A bowlful of monsoon greens
Settle down with a comforting bowl of Ribollita, a Tuscan bread soup made with seasonal vegetables and pulses
I know what you’re thinking. That this is going to be a 500-word eulogy to fried food; that with the arrival, finally, of monsoon rain, I’ll be advocating that we all start eating our own body weight in pakode. After all, as someone who never passes up a chance to eat something deep fried, for me monsoon has always been as good a reason as any to seek out the nearest jalebiwalla and instruct him to “keep ‘em coming!”.
This year, though, I thought I would dig a little deeper into India’s monsoon eating habits. Traditionally, of course, in the blistering heat before the rains, there were very few crops thriving so we had to stock up on dried goods and durable ingredients like besan (chickpea flour), potatoes and onions. Which would explain the proliferation of pakode. These days there is also a proliferation of imported vegetables, so us city dwellers can’t possibly blame crop scarcity for our fried-snack habit.
Worryingly, my default rainy season mode of lounging about sipping sweet chai and stirring only to drop a few tasty morsels into the deep-fat fryer, is not a particularly good idea, health-wise. In fact, some claim that fried food should be avoided as it can lead to indigestion.
If we do reach for the pakode, it should only be occasionally, not least because during the monsoon we are more prone to infections, so it’s a good idea to eat foods which will strengthen our immune systems. Happily, quite soon after the first rains, lots of green vegetables start sprouting. Traditionally, we would have foraged for edible wild greens like takla leaves and arbi (colocasia) leaves.
There is also an abundance of mushrooms during the monsoon in parts of India—in fact, they are often called “thunder mushrooms”, since people believed that thunder made them appear. On the west coast, snails and frogs are a monsoon delicacy, although I think I’ll stick to the mushrooms.
The festival of Rishi Panchami celebrates the foraged foods that the rishis would have eaten in the forests. And to mark the occasion, a special sweet/sour mixed vegetable dish is made from seasonal vegetables, including bhindi (okra), ridge gourd and corn.
Ribollita is an Italian peasant dish based on the same principle of using ingredients that are at hand, in this case dried pulses and seasonal vegetables. Because we had a very late start to growing in our vegetables patch, mine are still coming from a local farm, but you can use whatever’s sprouting near you.
(Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s lovely book, River Cottage Veg Every Day. I use this recipe as a foundation for available seasonal vegetables)
For the beans
200g dried cannellini beans (or rajma), soaked in cold water overnight
1 onion, quartered
1 bay leaf
1 garlic clove, bashed
1 sprig of rosemary
For the soup
4 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1-2 carrots, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
5-6 tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and chopped
1 litre vegetable stock
1 sprig of rosemary
1 sprig of thyme
300g greens—I’m using chard, kale and runner beans, but you could use a range of wild Indian greens
Sea salt and black pepper
6 slices of slightly stale sourdough bread
1 garlic clove, halved
3-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Drain the beans after soaking, rinse and then put into a large saucepan with the onion, bay leaf, garlic clove and rosemary. Add enough water to cover the beans by about 5cm, bring to the boil, lower the heat to a gentle simmer, partially cover and cook until the beans are tender, about 1-1K hours. Drain, reserving the liquid. Pulse half the beans with some of the cooking liquid in a blender until you have a rough purée. You could also use 500g cooked beans.
In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onion over medium-low heat until softened. Add the carrots and celery and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring. Now add the tomatoes with their juice, along with the puréed and whole beans, stock, rosemary and thyme, and simmer gently for about 1 hour.
Slice the leafy green vegetables. Add to the soup and cook for 10 minutes more. Remove the sprigs of thyme and rosemary and add the salt and pepper.
To serve, toast the slices of bread until golden, then rub with the garlic and brush with olive oil. Put a slice of bread in the base of each bowl, ladle over the soup and trickle some olive oil on top before serving.
The Way We Eat Now is a column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.
She tweets at @eatanddust