The French have the best word for thick, velvety soups: velouté. Even the word is velvety. And we have been enjoying a velouté of white beans since the Carnivore picked up the recipe at a truffle market, where he got this beauty. They call truffles black diamonds for a reason.
It was velouté de haricots lingot et truffe–a thick, velvety white bean soup with truffles. OMG. Lingots are ingots, like the bars of gold, but in this case they refer to the special white beans grown just west of Carcassonne and used for cassoulet.
Here’s the recipe, handed out at the market. We didn’t follow it precisely because the box of lingots was 500g and we weren’t going to keep 100g sitting around lonely like that. Also, it calls for a 30g truffle, and ours had been whittled down to 13g. I tell you what, it was still fantastic.
We made it again, with rehydrated dried shiitake mushrooms–yummy. A good alternative when truffles aren’t available.
Like so many French recipes, you have to make it over two days. The night before, soak 400 g (14 oz.) of beans (or more!). Separately, chop up your truffle and infuse it in 10 cl (about 3.5 fluid oz.) of heavy cream. (You might want to keep a few shavings on the side for garnish.) If you don’t have a truffle, use about a half a cup of shiitake mushrooms that you soaked and put through the blender or food processor to get the effect of shavings.
Next day, cook the beans. Start with cold water and cook them for two hours.
Peel and mince half an onion and one carrot (I set out two carrots for the Carnivore to use and he fell for it. And the soup was divine despite double the vegetables.)
When the beans are done, drain them and rinse with fresh water.
In a casserole, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and cook the carrots and onion to soften them but not brown them. Then add the beans and half a liter (17 fluid oz. or just over a cup) of chicken stock. Bring to a boil and then drop the heat to low. Cook for 30 minutes.
Remove from the heat and add the truffle cream. Salt and pepper to taste. Use a soup mixer to turn it into a creamy, velvety, homogenous texture. If you use a blender, let the soup cool before blending–for safety–and then reheat.
Serve with a few shavings of truffle, if you have any left.
We have a mushroom hater in the house who devoured this because the mushrooms were reduced to tiny bits (we didn’t mention them, either). If you aren’t a fan of mushrooms, I guess you can go without, but since they’re so tiny here, you don’t notice them–you just get the depth of flavor that they add.
The French are particularly proud of their own cuisine–rightfully so–and the “foreign” section of supermarkets is slim and perplexing (you can find marshmallow fluff but no chocolate chips, not even from Nestlé, which is right next door in Switzerland; there are canned beans in some unnaturally colored sauce but good luck finding black beans, canned or dry). All the same, the top take-out food is pizza, a favorite for feeding a crowd is paella and everybody loves couscous.
As pizza comes from France’s neighbor to the east and paella from its neighbor to the south, couscous comes from its neighbors across the Mediterranean–North Africa–which also has a large representation among the immigrant community in France, the former colonial power. Lots of restaurants serve couscous and tajines, either traditional or given modern twists.
At home, the thing about couscous is that you can’t go wrong. Cook some vegetables into a soup, grill some meat, steam some couscous semolina–the grainy pasta that gives the dish its name. What you put in depends on what you have, but the usual suspects are popular: onions, garlic, carrots, turnips, tomatoes (canned stewed whole, in winter), potatoes, peppers red and/or green. Chickpeas always. Other options: zucchini, eggplant, celery, fava beans, cabbage, squash or pumpkin, beets, artichoke hearts, raisins….I’ve even snuck in broccoli stems (nutritious but not beautiful! trim the woody parts and dice small enough that the pieces can get soft). An opportunity to empty the fridge. You also can add fresh or dried herbs such as parsley, coriander, thyme….
For spices, you also get to pick and choose, though the dominant flavoring is ras el hanout, or “top of the shop”–a mix of the best spices the seller has on offer, and thus varying from vendor to vendor. Typical ingredients include cumin, ground coriander seeds, tumeric, ground ginger, cinnamon, cardamon, fenugreek, fennel, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, mace, and different kinds of pepper and chilies. If you don’t find it in a shop, you can make your own–and change it up so your couscous always delivers a bit of a surprise. I have no shortage of North African shops to turn to here and buy my ras el hanout in small quantities so I can always try different ones.
