Soup kitchen

As much as I like long Italian summers and as much as I relish preparing summer food, I feel – and look – decidedly more at home in autumn: probably my favorite time of year to cook.

Testaccio market is a dependable way to stir my cooking spirits, but never more so than in late October/early November when the now undeniably down-at-heel but resolutely good and spirited market is bosky and damp with autumn and it’s stalls are overflowing with good things. Here, amongst the boisterous Roman chaos, the chestnuts shine like polished mahogany and young pale walnuts, like the wrinkled faces of weather worn old farmers, beg to be cracked open. On most stalls sits a dusty orange pumpkin, the size of squashed basketball, beside it a knife with which the fruttivendolo will cut you a slice of bright orange flesh to make your pumpkin risotto. There are mushrooms, if you’re lucky boletus edulis, better known as porcini – which means little pigs – with their rust colored caps and fat bulbous stems which are indeed like fat piglets or the chubby legs of my seven week old son. You’ll find fragrant quince, their golden skin hiding modestly behind a strange downy coat, freckled pears waiting to be poached in red wine, apples to be eaten just so or baked with butter and brown sugar, and the first of the winter citrus: lemons, oranges and clementines. Stalls are a patchwork of dark green, orange and splashed with red: heaps of spinach tumble into piles of winter cabbage, cavolo nero and leafy Sicilian broccoli, bunches of carrots with their feathery headdresses nuzzle up to curiously lumpy and undeniably phallic squash and heads of deep red raddicio.

First I bought quinces, which I’ve already told you about. Next mushrooms, not porcini but wrinkled morels, some of which I fryed with an artery clogging quantity of butter and garlic and piled on toast. The rest of my autumnal toadstools went into a risotto, not my best risotto it has to be said, but that’s what comes of cooking one-handed while trying to burp a wriggling baby. Then I bought chestnuts and walnuts, a kilo of both to be, in turn, roasted and cracked, a bag of clementines and a butternut squash for soup.


Usually by this time of year I am well up to soup speed and producing at least two large panfuls a week. I have been known to topple into soup frenzy sometime in mid November, sautéing, simmering and pureeing everything that enters the kitchen, overdosing on liquid lunches, swearing I will never eat a particular soup again and then forcing the surplus into my tiny freezer, meaning the door won’t shut and the ice melts. But not this year. A long, hot summer that spilled over into autumn, the arrival of my porcini legged son and my generally shoddy kitchen presence has meant soup progress has been sluggish. The experiments with this soup and a serious quantity of pasta ceci however, have redressed the balance and my kitchen can reclaim – part-time at least- the title ‘Soup kitchen’ once again.

At first this was simply a butternut squash soup. Then one day while foraging – it’s all the rage you know – I happened upon a few cooked cannelloni beans lurking in the fridge. I added them to the orange soup, half while it was simmering and the rest after pureeing so as to leave some beans whole. I have continued to add them ever since. The dense, fine-grained and silky flesh of butternut squash makes really good soup: thick and  velvety, savory and sweet. Add some white beans and it’s even more substantial and hearty. A soporific orange soup studded with soft, nutty beans. Delicious, but could send you and your tastebuds to sleep if it weren’t for the parmesan rind (which I will come too later) and a grating of nutmeg. The parmesan gives the soup a salty savory kick and the nutmeg – my favorite spices, the pirate of a spice world, like the sweet and spicy, dusty and dirty bark of a tropical tree, it’s apparently hallucinogenic to boot – livens things up.

This recipe is more or less the template I use for every vegetable soup I make. It’s a well trodden soup path and one I’m sure you’re familiar with. You sauté the kitchen holy trinity in a mixture of butter and a little olive oil. Once the vegetables are soft, you add the diced squash – a compact, sweet squash is crucial here, a spongy, insipid specimen will produce a spongy insipid soup. Next a glug of wine or cooking sherry for the pan and another for the cook, a parmesan rind and a litre of water. You could of course use stock, but if you have good vegetables that taste proper and vitally as they should, water will do. You let the soup bubble and burp away s for 25 minutes -adding some beans at half time -until the squash is extremely tender. Once the soup is ready, you puree half of it until smooth and creamy and then return it to the pan. To finish, you season the soup with salt and a grating of nutmeg.

