Craving Soup: one easy method

I was totally let down by Marcella (Hazan) last week. Even though I have never met her and probably never will, I always think of her as a good friend. I can’t help it. It’s the way she writes – as if she were peering into your pot over your shoulder, watching you screw up. Her tone is so authoritative that I would try anything she says is delicious. Sometimes blindly following her lead doesn’t work out too well.

In the recipe for Barley Soup in the Style of Trent she promised: “…exceptional appeal from successive layers of flavor laid down by sauteed onion and ham, by rosemary and parsley and the diced potato and carrot, which [should have!] provided the ideal base for the wonderfully fortifying quality of barley itself.” Whatever, Marcella! It sounded so good but it tasted like watery gruel with bacon bits. We all hated it – the whole family. I couldn’t even imagine eating some for lunch the next day so I ran it all down the disposal. I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to admit to that. Oh well.

Here’s a soup that DID work well. Very well. And it’s so handy to have a recipe where you don’t actually have to have stock stored in the freezer. Although I have to say, I do – Marcella whipped me into shape on that one. As she so witheringly puts it:”…for the sake of practicality, alternatives are given for homemade meat broth, the hope here is that you ignore them, relying instead on the supply of good frozen broth you try always to have on hand”. Ouch. We can discuss broth later, I love to make chicken stock and it’s not a huge deal.

Bean and Pasta Soup, a recipe from Alice Waters in her book The Art of Simple Food, is easy, it makes your house smell good and it’s not asking too much to get a kid to try some. I like this recipe because, as I said, you don’t have to have any stock on hand and with her excellent exhortations on when and how to salt and taste, you can really mess around with it. Just follow the directions the first few times and then you can add other things, like kale or green beans or butternut squash or potatoes!

The original recipe calls for fresh shelling beans and the first few times I went out of my way to get some. They were delicious but dragging my kids down to Pike Place Market at what was either the very beginning or the tail end of the cranberry bean season (the classic bean to use for this soup) for limp scraggly looking specimens was a big pain and I don’t have time to consider if it’s bean season or not. Dried beans are very nice. Ms. Water’s suggested variation is to use a cup of dried beans and I always have a lot of cannellini in the cupboard anyway. You could use dried cranberry though – they’re easy to find in the bulk section.

Bean and Pasta Soup, 4-6 servings

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup finely diced red onion ( I use about 1/3 of a red onion – the behemoth type typical of grocery stores – use a whole one if you have a coddled, lovely, farmer’s market onion)
  • 1/4 cup finely diced carrot (I use about 2/3 of a medium carrot)
  • 1/4 cup finely diced celery (I use 2 stalks)
  • a pinch of dried chile flakes
  • 2 tsp coarsely chopped fresh sage. (get a plant and grow this somewhere in your yard, parking strip, whatever, you’ll make good use of it)

Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. (I use a 7+ quart Le Creuset which is about right)

Add the vegetables, chiles and sage. Cook until soft, stirring now and then. Cook for 12 minutes. Set a timer. I do.

Now add:

  • 4 peeled and roughly chopped garlic cloves
  • Sea Salt

Cook for 2-3 minutes

Now TASTE. This is important. This is the thing I learned from Alice Waters. And it seems so simple and obvious now. Starting with a 1/2 teaspoon of salt – sea salt – add it and stir. Take a small spoon and taste the soffrito (which is what you call onions, carrot, celery etc). Is it good? Does it taste like you want to eat more of it? If not, add another 1/2 teaspoon. Maybe take it off the heat while you think about it so you don’t burn your carefully softened vegetables. As you make more soup, you won’t have to do this as often. But the first two or three times, taste very carefully every time before you add the next layer of flavor.


  • (1) 12 ounce can of whole tomatoes, drained of their liquid and chopped (add the liquid that comes out of the chopped tomatoes though)

Cook for 5 more minutes. Then add your beans.

  • 1 cup cannellini beans soaked and cooked with a few crushed garlic cloves, peppercorns and a bay leaf, broth reserved
  • Sea Salt

I use a slotted spoon to scoop the beans out of the pot and then ladle their broth into the soup pot until everything is covered up by about a 1/2 inch. Simmer over low heat, stirring sometimes. 15 minutes more or less. The soup is complete now except for the pasta. You could stop here and serve it tomorrow. But if you are going to do that, don’t add the pasta until just before you eat.

Cook 1/4 pound of tiny pasta, ditalini, orzo – that’s what I like – in salted water. When they are done, drain and add to the HOT soup. (If you are reheating don’t add pasta until the soup is good and hot – pasta will soak up all the nice broth and you will have a large bowl of stodge)

If you have a large wide soup plate, now would be the time to use it.

Garnish with:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Parmesan cheese, freshly grated.

I like the California olive oil in the tall skinny green bottle from Trader Joe’s for this. It’s got a taste like artichokes and a nice peppery finish.

* I really hope you won’t resort to canned beans for this recipe – did you know they are cooked right in the can!?!?! At least that’s what I heard. There’s nothing wrong with canned beans per se. It’s just that you won’t get any of the good bean broth that way – only that sticky nasty stuff.


5 responses to “Craving Soup: one easy method

  1. I want to make this soup right now! Thank you Sarah!

  2. I always thought Marcella was okay about using home made stock alternatives. Isn't she the one that uses stock cubes in some of her recipes?

  3. Hi,

    This is a wonderful post. I just purchased Alice Water’s cookbook and will be trying this recipe this weekend. Thanks for sharing your experience with the recipe. I really like your recommendation about how to season the sofrito.


  4. Thank you – It was a weirdly liberating recipe for me! I would love to hear what you think when you’ve tried it. I used a similar method last night for Pappa al Pomodoro which I wrote about a couple of years later on this blog. Alice Waters’ soffrito method saved me from the tyranny of boxed broth! 😉

  5. Pingback: Tomato & Shelling Beans {a new daily painting} | LizTest

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