At least twice each week, I pick up lunch at Whole Foods. This particular location is a few miles from my office but given that I can’t seem to bring myself to plan ahead and pack a lunch, the drive for a hot, healthy lunch beats stopping at any of the scores of fast food eateries that I pass along the way. Plus, the drive forces me to shift from work mode and allows me to be outdoors, albeit for only a short time.
I have my favorites at this Whole Foods. If you’ve ever shopped at different locations in your area, you might have noticed that each store has its specialties. Besides the usual salad, I’ll always pick up a bite or two from the hot bar. If they are serving whitefish that’s been baked with cherry tomatoes and asparagus… or collard greens…or their cherry barbecue pulled pork (which I’ve been meaning to recreate) I consider it a good day.
But more often that not, my salad will usually be paired with one of their soups of the day. This store serves eight varieties daily, and, as I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve been known to mix and match the soups to up the yum factor, garnering some curious looks from my fellow lunch-breakers. These soups are either broth-based or tomato-based–it’s easy to find two that will taste great when mixed together. Trust me on this.
But my absolute, hands down favorite? Hlelem. This is a Tunisian vegetable and bean soup that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Tomato-based, it is loaded with Swiss chard, garbanzo beans, white beans and thin pasta. It has a long-simmered flavor with a little kick from one of its key ingredients: harissa (a North African chili condiment). I remember being smitten at first taste and, unlike those who seem to eat their lunch for free, “tasting” with their little sampler cup (you know you’ve seen these people hanging out by the hot food bar), I bought that first bowl-sized portion and have not looked back since. The downside is that hlelem is a rare offering here; I’m lucky if I see it once every few months.
So when I read “Hlelem: Tunisian Vegetable Soup” on one of the cards at the soup station a week ago, I was thrilled. But when I lifted the lid, the pot was empty. I had arrived just after the lunch rush and most of the trays and pots were ready to be replaced with a fresh batch.
I waited…and waited. I asked one of the Whole Foods guys who was serving up a hot tray of macaroni & cheese if there would be a new batch of my soup soon. He nodded. But minutes passed and still no hlelem. Finally, the soup guy arrived (I call him this because he pushed a tray with 3-4 pots of soup) and I was excited to finally ladle up my lunch. Instead, he removed the “hlelem” card and replaced it with another soup! When I cornered him he said that it was all gone for the day. You can imagine my disappointment as I walked to the other bar for some mac-and-cheese (their version isn’t my favorite).
No soup for me, at least that day.
After this sad episode, I vowed to make hlelem at home. I found a handful of recipes online with little variation in preparation. The recipes seem to call for dried beans soaked overnight and cooked on the stove but I wanted a quicker version. Since my taste buds have been trained on the Whole Foods version, I didn’t have high hopes of successfully replicating the flavors I have grown to love.
But guess what. The batch I made this weekend tasted just like the Whole Foods version. I improvised on the cooking method, allowing the tomato paste to deepen in flavor by cooking it with the onions and celery…and I used canned beans. Better yet, since I didn’t have harissa, I used my homemade Chinese chili sauce to great results. As soon as I tasted my homemade I version, I regretted not making a double batch. It was that good.
Don’t make the same mistake. This is one of those quick soups that will fast become a favorite in your home. And trust me on this: I would not forget to pack my lunch if I had this for leftovers in the fridge.
Hlelem: Tunisian Vegetable & Bean Soup
- 1/2 can 6-7 ounces white navy beans with liquid (or any white bean)
- 1/2 can 6-7 ounces garbanzo beans with liquid (for both beans I use organic with no added salt)
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion diced
- 3 cloves garlic peeled and chopped
- 1 celery stalk diced
- 4 cups chicken stock vegetable broth for vegetarian version
- 1/3 cup or about 3 ounces tomato paste
- Swiss Chard about 3-4 large leaves, rinsed, large stem removed and roughly cut in strips
- 1 1/2 - 2 ounces angel hair pasta broken into roughly 2-inch pieces
- 1 - 2 tablespoons harissa depending on your heat tolerance (I used my homemade Chinese chili paste for this)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Chopped parsley and Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for garnish omit the cheese for Vegan option
Heat the olive oil in a pot over medium to medium-high heat then add the onion, celery and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the celery is crisp-tender and the onions are beginning to brown at the edges, 4-6 minutes. Lower the heat if the vegetables brown too quickly. You don't really want the garlic and onions to caramelize.
Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 2-3 minutes. You can leave the stove at medium-high hear.
Add the broth and beans including the bean liquid, bring to a boil then simmer for about six minutes.
Add the pasta and Swiss Chard and simmer for another 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the harissa. Taste for additional seasoning. Ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped parsley and/or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
1. This soup can be easily doubled in order to use the full can each of the white beans and garbanzo beans.
2. Harissa can be found in specialty stores or can be easily made at home. Since I always have homemade Chinese Chili Paste, I used it here with great results.