What We’re Cooking This Week: Bean and Farro Soup

This dish is substantial enough to be a meal all on its own.

Bean and Farro Soup Photo by Jim Dixon.

Jim Dixon wrote about food for WW for more than 20 years, but these days most of his time is spent at his olive oil-focused specialty food business Wellspent Market. Jim’s always loved to eat, and he encourages his customers to cook by sending them recipes every week through his newsletter. We’re happy to have him back creating some special dishes just for WW readers.

While some eaters see soup as a starter course—something to whet the appetite before the rest of the food hits the table—for me, soup is the meal. And so it needs to be substantial: a bowl of tasty stuff cooked together that fills me up. Most of the time, that means beans are a key player.

Soups I ate in Italy inspired this bean-and-grain soup, where several ancient wheat varieties yield hulled berries that don’t mill easily but are often cooked whole and called farro. Whether the wheat is spelt, emmer, or einkorn, the typically whole or partially pearled berries provide a nutty, chewy addition to the simple bean soups found in Tuscany and Umbria.

After the beans are simmered to a creamy tenderness, the farro is added and simmered for another hour. And while the vegetables can be added straight to the pot, I borrow one of Marcella Hazan’s techniques for concentrating flavor and cook them gently in olive oil first. This recipe only uses onion, carrot, celery, and cabbage, but potatoes, celery root, parsnips, kale, or chard would all be good additions.

A splash of vinegar at the very end adds the acidic brightness often missing in soups like this. The soup doesn’t taste sour; just better. Toast some crusty bread to dip, or even better, tear a slice into pieces and drop it right in the bowl. And always add a drizzle of good olive oil at the table.

Bean and Farro Soup

1 1/2 cups (about 1/2 pound) pinto, borlotti, or cranberry beans

6 cups water, plus more as needed

2 teaspoons kosher-style sea salt

1/4 cup whole grain farro (see note)

1 onion, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

1/2 head green cabbage, chopped

1 14 oz can crushed tomatoes (see note)

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Pinch MSG, optional but highly recommended

1-2 teaspoons wine vinegar

Note: Most imported farro has had some of all of the outer hull removed, a process called pearling, and the grain will be labeled perlato or semi-perlato. Whole grain farro retains all of the wheat’s nutrients and has a firmer texture. Check the labels and get tomatoes without added calcium chloride, which is used as a firming agent but also prevents the tomatoes from breaking down in the soup.

Combine the beans and water in a large pot, add the salt, and bring gently to a boil. Reduce heat to the lowest simmer, cover, and cook until the beans are very tender, anywhere from 2-4 hours. When the beans are done, add the farro and cook for another 45-60 minutes or until the farro is tender (it will still have a little snap).

While the beans cook, combine the onion, carrot, and celery with the olive oil in a heavy skillet. Add a pinch of salt and cook over medium heat until the vegetables have softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, add the cabbage, and cook for another 10 minutes.

Add the vegetables to the beans and farro. If the soup is especially thick, add more water as needed, and simmer for another hour or until the vegetables are very soft. Taste and add salt, and, if desired, a shake of MSG (or a shot of soy sauce or similar umami-heavy condiment). Stir in the vinegar, taste again, and add a little more vinegar or salt as needed.

While the soup is ready to eat, it will taste better if you turn off the heat and let it sit for an hour or more. Drizzle each bowl with more olive oil before serving, and toast some crusty bread.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.