If you’ve read a number of posts on this blog, you’ll see my trend of excitement as spring weather approaches. One of my favorite way to spend a Saturday morning (and sometimes Saturday afternoon and Sunday) is gardening. We’ve been in our house ten years this September… that’s amazing! Longer than I’ve ever lived in one place, which means that I’ve seen more than a few growing seasons and weather cycles in our garden. When we moved in 2004, we experienced some severe storms… one of those those kinds that kept me awake, watching from the upstairs window at the rising waters along our street and wishing we had set our foundation about 3 inches higher. In 2007, the year our son was born, it rained almost every day in the summer; 2011 brought the worst drought I’ve experienced in my lifetime.
It’s these kinds of meteorological anecdotes that linger in the mind of a gardener every year – and the consequences of these that play out in the garden’s thriving species each season. Year 2008: white fly and spiky armored beetles consumed my dwarf pomegranate, and the annual pruning became so miserable that I finally ripped it out of the herb garden for good. Year 2006: planted the upright rosemary hedge, which was 4 inches tall at the time and now stands at least 6 feet. Year 2011: the horrible drought that decimated the weak and old, including our neighbors’ incredible 85 year old Amercian Elm. It’s absence left a blast of sun for our front yard vegetable potagers. Year 2013: ladybugs!
From the beginning of our garden’s evolution we’ve had an herb potager (it was even noted on the site plan). I love cooking with herbs and always planned to have the basics in ground: thyme, rosemary, sage, basil & bay. All these have thrived in our Texas climate, so I’ve experimented with annual herbs like dill, fennel, sorrel, rue, lemon balm, verbena, mint, chives, chervil, chamomile, parsley, cilantro, daisies, savory, marjoram, lavender. It’s amazing to see all them written out here, and to think of the huge range of tastes and dishes they can inspire. One that comes to mind is Lemon Cornmeal Lavender Madeleines, which is basically this recipe with a spoonful of chopped lavender blossoms thrown in. Or this Kale & Apple Salad with Winter Herb Vinaigrette, which I wrote about in 2010.
This cannellini bean & chard soup is another recipe that came to me after realizing the combination of herbs and veggies that were at their peak in the garden. Our swiss chard is absolutely going nuts this year, making me look like some sort of crazy green thumb. In reality, I’ve tried chard every fall for the past three or four years with meager results… until now. I believe the success of each plant depends on the immediate circumstance of rainfall, sun, heat, insect population, date planted. It’s almost as if I have nothing to do with it all, and I just look on amazed at the results.
So here’s an Italian soup to transition from winter to spring, at once hearty and sprightly. You can throw in any amount of herbs, but I prefer the combination of rosemary, thyme, bay and marjoram / oregano.
Cannellini Bean and Swiss Chard Soup
1/2 cup dried cannellini beans, not soaked (see below)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 leek, white parts only, sliced thin
2 medium carrots, diced
1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
kosher salt & ground pepper
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 sprig each of rosemary, thyme, and oregano, leaves stripped from the stem
2 bay leaves
2 cups canned tomatoes, whole
8 large leaves of red swiss chard, large stem removed and the rest chopped
6 cups vegetable or beef broth, depending on your mood
dusting of parmesan reggiano
1. Instead of soaking beans overnight like you’ve always been told, try this (adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone): cover beans with 4 times their volume in water, bring to a boil for a full minute, and leave to soak for 45 minutes to an hour. Drain, rinse with fresh water, and set aside to add to the soup later.
2. In a wide pot, bring salted water to a boil and add swiss chard. Simmer for 4 minutes and drain.
3. In a dutch oven or enamel pot, heat olive oil over medium high. Add leek, carrot, celery and saute until tender but not brown, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and herbs, and sauté for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, and cook over medium heat until the liquid evaporates and becomes somewhat caramelized, about 10 minutes.
4. Add drained beans, broth and chard and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the beans are tender. The skin should remain in tact. Season with salt & pepper right as the beans begin to soften, after about 30 minutes (otherwise the beans take forever to cook).
5. Serve with a dusting of parmesan. Enjoy!