eggless, spaghetti-like pasta) for 30 people by hand.
From this course I took away many things. Fond memories of meals and friends made, ideas shared in Italian and English and French. That wonderful moment when service was finished and we all finally sat down and ate something--sometimes the ribs that we had used as a roasting rack for the pork, or the brown, crusty ends of the turkey roll, or maybe just a bowl of rice with pepper and fragrant, grassy Tuscan olive oil. It was then that we enjoyed the bonds forged by working hard and performing a seemingly impossible task together.
I took away from the course a better understanding of ingredients and a sense of the Italian way of putting them together. I also took away from the course a notebook stuffed with recipes and ideas (of course!). In it are some classics, some cheffy new Tuscan dishes, and this soup. This is the soup I make when the weather first turns cold and I want something hearty. This is the soup I make when I am having company and I don’t have the time or energy to fuss a lot. This is the soup I make when I want to remember the taste of Tuscany in the autumn.
This soup is hearty, and it's a meal in itself served with salad and some crusty bread. It's also vegetarian, even vegan if you replace the butter with olive oil.
I have seen a lot of recipes for chickpea soup, but I’ve never seen this one except in my course. The first time I tasted it I almost cried, it was so good: complex, layered flavors, golden color, crunch from the croutons. Try this. You owe it to yourself.
Tuscan Autumn Soup (Passata de ceci)
7-8 cloves garlic
4 shallots or 1 large, mild onion
5 cups soaked, cooked chickpeas
12 - 15 sage leaves, the fresher the better
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 stick / 50 g butter
12-15 bay leaves, the fresher the better
Leaves from a bulb of fennel
4 oz/ 100 gr tomato paste or plain tomato sauce
1 cup brandy or white wine
5-6 doses of saffron
3-4 small dried hot peppers
3-4 slices stale bread
a walnut-sized piece of butter
In a deep pot, simmer the chickpeas and their cooking liquid with the sage leaves.
If your saffron is in threads, add it to a little hot water and let it steep. If it’s powder, you can just add it directly to the soup at the end of the cooking (below)
In a frying pan, melt the butter with the olive oil and add the chopped garlic and onions. Crumble the dried peppers over it, and add the bay leaves. Saute over medium low heat until the bay leaves are soft and fragrant and the onion and garlic are translucent. Do this relatively slowly, as you’re infusing the oil and butter with the flavors.
Add the tomato paste/sauce and the brandy/white wine. Cook over medium heat till it’s almost dry. Remove the bay leaves and add the mixture from the frying pan to the chickpeas.
Liquefy with an immersion blender or by transferring to a blender. Add water if necessary to get the consistency you want. Put the bay leaves back in and add the saffron and the fennel leaves. Turn the heat off and let it sit for at least an hour. Really. This makes a huge difference. Don’t forget to remove the bay leaves again before serving.
Before serving, cut the stale bread into cubes, and melt the butter in a small pan. Add the bread cubes, toss, and let brown slowly over medium-high heat. Toss from time to time to brown them evenly on all sides.
Ladle the soup into bowls, add the hot croutons (I love the sizzle), and enjoy!
Serves 4 if they like it and 10 if they don’t.
1. You can substitute four cans of chickpeas. I don’t have to tell you that it’s better with the dried, soaked beans, but if you’re pressed for time, go ahead and use the canned. It’ll still be heavenly.
2. I never understood the point of bay leaves before this recipe. But now they’re among my favorite herbs. The smell of them as they sautee is out of this world.
3. In Siena we didn’t use fennel leaves, we used finocchio fiori, which are the dried petals of wild fennel flowers. Unless you’re in Tuscany, you’re probably not going to find this. Believe me, I’ve tried. You can substitute fennel leaves, if you can find a bulb with leaves on it. I just keep finocchio fiori in the freezer, and stock up when we’re in Italy.
4. You can skip the fennel flowers and the saffron if you can’t get them, but you’ll miss a subtle layer of flavor, as well as some of the golden color.
5. While this might seem like a fussy recipe, remember, it’s ITALIAN. Everything is approximate. Feel free to play with it!
6. This recipe is gluten free if you leave out the croutons.