White Bean Stew with Rosemary, Garlic and Farro (slightly adapted from Melissa Clark)

It’s snowy and blustery in the mountains today (and yesterday and the day before). Spring is really playing hard to get.  I read cookbooks like most people read novels, so I curled up by the fire to read Melissa Clark’s Cook This Now and came across a recipe that is perfect for warming up a snowy day.

If you’ve read my posts about our January 2013 trip to Italy, you already know that I became enamored of a bean and farro soup served in northern Tuscany. This stew has the same flavors, is easy to put together and so satisfying. It’s guest worthy too!

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Pot likker at it’s best!

I’ve adapted the recipe slightly from Melissa’s book. One change was essential. I am a southerner. Melissa, who is not, recommends discarding any extra bean liquid removed at the end of cooking. My grandmother is turning over in her grave as I type this. Southerners do not discard bean liquid (or as we call it, pot likker or pot liquor). In fact my husband and I each had a small bowl of this particular broth with a squeeze of lemon and it was magnificent!

But I am a big fan of Melissa’s and will cut her some slack since she was raised elsewhere.  Check out her book and her website where you’ll find tons of good recipes.  http://www.melissaclark.net/

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White Bean Stew with Rosemary, Garlic and Farro (adapted slightly from Melissa Clark)
A fragrant bean and farro stew that will warm you down to your toes.
Ingredients
  • 1 pound dried cannellini beans
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive and more for drizzling
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 celery stalk, cut in half crosswise (save the leaves for garnishing)
  • I large onion, halved lengthwise from root to stem so it holds together
  • 1 whole clove (stick it in the onion half)
  • 2 rosemary sprig
  • 2 thyme sprigs
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Piece of Parmesan rind (optional, but really delicious)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons kosher or coarse sea salt, more to taste
  • 1 cup farro, rinsed
  • flaky salt (Maldon or fleur de sel) for sprinkling
  • red pepper flakes to taste
  • chopped celery or parsley leaves for garnish
  • lemon juice and/or grated Parmesan cheese for serving (optional)
Instructions
  1. Soak the beans overnight in cold water, or add cold water and beans to a pot and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let the beans soak for two hours. Both methods will greatly reduce cooking time of dried beans.
  2. When ready to cook, drain the beans and place along with the olive oil, 4 of the garlic cloves, the celery and onion in a large pot over medium-high heat. Bundle the rosemary, thyme and bay leaf together, tie with kitchen twine, and add to the pot (if you use the herbs without tying, remember to fish them out later). Add the Parmesan rind, if using. Cover everything with water and stir in the salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer from 1 to three hours, depending on how long you soaked the beans. A test of doneness is to place a bean in your hand and blow on it. If the skin breaks, it’s ready. Try a few from different places in the pot just to make sure they are all done.
  3. If the water level in the pot sinks below the top of the beans during cooking, add more water as needed. At the end of cooking, the water should not quite cover the beans. If there’s too much liquid at the end, remove and set aside to serve as a first course or use as a soup base tomorrow.
  4. While the beans are cooking, prepare the farro. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the farro, pasta style, until softened. This can take 20 minutes to and hour depending on what kind of farro you use. When it is nicely chewy, drain well.
  5. Mince the remaining two garlic cloves.
  6. When the beans are cooked, remove and discard the onion, celery, hers, and Parmesan rind. The garlic can be served with the beans. Stir in the minced raw garlic and use an immersion blender to puree 1/3 to 1/2 of the beans. You can also puree them in a blender or food processor but that’s a lot more work! For a thinner broth, stir in the garlic and skip the puree step.
  7. Serve the beans in bowls over the farro. Drizzle each portion with plenty of olive oil, sprinkle with salt (flaky or otherwise), red pepper flakes and celery or parsley leaves. Stir in a bit of lemon juice if desired to heighten the flavors and sprinkle with grated Parmesan if desired. Make sure you don’t skimp on the oil, salt and red pepper flakes when serving. These flavors make the whole thing come together.
Beans, olive oil, celery, clove, onion and herbs at a boil

Beans, olive oil, celery, clove, onion and herbs at a boil

Quick Tomato Tortellini Soup

We all have those days when we’re out of energy, ideas or time when it comes to dinner. For years this soup has been my go to on those occasions.  In fact, this recipe came to my rescue just last night! It’s 15 minutes from pantry to table, and is a delicious, healthy, one-pot meal. 

