When Marcella Hazan passed away almost four years ago, tributes came pouring in from every major newspaper, and from chefs and home cooks from across the country. Invariably, the eulogist would mention Marcella’s most simple and exquisite pasta sauce with tomatoes, onions, and butter. It’s a sauce I’ve never had in Italy (perhaps Marcella made it up herself), but it became a symbol to many people of her forceful dedication to simplicity and flavor.
Another dish that comes to mind in this way is Marcella’s cannellini bean soup with garlic and parsley. It exemplifies the same extreme minimalism as the pasta sauce and demonstrates the principle that Marcella was always preaching: what you leave out of a dish is as important as what you include. Her understanding of her native country’s cooking was not only at odds with the caricature of Italian food in America at the time, but it was also at odds with the great majority of cooking from restaurant chefs, with their fixation on presentation and technical execution over freshness and taste.
We’ve been serving the bean soup this month at Old Tioga Farm, and though I’ve been making the soup for myself and family for almost twenty years now, I hadn’t served it at the restaurant in a while. Making it for the past few weeks has given me the opportunity to reflect anew on the recipe and on Marcella’s understanding of good cooking.
Marcella knew that it was not presentation, but flavor, which matters most in cooking. The bean soup is not going to win any prize for beauty, nor is it likely to appeal to the food porn crowd. But that’s not the point. When you taste the soup, if it is well made, you’re struck by a few very simple but powerful flavors: the beans themselves, soft and rich, substantial but yet dissolving; an underpinning of garlic, not so much as to overwhelm but just enough to serve as a sort of bass line, aromatic but not browned or harsh; parsley, the most common herb in Italian cooking, which provides freshness like no other herb; a light meat broth, refined and delicate, never intense and concentrated; and last but not least, olive oil of the very highest quality, an ingredient whose quality will make or break this soup. The oil infuses the beans with and enfolds them in its glow. A great oil will elevate the beans. A poor one will flatten them.
This, to me, is what good cooking is all about; at least, good Italian cooking. A few ingredients of highest quality, assembled in a way which just develops their full potential without confusing everything with excess complication. This is food meant not to impress so much as nourish. This is the philosophy of cooking which I learned from Marcella, which changed the course of my life, and inspires me every day in my home and restaurant kitchens.
Cannellini Bean Soup with Garlic and Parsley
I make this soup almost identically to Marcella. Of course, Marcella knew that not even the same cook prepares the same dish identically every time. My version is definitely a little more liberal with the garlic, and I also like the soup less thick but more pureed than Marcella. According to Marcella’s husband Victor, Marcella learned the soup from her father. She taught it to countless cooks through her classes and books, and now I share it with you.
Begin the night before by soaking one pound of dried cannellini beans. Certainly, if you must, use canned beans. I certainly have on occasion. The best canned beans I know of are the ones from Goya. Be aware that other brands might be over- or under-seasoned with salt. But do try to use dried beans for the full experience. If you forget to soak them overnight, you can skip that step, but it will take a little longer to cook them. Not a big deal. Cook in a big pot with water to cover and 2 or 3 teaspoons salt until tender, about an hour or two. Or you can go all out and mail order the Tuscan heirloom bean Sorana, which Marcella considered perhaps the best bean in Italy and which is marketed in this country as the Marcella Bean.
The soup also requires good homemade broth, which is one of the very simplest things you can do to improve the quality of your soups. The simplest vegetable broth just contains an onion and a few carrots and celery stalks, simmered for an hour in about 2 quarts of water. A more complex broth adds a whole chicken, or just a carcass, or just some chicken parts thrown in with the vegetables and simmered for closer to 3 hours. Another layer of flavor would involve adding some beef scraps or bones. There would be no harm in adding some tomatoes, or sweet peppers, or potatoes, or zucchini. But all of that is icing on the cake. A simple vegetable or chicken broth will do just fine.
When the beans are tender and the broth is made, you can begin to make the soup by sautéing one tablespoon garlic (Marcella used only 1 teaspoon) in 1/2 cup highest quality olive oil. You might find this an excessive amount of olive oil. It most certainly is not. It is an essential flavor component of this soup. As the winemaker Paolo di Marchi once told me: “In Tuscany, we think of olive oil as just another vegetable.” And so it is.
When the garlic is sizzling and taking on just a hint of color, add the beans, which should have been drained from their cooking liquid and tasted for proper seasoning. Let the beans absorb the flavor of the olive oil over moderate heat for about five minutes, and then add 2 cups or so of broth.
Pass about one third to one half of the beans through a food mill, or (if you must) put them in a blender, and then return them to the pot. This will thicken the soup a little.
Add more broth as needed to create the consistency you want. Some like it very thick. I like it more like a traditional soup. After the flavors have married for 10 minutes or so and the seasoning is just right, add a generous bit of freshly chopped parsley and several grindings of black pepper.
Garnish with a little drizzle of olive oil, what Italians would call “a benediction.”