Sometimes the simplest of soups satisfies the most. Chicken soup is, of course, the pinnacle of Jewish comfort food. But it’s not the only option. A seemingly ordinary bean soup also elicits tremendous praise. This is the dish about which Iraqi Jews, Middle Eastern Jews, and Italian Jews like the writer Giorgio Bassani (best known for The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) have waxed nostalgic.
For centuries, this soup was traditionally prepared on Mondays, the day that women did the painstaking job of laundry. The soup was first made with either dried chickpeas or fava beans, the only beans eaten in the Middle East and Europe before the Columbian exchange, when kidney, cranberry, and white beans crossed the ocean from the New World to the Old. Cooks soaked the beans overnight, then slowly cooked them in water, perhaps with garlic, onions, carrots, celery, and later tomatoes when they, too, came to the Old World. To make an entire meal, macaroni was added, along with the occasional dusting of Parmesan cheese.
What follows is the Bassani family’s recipe, something I found in La Storia Passa dalla Cucina (History Goes Through the Kitchen), a cookbook by Jenny Bassani Liscia, Giorgio Bassani’s sister, who was in charge of cooking kosher meals for the synagogue in Florence. Of all the simple bean dishes in the Jewish diaspora, this Italian white bean soup, called minestra di fagioli, is the one that I find the most comforting.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.