No shopping is required if you keep some version of these things on hand; fresh spinach or other greens, canned tomatoes, dairy case tortellini and chicken broth.  The flavors come together quickly in the pot. Add a loaf of crusty bread and you’ll be sitting down to dinner before you know it.

This soup cries out for improvisation. I hardly ever make it the same way twice. The constants are the diced tomatoes, greens and broth. Small ravioli can replace the tortellini. A parmesan rind adds amazing flavor. Use beef stock or try fire-roasted diced tomatoes or tomatoes with basil or italian herbs. Add cooked sausage or cooked diced chicken along with leftover cooked rice or farro instead of the tortellini. You get the idea.

Tonight we added some organic chicken sausage from the freezer (threw them in whole since they were frozen), a piece of parmesan rind and a drizzle of olive for each serving. Paul said it tasted like Italy in a bowl. High praise for 10 minutes of prep!

I’d love to hear what your improvisations on this soup are.

 

tort soupphotoTomato Tortellini Soup (serves 4 hungry people)

Ingredients:

4 cups low sodium chicken broth or stock 

2 – 14.5 ounce cans of organic diced tomatoes with juice (added flavors in the tomatoes are fine)

cloves of garlic chopped or 1/4 tsp powder

Salt and Pepper to taste

5-10 ounces fresh spinach, baby kale or chard (salad mixes are perfect)

1 package Buitoni whole wheat cheese tortellini (about 2 1/2 cups) 

Olive oil to drizzle

Optional and excellent:  Parmesan rind, a couple of sliced organic cooked chicken sausages, a cup of chopped cooked chicken, olive oil and grated parmesan for garnish.

Method

  1. Bring chicken broth, tomatoes, garlic, salt and pepper, and parmesan rind if using, to a boil in a dutch oven or soup pot.
  2. Add greens and tortellini and simmer for about 10 minutes.  
  3. Test tortellini for doneness, correct seasoning to taste and ladle into bowls.
  4. Drizzle each serving with olive oil.

Notes

  • Almost any greens will work. I’ve used lettuces, frozen spinach and canned turnip greens but lean toward fresh spinach and/or baby kale.  If your kale is mature, cut into small ribbons and add a couple of minutes before the tortellini.
  • Good olive oil makes a real difference here. I keep a special bottle for finishing soups and sauces.
  • Parmesan rinds are like hidden treasure. Buy real Parmigiano Reggiano and freeze the rinds to use in soups and sauces.
  • Most grocery stores carry tortellini and ravioli in the dairy case. I keep a package or two in the freezer.  It’s fine to add it directly to the soup frozen.

Chick update

Let’s reintroduce the Benson-Ward chickens. Ruby and Mattie, pictured above getting ready for bed, are a year old. They each lay an egg a day, like clockwork and have great personalities.

We’ve got two batches of chicks. The first is from our 9-month old Sumatra hen, Baby. The gang of three are six weeks old now and look like miniature chickens. Still hanging with Mom though they seem to know the ropes pretty well.

Unfortunately, they are free range chicks and don’t sit still so are hard to photograph. You’ll have to take my word for it that all three are exceedingly handsome at this point!  The shot I did get was Baby spreading her wings over them to settle in for the night — the only time they aren’t in motion.

The six week chicks are getting big. Baby can barely cover them all at night, though she spreads her wings mightily trying!  The chick that looks like an eagle is peaking out.

The six week chicks are getting big. Baby can barely cover them all at night, though she spreads her wings mightily trying! The chick that looks like an eagle is peaking out in the bottom right corner.

The second batch of five little girls came from the farm supply store at one day old. Three week veterans now, they’re at that awkward stage with part baby down and part real feathers. I think they double in size every few days. They’re still under the brooder lamp staying warm, doing all the things chickens do.

Some evenings they read or watch tv with us since they don’t have a mom. We’ll keep them inside for a week or two more, then start taking field trips to get them used to the coop and the weather.

Their personalities are developing so we should have names soon. It’s been great fun raising the chicks but we’re looking forward to having them join the older girls. They chirp constantly during the night now and chase each other endlessly over and under the perch Paul made them. No rest for the weary at our house!

