It’s late winter in New England. Historically that’s the hungry season, when the ice house, the root cellar and pantry are near empty; the ground is still frozen and the locals wait for spring. But our home is blessed when many go hungry still.
Overnight the cannellini beans soak in a stainless bowl by the sink, swelling fat in their slightly wrinkled skins. By six the next morning, when my husband wakes to travel and teach, they’re drained, tipped into my favorite five-quart pot, and then held under the spigot until they’re covered with two inches of water.
I tear a garlic bulb into cloves, the scent mingling with my toothpaste mouth. My fingers play with them until their excess skin drifts onto my counter to discard. Unpeeled, into the pot they go. There’s not even canned tomatoes in the half-empty larder, so I scrape out a can of tomato paste to add a sweet treble note to the meaty beans.
After oatmeal and thick coffee, sipped from a dollar mug, my husband leaves through our squeaky kitchen door. Now I want to marry beans and garlic with the slightly piney aroma of last summer’s rosemary. It’s dried in a glass crock, surrounded with salt, the trick I learned from a famous Italian chef. I slip two sprigs into the pot, remembering his handsome face and the way his hands handled long sheets of pasta, which he tossed with abandon. Meanwhile the boiling beans unleash a cloud of white foam, which I skim. The pot settles down to simmer, while I eat toast lathered with sweet local butter.
An hour later the giant beans are cooked, permeated with garlic and a hint of rosemary, nesting in a tomato-garlic broth. With a slotted spoon I pull out the garlic cloves, which have floated to the top. While they cool I salt the soup, adding a splash of red wine vinegar to brighten the flavors. With my thumb and index finger I squeeze garlic puree from the skins right into the pot. Then I stir.
The resulting country soup shines with its minimal ingredients — a bag of beans, can of tomato paste, bulb of garlic and two rosemary sprigs. But its smell demands more, reminding me of a tiny Tuscan restaurant atop a walled town with a few tables spilling outside. There, my young husband and I sat at a wobbly table where I spooned white bean soup, slightly pink and mysterious, into my waiting lips. It was smooth.
And so into the food processor my soup goes, blended until silken and spiked with a generous pinch of cayenne pepper. Now it tastes more like the sum of its spartan parts, not four flavors, separate but cozy, but one, united. But it still needs something, a texture I now remember as I sip it from my great-grandmother’s ladle.
The wheat berries I want to add have been hiding in my freezer for a year. They are from the first harvest of a grain and bean farm share in the adjacent valley. Regional and organically grown, they lost some of their eco-appeal on the gas-guzzling ride to collect them. But they’re as local as I can get in early March, when the ground is rock hard and the spring harvest far off. Besides, the memory of those wooden bins filled with wheat and corn kernels adds backstory to my soup, enhancing its flavor. I boil the wheat berries until chewy and nutty, then drain them.
After rummaging through my vegetable bin I come up with one green scallion, which I slice on the bias. I ladle the light orange soup into a white bowl, drop a heaping tablespoon of wheat berries into its center, and then sprinkle the works with the greens.
The soup is thick and smooth, slightly sweet from the tomato, balanced with the cayenne. It’s dense with beans and garlicky, of course, with a slight pine aroma. The wheat berries add chew. The total affect is of elevated earthiness, of gazing out the window dreamily on this very day in March.
It’s true that I can assemble towering infernos of well-garnished food. But I bow to soup, worshipping its forgiving nature, its ability to spring from nothing. Thick or thin, chunky or smooth, all it asks is a bowl to hold it. All it needs is a spoon.
Amy Cotler is a chef and writer. Her short pieces have appeared in various publications, including Hinterlands (UK) and Guesthouse (USA). Before turning to creative writing, Cotler worked as food writer, cooking teacher and cookbook author. She was a leader in the farm-to-table movement and food forum host for the New York Times. Currently, she lives in Mexico with her husband, an artist, and their dog, Remy. Visit her at amycotler.com