Thursday, August 6, 2009

A crush for all seasons (soup for another one)

Five or so years ago, I used to watch the Fine Living Network for one reason: Michael Chiarello. His show "Napa Style" wasn't exactly a cooking show, but it wasn't exactly an entertaining show, either. A typical episode might feature Chiarello walking through a Napa vineyard with the local winemaker, then planning a dinner around the wine, then cooking with such mellow happiness - all while sipping said wine - that you wanted to be part of the group around the table at the end of the day, if only to latch onto his infectious spirit. Chiarello was really fun to watch: a California guy of Italian descent whipping together meals and that reflected both heritages. Think Italian surfer guy making damn good food and throwing killer parties.

Shortly after getting hooked on "Napa Style," I turned off my cable and didn't have it again for three years, so I lost track of him. I knew Chiarello had turned the "Napa Style" concept into a store and catalog, but that was all I knew until Top Chef Masters this summer, when my boy Chiarello was back! I warned my couchmate from the start that he was the object of a deep-rooted crush, and he eventually had to admit that fine, Chiarello is pretty much an all-around awesome guy... yes, he's fantastic on tv... sure, he doesn't have the prima-donna-ness that too often surrounds celebrated chefs... and yes, his food looks really good. Oh, and his charity of choice provides health care to agricultural workers in the Napa Valley. DREAMBOAT ALERT!

I remember a "Napa Style" episode way back when during the winter; the object was a steaming bowl of Italian stew called "Menisha." It might be cruel posting this now (high today: 100 - again), but what the heck. In honor of Chiarello's burgeoning success on Top Chef Masters, I present the Chiarello recipe I've loved the most since first falling for him. My copy is stained from years of use, but it's never failed me when all the weather calls for is hearty goodness in a bowl. Come back to this one in six months and give it a try; you won't be sorry. From the crusty bread the soup is poured over to the jalapeno relish on top, this recipe kills it every time.

Michael Chiarello's Menisha

Serves 6

1-1/4 cups dried cannellini beans
4 ounces prosciutto, in three pieces
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
1 large rib celery, in two pieces
1 carrot, peeled and halved
Gray salt
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 bulbs fennel, diced
2 cups chopped onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 quarts lightly packed and roughly hand-torn greens, such as chard, collards, mustard, spinach and cabbage
2 /3 cup fresh pureed tomatoes
3 russet potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups diced zucchini
1 cup diced green beans
1 teaspoon toasted and ground fennel seed, or more if not using fennel greens
3 whole jalapeno chiles
1/2-1 cup minced fennel fronds, if available
Freshly ground black pepper
6 cups bread cubes from day-old bread, baked in a 300°F oven until dry


Place the beans in a saucepan, and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat. Let stand 1 hour, then drain.

Place the beans in a large pot with 3 quarts water, prosciutto, onion, celery, and carrot. Simmer gently, uncovered, about 1-1/2 hours, or until beans are tender. Season with salt to taste when the beans are done. Remove from the heat, and let cool in the liquid. Remove the onion, celery, and carrot, and discard. Remove the prosciutto, dice, and set aside. Drain the beans and reserve the liquid.

In a large pot, heat 3 tablespoons of oil, then add the fennel, onion, garlic, and a pinch of salt. Cook until vegetables are softened but not colored. Add the greens and toss until they wilt evenly; adjust heat to keep vegetables from burning. Add the beans, the reserved liquid, tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, green beans, fennel seed, and chiles. Simmer gently 30 minutes. Stir in the prosciutto and fennel fronds, then season with salt and pepper.

Remove the chiles to a small bowl and discard the stems. Mash with a fork, adding a little broth and potato from the pot to make a thick puree.

Toss the bread cubes with remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Divide the bread among warm soup bowls. Ladle soup over the bread and drizzle with olive oil. Pass the chile condiment on the side.


  1. Michael Chiarello has been my secret chef crush for a VERY LONG TIME! When I saw him on Top Chef Masters I actually squealed out loud.

  2. I'm so rooting for Chiarello to win Top Chef! Did you see the awesome vegan pasta dish he made last night? I'm far from being a vegan, but it made my mouth water.

  3. I adore Top Chef Masters - love how it's all about the food, as opposed to fighting and uber-competitiveness. Seeing the chefs become awed by their peers is pretty cool too.

    I will definitely try that recipe- soup is one of my favorite foods :)

  4. Maggie, did you know that Chiarello still has a show on the Food Network?

  5. MB, I did not! I actually don't watch very much Food Network at all... Per that fantastic Michael Pollan article from Sunday, I prefer to actually cook ;-)

    Samma, I agree with you about Top Chef Masters! I can't stand the infighting, and except for the first two episodes, this series is much more about food and collaboration than the original.

    And Emily: Team Chiarello! But I have a soft spot for Rick Bayless, too. :-) I love watching TC and RB working together.

  6. I secretly love Michael Chiarello too. Guess it's not a secret anymore!

  7. So I just watched my DVR'd Top Chef from Wednesday- Chiarello has George Clooney-style crinkly eyes. Gets me every time.

  8. Definitely agree with you here, I am a fellow Chiarello Crusher! Oh that smile... :)


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