You’re supposed to cook the vegetables with a piece of mutton, often the neck, but I don’t appreciate the flavor of lamb and want to avoid meat altogether. After all, the chickpeas plus the couscous make a complete protein. A great meatless meal.
That doesn’t fly with the Carnivore, who wants lamb chops AND spicy merguez. You also can make couscous with chicken if you prefer. Couscous royale includes multiple cuts of lamb, merguez (which also is lamb but I guess doesn’t count because it’s always listed separately) and chicken. You can season the lamb and chicken with cumin and coriander powder or with herbes de Provence (thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil, marjoram).
Whenever I make soup, I like to brown the onions in some olive oil first, which adds a depth of flavor that you miss if you throw everything directly into a pot of water (if you are including a piece of meat in the soup, then brown it first, too). Then I add minced garlic and the hard vegetables like carrots and potato, which I’ve cut into chunks. You want the pieces to be small enough to cook through but not so small that they’ll fall apart into mush. I keep adding the vegetables, then the canned whole tomatoes, which I break up with a wooden spoon. I add a two or three can-fuls of water to rinse out the last juices and to bring up the liquid level. I also add a small can of tomato paste, which has a richer flavor, and rinse that can, too. You don’t need to completely cover the vegetables–you’ll see how the liquid rises as the vegetables cook. Don’t forget the chickpeas. Add the ras el hanout and any other spices you fancy–a few strands of saffron, or extra cumin or tumeric? Or maybe some grated fresh ginger or diced fresh green chilies? Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and cover and let it simmer for a couple of hours. It’s one of those dishes that’s better the next day. If you’re making it for the same day, count on at least 1.5 hours for it to cook.
If you are cooking with dried chickpeas, you have to plan ahead to soak them the night before in cold, salted water.
Now, the traditional way to make couscous is with a couscoussier, a special kind of steamer in which the bottom holds the soup, and it’s the steam from the soup that cooks the couscous semoule–the tiny pasta that looks like grain or rice–in the top part.
On my trips to Morocco, I got to visit local homes and see couscous being made the traditional way. In the movie “Julie & Julia,” Julie tries to handle hot canneloni without using utensils in order to get used to it. Well, in Morocco, the women would take steaming couscous and, with red, calloused bare hands, spread it out on the table to massage in olive oil, then repeat maybe half an hour later with butter, and again later with olive oil, etc. D.I.V.I.N.E.
I tried to replicate–NOT with my bare hands–the steps of adding oil and butter to the couscous, but it never came out the same as in Morocco. It was lumpy, not fluffy. Finally, I gave up and followed the directions on the package: measure your dry couscous (it comes in kilogram packages here, which is 2.2 pounds, or almost seven cups…make it all–it reheats well, and you’ll have leftover soup, guaranteed). Bring the same volume of water to a boil. While the water heats up, in a large bowl mix the dry couscous with two tablespoons of olive oil per cup of couscous. Pour the boiling water over this oiled couscous. Cover and let it sit for three minutes. Fluff. Add a half teaspoon of butter per cup of couscous and microwave for two minutes. Fluff again to distribute the butter. Voilà.Before making the couscous semoule, cook the meat–you can grill it, weather permitting, or cook it in the oven, on the stovetop (we use a plancha when it’s raining) or broil it. A rotisserie chicken is another option….
Couscous Maison shopping checklist
1 large onion
2-3 garlic cloves (more always welcome–up to you)
2-3 carrots, cut into inch-long chunks
1-2 turnips, cut into half-inch chunks
1 large can (480 g/ about 3 cups) whole, peeled stewed tomatoes
1 small can (140 g, about half a cup) tomato paste
Other vegetables as you like, cut into chunks–I aim for a few others, like one or two small zucchini and maybe a small slice of squash (it’s sold by the slice at markets here). More vegetable variety = more vitamins, but also more volume; consider how much you want to make, though leftovers freeze nicely.
