Toasted Spelt, Escarole, and White Bean Soup

 soup recipeThe new year is here and, with it, all sorts of ill-fated resolutions and good intentions. I gave up resolutions years ago because I noticed a strange phenomenon. Thanksgiving would pass, I'd be eating leftovers for days in my sweatpants - ironic that I never work up a sweat while wearing them -  and I would begin a downward spiral of self-loathing. I would promise myself that I'd get myself together "soon" while shoving another piece of sticky, sweet pie down my throat and then padding off to the sofa for yet another nap because, you know, eating is so exhausting. In my mind, "soon" meant the new year. In the meantime, I would just continue to abuse my body with no regard for moderation. So, the new year's resolution actually became an excuse for me to procrastinate.

Then, I got smart. I realize now that the holidays are made for my two favorite seven deadly sins, gluttony and sloth. I don't even want to look like Heidi Klum, but I can look and feel my best by eating a wonderful variety of foods that are both healthful and delicious. I don't wait for the new year to begin some drastic diet and workout regimen that I'll just abandon by March out of sheer misery.

Instead, I aim to break up the endless all-you-can-eat buffet line of starch, white flour, and refined sugar with wholesome foods that are rich in flavor and don't leave me feeling deprived of all pleasure. I discovered this soup recipe while reading the latest issue of Bon Appetit magazine in the car while Mr. President drove us to Indiana for a Christmas visit with my parents. I couldn't wait to get home to try it, and it didn't disappoint. I modified it slightly here because I really love escarole.

There's so much compelling advice these days to move towards a gluten-free or even grain-free diet, but for now, I'll keep my moderate approach. This soup contains spelt, and ancient species of wheat with a wonderful nutty flavor when toasted and a chewy-firm texture.

Spelt is not gluten-free but there is evidence that people with sensitivity to wheat, not true gluten intolerance, may have an easier time digesting it.

This soup recipe makes plenty of leftovers to freeze and enjoy later on a busy weeknight.

Ingredients (Serves 8)

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

1 small fennel bulb, trimmed, cored and coarsely chopped

1 carrot, coarsely chopped

1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 Tbsp. olive oil, plus more for serving

3 oz. pancetta, cut into small pieces

soup recipes1 cup spelt

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 Tbsp. tomato paste

3/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (or less to taste)

12 cups homemade or low-sodium chicken stock

1 small head escarole, trimmed and leaves torn into small pieces

1 can or 1 1/2 cups cooked-from-dry cannellini beans

Shaved Parmesan, for serving

Step one:

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

1 small fennel bulb, trimmed, cored and coarsely chopped

1 carrot, coarsely chopped

1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped

Pulse all vegetables and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped. Take it easy, you don't want a puree. Set aside.

Step two:

2 Tbsp. olive oil, plus more for serving

3 oz. pancetta, cut into small pieces

1 cup spelt

Heat olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat and add pancetta. Cook, stirring often, until pancetta is brown and getting crispy. Add spelt. Cook and stir often for about three minutes or until grains are a nice toasty color.

Step three:

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 Tbsp. tomato paste

3/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (or less to taste)

12 cups homemade or low-sodium chicken stock

Add reserved vegetables to pot and cook until they are softened, 6-8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add tomato paste and red pepper flakes, cooking another minute before adding stock. Bring soup to a boil and then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Check soup after about 45 minutes - spelt should be tender. For me, it took about an hour.

Step four:

1 small head escarole, trimmed and leaves torn into small pieces

1 can or 1 1/2 cups cooked-from-dry cannellini beans

Shaved Parmesan, for serving

Stir in escarole and beans, heating through and wilting the greens.

Serve soup drizzled with your best olive oil and a sprinkling of Parmesan shavings.

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