- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The days are getting shorter and colder, so we tend to want to sit around inside, either cooking and eating or fantasizing about cooking and eating.

Fantasizing is an apt word, I think: Much of the focus tends to be on fanciful holiday extravaganzas that give us a vicarious thrill. Sometimes, while indulging in such flights of gourmet daydreams, we find ourselves growing hungry for something ordinary and delicious, unadorned, sturdy and satisfying in a simple way.

I think that what we need, in addition to those high-flying ideas for celebration, are straightforward, down-home recipes to sustain us on the ordinary nights.

It’s for those less exalted times that we need an inspiration boost. Although we want these dinners to be tasty, we also want them to be light so we can save heavy-duty consumption for celebrations.

My favorite way to transform the ordinary is to make a homemade soup and serve it with a loaf of extraordinary artisan bread, such as a crusty loaf studded with olives or a chewy Pugliese.

A green salad made with romaine and arugula and adorned with a few special touches, such as crumbled Roquefort, toasted pecans and thinly sliced green apple, can round everything off perfectly.

One of the best types of soup to serve with these stellar breads is a light, flavorful broth filled with nutritious dark greens and white beans. The beans and cheese topping provide a good hit of protein, and the greens (escarole, in this case) provide vitamins, fiber and a pleasant earthiness.

Try making a double batch and storing half in an airtight container in the freezer. When you defrost and reheat it three weeks later, you can create a new flavor combination by serving it with a different type of bread.

Semolina-raisin? Asiago-onion? Sourdough-walnut? Can you tell I’m crazy about this bread revolution?

Add a different salad, such as a Waldorf or maybe marinated beets with vinaigrette, and the meal becomes an original.

White bean and escarole soup

About the beans: If you’re using dried beans, start with 1½ cups and soak them in plenty of water for a minimum of 4 hours.

Rinse and cook in enough fresh water to cover the beans by 2 inches. Simmer for 1 hour or until the beans are tender.

About the greens: The recipe calls for escarole, but you can substitute any green, including spinach, kale, chard, collards or a combination.

About the cheese: Grated cheese is nice, but shaved cheese is nicer.

Use a good, strong vegetable peeler, and make long, wide, thin slices of Parmesan to festoon the top of the soup. It’s a wonderful touch.

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups chopped onion

1 bay leaf

2 stalks celery

2 medium carrots, diced

2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste

3 to 4 cups cooked white beans or 2 15-ounce cans, rinsed and drained

3 tablespoons minced garlic

1½ pounds escarole, chopped

Freshly ground black pepper

Freshly grated nutmeg

Minced parsley

Grated or shaved Parmesan cheese

Heat oil in a soup pot or Dutch oven. Add onion, bay leaf, celery, carrots and salt. Cook over low heat for about 10 minutes, then add 6 cups water.

Cover and bring to a boil, then lower the heat. Partially cover and simmer for about 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

Add beans and garlic and as much of the escarole as can fit. Cover and wait a few minutes. When there is room, add more escarole in batches, waiting between additions for the greens to cook down.

Add black pepper to taste and more salt, if necessary. Serve hot, topped with a few gratings of fresh nutmeg, a touch of parsley and a generous helping of Parmesan cheese.

Makes 5 to 6 servings.


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