Mark Bittman: The keys to this primitive yet celebratory Italian soup are the black chickpeas and the meaty bones. Recipe: Frank de Carlo's Black Chickpea Soup
My previously favorite soup, before I started eating the one I’m about to introduce you to, was taught to me in Montalcino, Italy, a hilltop town in Tuscany, by a grandmother named Olga. It uses what might be considered unreasonably large amounts of olive oil, until you consider that the base of the soup is water, that the soup itself is vegan (it’s almost entirely made of fresh vegetables, along with cooked white beans, a little tomato paste, parsley and the oil), and that soup without any fat at all is not only unusual but also often tasteless. This is real cocina povera, the cooking of people so poor that neither meat nor cheese is included.
I thought the soup served to me a few months ago at Peasant, the Italian-American restaurant on Elizabeth Street, was a pretty close relative, at least in taste and texture. It had black chickpeas (yes, you can use regular chickpeas, though you can find black at most well-stocked Indian markets, as they’re used in dal) and a slew of other vegetables. And it had a similar thick, stewy texture.
But as Frank de Carlo, Peasant’s chef and a friend of mine, revealed to me, the soup — Umbrian in origin — contains animal products in three forms, and each one is used judiciously and beautifully. This may not be the soup of rich people — it’s really quite primitive stuff — but it’s a far more celebratory soup than the one I described above.
There is time involved, and even a bit of work; it’s worth it. You start by browning meaty bones of veal or pork, in olive oil, of course. (Frank said that pork is more traditional; I’d add that it’s better, but that veal is lovely, too.) This is the only part of the process that requires extended attention. You simmer those bones with the pre-soaked chickpeas and the more-or-less-expected vegetables, until the meat is falling off the bones and the chickpeas are tender. This takes a long time — hours — and there’s no reason not to do it in advance. At that point, you fish out the bones and let them cool enough to shred any meat that fell off them and discard gristle, any lumps of fat and the bones.
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The soup is finished with a double whammy of body and flavor: beaten eggs and grated Parmesan. I mean, really, how can you go wrong?
But it’s worth pointing out, I think, that the soup is neither a fat-bomb (I wouldn’t be surprised if it has fewer calories than Olga’s) nor one that lacks complexity. The black chickpeas themselves — smaller than the more familiar chickpeas, but quite black before cooking, which lightens them — seem smoky and earthy to me. You use, among other things, tomatoes, thyme (on one occasion, I used sage, equally nice), basil and greens (I like chard best here). And you finish it with homemade croutons, a welcome touch. It is, in short, a vegetable soup with a lot of guts.
FRANK DE CARLO’S BLACK CHICKPEA SOUP
Time: Several hours, largely unattended
Yield: 4 servings
8 ounces (1 cup) dried black chickpeas
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound or more meaty pork or veal bones
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 carrot, diced
2 stalks celery, including the top green leaves, diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
8 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
½ cup white wine
About 20 ¾-inch bread cubes
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 cup chard, beet tops or other greens, chopped
Grated Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese
Fresh basil leaves for garnish
1. Wash the chickpeas and soak them in water to cover for at least 6 hours, or overnight.
2. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium heat and brown the bones well. Add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic. Saute for about 5 minutes, or until the onion becomes translucent.
3. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, thyme, drained chickpeas and wine, and add enough water to cover by about an inch. Cover and bring the soup to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn the heat down to low and cook, checking occasionally to make sure the mixture doesn’t dry out. (Mine didn’t, but if yours does, add water as necessary.) The chickpeas and meat will become tender at about the same time, which could be after 3 hours or more.
4. At some point make the croutons: Toss the bread cubes with olive oil. Bake at 325 degrees on a baking sheet; toss occasionally, until beautifully golden. Sprinkle with a little salt and set aside.
5. Remove the bones; shred and return the meat to the pot. Reheat, adding the greens and cooking until tender, about 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaf. Beat the eggs, add them and stir. Add 2 handfuls cheese.
6. Ladle into bowls; top with cracked pepper and torn basil. Frank finishes with more cheese and more oil. Why not?