While surfing the internet for Italian recipes, I came across one for a soup that called for Purgatorio beans and barley by Marcella Hazan. My eyes popped open at the word “Purgatorio.” Purgatory beans? What in the world are they?
The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity says: “The Purgatory bean is small, white and round, similar to a Cannellini bean, but with a more delicate taste and a thin skin, historically cultivated in the towns of Gradoli, Acquapendente and Onano. Its peculiarity is due both to the traditional growing practices that do not allow the use of chemical products and the volcanic soil. The bean is both planted and harvested by hand still today.”
After hunting the internet unsuccessfully for a source of these elusive beans, I had to settle for Cannellinis. But guess what? They’re perfect in this soup. The tender beans and barley are wonderful foils for this thick, rich, and vegetable-packed dish, perfect for a cold winter night.
Giving the beans a quick 2-minute boil before adding them to finish cooking in the soup makes them tender but not mushy. I also like to cook the barley briefly with the onions, celery, and carrot to toast its surface starches before adding the broth or water.
A generous amount of Swiss chard, stems and all, add great flavor, color, and texture to the soup. Feel free to adjust the amount of liquid. Start with the quart specified in the recipe, which will give the soup a stew-like consistency. Add up to 2 cups more if you prefer a looser soup.
And please don’t forget the Parmesan! It brings all the flavors together.
Italian Cannellini Bean, Barley, and Chard Soup
Makes 6 servings
This is a terrific stew-like soup that is easy to make and satisfies the appetite. Pearled barley has had its outer bran layer removed to hasten cooking. You can use whole barley if you prefer, but boil it separately for about 30 minutes before draining well and adding to the recipe. If you like, you can also cook some pancetta or bacon separately and add to the soup towards the end of cooking.
1 cup dried cannellini beans
1 pound Swiss chard (about 2 bunches)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
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2 large celery stalks, diced medium-fine, about 1 cup
1 large carrot (8 ounces), peeled and finely chopped, about 2 cups
1/2 cup pearled barley
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth or water, plus more if needed
Extra-virgin olive oil to drizzle onto soup
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. Put the beans into a medium saucepan (2- to 3-quart) and add water to cover by an inch or two. Sprinkle on 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to the boil uncovered over high heat and cook at a full boil for 2 minutes. Take the pan off the heat, cover, and let stand 2 hours. Drain well in a strainer and put the partially cooked beans into a bowl. Use the beans the same day or cover and refrigerate for a day or two.
2. Wash the chard leaves well, and shake off the clinging water. Pile the leaves on top of each other and trim about 1/2 inch off the stem ends. Cut the stems and leaves crosswise into 1/2-inch-wide strips; set aside.
3. Put the olive oil into a large pot (5- to 6-quarts) and set the heat to medium. When hot, add the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden in color with some darker edges. Add the celery and carrot, and cook, stirring every so often, for 6 to 8 minutes more, until the vegetables are tender. Stir in the barley and cook 1 to 2 minutes more.
4. Bring the broth or water to boiling in a medium saucepan and add to the vegetables and barley. Stir in the partially cooked beans. Sprinkle in 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and stir well. Add the chard (it will just about fill the pot). Mix in the chard as best you can using tongs. The chard needs to cook down a bit before it can be mixed in completely; so cover the pot, cook 3 to 5 minutes, then stir everything in the pot together well.
5. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, covered, about 30 minutes more— stir occasionally — until the beans and barley are tender. If soup is too thick, thin it out a bit with extra hot broth or water. Taste and season as needed with more salt and pepper.
6. To serve, ladle into heated soup bowls and drizzle a bit of extra-virgin olive oil (about 1 teaspoon) over each portion. Sprinkle on the Parmesan and serve immediately with some crusty bread.