Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cooking soothing, happy food for ailing people


Tomorrow at 6am, barring too much snow in NYC, I fly home to NY to help my Mom when she gets her shoulder operated on.  I was thinking of what to make and freeze for my parents during the time in the next few weeks while Mom Hennessey  is recuperating.  Suddenly I remembered that last time my mom was operated on, probably 20 years ago, and all she craved before and after the operation was swiss chard, which was in season at the time.  I was going through a trendy cooking phase and chards of all kind were "de rigeur" if you had any credentials in trend cooking.  So, I made her a bit pot of chard and white bean soup, complete with anchovy paste.  My mother hates anchovies, but she never knew it was in there until I told her.  She promptly got ill, thinking that she had eaten those "little hairy fish"!  But, I made it several times and she never questioned the ingredients again.  I also made a swiss chard streudel that was wonderful which I have posted previously on this blog!

Over the years, I have found myself coming back to that basic recipe when people are ailing and their appetites need a little coaxing.  Recently my very good friend and her husband lost their baby during a pregnancy and they were devastated.  I did all I could, the mamma in me wanted to take the hurt away, but all I did was listen, hold hands, be there and nourish her through this devastating time.  Once they were home from the hospital, I immediately ran to grab the ingredients for this soup, with a few tweaks.  They loved it, and in their grief, they didn't have to think about what to eat.  That to me is the real joy of being able to cook, and even more importantly cook for people you love.  You nourish and care for them, through good times and bad, and you make sure they will be ok, with even a simple dish of soup!

The version I am giving you below can be tweaked in many ways, but the basis is still delicious, filling and so soothing.  I call this a Swiss chard soup, but cavolo negro (a dark, beefy Italian kale) or any good dark bitter kale or green would work.  I can not be too pushy about this one, the chard must be washed very, very well.  It is very sandy and it will really ruin the soup.  I don't recommend spinach, because after a while the leaves fall apart and turn to mush, not good for a soup of this type.  The chard is great because the leaves really stand up to cooking, but become soft and easy to slurp, and the stems get lovely and tender after you cook them, but still retain some bite.  Another important note is that you use good quality chicken stock, or vegetable stock.  It's one of the main flavors of the soup so good quality makes a huge difference.  Now, the basic recipe only calls for chard and white beans, but below I am adding in tortellini.  You can add cooked rice, brown rice would be yummy, couscous, barley, pastina, lots of other tiny pasta's or starches, or none at all.  This one is all about a classic Tuscan recipe that you can make your own!

Swiss Chard, White Bean and Tortellini  soup

3 tbsp. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly or use a garlic press
1 large bunch of Swiss chard, washed well, stems chopped and set aside, leaves cut into strips

6 - 8 cups of good quality low sodium chicken broth (or vegetable stock or water)
2 12 oz cans of cooked white beans, drained and rinsed well
1 package of fresh cheese tortellini

Optional: Parmesan rinds 1/2 cup grated Parmesan

Saute the olive oil, garlic and chopped stems from the chard in a thick bottomed soup pot on low to medium heat.  Optionally, you can add in some dried chili flakes, if you like it spicy.  Add salt and pepper to taste, go easy on the salt, the broth tends to be salty, even the low sodium ones.  Cover and cook the mixture for 5 - 7 min or until the stems are softened.  Add in the shredded Swiss chard and saute until wilted.  Taste a strand to see if seasoning needs to be corrected.  Add the shredded chard and saute until wilted.

Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil and let it simmer for 7 - 8 min.  Add in the beans and let the soup simmer for 20 min, covered.

I usually serve this with some toasted sourdough bread rubbed with olive oil and a garlic clove, but you don't have to do that.  The optional Parmesan rinds can be added once you add the broth.  If you do add them, add about 20 more minutes to the cooking time, then remove and discard the husks when you are ready to serve.

Another optional item is a good grating of Parmesan over the bowl and a drizzle of good olive oil.

Enjoy! I hope you will show someone your love with this dish!

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