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Pluck field greens at farmers markets

Outdoor farmers markets are open again throughout the region. But the locally grown bounty will take many more months to materialize. Until then, there’s kale and other field greens.

As editor of the newspaper’s weekly food section, I was always challenged to spotlight a piece of produce at the first farmers markets of the season. My recent columns touted leeks and fennel. Readers also received helpings of beets, celeriac and other overwintered root vegetables alongside the trusty trio of kale, chard and collards.

Those greens may seem like cold comfort for months of waiting on locally grown produce. But I yearn for those plucky leaves that have weathered our recent bitter cold and emerged sweet and velvety. My own container garden of field greens needs just a few more weeks to influence my menus.

This soup is the sort I adore this time of year, prepared with ingredients I almost always have on hand, including fennel. It’s also a welcome repository for the cannellini beans I often prepare for the week ahead, according to a make-your-own-meal-kit method I lauded in a recent column.

Tribune News Service photo

Kale, Fennel and White Bean Soup

8 ounces rustic bread, torn into bite-sized pieces

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided

2-inch piece of Parmesan rind (optional)

1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled and diced

1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed, halved lengthwise, cored and sliced 1/2 inch across the grain

1 bunch kale, stems removed, chopped and reserved, and leaves roughly chopped

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 medium garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 sprigs thyme

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste

1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained but not rinsed

Heat oven to 375 F with rack in middle position. Distribute the bread on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Toss, then bake until browned and crisp, for about 10 minutes, stirring once halfway through. Remove from oven, sprinkle with about half of the Parmesan, toss and set aside.

In a large pot over medium heat, add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil; heat until shimmering. Add the onion, fennel, kale stems and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, for about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and garlic. Cook, stirring until paste begins to brown and stick to bottom of pot, for about 1 minute. Add the wine, thyme and pepper flakes, then cook, scraping up any browned bits, until liquid has almost evaporated, for about 2 minutes.

Stir in the beans, kale leaves, Parmesan rind (if using), 5 cups water, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce to medium and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until kale is very tender, for 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove and discard thyme and Parmesan rind (if used). Taste and season with salt and pepper. Ladle soup into bowls, top with croutons and remaining Parmesan. If desired, drizzle a little oil on top.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

— Recipe from "Milk Street Vegetables" by Christopher Kimball (Voracious, November 2021, $40).