This hearty vegetarian soup gets superb flavor and texture from the long cooking chickpeas and dried and fresh mushrooms; one of my favorites from Lidia Bastianich. The secret to the great taste is the paste (pestata) of aromatic vegetables and herbs, ground in the food processor. Before adding it to the soup however, you give the pestata even more flavor by browning it in a skillet-which makes it, in culinary Italian, a soffrito.
Served with grilled bread, this soup makes a whole meal. Adding rice or small pasta to the soup pot during the final 10 minutes of cooking is another way to enhance it. For a non-vegetarian version, drop some good Italian sausages into soup for the last 20 minutes of cooking. Slice them right into the soup or serve the sausages separately as a second course.
1 pound dried chickpeas
½ cup dried porcini, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
1 small onion, coarsely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 celery stalks with leaves, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 garlic cloves, peeled
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons oregano leaves, or fresh marjoram leaves
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary needles, stripped from the branch
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons Coarse sea salt, kosher salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1½ cups canned Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, crushed by hand
2 pounds mixed fresh mushrooms, (such as porcini, or cremini), cleaned and sliced
Freshly grated Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving
Drain and rinse the beans, put them in the soup pot with 5 quarts of fresh cold water and bring to the boil over high heat. Drop in the porcini pieces, partially cover the pot, and adjust the heat to maintain steady but gentle bubbling while you prepare the pestata.
Put the onion, garlic, celery and all the herb sprigs in the work bowl of the food processor. Process to chop everything to small bits, scrape down the bowl, and process again into a finely minced paste.
Pour the olive oil into the skillet and set over medium-high heat. Scrape and stir in all of the pestata and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring frequently, until it starts to color and stick to the pan. Add the crushed tomatoes.
Scrape the paste into the boiling soup. Slosh a cup or two of the soup liquid into the skillet to deglaze, scraping up any browned bits stuck to the bottom; pour this into the soup too. Now let the soup perk along steadily for about an hour, uncovered, to develop flavor and reduce slightly.
Dump in all the sliced mushrooms and another teaspoon salt, stir well, and let the soup bubble and reduce for another hour or until the chickpeas are tender and the broth has thickened slightly with a velvety sheen. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve right away or let it cool and use later.
Ladle portions of hot soup into warm bowls, sprinkle freshly grated grana over and give each portion a flourish of excellent olive oil.