Monday, July 10, 2006

Buonissimo bean soup


"I will... eat more pulses."
Chick lit heroine Bridget Jones makes a New Year's resolution

She ended up devouring dishy Daniel Cleaver instead, And why wouldn't you, given a choice between, say, chickpeas, and illicit hanky-panky with Hugh Grant (who played Bridget's handsome, charming and shamelessly trampy boss in the screen adaptation of Bridget Jones's Diary)? Of course, nothing good can come of sleeping with a cad. Well, not in the long-term anyway. Pulses, on the other hand, will never leave you saying to yourself over and over "What the f*** was I thinking?"

If Bridget had made good on her pledge eat more pulses she'd have found keeping another of her resolutions - "reduce circumference of thighs by 3 inches" - a whole lot easier. Reams of scientific evidence attest to pulses being a power food, not only for maintaining a healthy weight but also for such things as boosting energy levels, helping prevent debilitating diseases and promoting longevity.

Pulses came out on top in a 2004 study seeking a dietary link between cultures with high life expectancy. Food Habits in Later Life analysed what people aged 70-plus ate in Japan, Greece, Sweden and Australia and found pulses, or legumes, were the common longevity-enhancing factor. Researchers concluded there was a reduction in risk of death by up to 8 per cent for every 20-gram increase in legume intake.

In a world of instant gratification something seen as bringing future benefits can be a hard sell. To their credit, pulses start working their magic almost immediately. Eating a bowl of hearty lentil- or bean-based soup as a work-day lunch, for instance, is an effective pre-emptive strike against the “Sugar! Sugar! Sugar!” mania wont to strike at 4pm, leaving one overwhelmed by a desire to consume multiple items from the office vending machine or, to stave off such gluttony, the strapping 19-year-old intern.

Even more importantly, pulses are tasty - just as long as they're not bastardised by a recipe mired in 1960s vegetarian culture. There are some things pulses just should not be used for and faux pot roast is one of them. Any Mediterranean-style dish, on the other hand, is always a winner. For inspiration, I turn first and foremost to the food-obsessed Italians, who seem incapable of making anything that doesn't taste absolutely glorious.

This soup is a case in point. The recipe takes a lot of short cuts but with the most delicious result. You basically just simmer canned beans, packaged chicken stock and a few veggies for little more than a half hour. Purists would take issue with the taking of short cuts and, yes, an Italian nona would cook the beans from scratch and not only make her own stock but also stoically murder the chicken required. She can do that. She doesn't have a job.

The dish is inspired by a recipe in Italian Easy: Recipes from the London River Cafe, written by English women Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. Their shared passion for Italy inspired them to open London's acclaimed River Cafe. The restaurant has spawned a number of cookbooks including two dedicated to easy recipes, which are perfectly suited to cooks who are busy and health-conscious but nevertheless committed to maintaining certain standards. Think of the Gray-Rogers combo as the thinking man or woman's Rachael Ray.

I use more and a wider variety of vegetables than their Italian Easy soup recipe calls for. And while the recipe specifies white beans I typically use red kidney beans, which taste just as good and up the antioxidant power. The beans come in at number three on the United States Department of Agriculture's list of the 20 foods with the highest concentration of antioxidants. Only azuki beans and wild blueberries are rated more potent. And, FYI in the event you're keen to supercharge your diet, pinto beans, cultivated blueberries, cranberries, artichokes, blackberries, prunes and raspberries rounded out the top 10.

Buonissimo bean soup

Extra virgin olive oil
2 red onions, peeled and chopped
4 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 sticks of celery, trimmed and chopped
Half small cauliflower, chopped
1 fennel bulb, chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
Dried chilli flakes
16oz/425g can whole tomatoes, juice drained off
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
16oz/425g can red kidney beans, drained and well rinsed
4 cups good quality chicken or vegetable stock
4 slices sourdough bread, preferably wholewheat or grainy
2 additional garlic cloves, peeled and halved

In a large saucepan, warm over low to medium heat a generous splash of olive oil - enough to liberally cover the bottom of the pan. Add onion, carrot, celery, cauliflower and fennel and sweat, with pan covered, until the vegetables soften.

Add the chilli flakes, finely sliced garlic and whole tomatoes. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Simmer for 15 minutes, crushing the whole tomatoes as they cook.

Add the stock and beans, bring to the boil and simmer for a further 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, grill or toast the sourdough bread - one slice for each person you're cooking for. Because the soup is poured over the bread immediately before serving, you needn't prepare bread now for any portions you'll saving for later.

Rub a halved garlic clove over each slice of toast and drizzle with olive oil. Tear the toast into rough pieces, place in your serving bowls and ladle soup over the top. Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil.

Makes 4 hearty portions
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