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Remember the picture of two of them at two days old?  My how you’ve grown!iPhoto Library

The Egg Skelter

I am the proud owner of an egg skelter.  Hens who lay more eggs than you can use each day or two are a good thing, but you need to use the oldest eggs first.  They keep on the countertop for a good while, but the first-in-first-out inventory method is definitely the way to go.

I try to remember to pencil dates on the eggs as they arrive, but sometimes I forget. Even if you remember, it seems that the oldest eggs will find the bottom of the bowl and stay there forever, covered up by new eggs.

My wedgewood blue egg skelter; all the way from the UK!

My wedgewood blue egg skelter; all the way from the UK!

Thank goodness some clever person in England invented the egg skelter.  You put the new eggs at the highest vacant spot on the spiral and pluck the oldest eggs from the bottom of the slide.  You can’t really roll them from the top and let them crash into each other unless you want scrambled eggs on the counter, but it’s still fun.  Great name and you get to show off your home-grown eggs!

I saw a picture of an egg skelter in a magazine recently and knew it would solve my inventory issues.  Web and Ebay searches only turned up egg skelters on UK sites so I sprang for the extra shipping.  It’s very British that the egg skelter comes in colors that match Agas, the venerable stove that warms many a cozy English country kitchen.  I guess people who have Agas have hens.  My skelter is wedgewood blue and I wouldn’t mind having a matching Aga next to it!

AGAc-1.

The helter skelter; a popular ride at British amusement parks.

The helter skelter; a popular ride at British amusement parks.

I am a word fanatic, so I had to know why the holder is called a skelter. It makes me think of helter skelter meaning a mess or chaos, but it also reminds me of the Beatle song on the White Album.

In case you don’t know, the helter skelter in the song is a ride that appeared in British amusement parks around 1906.  It’s a medieval castle tower with a spiral slide around the outside. The egg holder does follow the same design.

Take a look at those Beatle lyrics if didn’t know about the ride. You’ll find they have new meaning! There’s a link below.

History lesson over, the Aga wedgewood blue egg skelter sits on my kitchen counter now and prevents egg chaos beautifully!

http://www.lyrics007.com/The%20Beatles%20Lyrics/Helter%20Skelter%20Lyrics.html

P.S. I just did another search and see that Manna Pro (a farm supply site) now sells an egg skelter in the U.S.  Please note that it only comes in cream, silver and red.  If you’re trying to match your Aga, you will have to go international.

 

Morning Ruckus!

A big ruckus in the yard this morning brought me running.  I thought I heard a dog barking and that rarely bodes well for free range hens!  Boy, was I wrong.  The barking was coming from Ruby, our golden comet hen.  She was loudly defending her breakfast against attack by an aggressive crow.  I arrived just in time to see the crow back away and take off.  Three cheers for Ruby!

Meet Ruby the heart-breaker.
Meet Ruby the heart-breaker. She’s a great layer and was born with that crooked tail. She prides herself on being an individual. The flattened stokes asters in the background are a favorite spot for Ruby to take an afternoon nap in summer. 

Here’s another Ruby story.  We’d had her for a few months when we realized that one of our “hens” was a rooster.  Before the rooster matured, Ruby was all mine.  She hung out with me when I was in the garden and did a little subservience dance when she wanted me to pick her up.  She’d flatten herself a bit, lower her head and stomp her feet. I’d pick her up and we’d visit until she was ready to join the flock again.  Both of us enjoyed this daily ritual.

Then Big Bird, the rooster, grew up and started looking like a real man.  Right after that, Ruby dumped me.  She started dancing for Big Bird and I was persona non grata.  Our cuddling days were over.  If I needed to pick her up to check her for mites or anything else, I had to pluck her off her roost in the coop under cover of darkness.  I was broken-hearted but glad to see her so happy with her fellow.

Since Big Bird passed away a few weeks ago, Ruby has come back to me.  Sometimes she dances for me twice a day!  It’s like old times.  I guess some girls just need an alpha figure in their lives.  I’m enjoying our chat sessions, but I know they are fleeting.  We’ll get a new rooster this spring and once again Ruby will tolerate me only because I happen to show up each morning with the organic feed and dried mealworms that she loves.  She’ll eat out of my hand if I bring a special afternoon snack, like a banana or peach, but there won’t be any cuddles.

I am already steeling myself for the blow.  Maybe one of the chicks we are hand-raising will value me the way Ruby used to.  A girl can dream, can’t she?

The Good and the Bad…

Paul napping with the chicks.

