Hearty Tuscan Bean Soup loaded with white beans, carrots, and tomatoes, and drizzled with rosemary olive oil.
One of my favorite childhood soups was Campbell's Bean and Bacon soup. My mother, who became a good cook over time, lacked the confidence when I was young, and likely the time, to delve into making soup from scratch. This was long before we learned about the nutritional compromises we were making, so we had stacks of Campbell's canned soups on hand at any given time - half of which were Bean and Bacon.
I was recently challenged to create a soul warming dish. You might think I would slide into my parent's deep southern roots to make something with grits or biscuits, but the first food I thought of was this hearty soup. Before you laugh, I'll have you know it's a Classic Campbell's Soup, but I agree it doesn't resonate as a "soul" warming food - which means to me a food connected to a particular culture, tradition, or heritage.
Unless you look at the soups of Italy, one of which looks an awful lot like my Campbell's childhood friend.
After all, Italy is not a country of refined, delicate soups that have been triple strained to get a velvety texture. To the contrary, Italian soups have opinions, and openly flex their muscles. Think Earnest Hemingway, defined by heft and texture. If partially puréed, the ingredients are never annihilated into the beige silk of a Vichyssoise. In Tuscany, you see the beans, celery and carrot, and taste each of them. There's no subterfuge by blending in cream, generally; what you see is what you get.
It's interesting to me that while so many of Italy's soups were shaped long before there was a unified Italy, this heartiness is a trait they tend to all share. And yet there are subtle differences. Trade between regions was frequently halted by ongoing skirmishes, wars, shifting political alliances, and the physical realities of weather and geography, which limited food sources to what was raised and grown within the region. Over the centuries, soups - a popular way to maximize and stretch food in times of scarcity - were shaped by this, and in Tuscany it was common to add beans to soups. Two such soups that we are familiar with today are Pasta e Fagioli and Tuscan Bean Soup, the latter hauntingly similar to the aforementioned Campbell's Bean and Bacon delicacy.
Before you point it out, I'll admit right up front this is not a completely traditional Tuscan Bean Soup since it lacks bits of smokey, thickly-sliced bacon - which of course negates the Campbell's experience as well. Just so you know, I went back and forth on this crucial matter - I'm a fan of flavoring soups with bacon - and I wanted to be authentic, but in the end I decided to keep it vegetarian to allow the pure bean, tomato, and vegetable flavors to come through unmuted. And frankly I wanted a vegetarian soup instead of a wimpy vegetarian soup. To balance the soup, I added a little more tomato than normally called for, and slipped a little harissa and balsamic vinegar in to increase the fullness of the umami flavors. But if you prefer to do this with bacon, feel free; no other changes need to be made, and I think you'll be very happy with it.
One thing I should note: my finishing touches of a flurry of grated parmesan cheese, and the rosemary oil drizzle add quite a bit to the layers of flavors in the soup, and I highly recommend their inclusion in your version. So if you haven't made rosemary olive oil yet, here's your chance. And you can serve it alongside a hunk of bread for dipping too 🙂
Tuscan Bean Soup with Rosemary Oil
- 1 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup chopped celery about 3 stalks
- 1 large leek sliced in half, and then crosswise into short ribbons (about 1 ½ cups)
- 2 cups chopped yellow onion 1 medium-large onion
- ½ cup chopped carrot
- ¾ teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 ¼ teaspoon kosher salt or to taste
- ½ teaspoon dried rosemary
- 2 tablespoons harissa
- 2 cups cooked white beans, either Navy or Cannelloni Beans work well
- 24 ounces vegetable broth, divided
- ¾ cup crushed tomatoes I used San Marzano canned tomatoes
- 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
- ½ - 1 teaspoon lemon juice to taste
- Parmesan cheese, optional
- Rosemary Flavored Olive Oil, optional
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a pot large enough to accommodate a large pot of soup. Add the celery, leeks, onion, carrots, salt, and dried herbs. Sauté until the carrot is slightly softened, and the onions are starting to stick to the bottom of the pan. The mixture should be very fragrant.
- Use a wooden spoon to form a well in the middle of the vegetables, revealing about 3 inches of the pot. Place the harissa on the pot surface and stir for 1 minute. It should start to become paste-like. Mix into the rest of the vegetables.
- Add the cooked beans, 16 ounces of the broth, the tomatoes and the balsamic vinegar. Simmer for 10 minutes.
- Using a submersible blender, whirl the soup around for about 1 minute to slightly puree. If you don't have one, just transfer one cup of the soup to a blender or food processor and purée. Stir it back into the soup in the pot.
- Stir in the last eight ounces of broth, or more if desired. Add a little lemon juice, to taste, to sharpen the flavors.
- Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and Rosemary Olive Oil