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On industry, indolence, and Italian vegetable soup

Every now and then, something comes over me, and I produce. With no real hunger or purpose, I make, say, three mini-loaves of fancy banana bread, a batch of strawberry scones, a loaf of sourdough, and barrelfuls of Italian vegetable soup—all in less than twenty-four hours, and mostly on a Friday night, no less. Behold the pinnacle of geekiness! But because a girl’s got to keep these things in check, I usually make sure that my bouts of industriousness are immediately followed by a good dose of sloth, generally in the company of someone upon whom I can foist some of the products of my labor. Hence Saturday night’s languorous session on the couch, spooning whipped cream and sipping wine, wearing unusually wavy bedroom hair, and snorting and guffawing in intentionally bad French with Kate. Whoever said that sloth is a deadly sin has obviously never spent an evening with us.

I arrived at Kate’s with a heavy bag of loot: a crusty homemade sourdough boule, my jagged-toothed Wüsthof bread knife, a wedge of bleu d’Auvergne from my personal ripening cellar (a.k.a. the refrigerator), a baggie of scones, and a Tupperware full of still-warm soup. Taking stock of our wares and coming up short, we ran down to DeLaurenti’s, barraged the poor wine saleswoman with inarticulate questions about Italian reds, and returned to Kate's with a bottle of Argiolas Perdera Isola dei Nuraghi 2002, jammy, spicy, and as fun to pronounce as it is to drink. I set the table—complete with the few napkins I didn’t set on fire at my birthday dinner—while she washed lettuce and handfuls of peppery watercress. With rain falling on the cold streets outside, we sat down to a warming winter dinner: steaming bowls of soup, hearty with carrots, cabbage, zucchini, Swiss chard, and sweet white beans,

and, on the side, greens with vinaigrette, creamy bleu d’Auvergne, and chewy bread.

And, because we needed to meet our regular whipped-cream quota, we collaborated on a now-routine-but-still-exhilarating gâteau au chocolat fondant, which, incidentally, gave me a chance to show off my natural grace in the kitchen. Not only did I drop a chocolate-batter-covered spoon on the floor and nearly knock over a pitcher of kitchen utensils while making the thing, but, once it was out of the oven and cool, I shot a knife across the kitchen trying to serve it. I just get so eager.

Kate, on the other hand, whipped the cream with uncommon elegance.

We collapsed onto the couch and, wine glasses and bowl of cream nearby, made fast work of the cake. Then, in only a couple of hours, we planned our entire lives and a cocktail party. Even in times of slothfulness, we can’t help but be productive.

And what’s more, before I left, we even took out the trash.

The rubbish chute is the highlight of every visit chez Kate. I adore it, and, knowing this, Kate saves her very best trash just for me. I’ve thrown into the chute's greedy mouth everything from a candy-coated apple to a bag full of mussel shells, and I can’t get enough of the clicketty-clacketty-THUMP! of trash tumbling down through the darkness. It’s pure heaven. Someday I’ll have a rubbish chute of my own, and I’ll fulfill my dream of sliding down it. I’ve long had visions of putting myself in small, confined spaces: cabinets, the space under airplane seats, and so on. When I was moving into my current apartment, I crawled into a corner cabinet in the kitchen and had my mother close the door behind me. It was strangely satisfying, if only for a few seconds. A rubbish-chute ride would surely be divine, if painful.

Coming home and sighing contentedly, I gave thanks for so much industry and indolence by turning out the light and tumbling down through the darkness to my bed.

Fretwell (Italian Vegetable) Soup

This soup recipe comes from the Fretwell family, longtime friends in Oklahoma, and they in turn discovered it somewhere in Italy. I have only a blurry Xeroxed copy of the recipe (which the Fretwells had faxed to them from wherever they first ate it), and so I thus cannot give credit here to its original author. That’s a true shame, because this is one of the most delicious vegetable soups I’ve ever tasted. The Fretwells brought us many meals while my father was ill, and this was one we requested repeatedly. But consider yourself warned: this recipe makes a veritable cauldron of soup. If you don’t have a stockpot that can hold twelve quarts or so, do this in two batches, or halve the recipe.

1 ½ lbs. dried cannellini or Great Northern beans
Olive oil
2 or 3 fresh sage leaves
1 or 2 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
2 or 3 medium yellow onions, chopped
8 medium carrots, sliced into ¼-inch coins
5 celery stalks, trimmed and sliced into ¼-inch crescents
2 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced into ¼-inch half-circles
1 bunch red Swiss chard, washed, dried, and sliced
½ head green cabbage, cored and chopped roughly
1 quart vegetable broth (I used Imagine brand)
1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes, juices reserved and tomatoes chopped roughly

Soak the beans overnight. The next day, drain them, put them into a large pot, add water to cover by 2 inches, and cook, with sage and garlic, for about one hour. As the beans cook, skim off any white foam that rises to the surface, and halfway through their cooking time, add ½ Tbs salt.

Heat 2 or 3 Tbs olive oil in a large soup pot, add onions, carrots, and celery, and sauté for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, salting lightly, and adding more oil if necessary. Add the zucchini and the vegetable broth, cover, and bring mixture to a simmer. Then add Swiss chard, cabbage, tomatoes, and tomato juices. Cover the pot, and simmer over low heat for half an hour or so. Add the beans and their cooking water, salt to taste, and simmer, covered, over low heat for one hour, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Serve over slices of day-old crusty bread, and garnish with a drizzle of olive oil if you like.

Serves scads—but scads!—of people.