Paul napping with the chicks.

One of the tough things about keeping free range chickens is that you lose one now and then.  It’s heartbreaking, but part of keeping a flock. For that matter, predators get to chickens in pens too.  Last week, a dog made away with our gorgeous rooster, Big Bird.  He was a handsome guy with an excellent disposition who took great care of his girls.  In fact, we think he lost his life trying to protect Mattie, our barred rock hen.  She lost a clump of tail feathers but is otherwise unharmed.  My husband Paul who once told me he might not really be a chicken person (I think the picture above dispels that myth), misses Big Bird’s crowing and wants another roo. I miss Big too. He was our first rooster so we will remember him fondly.

Click on this link to see Big Bird in action:  BigBirdCrows

We’ll need to find a new man for our hens soon.  We don’t want to hatch eggs, but the girls miss their protector. They mooned around the coop for a day or two but are out foraging again now. The pickings will be good this spring since about ten percent of the female chicks that chicken lovers are buying now will turn out to be roosters.

Now some good news.  Even if you’re not a chicken person, you may have noticed signs at hardware and feed stores recently saying CHICKS ARE HERE!  And so they are.  I was at Southern States Farm Co-op fetching supplies soon after we lost Big and there were 10 huge blue tubs, each containing hundreds of day old chicks.  I tried to resist, picked up one, put it back. Did it again.

Then I may have blacked out because the next thing I knew I was cruising home with chicks, a brooder lamp and a sack of starter feed in the back of the Subaru. I won’t believe you if you tell me you can resist these little puff-balls!iPhoto Library

They don’t live in the bowl.  I just wanted to contain them for the photo session since they can escape in a matter of seconds.  I think this lovely bowl, crafted by our friends at Mangum Pottery in Weaverville, shows the chicks off beautifully. They live in the laundry room in a plastic tub. There’s a brooder light to keep them warm since they don’t have mother hen to do the job. Paul built a wood framed screen that fits over the tub to keep our frustrated cat out of the picture.  Her name is Ceci (it’s Italian for chick pea).  She is a love, but instinct takes over when she sees little birds right in her own home. We’ll move them to the garage soon and once again, Ceci will rule the roost.

The princess on her throne.

The princess on her throne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ciao, Italia: Final Italy Update

We spent our last day in Lucca shopping and packing and eating. For dinner we consumed three kinds of local cheese from the fridge accompanied by a huge green salad and lots of onion focaccia from the best focaccia bakery in town. It’s special because the oven has steam and the resulting bread is so tender.

We often took a shortcut through this historic site in Lucca.

Taking a short cut through this park in Lucca after afternoon shopping.

I have a red duffel bag that folds into a tiny pouch. It has been from Australia to Peru to Italy with me and never lets me down. This time it is coming home filled with beans, olive oil, tuna, seeds for the garden, a couple of leather purses and lots of other goodies. We had to call a cab to take us to our car on the edge of Lucca simply because of the bean and oil poundage!

We took the highway past Pisa over to the coast and headed for Rome. We passed sheep and sheep and more sheep there in pecorino country.  The views of the hill towns and the sun sparkling on the ocean were something to remember. After a perfect panini at an Auto Grille, we meandered through the seaside town of San Vincenze and down narrow roads between coastal farms before getting back on the highway where the ocean views kept improving.IMG_1475

And then we were at the airport Hilton in Rome. Sterile but convenient for our morning flight home. We missed our cozy Lucca apartment. Sigh….

Last Italian breakfast at Rome airport. The pink stuff is mortadella. I love having thin slices of bologna with my cappuccino. That never happens back home.

Last Italian breakfast at Rome airport. The pink stuff is mortadella. I love having thin slices of bologna with my cappuccino. That never happens back home.

Some final musings…

We learned that we can have a really good time in the rain!

It was an amazing trip and we love crowdless winter travel. Lucca would be so different with summer crowds and English heard everywhere.

Folks are warmer and less stoic in Tuscany than in Umbria where we stayed a couple of years ago, but Umbria, Italy’s green heart is a beautiful place.

Next time we want to bird watch, visit national parks, hear some gypsy guitar, spend some time on the coast and in the chestnut forests of the Maremma. Sounds like we’ll need at least a month.

We know we will return to Italy, but yesterday, Paul said our next international trip should be Botswana. I like his thinking. We’ll start putting spare change in the jar for that trip right now.