Savoy Cabbage and Cannellini Bean Soup

Zuppa di Verza e Cannellini

My native Cesenatico, in Romagna, is a fishing town and in the summer months a crowded beach resort, but pressing at the opposite edge of town from the beach, there is farm country, broad and luxuriant. My father had land there all his life where he kept some cows and grew wheat, sugar beets, and excellent sangiovese red grapes that were highly sought after by local wine producers.

Every morning, black-kerchiefed women come into town from the farms with fresh vegetables and fruit they have grown. Once, but sadly no longer, they used to bring a delicious runny cow’s milk cheese called scquaquarone, made at break of day. Set aside for them is a small open site in the oldest part of town where they conduct the littlest outdoor market I have ever seen. All of us know them, just as they know us, and hardly a morning passes by that we don’t stop to pick up not just some fresh vegetables, but the conversational thread whose beginnings coincide with their beginnings and ours.

The produce the farm women sell is rigorously seasonal and I recall their saying of Savoy cabbage that it isn’t ready to pick until it has felt the first hard chill of the year. I was there after such a chill to choose a head of cabbage, with the deeply ridged, dark green outer leaves of perfectly achieved maturity. The woman who sold it to me explained how I could use it to make the soup described below. Here you have a textbook example of the warm, mellow flavor of minestra in Romagna. A base of sautéed onion is the invariable point of departure, with spiced and aromatic notes conspicuously absent, and the minestra reaches completion at table with the almost obligatory condiment of the region, a shower of freshly grated Parmesan.

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Ingredients

  • A large head of Savoy cabbage
  • cup extra virgin olive oil plus additional olive oil for the table
  • cup chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • Salt
  • cups canned cannellini white beans, drained, or ¾ cup dried, soaked and boiled
  • 1 beef bouillon cube
  • Black pepper ground fresh
  • Thick-sliced, crusty country-style bread, 1 slice per serving
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated fresh at the table

Method

  1. Discard the tough outer leaves and any bruised ones the Savoy cabbage may have, then shred the cabbage very, very fine. You should have about 10 to 12 cups, but slightly more or less won’t affect the results too much. Soak in a basin of cold water and drain.
  2. Put the olive oil and onion in a soup pot, turn on the heat to medium, and cook the onion, stirring frequently, until it becomes colored a rich gold. Add the garlic, continuing to cook and stir until the garlic becomes colored a very pale gold.
  3. Add the shredded cabbage and a large pinch of salt and, using a long wooden spoon, turn the cabbage over several times during 2 or 3 minutes to coat it well. Pour enough water into the pot to cover by about an inch, turn the heat down to low, and cover the pot. Cook for about 3 hours, occasionally turning the cabbage, until it has become very soft. If during this time it should become necessary to replenish the cooking liquid to keep the cabbage from sticking, add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water when needed. There should be no liquid left, however, when the cabbage is done. Should you find some, uncover the pot, turn the heat up to high, and boil away all liquid, turning the cabbage frequently.
  4. If you used dried cannellini, drain them when cooked, but hold back the liquid to use in the soup. If using canned cannellini, drain and discard the liquid. Add the drained cannellini beans, turning them with the cabbage for a minute or two.
  5. Pour enough liquid—either water or the reserved liquid from the boiled cannellini or a combination of both—into the pot to cover by a full inch and add the bouillon cube. Turn the contents of the pot over with your wooden spoon once or twice, put the lid on, and cook at a gentle but steady boil for about 30 minutes. Add black pepper and taste and correct for salt.
  6. For each plate of soup that will be served, toast a slice of bread in a 450° oven or grill it under the broiler. Place the bread in the individual soup plates, trickle some olive oil on it, pour the hot soup over it, sprinkle grated Parmesan on top, and serve.

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