Friday, March 31, 2017

White Bean Soup with Butternut Squash, Farro & Ham

After an unusually warm and dry winter, I was expecting more of the same for spring.  But so far, spring has been cool and wet.  And I love it.  I love the way the spring greens pop in the soft gray light...

...and I love the rain.  As always, I am looking forward to the new, fresh foods of spring.  But these cool days have put me in the mood for more substantial—and a bit unseasonal—fare. 

On one of our recent rainy days I was flipping through a favorite cookbook (One Good Dish by David Tanis)  looking for the details of a particular recipe when the book fell open to a picture of his "winter minestrone" (white bean soup with winter squash).  I have never made the soup that is pictured—rather that recipe was a springboard for a soup that has since become a favorite.  Either version would have been perfect for the chilly, drizzly day.

In addition to the white beans, the original soup included pasta, pancetta and what I thought was a rather skimpy amount of winter squash.  The first time I made the soup, I doubled the quantity of squash.  I also happened to have some chunks of the end of a Serrano ham in my freezer, so I replaced the pancetta with that.  Even though pancetta might be more common in minestrone, I love ham in a bean soup...and it was a delicious substitution.  I have since made it with ordinary American-style ham—which might not be as good as a fine air cured ham (like Serrano or Prosciutto), but was still delicious.  Finally, I got rid of the pasta altogether and added farro to the soup.  I discovered a few years ago how delicious farro can be in soup.  Moreover, it gives the soup a nice keeping quality that it doesn't have when made with pasta.  Pasta, if added to the entire batch, will become bloated and soggy as it sits (it needs to be cooked and stored separately and added to the leftovers as needed to avoid this).  Farro maintains its texture...even when the soup is kept for several days.

One of the things I like the most about this soup is the way the squash is roasted before adding it to the soup.  When diced squash is cooked in the soup, it can break up into the broth.  This is usually a desired quality, since it adds body and color to the soup.  But when roasted and added at the end it maintains a discrete presence.  The effect—both from a visual and a taste perspective—is very nice.   

For some reason I never got around to making this soup this past winter.   And since days when I'll be hungry for such a soup are dwindling, I decided to make it now.  If you happen to have a cool spring day in your future, you should make it.  I think you will find the combination of flavors and textures to be wonderfully satisfying.  And if you don’t make it now, be sure to save the recipe someplace where it will cross your line of vision next fall when winter squash begins to fill the markets once again.

White Bean Soup with Butternut Squash, Farro & Ham

3 T. olive oil, divided
3 to 3 1/2 oz. ham, cut in a 1/3-inch dice
1 medium onion (about 8 to 9 oz.), cut into small dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 t. fennel seed, crushed
1/8 t. red pepper flakes, or to taste
1/2 lb. Great Northern beans, soaked overnight in cold water, drained and rinsed
1 lb. Butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/2 c. pearled or semi-pearled farro
1 t. minced fresh rosemary
Olive oil for drizzling

In a soup pot, heat a tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add the ham and cook, stirring occasionally until browned in spots—about 3 to 5 minutes.  Add another tablespoon of olive oil, then add the onion, garlic, fennel seeds, and pepper flakes along with a pinch of salt.  Stir to coat in the fat.   Reduce the heat and gently sweat the onions until soft and tender—adding more oil if the pan seems dry—about 10 to 15 minutes. 

Add the beans and enough water to cover the beans by about an inch or so and bring to a simmer.  Maintain a simmer, stirring occasionally and adding hot water as necessary to keep the beans covered by an inch of liquid.  When the beans are about half cooked, season to taste with salt.  Continue to cook until the beans are very tender—about 45 minutes to an hour total cooking time. 

While the beans cook, prepare the squash and farro:

In a large bowl, toss the cubed squash with a tablespoon or so of olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper and spread on a baking sheet large enough to hold the squash in a snug single layer. Transfer to a 400° oven and roast, turning the squash once, until tender and caramelized in spots—about 30 minutes.  Set aside.

Cook the farro in a pot of boiling salted water until just tender—about 25 minutes.  Drain and spread on a baking sheet until needed.

When the beans are tender, add the squash, farro and rosemary, along with enough boiling water so that the soup elements are submerged and moving freely.  Continue to simmer for 5 minutes or so to allow the flavors to blend.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Ladle in to warm soup bowls and served drizzled with olive oil. 

Makes 2 to 2 1/2 quarts.  Recipe is easily doubled.

Note:  The soup will thicken as it sits.  Be ready to add more water when reheating on subsequent days. 

(Recipe adapted from Winter Minestrone in One Good Dish by David Tanis)


Deb Boatright said...

I am planning to make this soup this weekend. As we are a household of two, it's likely there will be leftovers. Would you recommend keeping the cooked farro separate to add right before serving? Does it get mushy in liquid, as rice tends to do?

Paige said...

Hi Deb,

I have just discovered that I had a huge backlog of comments that were awaiting moderation. I'm not sure why Blogger didn't notify me... I'm sorry I never got back to you about this. You probably have the answer from your own experience now...but for what it's worth, I think you can go ahead and add the farro when you make the soup. Farro holds its texture much better than rice. It is like pearled barley in that regard. It will soften a little...and absorb some of the soup liquid (you might need to add more water)...but I think this soup is delicious as a leftover. I hope this helps!