Blogger amylou said...

That's why I like you so much! It's not just your cooking and wit, it's that we share the same fascination with small spaces. Would you believe that when I was a wee little dork (and not the fully grown one I am today), I created a crawl space behind my vanity and decorated it with cut-out wallpaper letters that read: "my cozy corner"? And cabinets--yes! At the same time, I think I may be slightly claustrophobic. Odd.

Wonderful looking soup. I'm craving this kind of classic vegetable medley.

2:29 PM, January 16, 2005  
Blogger Pusekatt said...

You know, whenever I have my cooking moments I have a most reliable (and willing) participant. Oyvind loves it when I cook something new and always tells me, after the first bite, that if for nothing else "I would marry you for your cooking alone." Silly boy.
Oh, you would be so proud of me: Last night i cooked up a bit of a storm (well, for me anyway). Made some chicken breasts in a white wine creamy Tarragon sauce - yum! Some butter chicken for later this week. AND I even baked some cupcakes. What is going on here? And yes, I'll post the recipe of the Tarragon chicken... The vegetable soup sounds great! I am having such a soup for lunch today although mine is from a packet ;-)

3:01 PM, January 16, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Amy, that "cozy corner" story had me HOWLING. I'm crazy about you.

And Pusekatt, wow, what a cooking spree! Very impressive. I can't wait to see the recipes...

3:06 PM, January 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was a kid, I always wanted to take a ride down the laundry chute in my granparents' house. Never did, though -- I figured that'd be an outstanding way to get in trouble even if I managed not to get stuck halfway down...

-- Lexica

6:56 PM, January 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I really enjoy reading your blog. It's only 5 degrees here in WI, and when I saw your soup recipe this morning I just had to make it! It smells wonderful. It will be perfect for tonight!

11:58 AM, January 17, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Lexica, I'd completely overlooked the laundry-chute possibility until you mentioned it. You were smart to hold off and not give the grandparents too much of a scare...but hmmm, at least you would likely have landed in a soft pile of dirty clothes, rather than a dumpster. That's something I should think about.

And Colleen, I'm so glad you made the soup! Please do report back and tell me how you like it, and wow, bundle up! Brrr.

12:16 PM, January 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just had to let you know that the soup turned out fantastic! My husband and son loved it. We ate it 2 nights in a row and I have a nice size container of it in the freezer for another time! Thanks Molly

4:44 AM, January 20, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks for the update, Colleen! I'm so glad you liked the soup! I'm taking some to work for lunch today...

7:25 AM, January 20, 2005  
Blogger TanTian said...

I made my way over here from Knackebrod, and I'm glad I did. A soup recipe like that might just be the answer to the winter storm travelling in my direction.

8:12 PM, January 21, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks for coming over to visit, TanTian! Yes, it looks as though you East Coasters are going to be needing lots of soup to get through the weekend! It's also good fuel for intensive house/apartment-cleaning, which I see you've been doing. I've got to tackle my (very scary, very ignored) shower tomorrow, and I think I'll have a bowl of soup first.

10:45 PM, January 21, 2005  
Anonymous emily said...

have i mentioned how much i like this soup? it's been getting us through the winter. at least once each month. making it today. beans are cooked, vegetables are chopped. bread is baked. mouth is watering.

thank you, molly, as always.

11:57 AM, February 11, 2008  
Blogger selena said...

Thanks for the soup! Turned out great for a rainy Tokyo night. Houseguests were pleased. Topped it off with the ginger cake from epicurious that you mentioned in an earlier post (though the more highly rated David Lebovitz version looks amazing too! next time...) and that topped with whipped cream. Yes! Anything that calls for cream, sign me up...

6:15 PM, March 30, 2008  
Blogger clp said...

i found your blog via Bon Appetit and have been looking through the soup recipes trying to find a good one to make this winter. Can't believe you have the Fretwell's recipe...my family grew up next door to the Fretwells in Nichols Hills! Looking forward to trying this recipe soon.

11:15 AM, December 31, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a lovely soup recipe - made it tonight on a cold, grey day and it warmed our family up and brightened our day. Used the last bit of fresh sage from our herb garden. Thank you so much for bringing such joy into our day.


6:22 PM, October 30, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most dee-lish-us vegetable soup ever! Love you, love your book, and love, love, love your Fretwell Soup. Thanks to the universe for sending the Fretwells to Italy.

5:34 PM, April 15, 2010  
Blogger Stephfret said...

Hi Molly, I just had to comment on this post from years ago, which I'm not sre how I stumbled on, but which made me very excited when I saw the name Fretwell- that's my name! I've never met another Fretwell that I didn't already know I was related to. I think I'll make this soup for my family, just to tell them it comes form the Oklahoma Fretwells. Plus, it does sound good. Hello to your old family friends from the Atlanta branch...

1:05 PM, May 16, 2010  
Blogger Eva said...

Hi Molly, the soup is simmering silently on the oven, it is already delicious and I can´t wait to declare it ready ... and I´m looking for the (generous) leftovers tomorrow, I think soup is always better after a night of rest ... sometimes I´m organized enough to plan a day ahead, but not today ... thanks for the great recipe, thanks to the Fretwells too, for the recipe and for caring so much ... best wishes, eva

11:21 AM, October 12, 2010  
Blogger Kaci Clairest said...

This is the greatest and best soup in the world! I'm making it again for the sixth winter in a row. I love your book and your blog... You're an inspiration to foodies everywhere :)

7:28 AM, December 03, 2013  

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