Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Roasted Eggplant & White Bean Soup with Tangerine Gremolata

I'm hanging my head a little, and it's not just from the migraine that's kept me mostly non-functioning for a few days now. This post is a week late. In fact, not only did I miss the first deadline, I missed the second one!* sigh See, a couple of weeks ago a few of us were casually discussing comfort food on Twitter (as we often do, I wish I could surround myself with these people IRL so I could feel "normal") and the idea for a blogger collective soup-a-thon was born. Or something like that, who ever knows when I'm retelling the story? My first thoughts were along the lines of "yay, FINALLY a group-cooking effort I can easily participate in!!!" I've been creating soups out of seemingly nothing for the better part of the last 27 years (yeah, for realz! I'm THAT old!). Then I saw the mandatory ingredients -- eggplant, beans, and orange peel -- and I started whining, moping, and rending my garments. At which point, The Mister and The Dog rolled their eyes at me and put me on ignore for a few days.
*in another post I will address my fear of failure/success as it relates specifically to meeting deadlines
So this went on forever, and in the meantime Mo came back from the store with the best-looking eggplant he could find, one of only two at nearby supermarkets, which in this case meant something that looked almost unnaturally big, dark, and barely still fresh. I guess it's not a popular food item here in the hinterlands of NC? in early December? Hrmpf! I couldn't even bear to look at it; yes, mediocre produce gets the sideeye from me. See kids, when I think of eggplant, I think of those lovely lavender-hued ones I grew up on in Puerto Rico that I've occasionally managed to find at Summer farmers' markets here in the continental US. As an alternative, the long & skinny Japanese ones will do. But those big, dark purple things you USians are used to... eh, they've seemed ok for breading and turning into eggplant parm and such, but not anything requiring elegance and delicacy. I know, this is why The Mister rolls his eyes at me. By the way, part of my anxiety stemmed from the fact that the aforementioned has stated several times that eggplant is one of his least favorite foods ever, and also that The Boy is very picky about any new foods.

After all my kvetching (yes, PuertoRicans can kvetch, except we call it jirimiquear), I realized I better get myself in gear and figure something out, so I pawed through my cookbooks. Found nothing to inspire me there, except eggplant caviar, which sounds fascinating & delicious yet was no help for me here. So I hit the web, and after reading quite a few recipes, I settled on making a mashup of the one I found at Israeli Kitchen, and the one on Smitten Kitchen. Except that we are not creamy-soup people, we like our soups chunky. Which meant that adding the beans was easy, especially since we've made plenty of minestrone and pasta e fagioli from the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, which then led me to decide to also add pasta to the soup (I never need much of an excuse to add pasta to anything, I even love spaghetti pizza!). But I still had no idea how to incorporate the orange peel, which in my case would be tangerine because I have this weird allergy to oranges and no other citrus fruit. I went to bed on that Monday night, stressed out about how to incorporate that last component into a soup I had to make the next day in order to meet the deadline (heh!), and woke up with gremolata on my mind the next morning. D’uh, sometimes I know more than I think I know!!!

I took to heart what Deb at Smitten Kitchen said in her recipe, about roasting the vegetables for extra depth of flavor. I also decided to roast the garlic in a separate pan, and to puree the garlic & onion after roasting to “beef up” the broth (and also to keep The Boy from complaining about the onions).
Roasted Eggplant & White Bean Soup with Tangerine Gremolata
makes appx 10 servings

1 lb dry white beans (we used Great Northern), pre-soaked**
4 qts water (I use distilled)
1 tsp sea salt
1 large bay leaf
1 tsp dried thyme (or 1 Tbsp fresh)
1 Tbsp dried basil (or 2 Tbsp fresh, chopped)
4 cups chicken broth***
1 large eggplant, or 2 medium, halved lengthwise and scored
3 - 4 carrots, peeled
1 large onion, peeled, trimmed & halved
1 - 2 bell pepper, cored, seeded & halved
6 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 lb short pasta, preferably tube-shaped
Extra virgin olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

for the gremolata:

¼ c fresh parsley, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
zest from 1 tangerine (appx 1 ½ tsp)

** There are many theories as to the best way to soak dry beans. I prefer to do a quick salt-soaking method with my dry beans: for every pound of beans dissolve 3 Tbs salt in 2 qts boiling water; combine dry, rinsed beans with hot salt water in pot and let soak for 1 hour (off the burner). Drain beans, discarding the soaking liquid, and rinse before continuing with the recipe.
*** I prefer to use Kirkland chicken stock or Pacific chicken broth as they have a cleaner flavor profile for me than other brands

Bring the beans, water, and salt to a gentle boil. Reduce immediately to a gentle simmer, add the bay leaf and cook, stirring occasionally, until beans are tender. Which, depending on the type of water you use and the quality of your beans, may take anywhere between 1 - 2 hours (we buy the generic supermarket beans, so ours always seem to take at least 2 hours!). Try a bean around the 45min - 1 hour mark to check the texture. If it’s still sort of hard instead of creamy, you’ve got some time to go yet. But you can go ahead and add the thyme, basil, and broth at this point.

In the meantime, set a rack in the center of your oven and the temperature to 400 degrees. I used a large shallow bowl to coat the eggplant, carrots, onion, bell pepper and garlic with the oil. Transfer to large baking pan (I put the garlic in a separate smaller pan so I could remove it after 10 minutes), place in oven, and delight in the smells. Now’s a great time to indulge in a glass of wine, a bottle of hard cider, or whatever floats your boat. And mix up the gremolata ingredients -- I had a couple of teaspoons of oil left in the shallow bowl I used for the vegetables, and I mixed that in with the parsley, raw garlic and tangerine zest in a small bowl. Set aside. I removed my vegetables from the oven at the 35 min. mark but I could’ve probably given them another 5 -10 mins. So, just watch them, make sure they get nice brown spots but don’t burn. Let them cool enough to handle, then scrape the eggplant off the skin with a spoon. I like to cut the rest of the vegetables to a size comparable to the beans and the chunks of eggplant. And I puréed all the roasted garlic and onion plus half the bell pepper in my small processor before adding to the soup. Cook together for about 10 minutes, add salt & pepper to taste, then add the pasta, turning up the temperature on the stove to Medium. Cook for however long the pasta manufacturer says it needs to be al dente. Then turn the stove off. I followed a Test Kitchen technique for Osso Buco, whereby you stir half the gremolata into the pot just before serving, then sprinkle a little on top of the individual portions. Ta-dá!!!

My thoughts: I tried this soup with and without the gremolata, and preferred it without. I found that the roasted vegetable flavor got lost when I added the last element. The Mister had the same reaction. I think the other two things I want to do differently next time is use a vegetable stock, and a parmesan rind. This is a very, very hearty, filling soup and I would suggest that if you prefer brothy-er soups, you can certainly make it without the pasta and it will still be a fairly hearty soup due to the beans. I didn’t have the ideal short pasta for this, like ditalini, so I threw in the ziti I did have.

Your thoughts? comments? Please visit the other #souperbowl posts and get some great, delicious ideas for your future soups!