Small, Good Things: Tweak, Memory

By Joe Dizney

Sometimes appetite begins with memory and longing: longing for summer during a spring that just won’t completely arrive and the memory of warm summer idylls on Martha’s Vineyard.

There’s a vaguely Portuguese soup served on the Woods Hole ferry to Vineyard Haven — a hearty stew of beans, kale and chorizo (or at least that’s what memory serves) — that functions as a mnemonic trigger for lazy days, sunny beaches and clams at Larsen’s.

This Proustian reverie also evoked the promise of emotional and physical comfort and a momentary relief from the lingering chill in the Highlands this year, enough relief to justify the search for a recipe for this imaginary prescriptive.

The search first suggested caldo verde (Portugal’s “green soup”) or some mashup of that and cozido à portuguesa — a stew of beans, vegetables and sausage (think a spicy French garbure) as the closest culinary analogues but didn’t check all the longed-for boxes.

In the fog of memory and imagination the specifics of what is or what was get jumbled up with what is desired or even what is possible, and I settled on this approximation of a Vineyard Ferry Soup that remains true to the spirit of coastal Massachusetts’ Portuguese and Italian heritage and also what’s available in the late winter-early spring market.

Vineyard Ferry Soup (Photo by J. Dizney)

Red-brown mottled cranberry beans (also known as borlotti or Roman beans) are a cook’s secret weapon and personal favorite due to their rich, smooth and creamy texture as much as for their ability to hold their shape in soups and stews. And while canned beans are incredibly convenient, it’s more than worth your time and effort to start with good quality dried beans, soaked overnight, and simply simmered with a splash of olive oil, salt and minimum of spice. This yields two benefits: superior beans and a rich broth that will actually help bind the flavors of the soup.

I can’t stress the importance of “fresh” dried beans — beans no more than 2 years old. Older beans demand longer cooking times and tend to be tough or mealy even when done, which is why packaged and shelved supermarket beans are always suspect. In general, the turnover in bulk supplies is greater than prepackaged goods so better to start with bulk beans (available at health food stores, Whole Foods, etc.) or trustworthy brands (Rancho Gordo springs to mind) for their consistently better taste and texture.

A healthy dose of garlic and onions, rough-cut carrots and celery become a chunky mirepoix, while smoked paprika and tomato paste provide additional depth and sweetness. Dry-cured chorizo is the traditional choice of sausage for caldo verde, but I prefer fresh for its loose, irregular texture. Any fresh, assertively spiced Spanish or Italian sausage will do. (I found chorizo-spiced sausage at Marbled Meats. If using less assertive sweet Italian, you might want to increase the garlic and smoked paprika in the recipe.)

Potatoes are the starch of choice in most Portuguese soups and stews, but I revised even my own memory and substituted pasta — in this case, whole-wheat spirals (or elbows) — as a rustic touch, admittedly taking this soup somewhere into “pasta fazool” territory. Black or curly-leaf kale added at the end needs to cook for a bit, but if you use package “baby” kale the heat of the soup will wilt it in the bowl.

OK, so this is not Martha’s Vineyard, it’s not summer and I’m no Proust. But no matter what memory serves, you need to eat.

Vineyard Ferry Soup

6 to 8 servings

1½ cups dried cranberry (borlotti or Roman) beans, soaked overnight
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus
1 pound fresh chorizo (or dried-cured chorizo, cut into ½-inch chunks)
2 large onions, chopped roughly
1 bay leaf
2 to 3 large carrots cut into a rough ½-inch dice
2 stalks celery, diced small
4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced
2 to 3 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 quart chicken or beef stock (or reserved bean stock)
1 cup dried (whole wheat) pasta elbows or gemelli (spirals)
½ pound lacinato kale (middle stems and veins removed, chopped roughly) or baby kale (left whole)

Drain beans. Place in a medium saucepan and add water to cover plus 2 to 3 inches and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low, add 1 tablespoon salt and a splash of olive oil (plus a couple of bay leaves and smashed cloves of garlic if you like) and simmer, partially covered, until beans are tender but intact and creamy (about 45 to 60 minutes). Drain, reserving the bean stock, and set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add chorizo and cook until cooked through, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add onions and cook, stirring often, until softened and translucent (about 3 minutes). Add garlic and bay leaf and cook for another minute. Add carrots and celery and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add paprika and stir to incorporate. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, for another minute or two.

Add the chicken or beef stock and reserved bean stock (with water added to make at least 2 quarts of the combined stocks total) and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer 10 minutes.

Add the cooked chorizo and drained beans and let simmer for another 10 to 20 minutes. While the soup simmers, cook the pasta as per package directions, drain and set aside.

Remove the bay leaf from the soup and season with salt and pepper to taste. When ready to serve, add kale and pasta and simmer just long enough to heat the pasta and wilt the kale (about 10 minutes). Serve hot.

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