Now that the weather has turned cool, my mind has turned to cool weather dishes such as hearty soups, stews, and braises. And beans! There is nothing better on a cold winter night than a huge bowl of steaming white bean soup, a loaf of bread, some excellent olive oil, a glass of red wine, and someone to share it with.
Last weekend, I taught a Tuscan cooking class as a fundraiser at a private house and our secondo was a bowl of ribollita, Tuscan bean soup, my style. I emphasize my style because everyone's ribollita (meaning "re-boiled" or recooked in the oven until it crusts over in the style of cassoulet) is different and small land wars have been fought over whether ribollita contains, for example, tomato. Of course (Mario Batali, this means you!) it does not! ;)
My way, this time, involves duck because I love the richness and silkiness that it brings to the soup, and the way that its essential flavors complement the earthy neutrality of the beans. Add to this the classic white bean seasonings of thyme, rosemary, lots of sage, pancetta, and celery root and you have a soup fit for a king.
Of course, ribollita is a simple soup that you can make from canned beans and whatever vegetables you have in the refrigerator, but I'm aiming for something more fabulous, more restaurant worthy here. I'm going to give you the whole three-day process for the soup I made so you can see what pains we chefs go to build layers of flavors and then you should feel very free to use what shortcuts you will to get your soup on the table to feed your crew in the time and with the energy you have available.
Before we get into the recipe and procedure, let's talk about beans. The Mangia-Fagioli (the bean eaters, the Tuscans) use the best beans that they can find. Most make ribollita from the large white kidney beans called Cannellini or Cannelloni; Tuscan chefs to whom beans are important use the rare Sorana bean. Me, I use a bean that puts the Cannellini to shame: the Steuben Yellow Eye. This is a bean that does not break down, has a thin skin, and a creamy interior, just perfect for ribollita. Trust me, if the Tuscans had this bean, they would use it. It's worth your while to seek it out.
Day 1: Marinating the Duck, Soaking the Beans
4 duck legs
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
extra virgin olive oil
Rub the duck legs with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, pepper, and thyme. Store covered in the refrigerator at least overnight.
1 pound (500g) white beans
water to cover
Wash the beans and pick through them to remove any debris and damaged beans. Most dried beans expand by about three-fold during rehydration, so cover them in plenty of water and leave on the counter to soak overnight.
Day 2: Making the Duck Stock, Cooking the Beans
Duck Stock, Part 1
marinated duck legs
2 bay leaves
water to cover
In a deep pan, cover the duck legs and bay leaves in cold water and bring slowly to the simmer. Skim any scum that forms on the stock, but leave the fat in the pan. Cook until the duck is very tender, about two hours. Remove the duck from the stock and place on a sheet tray to cool. Skim 1/2- to 3/4-cup of the duck fat from the stock and reserve for the next step. When the duck is cool to the touch, separate the meat from the skin and bones. Pull the meat into bite-sized pieces and refrigerate. Use the stock and the reserved skin and bones in the next step.
Duck Stock, Part 2
1/2- to 3/4-cup reserved duck fat
duck skin and bones
2 large carrots, roughly chopped
2 stalks of celery, roughly chopped
leaves from two leeks (save the bottoms for the soup), roughly chopped
duck stock from previous step
Heat your oven to hot, 450F. In an ovenproof sauté pan large enough to hold the duck bones and vegetables, heat the duck fat. Add the bones, skin, and vegetables. Stir frequently until the vegetables begin to caramelize. Place the pan in the oven and roast, stirring every few minutes until the bones, skin, and vegetables are well caramelized. Remove the vegetables and bones to a stockpot and return the sauté pan to the stove top over medium high flame and deglaze with a few ladles of duck stock, scraping to get all the fond (caramelized bits) off the bottom of the sauté pan and into the stock. Once the pan is deglazed, pour the stock over the bones and vegetables and add all the remaining stock to the stock pot.
Let the stock simmer for two to three hours, then strain the solids from the stock. Discard the solids and refrigerate the stock. Leave the fat on top of the stock. Not only will it be easier to separate it when it is solid, but you'll use it again to cook the vegetables for the soup.
Cooking the Beans
Drain the beans that you have presoaked at least overnight. Place in a soup pan and cover with fresh water. Bring up to a slow boil and cook for 45 minutes. At this point, add a couple of teaspoons of salt to the water and continue cooking until the beans are just tender. Turn off the flame and let the beans cool in their liquid. Refrigerate the beans in their liquid overnight.
Day 3: Finishing the Soup
Start by pulling the duck fat off the stock and saving both the stock and the fat. You'll need some fat for this soup and you'll want the rest for some other recipe, such as duck fat home fries.
2 quarts duck stock
reserved duck meat
1/2 cup reserved duck fat
6 ounces pancetta, in small cubes
1 celery root, peeled and diced
2 leeks, cleaned and diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
12 sage leaves, finely sliced
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 pound cavolo nero (Black Tuscan Kale), sliced into ribbons
salt and pepper to taste
Put the duck stock, beans and their liquid, and the duck meat in a soup pot over high flame. When it comes up to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Meanwhile, heat a large sauté pan over high flame. Add the duck fat and let it melt. Sauté the pancetta, celery root, leeks, and garlic until well wilted. Add to the soup pot. Add the sage, bay, thyme, and rosemary. Let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour for the flavors to come together. Twenty minutes before serving, stir in the cavolo nero so that it will just be cooked when you are ready to serve the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaves and rosemary. Serve with grilled crostini and lots of extra virgin olive oil to drizzle over the soup.
Sometimes I serve this as a clear soup. Sometimes I mash a few of the beans against the side of the pot to give the broth some body. Sometimes I add pieces of crusty bread to the soup and let it fall apart in the soup, giving it some body. And, I like to refrigerate the soup over night, then place it in an enameled cast iron casserole and bake it in a slow oven the next day for many hours, folding the crust back into the soup every hour or so in true ribollita fashion.
I've staged this recipe in three easy days of work. Of course, you could jam it into one; you could use canned beans and premade stock (or even water); you could substitute ham for the duck. I wanted to show you the full recipe so that you would appreciate how we go about doing what we do, but I certainly don't expect you to cook like this at home. I do hope that you will use this as inspiration to put a great white bean soup on your table for your family and friends.