Herbs–fresh parsley or coriander
Couscous semolina, 500 grams (about 3.25 cups) for four people
Harissa is the wild card here. It’s easy to find here, but you might have to hunt for it in other countries. It’s a Tunisian hot pepper paste and not 100% necessary if you don’t like spicy food. You put a little into the soup ladle and drop the ladle into the soup to get some broth, then mix the paste into the broth with your spoon before pouring it over your personal serving, because some like it hot but others not. Beware of squirting harissa directly onto your food!
Have you had couscous? What are your favorite ingredients?
Seasonal produce is a moving target in spring. At first, there’s little difference with winter, except for the asparagus. But then other treats start to appear: fava, peas.
The weather is unstable, too. It can be warm enough for a dip in the pool in March, but the heat kicks on during the Ice Saints in May. Those rainy days are perfect for soup, especially a soup that celebrates the lively new flavors of the season: soupe au pistou. It was on a dark and chilly day that I decided we needed soup, one that used the big bunch of basil I’d bought–the first of the season.
There is no “recipe” for pistou. There are a few key ingredients that make it pistou and not, say, minestrone or bouillabaise or bisque. Any pistou soup needs pistou–a mix of basil, olive oil and garlic, like pesto without the nuts. And beans. And pasta. After that, you can add what’s in season at that moment. Because pistou soup is garden soup.I recently heard an excellent interview with the cookbook author Julia Turshen, who says she “never, ever follows recipes.” Her new book, “Small Victories,” aims to get people more at ease with cooking from scratch and reassuring them that they don’t have to follow recipes to the letter.
So here is one recipe for soupe au pistou. You can add/subtract depending on your tastes and what you find at the market.
Cocos, or flat beans, with green beans above.
Fresh sweet peas
Mange-tout–eat the whole thing–aka snow peas.
Soupe au Pistou
First the pistou:
A huge bunch of basil—imagine the leaves pressed into balls the size of each fist.
1 clove of garlic (I often imitate Guy Fieri and up the amount, but when I used two it got complaints for being too strong)
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
The soup (all the vegetables are diced into bite size):
1 onion (but if you have leftover greens of leeks, this is a good place to use them)
2 tomatoes (we used canned because it’s too early for garden tomatoes)
A large can of white beans (the cans here are 400 g, or 14 oz.)
1 cup peas (frozen are OK)
1 cup green beans (frozen are OK—it’s what I used. Lazy, I didn’t cut them up and regretted it)
1/2 cup elbow macaroni, called coquillettes
salt and pepper
olive oil for cooking
Also worth considering:
cocos (broad, flat beans very popular here)
fresh fava beans
thyme or herbes de Provence
You can start with dried beans, of course. We tend not to plan far enough ahead and are grateful for cans.
You can use a mix of beans—white, red, striped, whatever.
You can leave out the pasta; the beans are hearty enough
In a Dutch oven, sauté the onion/leek in enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot. Throw in the other vegetables, the beans (if you are using dried beans, cook them ahead), then add enough water to cover everything. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. You can make it ahead to this point and heat it up later. Remember to stir in the pasta so it has long enough to cook, but not so long that it disintegrates; check the cooking time on the package.
While the soup simmers, make the pistou. Traditionalists use a mortar and pestle to turn it into a pungent green slurry. I tried that, chopping the leaves down first, but mine was too minuscule; I tried a bigger bowl but that wasn’t better. I transferred it all to a blender, which wasn’t much of an improvement. I don’t have a food processor; that might have worked. But who cares? The basil and garlic were reduced enough to make a kind of paste anyway. On the side, I sliced a baguette and topped it with grated Parmesan (fresh–not the powder in a can!). Two minutes under the broiler, and voilà. It probably seemed balanced because we had left out the pasta. Pasta + beans + bread seems like overkill. But to each his own.