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It’s Cold Outside

Ostuni's port, Villanova, is still beautiful in the middle of winter.

Ostuni’s port, Villanova, is just as beautiful in the middle of winter.

On the coldest day since we’ve been in Italy, we went to the beach. No, not to swim, which would be considered certifiably insane at this time of year here. Instead, we wanted to see what the Adriatic Sea looks like up close in winter. We were also looking for a little ambient warmth. Our town is about 1, 500 feet above sea level, so it’s always colder here—a real advantage during the summer. But in the winter, the coast is the place to be for a little relief from the tramontana, the cold north wind that whips through the tiny streets and alleys of our medieval town.

Hundreds of years old olive tree near Ostuni by the Adriatic Sea.

Hundreds of years old olive tree near Ostuni by the Adriatic Sea.

The Adriatic coast is a twenty-minute drive from our house, but it seems like another Puglia. The land approaching the coast is flat, its expanse broken by fortified farmhouses made from locally quarried stone. The fields are studded with olive trees, some of which are several hundreds of years old. Their twisty, gnarled trunks represent the wealth of this part of Puglia, whose oil is said to have fueled the Industrial Revolution in northern Europe.

Just a short drive from Martina Franca, Monopoli's harbor is an active fishing port year round.

Just a short drive from Martina Franca, Monopoli’s harbor is an active fishing port year round.

The coast is also home to Puglia’s fishing industry, which endures throughout the winter during all but the most inclement weather. Wooden fishing boats are moored in harbors that stretch the length of Puglia’s two shorelines much as they have for hundreds of years. We hear that the Mediterranean is slowly being emptied of its fish population, but you wouldn’t know it by the bounty found in the pescherie that flourish in every town from Foggia to Lecce.

The sun shone weakly through the clouds as we drove, shedding its pale light on the white-capped waves and the fields. The shadows deepened quickly, though, and soon it was time to turn back to Martina Franca. As we walked through Piazza Roma, stopping to say hello to people we knew, we learned that we had just missed a moment of snow. Just a moment, though, and it was over. Looks like a day at the beach in December isn’t a bad idea at all.

To warm us up, I made the simplest winter soup I know. This is a recipe that delivers so much more flavor, substance and warmth than you have a right to expect for the effort, making it a perfect weeknight dinner solution. It is great on its own, but if you have new extra virgin olive oil to drizzle over the top, it becomes exquisite.

Crema di Ceci—Creamy Chickpea Soup

Crema di Ceci—Creamy Chickpea Soup

Crema di Ceci—Creamy Chickpea Soup

6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots (substitute onions if you prefer)
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1 dried hot chili pepper (pepperoncino), finely chopped; omit this if you don’t like the heat
1 large or two small garlic cloves, minced
2 large sprigs of fresh rosemary, leaves removed and minced
4 cups cooked chickpeas (recipe follows); use canned, well-drained chickpeas if you prefer
4-5 cups vegetable broth (you can substitute chicken stock if you prefer)
1 cup pureed tomatoes (use an imported, organic tomato puree from Italy or blend imported, canned Italian tomatoes you have previously drained of their juice)
1 tsp. sea or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Extra virgin olive oil (for serving)

Method:

Heat the olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the chopped shallots or onions, the celery and the hot chili pepper, stir to coat in the oil, then cover. Allow the vegetables to soften, become translucent and take on a little golden glow. Watch them carefully and monitor the heat; you don’t want them to brown. If necessary, add a splash of water from time to time to ensure that they are softening nicely without browning. Allow about 15 minutes for this process.

Add the chopped garlic and rosemary and cook for about a minute more, being careful not to burn the garlic.

Turn up the heat a little, then add the cooked chickpeas, broth, tomato puree, salt and pepper. The mixture should be a rosy color, with a brothy portion floating above the chickpeas. Cook for about 20-30 minutes or until the chickpeas are soft.

Carefully puree the chickpeas and the brothy mixture together. A blender is fine for this, as is a food processor. An immersion blender will work, but not quite as effectively. Remember that hot liquids expand—a lot.  To avoid unpleasant results that involve time-consuming cleaning, don’t fill the blender up more than halfway.

You’re aiming for a texture that is a creamy puree, so after pureeing the first batch, you can judge how much of the brothy liquid and how many chickpeas delivers this consistency. Continue to puree, pouring the pureed soup into a bowl as you go.

Return the puree to the original soup pot (no need to wash it) and return it to the stove to heat to serving temperature.

Pass a bottle of best quality extra virgin olive oil to drizzle over the top, which elevates this soup significantly. This is just one of the many opportunities to appreciate just how amazing truly great olive oil taste. You might also sprinkle some olive oil-toasted croutons in as well.

Serves 6.

This terracotta pot is idea for cooking beans.

This terracotta pot is idea for cooking beans.

Best Ever Chickpeas

Ingredients:

2 cups chickpeas, washed
Water to cover
1 onion, peeled and halved
1 carrot, peeled and cut in chunks
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs rosemary
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Method:

Cover the dry chickpeas with cold water by about two or three inches and soak them for eight hours or overnight.

When you’re ready to cook them, pour off the soaking water. Put the chickpeas in terracotta bean pot or any other very heavy saucepan or soup pot (Le Creuset, cast iron, you get the idea).

Add the onion, carrot, garlic, bay leaf, rosemary, salt and pepper to the chickpeas, then cover them with water by about two inches. Stir everything, cover the pot, and place on medium-high heat.

As the beans begin to heat, you’ll see some white foam on the surface of the water. You can skim this off, but nothing bad will happen if you don’t. As the water begins to bubble (not boil), reduce the heat to maintain an even simmer. Cook the chickpeas for at least an hour, tasting periodically to test for doneness.

Beans are very, very forgiving. If you need to leave the house midway, just turn the heat off and leave the beans on the stove. You can pick up where you left off, tasting to see how much more time until they’re done. Drain the chickpeas and you’re ready to go. You can use the carrot, onion and garlic in the Crema di Ceci recipe; just puree them up along with everything else. You should, however, discard the bay leaf and the rosemary stalk (the leaves will have long since detached from the stalk and melted into the chickpeas).

I like to make pots of these and other beans when I’m at home, then refrigerate or freeze them for recipes like Crema di Ceci, above. Canned beans are a perfectly acceptable substitute, though I would be lying if I said they taste just as good.

Makes 4 cups of cooked beans.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Suzanne cochran #

    Recipe looks great. Can’t wait to try it. Do you have a Pinterest link fro your blog? If not I recommend it…..this recipe would be great to pin to my soup board. Hope you guys are well. Looks like you are enjoy the life in Italy!

    December 16, 2012
    • Thanks, Suzanne! And thanks, too, for the Pinterest tip. I’m on it! Life is still great here, so you need to figure out when you’re coming to visit. We wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a healthy, happy New Year.

      December 22, 2012
  2. We have been to Ostuni, it is a gorgeous town and I just love those gnarled olive trees. I also love chick peas. I eat them all the time when I am in Italy, but I have never sent them growing. Do they grow in your area?

    December 16, 2012
    • Hi, Debra–Yes, chickpeas are local to the Valle d’Itria, which is fantastic. I hadn’t ever appreciated the difference between fresh dried beans and beans that have been hanging around a really long time. They are noticeably more flavorful when they’re fresh, so I’m using them in just about everything. I hope you’re doing well in Australia. It looks like you’re getting ready to head back to Italy, soon, so I hope to see you at some point when you’re in the country. Have a wonderful Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year.

      December 22, 2012

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