Beans, Greens & Pasta Soup + the ultimate soup formula

A good, solid recipe in your repertoire -- one that has become a true standby -- means a couple of things. For starters, it's reliable, dependable, on call and ready to go whenever you need it. It's as comforting as your favorite sweater, the welcome answer whenever you've been asked to bring the dessert to your friend's dinner party with no notice or need to impress a guy who has pretty high standards when it comes to food (note: gnocchetti sardi worked pretty well for me here). You get the idea -- they're dishes that have got your back.

On the flip side, a solid recipe -- in its aforementioned sturdiness! -- also allows for flexibility and creativity, offering a good strong base upon which to experiment and make something slightly new. This never-fail Tomato, Butter, and Onion Sauce became a Tomato, Butter, and Fennel sauce with beautiful results; this A+ Lemon Ricotta Olive Oil Cake turned in to this Chocolate Orange Olive Oil Cake, for example; this solid Brownie Ciambellone is a riff on this White Chocolate Blueberry Cake; this foolproof egg pasta recipe has allowed me to make everything from ravioli to garganelli to fettuccine, my favorite pesto here is just as good with walnuts and Parmesan in the place of the Pecorino and almonds, this perfect-every-time Torta Caprese is excellent with hazelnut and vanilla instead of almonds and orange zest. You get the idea. 

But let's talk soup! I'm a fan -- it's the pinnacle of cozy, in my opinion -- and I've got a few on this blog, including these Roasted Tomato and this Butternut Squash. My favorite of all soups, however, is one made according to my Ultimate Soup Formula, or rather one that combines a mix of veggies, beans, greens, and any pasta you wish, however you wish. It started way back in the day with this Turkey, Spinach, and White Bean Soup, a recipe I came up with 6 years ago that then went on to evolve in to this Chickpea and Kale Soup, this Tomato and Lentil Soup with Swiss Chard, and a quick version of pasta e fagioli, among many others. 

It goes a little like this:

1. SOME VEGGIES! Start with veggies or your choosing, and saute them until softened in olive oil. I usually do a mix of carrot, celery, and onion, because that's what I like, but you could also do celery and onion, or just an onion, or even throw a potato in there if you'd like. You can also throw in a garlic clove for some flavor, or if you want, a little pancetta for extra flavor. Up to you!

2. A HANDFUL OF HERBS (if you want!) Once your veggies are cooked, you can also throw in herbs (a bay leave, rosemary, sage, all three, whatever you have). You can also add in a Parmesan rind at this stage if you have it -- I usually do, they add great flavor to soups -- or a little bit of tomato paste for flavor and color, or nothing at all. Salt and pepper is fine here too!

3. 2 CANS OF BEANS! Add in 2 cans of beans of your choice (chickpeas, lentils, borlotti, white beans, etc). As you can see in the recipe below, you can also mash these at a certain stage to change the texture of your soup; up to you if you want a thicker soup or a soupier (redundant?) one.

4. 6 CUPS BROTH! Add in about six cups (1500mL) broth of your choice, which can be either homemade or store-bought (in my case, store-bought). You can also sub some of this liquid with crushed tomatoes, to make a tomato-y soup (like this one).

5. 1/2 CUP OF PASTA! If you'd like to make your soup a little more substantial, add in about 1/2 a cup of dried small pasta, like ditalini, orzo, tortellini,  or anellini, or if you're me, maltagliati -- scraps of fresh pasta leftover from all your pasta making adventures -- that you have set aside to dry and then saved for occasions such as these (just me, I know).

6. 6 OUNCES OF GREENS! Up the nutrition factor in your soup with some greeeeens! Keep in mind that they cook down and shrink immediately when they hit the hot broth -- disappearing act! -- so if the quantity recommended below seems like a lot, it really isn't. I use spinach, kale, or swiss chard, but you use whatever you like.

7. CHEESE TO YOUR HEART'S CONTENT (if you want!) I personally like my soup topped with freshly grated Parmesan, but if you want to make this soup vegan -- I served this to a vegan friend who was quite happy -- leave the cheese out.

The soup I'm giving you here is my new favorite -- favorite yet? -- riff on my standby formula, and I've been making it on repeat this Winter. It's got creamy, flavorful borlotti (cranberry beans in English) which I recently discovered and have a lot more oomph than the chickpeas I used to favor (grazie C.T!). It's got notes of aromatic rosemary and sage, lots of virtuous-yet-tasty spinach, sweet carrots, and a dash of pasta (because it's me we're talking about) to round things out. It's the most interesting, craveable soup I've met yet, and while I'm willing to bet you'll agree -- I don't want to be presumptuous! I entrust my formula to you to use as you wish. Make the soup as written below if you like, or substitute in whatever you prefer and make a recipe that is all in your own. 

A couple of notes: As I've just finished saying above -- adapt this soup as you wish! If you want to add in meat like I did in the Chickpea and Kale or Turkey and Spinach versions, just stir it in already cooked once the soup is ready to go -- a little pancetta to start the soup off with along with the vegetables works well here too. 

Serves 3-4; feel free to double or up quantities as needed.

Olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 carrots, cut in to rounds
2 sticks of celery, chopped
A sprig of rosemary
A bay leaf, a few leaves of sage
2 cans or jars of good-quality borlotti beans
6 cups (1500 mL) chicken or vegetable stock, store-bought or homemade if you've got it
1/2 cup dried small pasta
6 ounces (168 grams) baby spinach
Parmesan cheese rind (optional)

Parmesan cheese/bread for serving

Heat some olive oil in a large pot over medium-low heat (enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of said pot) and saute the veggies of your choosing -- in this case onion, celery, and carrot -- until softened golden brown. Season the veggies with salt and pepper. Add the herbs or flavorings of your choosing -- in my case rosemary, sage, and bay leaf, as I usually have them on hand -- and then stir everything together and cook for few minutes.  

Next, add your cheese rind to the pot if you are using one, then rinse and drain your beans -- borlotti beans here! -- and add them too. Stir everything around for a minute and then add your liquids -- in this case I used veggie broth. Bring this mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer the soup for 20 minutes.

Optional (though I never skip this step): using a ladle, remove two ladle-fuls of soup (more beans than broth) and place them in a bowl. Using a potato masher (or a food mill or food processor if you prefer -- just keep in mind these are hot liquids) mash until coarse. Set aside. 

Taste the soup and add more salt if necessary. Bring the soup to a boil again and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is tender, stirring as you go, and adding a little more broth or even if the soup seems thick (I ended up adding another cup or so). Return your pureed soup to the pan and stir, then add in the greens -- spinach here! -- and cook until wilted. Taste the soup again to make sure your seasonings are sufficient, and serve with crusty bread and extra Parmesan over the top. 

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