As the weather (finally) cools, a cook’s thoughts begin to turn to simple, long-cooked comfort foods.
I remember the nightly reading when the children were young and the story of Stone Soup. A hunter lost in the forest and happening upon an isolated cottage manages to persuade the old crone who comes to the door to allow him in out of the weather. In return he offers to make her a pot of Stone Soup. All he is going to need are a few flavor enhancers he assures her, things that she has to hand and will never miss. He places the stone in a pot of water over a fire and by stealth he adds one of those onions, perhaps that last bit of carrot, a scrap of meat, the carcass of a cooked bird, a few herbs from the forest, a turnip, some grains - just a handful, a spoonful of salt and so on. By the end of the story the two of them sit down to a hearty meal, manufactured from the hunter’s suggestion of how grateful he would be for ‘just a little Stone Soup’.
Not dissimilarly but with roles somewhat in reverse, I was reminded of this recently when visiting the Cilento Coast in Southern Italy while staying overnight at the Belvedere Hotel in Pisciotta (Sa). Having consumed a splendid luncheon with my young companion seemingly only a few hours earlier, I was barely hungry that evening. The restaurant manager Fiorenzo Avallone was not to be disappointed. His mother ready at the pots in the kitchen, I would be a fool to let the opportunity of another meal pass.
‘Perhaps just a little soup’, I suggested as I entered the dining room at the agreed hour. Fiorenzo fought gallantly to hide his dismay as he seated me at the table. (We had clearly been mightily worthy guests at lunch.)
‘Certo!’ he beamed at me as he positioned the heater closer for my comfort. ‘And some sausage - a small amount. The last of the cheese - why not? Maybe a few olives, only a few, they are my own. Remember how you enjoyed them earlier?’
How does one resist?
An appetizing selection arrived with a small jug of the house wine and a bottle of water. Far more elaborate than I had anticipated but at the same time - positively perfect.
The sausage - two types both made on the premises - a dry, thin salami, and a type of pancetta. The cheese - a house made ricotta, a slice of hard salty cheese, a local pecorino and a snow white, creamy slither of the local goats cheese. The olives were small, like those of Liguria - just three or four. His selection was sensitive to my alleged delicacy.
‘About the soup’ he broached. ‘Would signora prefer a pasta? A risotto maybe? We have only beans and some grains and pulses’ he explained, uncertain as to how I would react to such simple food. ‘We can thin this with some broth for you to make a soup.’
‘Con brodo’ I assented. The signora, listening in the doorway, venting her approval bustled back into the kitchen to prepare what she triumphantly called Zuppa di Grano e Fagioli.
I was delighted by the arrival of a steaming bowl of beans and pulses. The soup was grey and rich in colour, thick in consistency, a luxurious mix of beans, barley, peas, lentils and grains, a little carrot, tiny evidence of some onion. In Australia we would have been tempted to brighten it up with some chopped parsley and clutter it up with no end of unseasonal herbs and vegetables. Not a bit of it. A steaming nourishing mix was before me, the colors, flavors and textures of the earth.
My approval was met with more beaming from the padrone. We risked fast becoming part of a mutual admiration society.! A choice of a fiery jar of home made chilli oil to be served with a spoon or the sublimely infused olive oil with lemon both appeared. Tiny dried red chillies were brought to the table on a plate with a sharp pair of scissors, I snipped a few bits into the bowl. I made use of some salt. It was delicious. Hearty and nourishing and warm on a bitter winter evening. I enjoyed every bit of it.
It was suggested I complete my meal with an apple. That soup was absolutely delicious I was thinking. I bet they have a fabulous house made dessert. Now I was being greedy. A thick slice of a dense chocolate cake arrived, dusted with icing sugar; it needed the lubrication of hot liquid. I declined the offer of a digestivo, even though the house-made Mirto I had enjoyed at lunch had been excellent.
After some gentle banter with the owner, light in soul, body and mind I was able to leave the table to retire for the evening. A fine feat for someone not in the least bit hungry. A metabolic crime we are told, these days. Still, what a perfect solution had been presented - a fine three course meal for a delicate constitution. I got to enjoy some exquisite hospitality, the local cuisine and a very good nights sleep! An excellent example of how to enjoy the Mediterranean diet.
(Bean and Grain Soup)
Serves 4 - 6 generous serves
As Signora Avallone inferred at the Belvedere, this soup is the product of thinning cooked beans and grains with extra broth to achieve the consistency you prefer and season to taste. The beans and grains need soaking for a minimum of 6 - 8 hours and then more than an hour to cook. Once you have added seasonings and liquids to the cooked beans and grains you puree half of the soup and return it to the pan. This makes the heartiest and least expensive of any meal you can imagine. I am thinking about .30c per head!
You can store the grains when cooked in the fridge for a few days. It is no effort then to cook up a few vegetables to add them to for an easy meal after work. You may wish to elaborate on this simple rendition to your own taste; afterall that is what Stone Soup is - a utilization of what is easily to hand. Traditionally the soup liquid is that in which the beans are cooked. I prefer to use fresh water or stock.
- 100g dried white beans, or a mixture of beans and dry chick peas - rinsed and soaked overnight
- 100g barley rinsed and soaked separately for 4 - 6 hours
- 100g green lentils rinsed and soaked separately for about 2 hours
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion
- 2 - 3 bulbs garlic, peeled and crushed
- 2 medium carrots
- 2 sticks celery
- 3 - 4 liters vegetable stock or 1 - 2 stock cubes
- Salt and Pepper
- Drain and rinse the beans in a 4 - 5 liter pot and add 3 liters of cold water and bring to the boil and boil rapidly for 15 minutes, then lower the heat and simmer for about 90 minutes
- Drain and rinse the barley and lentils and add to the beans after they have been simmering for 30 minutes
- Peel and finely dice the onion and carrot, finely dice the celery and chop the garlic
- Gently heat a large pan over moderate heat, cover with olive oil and add the onion. Cook for about 10 minutes over low heat, stirring all the time, do not allow it to brown. Add the garlic and stir for a minute or two. Add the carrot and celery, stir and cover for 2 - 3 minutes.
- Drain the beans and grains and add them to the sauteed vegetables, stir well over moderate heat.
- Cover with cold water / stock and gently bring to a simmer until the vegetables are tender, add 1 - 2 stock cubes, taste and season with salt and pepper
- Puree half the contents in a blender and return to the pan. Add more liquid if you want a thinner soup.
- Reheat and bring to the table. Serve with extra virgin olive oil drizzled over the soup. Provide tiny chillis and a small sharp pair of scissors for snipping
With some excellent fresh bread and even a rough red wine, there is little else you could want for as the chills of Autumn begin.