I’m going to share with you an old Italian soup recipe. It has only 5 simple ingredients and simmers for just 10 minutes. It costs less than a dollar per serving, yet is a life-changer! What are your expectations? I came across it on Food52 who labelled it ‘genius’ – opinions are divided.
The recipe is credited to the father of the legendary, Italian-American cookery writer Marcella Hazan. Marcella was born in 1924 in northern Italy, so we can confidently say that this recipe belongs to a certain era and tradition. It’s said, that from necessity as well as inclination, Marcella’s father, Giuseppe, was an extremely frugal cook. At the time, apparently the most expensive ingredient in this soup was the salt. The context is important and should be taken into consideration before we judge it.
Or on the other hand, we could decide to not judge it. We could just cook it and offer it with love and sincerity. Receive it with love and sincerity. Maybe it’s a bit bland, or maybe it’s heavenly, but we are a step closer to magnanimous mind. But it’s soooo hard not to judge, isn’t it?
In the Tenzo Kyōkun, Zen Master Dōgen taught that we should handle all food with respect, as if it were to be used in a meal for the emperor. ‘A dish is not superior because you have made it with choice ingredients, nor is a soup inferior because you have made it with ordinary greens,’ Dōgen teaches. Why is this attitude so important?
Dōgen is pointing to an understanding that dualistic thinking – good/bad, superior/inferior, happiness/unhappiness is what keeps us bouncing around, suffering. In order to find stability, we need to practise seeing everything we encounter as our life – not avoiding the unpleasant, not clinging to the pleasant. Dōgen considered that working with food is ideal practise for developing this attitude of equanimity. Of COURSE we should put energy, creativity and love into creating delicious meals for our families, it’s not that we stop discriminating altogether, that would be foolish (and impossible I think). Rather, our attitude expands to accept things in every moment just as they are, without pining for improvement, so-called perfection.
But judge it we do! The online comments regarding this soup range from ‘overrated’, ‘prison food’, ‘beige sludge’, ‘bland, flat and tasteless’ to ‘YUM’, ‘delicious’, ‘genius’, ‘creamy’, ‘soooo good’. My own comments are there too – it’s all too tempting to share a thought or two, regardless of whether anyone asked for it!!
For me, initially, the enticing thing about this simple soup was the skill and method apparent in the recipe – it’s not just boiled beans and veg. It was made with conscientious effort. You gently warm a very generous amount of olive oil in a pan with finely chopped garlic til it turns pale gold. Then you add your soaked and cooked cannellini beans, and sauté those on a low heat, allowing the flavours of the soft grassy, garlicky olive oil to permeate the beans, before adding stock. A portion of the beans are then puréed to a thick luscious cream and added back to the pan, giving the soup a surprising richness for such simple ingredients. And that’s all there is to it – it’s certainly a minimalist soup! I also love its whiteness; quite rare in the kitchen. A hint of purity and simplicity? Maybe that’s what made this soup stay in my mind for days. (Or the vitriol of some of the feedback… one or the other!)
Suzuki Roshi said “The world of thinking is that of our ordinary, dualistic mind. The world of pure consciousness or awareness is that of buddha-mind. Phenomena in the world of thinking are constantly being named or labeled by our minds. The world of awareness does not label or name, it only reflects. The world of pure consciousness thus includes the opposites in the world of thinking.”
Are the commentators who say this soup needs caramelised onions, spices, fire roasted chillies, aromatic herbs, kale, tomatoes, aged parmesan, more broth, less beans, a side of wood-roasted leg of lamb, ‘wrong’? Not necessarily.
This soup is perfect just the way it is. And yes, it could be improved. Emptiness and form. I told you it was a mind-blowing soup!
White Bean Soup, with Garlic and Parsley
(shared directly from Food52, although having made this soup as written, I would suggest using less beans and a little more broth, but there I go again, forgetting the soup has perfect buddha nature just the way it is).
Serves 4 to 6
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
- 6 cups cooked cannellini or other white beans—either canned or cooked from 2 cups dried (recommended)
- Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
- 1 cup homemade broth or water (or 1/3 cup canned beef stock diluted with 2/3 cup water)
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- Thick grilled or toasted slices of crusty bread (optional)
- Put the oil and chopped garlic in a soup pot and turn on the heat to medium. Cook the garlic, stirring it, until is becomes coloured a very pale gold.
- Add the drained cooked or canned beans, a pinch of salt, and a few grindings of pepper. Cover and simmer gently for 5 to 6 minutes.
- Take about 1/2 cup of beans from the pot and puree them through a food mill back into the pot, together with all the broth. Alternately, use a blender, loosening with a bit of the broth. Simmer for another 5 to 6 minutes, taste, and correct for salt and pepper. Swirl in the chopped parsley, and turn off the heat.
- Ladle over the grilled bread slices into individual soup bowls.