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Author Notes: im not sure what makes a crouton a crouton. can it be described as a hard(ened) bit of bread?or a stale one revived? these modern-day croutons are so different than the boxes of powder-coated scrabble pieces from when i was a kid. what's more, i made mine with bread that i baked not too long ago. but you don't have to go that far. just grab a boule of your favorite crusty loaf, and you're in business. —fo
- . 1.5 cups ceci (garbanzo) beans, soaked overnight
- . 1 bunch of cavolo nero
- . 1 head of cauliflower
- . 1 fennel bulb
- . 2 carrots, peeled
- . 2 celery stalks
- . 1/2 a smallish yellow onion
- . 1 leek, cleaned well
- . 4 cloves of garlic
- . canned whole plum tomatoes, about 4 or 5 tomatoes with some of the tomato liquid
- . heaping TB tomato paste
- . olive oil
- . 2 fresh bay leaves
- . some sort of fresh herb, i used thyme, marjoram, fennel frond, rosemary and oregano
- . fresh or day old crusty bread
- dice your veg, making sure their size is relatively consistent so that they cook uniformly. i also opted to do a fairly small dice because i like the veggies to melt rather than stay whole and chunky.
- with ample olive oil, sweat the veg, medium heat, no color. remember, to sweat is to soften. be sure to add your bay leaves and thyme. while i prefer to add my fresh herbs at the end of cooking, thyme is an exception. it's a resinous herb that begs longer cooking. so here's a fun and useful thing: tie the ends of several sprigs of thyme with a piece of kitchen twine, and the other end to the handle of your pot. this way the herb gets cooked into the stew, and when it's done, you can easily fish out the bouquet garni by pulling out the string. i don't know about you, but when i just toss the thyme into the pot, i inevitably lose a couple of stems and they get ground up into the stew, making for some unpleasant and woody bites.
- when your veg is sufficiently sweated, add your tomato. i'm just using canned plum, i think there were 4 or 5, and their juices. i've also added a heaping tablespoon of tomato paste for depth. cook this tomato product out, stirring constantly, until it goes from bright to brick red and starts to smell sweet and caramelized. this contributes further to the depth of the dish. if you just add tomatoes and paste without cooking it out like this, you end up with a less interesting finished product.
- when the tomato product is caramelized, add the soaked ceci to the pot with ample water.
- while the ceci is cooking, break the head of cauliflower into small pieces, and rough chop the cavolo nero into bit-sized pieces, leaving behind their wood stems.
- when the beans are just about soft, add your salt. you never want to salt bean dishes in the beginning, because the salt toughens their skins. so, check a bean. when it has about 30 minutes of cooking left, now is the time to salt.
- when the beans are soft, fish out your 2 bay leaves and pull up the tail of your thyme bundle then simply snip the end of it from the handle of the pot. see how thoughtful this little trick is? all of the leaves have happily cooked from their stems.
- add the cauliflower florets to the pot and simmer until tender. shouldn't take long. when the florets are tender, add a good splash of olive oil, don't be cheap, then plunge your submersible blender into the pot and give it a few whirs. don't go mad. this is a rustic, chunky soup.
- stir in the cavolo and your herbs, and simmer for a minute or two. oh, set some of these herbs aside for your herb dusted croutons.
- a note on rosemary: it's a strong herb, and while resinous, like thyme, i love the fresh piney flavor and oftentimes add it at the finish of a dish. when i do, i always, always chop it fine, almost to a powder. whole needles of fresh rosemary can be unpleasant to eat.
- make the croutons: fire up the broiler. make sure that your herbs are pretty finely chopped, so, run a blade over the herbs you pulled aside once again. slice a few pieces of bread about 1/4" thin. drizzle with olive oil and pop under the broiler. toast till golden and crisp, both sides.
- when they're done, immediately dust one side of the crouton with the herbs and serve with your honest stew.