I get most enjoyment from cooking when I can be creative and I tend to treat recipes as mere guidelines.

I have favorite dishes that have evolved over the years as I try different ingredients or methods. Many of the recipes my mother made for us when we were growing up look and taste very different when I make them today. A good example is her eggplant parmigiana. I substitute the hard mozzarella cheese my mom used with burrata, which gives the dish almost a soufflé-like texture. I wanted to make her famous meatballs less dry, so I started adding tomato sauce to my mix.

Tweaking recipes isn’t always about taste. Sometimes, I change a recipe out of necessity, like when I can’t find a certain ingredient. I changed one of my favorite soup recipes for an equally practical reason. As my mother got into the later stages of her life, she had a hard time eating the soup I made for her.

I came across this recipe ten years ago, after I ate at an Italian restaurant on Court Street in Brooklyn, called Frankies 457 Spuntino. In 2010, the restaurant’s chefs and owners, Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo, published a cookbook, The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual. I received a copy and found some great recipes that I use often. But the Escarole and Cannellini Bean Soup recipe is the one I come back to time and time again. It is absolutely delicious and easy to make.

No one loved it more than my mother. For me, the highlight of family meals was to watch my mom take her first spoonful and then give her nod of approval. She would look at me and say “e buono.” I think you need to be a son of Italian descent to truly appreciate the importance of that kind of approval. I used to make a big batch of that soup on weekends to put into small containers and deliver it to her so that she could enjoy it during the week.

For a long time, it’s pretty much all she ate. But, in her later years, she had difficulty eating the soup. Its cannellini beans, carrots and escarole require some chewing. So I decided to put it in a blender to make it smooth. This is where necessity forced me to change a recipe. The added bonus was that I found that blending the soup gave it a better flavor. After making it this way a few times, I thought it would be nice if it were creamier. So I added potatoes, yams and turnips. The result was a delicious, vegan soup with a creamy texture and a gentle kick.

Try this recipe as originally written by the two Franks and then try my adaptation below. Also, if you’re in a rush, you can use other greens such as bok choy instead of escarole and just put it into the soup without the extra step it takes to cook it. If you choose this approach, it’s best to blend the soup. Cooking the escarole separately allows it to keep its color. Lastly, remember to finish the soup with olive oil and grated Pecorino cheese just before serving.

The following is an excerpt from The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cookbook by Frank Falcinelli, Frank Castronovo and Peter Meehan (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2010. 

Escarole & Cannellini Bean Soup

Everybody’s grandma made this fixture of the southern Italian immigrant kitchen. Add some short pasta to it and it’s pasta fagiola—and then it’s dinner for sure.

One thing we’d encourage you to try: eating the leftovers cold. We haven’t eaten this soup hot in years. We roll into the restaurant in the morning, pull the soup out of the fridge, ladle ourselves out big bowls, and douse them with olive oil, sea salt and chopped parsley (and sometimes cheese and tomato sauce as well). It’s delicious and great fuel for a long day.

Serves 6

2 cups (12 ounces) dried cannellini beans
¼ cup olive oil, plus additional for garnish
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground white pepper
Red pepper flakes
8 cups Vegetable Broth
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic, cut lengthwise in half
1 or 2 heads escarole, cut into 1-inch pieces (3 to 4 cups)
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano

  1. Put the beans in a bowl, cover with water, and soak for at least 8 hours or as long as overnight, replacing the water once or twice during the soak. Drain and pick over the beans for stones or pebbles before cooking them.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a wide, deep soup pot (an enameled Dutch oven is perfect) over medium heat. After a minute, add the onion, celery, and carrot, and season them with pinches of salt, a few turns of white pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste. Sauté the aromatics, stirring regularly, until the onion is going golden, the celery is translucent, and the carrot is softened, 12 to 15 minutes. 
  3. Add the beans, broth, and bay leaf to the pot and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat so the beans simmer gently. Cook for 2 hours or until they’re soft but not disintegrating. (At this point, you could cool the beans in their cooking liquid and refrigerate them for a day or two or freeze them for up to a month.) 
  4. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in an 8-inch sauté pan over low heat. After a minute, add the garlic and cook it slowly for 8 to 10 minutes, until it has gone a pale gold and is sweetly aromatic, maybe starting to brown the tiniest bit around the edges. 
  5. When the garlic is good to go, turn the heat to medium-high and add a pinch of red pepper flakes. Cook for 30 seconds, then add the escarole, piling it as high as it needs to go. Add a large pinch of salt and a few turns of white pepper and toss to coat the escarole in some of the oil in the pan. Cover the pan and cook for 4 minutes. 
  6. Remove the lid and toss the escarole again. It should be wilted and greener than it was when it started, and the water and oil should have melded together into a nice, juicy pan sauce. Add the escarole to the beans.
  7. Serve the soup hot or chill it and ladle it out cold. Finish each bowl with a splash of olive oil, a few turns of white pepper, and a couple of tablespoons of grated cheese, regardless of the temperature. (That said, if you’re eating it cold, chopped parsley, added in abundance, is very good for it.)

My adaptation:

Follow the above directions, adding one small white potato, a small yam and a small turnip, all roughly chopped at step 2, along with the celery and carrot. Then blend the soup in batches until smooth and creamy after step 6, being careful not to fill the blender too full.

I’ll be curious to hear which method you prefer. I know what my mother would choose. Buon appetito!