These days, kale’s most iconic role is in kale salad — one of this era’s hottest salad trends (though they were also making kale salads 100 years ago). Massaged with salt, dressed with a sharp dressing, tossed with all manner of vegetables, nuts, and other tasty items, it is often delicious and nearly always healthy (kale might even be a superfood).
But on a chilly autumn or winter night, you want something warming, something hearty and nourishing. Something like a bowl of soup. Something like a soup with kale, beans, a touch of warm spices, and perhaps some toasted bread at the bottom of the bowl.
With a thick broth, plump beans, and pleasingly bitter kale, this is one of my favorite soups. And it’s probably one of the most nutritious dishes that I make, full of healthy ingredients like beans and kale, light on fat, heavy on fiber. I first discovered the combination of ingredients in a recipe called “Tuscan Kale and Bread Soup” in Paula Wolfert’s excellent Mediterranean Grains and Greens.
A first glance at the recipe looks like a fairly standard vegetable soup: onions and garlic — check; a bunch of vegetables — check; some legumes — check. But what’s this? What are small pinches of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg doing in my vegetable soup? They are a reminder of Tuscany’s proximity to the spice trade and North Africa, and they bring some exotic flavors and high notes to the soup.
If you are in a hurry, a can or two of white beans works fine, but you’ll be happier if you can cook your own beans (this could be done a few days ahead). With fresh-cooked beans, the beans can be deeply flavored with rosemary and bay leaf while they cook, and the liquid — a.k.a. “bean liquor” — is delicious and will bring body and flavor to the soup (unlike that mysterious goo in cans of beans).
The ideal kale for this soup is one of the more recently popular “Tuscan kale” varieties, which go by names of lacinato, black, cavolo nero, and dinosaur. Like many other ‘new’ vegetables, it’s actually an old heirloom variety: Elizabeth Schneider, in her indispensable Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini writes that it was developed in Tuscany, probably in the 18th century.
Although I haven’t tried making the soup with curly kale, I expect that it would be fine, though you might need to cut back on the kale a bit because, according to Schneider, curly kale leaves don’t lose much volume during cooking.
As I was researching this post, I ran across some interesting historical kale-related items:
- Wolfert’s book was published in 1998, and has this prophetic note before the recipe: Tuscan kale is “far more subtle and delicious than the common curly kale…It’s so good I’m convinced it will soon turn up in supermarkets.” She was exactly right: Tuscan kale has made it big and can be found at groceries across the country. Wolfert is a culinary trailblazer, so this would not be the first time she was ahead of the times.
- Oddly, Schneider writes that Tuscan kale “must be cooked if edibility is the goal,” but it’s my understanding that almost all of today’s kale salads are made with Tuscan kale. Perhaps the salting and massaging of the leaves counts as a form of cooking. It’s worth noting that Schneider’s book was published in 2001, a while before kale salad started becoming a thing in 2007. I wonder if she has changed her opinion about cooking Tuscan kale?
- Scheider writes that “kale needs no explanation in Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, and above all, in Scotland, where ‘to come to kail’ meant an invitation to dinner, with or without the greens.”
Soup On Toast
In her book, Wolfert calls this “Tuscan Bread and Kale Soup,” with the bread part referring to the serving method: rub a piece of toasted or grilled country bread with a clove of garlic, place it in the bottom of the bowl, then ladle the soup on top. The broth breaks down the bread, further enriching the soup, and bringing some new flavors (the darkest parts of the crust offer especially interesting flavors). I typically don’t follow the bread in bowl instruction, but instead toast a piece of country bread, then cut or tear the crust into pieces and put them into the soup to soften.
Kale, Bean, and Vegetable Soup
The preparation time for the soup depends on whether you use dry or canned beans. The cook time below is for canned beans because the cooking time for dry beans is so unpredictable.
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 small onion minced, about 175 grams
- 1 clove garlic minced fine
- 1 cup dried white beans like cannellini or borlotti
- 3 cups water
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 tbsp salt
- 1/2 cup tomatoes finely diced, 125 grams, canned or fresh
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 onion medium-sized, diced, 300 grams
- 2 cloves garlic minced fine
- 1 bunch kale stems removed, cut into bite-size pieces, about 8 cups loosely packed, 250 grams after pulling from the stems
- 3 medium carrots sliced 1/4" thick, 200 grams
- 4 medium potatoes cut into 3/8" cubes, 400 grams
- 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp ground cloves
- 2-3 cups water or stock
- 2 tsp salt or to taste
To serve (optional)
- country bread
Prepare the beans (if not using canned beans)
- Soak the beans if you like, and drain the water before cooking.
- Sauté the minced onion in olive oil over medium heat until soft, then add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds.
- Pour in the beans, water, rosemary sprig and bay leaf.
- Bring to a boil, let boil for one minute, then reduce heat so beans are at a very gentle simmer (or put them in a slow cooker or solar oven).
- Cook, partially covered.
- When beans are tender, add the salt.
- Remove the bay leaf and rosemary branch.
- Put half of the cooked beans into a bowl, and puree the remaining beans to give the broth extra body. (Or, if you are skilled with an immersion blender, just use that to puree about half of the cooked beans.)
Prepare the soup
- In a large sauce pan or Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat.
- Add the diced onions and cook until soft.
- Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds or so, being careful not to burn it.
- Add the kale and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add the carrots, potatoes, water (or stock). Stir.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, until the potatoes and carrots are just about tender.
- Add the tomato and spices, stir, and cook over low heat for 10 minutes, covered.
- Add the beans, pureed beans, their cooking liquid, and the salt. Adjust the thickness of the soup with more water or stock as needed.
- Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes, covered (or uncovered, if you think the soup is too thin).
To serve with bread, place a piece of bread in a bowl and ladle the soup on top.
Adapted from a recipe in Paula Wolfert’s excellent Mediterranean Grains and Greens.
This recipe works best with varieties in the Tuscan kale group (lacinato, black, cavolo nero, dinosaur). Curly kale should be fine, but needs to be cut into smaller pieces and cook for a longer time.
Originally published on April 8, 2013