24 September 2009


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

To serve

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.


Kate said...

We are having friends over for dinner tomorrow and they just returned from Italy. This soup looks and sounds wonderful and I am betting it will be a hit.
Thanks for the recipe. I will let you know their vote!

eatlivetravelwrite said...

Oh I love the look of this!

La Table De Nana said...

Guess what I will make soon..

I will halve the recipe for us..but I have never had a soup w/ chickpeas and fennel..and I bet it's divine..Your class sounds like hard work..but fun and an experience of a lifetime:)

Really really nice of you to share~

It's fun because when we make something of someone from our little cyberworld..we think of all of their past posts too..even stinging nettle and mandolines:)

La Table De Nana said...

PS I clicked on the link and of course I am envious:)

Grace said...

sounds like a really useful course! although i don't think i know what sage tastes like, i've experienced the wonder that is saffron. this soup is really appealing and totally fall-appropriate!

Errin said...

The picture alone sold me on wanting to make this soup. The ingredients are definitely not your normal chickpea soup ingredients, which I think can be a bland at times. Thanks for sharing with us!

Kate at Serendipity said...

Kate, let me know how the dinner goes. I hope they like the soup! I've only ever met one person who didn't, and he just hated anything with the tiniest bit of spicy-ness in it...

ELTW, Thanks!

Monique, I usually make half too for just the two of us. But it's good the next day as well! The class WAS hard, but so so worth it. I love your image remembering all the posts. It's true, isn't it?

Grace, I had sage in all that breakfast sausage and Thanksgiving stuffing when I was growing up. I didn't ever think much about it, but lately I use it a lot. I have some wonderful neighbors with a huge sage plant, and they give me all I want.

Errin, thanks! You won't be sorry. This soup is anything but bland!

Linda said...

Serves 4 if they like it and 10 if they don’t.

Best line EVER in a cooking blog! Thanks for the recipe and the laugh!!!

CinnamonQuill said...

My, goodness; I can't even imagine how good this tastes! And the color?! Brilliant. I greatly look forward to making this.

Kate said...

Oh Kate, this sounds wonderful! I am definitely going to make this! Thanks!

PS I froze the cake so that you could have a piece... :)

Junglefrog said...

Ooo you've done a cooking course in Italy! That must have been really wonderful. In any case; this soup definitely looks gorgeous!

Lizzy said...

Hey Kate, I know it's probably too far for you to come, but some expats in Amsterdam are thinking about getting together for a party around Thanksgiving. If you're interested in coming, we'd love to have you.

Juliana said...

Yummie the idea of using chickpea and all the spices in it...great for the cold that is almost here :-)

Simply Life said...

What a fun class! That soup looks absolutely perfect for the fall! YUM!

Hungry Dog said...

This soup sounds incredible--and such a gorgeous color! Thank you for sharing the recipe.

Kathy said...

Kate how unique this recipe is!!!I would enjoy trying this... I made Moniques butternut squash soup last week( doubled) and I'm STILL eating it... but loving every mouthful! Thank you for sharing!!!xoxo~Kathy @ Sweet Up-North Mornings...

Kate said...

The dinner guests loved the soup... so much, that I packed up the leftovers and they gladly took them home!

Jane said...

This soup looks wonderful, Kate! I believe I will have to add this to my future soup endeavors. Beautiful place setting/photos too, as usual!


to2sassy said...

I am making this soup today and I am to the "Let sit for at least an hour" (oh agony!)But I noticed no salt or pepper at all and my preliminary taste test makes me think it might need some. But I have followed the directions precisely which I rarely do (much due to the cost of saffron and other fresh herbs) and I would hate to mess it up at the end. Also what is a "dose" of saffron? Could be that it need a little more of that. I hope you can respond before dinner time!

Kate at Serendipity said...

Thank you for all the lovely comments!

to2sassy: regarding salt--I don't salt my food very much. When I cook the beans I don't usually add salt , but if I did, I'd do it AFTER they were cooked, to avoid making the skin tough. If you're using canned beans, they're already salted.

Regarding saffron, I just said "a dose" because saffron comes in many different forms. Often it comes in little teeny tiny containers, each one of which is a dose. If you have it in loose filaments, then a dose is a healthy pinch. If you have it in powdered form, then a dose is a packet. Saffron is expensive, and in this recipe you can use less of it or none at all. I think it adds something to the flavor, though. I'm afraid that I am sometimes lavish with it, because I can get it relatively cheap.

I'm afraid that I didn't get back to you by your dinner time (we're six hours ahead of you). I hope you enjoyed the soup!

Proud Italian Cook said...

kate, Your soup looks so good, it caught my eye immediately. I WILL be making this. Can't wait!

Another Kate said...

Hmm - and if I were to buy powdered saffron in bulk - is a "packet" like a teaspoon, or tabelspoon...? I'm so unfamiliar with it I'm not sure how to guestimate its flavor. The soup looks like it will have to be made this weekend in chilly san francisco!

Kate at Serendipity said...

'nother Kate: If you're buying saffron in tablespoon or even TEAspoon quantities, either your last name is Croesus or you haven't got the real thing. In the Carribean they sell 'saffron' in sandwich-sized baggies, which I know because my mother once brought me some. That's not really saffron, it's turmeric, which is a nice spice all by itself, but you dont' want to use it in this soup.

Saffron is expensive. A gram of good quality saffron threads costs 8-10 dollars! For this recipe you'll only need about 1/10 of a gram, though. If you dont' already have it, don't buy it just for this recipe (unless you want to experiment with it, which is a good thing!). Leave it out, but don't subtitute anything else for it!

You can find the real thing in SF: Vanilla, Saffron Imports, 949 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110, 415-648-8990

I've got some time this weekend. Since there are several questions about it, I think I'm going to do a post on saffron.

Kate said...

Kate, I made the soup for dinner tonight! It was very good. I love adding the croutons...they do sizzle! Truly enjoyed this soup. I will have some for lunch tomorrow too! Thank you for sharing.

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