Back to the rind.

Left over parmesan rinds, with the inch of cheeses still clinging to them, are magic. Well not magic exactly, but just brilliant for soup. If you add a rind or two (depending on how meticulously you have cut away the cheese from the rind) to the pan, they add a deeply savory, salty, smoky depth to the soup. I keep a bag of rinds in the freezer and then throw one – still frozen as the hot soup will soon see to de-frosting duties – into what ever soup is bubbling away on the stove. Once the parmesan rind has done its duty, it’s the cooks duty to gnaw the now soft inch of cheese from the rind.

Good bread, a green salad, a bunch of grapes and a glass of wine and you have a really nice autumn lunch.

Butternut squash and white bean soup

serves 4

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 30g butter
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 1 large carrot
  • a stalk of celery
  • salt
  • a medium-sized butternut squash – which should yield about 800g flesh
  • 100ml dry white wine or 2 tbsp of cooking sherry (optional)
  • 1 litre water
  • parmesan rind
  • 300g cooked cannellini beans
  • nutmeg

Peel and small dice the onion, carrot and celery. Warm the oil and butter in a large, heavy based soup pan (which ideally has a lid) and then add the vegetables to it, turning them so they are coated with fat. Sprinkle a little salt over the vegetables and  reduce the heat so the vegetables half fry/half braise until soft – stirring every so often – which should take about 10 minutes.

While the vegetables are cooking, peel, deseed and rough chop the butternut squash. Add the squash to the pan and stir for a couple of minutes so each piece is coated with fat. Add the wine or sherry (optional) and allow it to sizzle for a minute or two. Add add the water and the parmesan rind, bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to a simmer, with the lid slightly ajar, for 25 minutes or until the squash is very tender and starting to collapse. After 15 minutes add half the beans.

When the soup is cooked, remove the parmesan rind and then puree, blend or pass half of it through a mouli and then return it to the pan along with the rest of the beans. Season to taste with salt and a grating of nutmeg.



Filed under Beans and pulses, food, recipes, soup, vegetables

31 responses to “Soup kitchen

  1. Lovely soup; BEAUTIFUL baby.

  2. Great recipe and photos! Love the idea of adding beans, will for sure try. Congrats on the baby! I have a 8 month old myself and know all about how it’s hard to cook the first few months.

  3. Butternut squash makes for one of my favorite autumn soups, and I’m looking forward to tossing in some cannellini beans next time. I’m very much a fall person. Not only does my cooking shine this time of year, but I love wearing layers of sweaters and scarves. I’m happiest when a chilly wind blows outside while I sit by a warm fire inside with a good cookbook. 🙂

  4. He’s precious, Rachel. And I love the red stockings. “It’s a look…” Roberto would say. I, myself, have taken to thick tight, woolen skirts, and converse sneakers. It’s a look. Yes, soup. My kitchen is slowly becoming worthy of the title “soup kitchen” as well. I’ll add this soup to my list. We’ve just been given a good supply of roman beans—now all I need is the squash…

  5. Luscious soup, which I’ll be making soon. Luca is a beautiful boy and you seem very happy. Best wishes to you both.

  6. I’m so much more at home in Autumn and Winter too – the food is just incredible.This soup looks fantastic. I’ve had a bit of a penchant for soup on my blog recently, you may like a few of them.

  7. oh the joy. I have all the ingredients (and little else) in the cupboard and even a couple of inches of elderly parmesan. unwilling to go into the dark to shop tonight this soup will do duty as supper( with a little extra wine on the side perhaps) thank you!

  8. Then one day while foraging.. I love you Rach xxx

  9. This looks delicious (as does Luca), though I don’t think I can get butternut squashes here in Holland, not in my village anyhow.
    But I’ve made room in my freezer for the parmesan rinds: thank you!

  10. Rosemary

    My kitchen is a soup kitchen tonight as well! Parsnips and celeriac and rice in mine… savory cornbread as well, to sop up the soupy goodness. Yum. Thanks for the butternut recipe, I am sure I’ll be making that later in the week!

    Also: adorable, adorable baby.

  11. johanna

    great post – love your lyrical description of the market. this soup looks like exactly the recipe the big kabocha dominating my fruit bowl has been waiting for.
    beautiful baby!

  12. Janae

    Though I love reading about snippets of life in Italy and your recipes (and this soup is just the kind of simple, wholesome food I love; I can’t wait to give it a try), it’s hard not to point out that Luca is RIDICULOUSLY adorable. My goodness, he is really beautiful. Congrats again.

  13. laura

    You write SO well. (And you obviously are very good at making babies as well! Luca looks adorable – we don’t see or hear the other moments – and very, very special.)
    What a treat to find a new post this morning! Thank you. Fall rocks … and your recipe is very enticing.

  14. This soup sounds beautiful – a combination of two of my favourite foods. I also love how you describe Testaccio market, it’s such a great market and so photogenic too!

  15. Gadia

    seems your porcini-legged son has not in the least curbed your lovely creative voice, autumn inspired and velvety, maybe he has even unleashed it. pleasure to read.

  16. such beautiful writing–I am there with you at the Testaccio market.
    I love butternut squash soup—I find it makes a great base for other elements–as you have also found by adding those meaty cannellini beans.
    Ha! yes, we forage where we can, backyard, or back of the fridge!

  17. Anita

    Rachel I have loved your blog since I discovered it maybe 18 months ago – your writing is beautiful and evocative, your cooking is nourishment for soul as well as body.

    Luca is a beautiful boy – am guessing he’ll be a very well fed one too!

    Anyway, this soup looks to be exactly what I need – which is why I will blame you for forcing me back out into torrential rain to procure a butternut squash! Oh well, twill be worth it I’m sure

    In parting, I cannot adequately express to you my very best wishes for this new chapter of your life – I have an unexpected little boy of my own who turned out to be the heart of my family and my world, and so I wish you and Luca so much joy of each other

  18. Yours is the fourth blog in a row I’ve visited tonight to showcase some form of pumpkin soup. Looks super good. I remember last November when Paolo was only a few weeks old, I made my own version of pumpkin soup as the only thing we had left in the house was Halloween leftovers. Congratulations on your son! delighted for you.

  19. bea

    Hi Rachel! I must say this… if it is YOU behind the baby, complimenti per la splendida forma!

  20. TD

    Hi Rachel!
    This is such a lovely recipe…not extraordinary, but simple and hearty and approachable. Butternut squash, to me, are the perfect fall starch, even better than potatoes sometimes.

  21. Actually, you can eat the “rind”, too! On Parmigiano, it’s all cheese… 🙂 After cooking soup, my mother always divides it up into little cubes and distributes them like precious pieces of hot chewing gum.

  22. A delightful & classic combo of butternut squash with white beans! A lovely filling good for you soup!
    MMMMMMMM,..;Many greetings from a foodie from Brussels, Belgium!

  23. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way. Your soup sounds delicious. Glorious, in fact. But I am most thankful for your picture with a glass of vino. I have a roast chicken in the oven and I’ve been debating whether or not to open a bottle. Debate no more. Cheers!

    P.s. having parmesan rinds may, in fact, be actual magic. 😉

  24. I came hoping for a photo of your boy, and lo! delicious soup to boot! A wonderful bonus. I’m addicted to soup, and my new favourite trick is to finish winter soups off with olive oil heated through with garlic and rosemary (I get my 3 yr old to steal the latter from my neighbour’s garden – I cannot recommend enough the merits of petty crime for keeping toddlers occupied)

  25. Just popping back to say that this soup has become a comforting staple and stoically accepts whatever cheesy rind or fresh herb I throw at it. Knowing that we have the fire lit, this soup on our laps, a bottle of red and a new box-set makes a perfect week night in this house…

  26. Pingback: Next of kin. | rachel eats

  27. Rachel,

    My friend Lindsey recently let me in on the secret of your blog, and I am loving it! I’m making this soup right now; it smells so good I can hardly stand waiting, which, of course, I have to.)
    One point that has me wondering: the omission of garlic. Do you feel it would overpower the other flavors? Just wondering.

    Thank you for sharing such deliciousness with Seattle!

    • rachel

      Hi Grant – so very glad to have you reading along. Yes, in the case of this soup, I decided not to use garlic as to allow the others softer flavours to shine. That said i think garlic would work well considering it’s affinity with both beans and squash. Let me know if you try. All the best R

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