Serves 12 with leftovers
1 pound dried white beans, like Great Northern or Cannellini
5 quarts water
1 large piece of the rind from Parmesan cheese
6 thin slices of bacon, diced (about 4 ounces)
2 tablespoons olive oil (use 4 if you’re not using the bacon)
2 onions, peeled and cut in half vertically, then sliced thin
2 carrots, diced
2 cups peeled, diced potatoes (about 2)
4 cups diced zucchini (between 2 and 3, depending on size)
2 cups drained diced canned tomatoes
6 cups shredded green cabbage (about half a large head)
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
3 cloves minced garlic
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, cut in strips
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup raw rice
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Optional topping ingredients: 1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, 2 cloves peeled garlic, finely-grated zest of one lemon, 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper
Prepare the beans: Soak the beans overnight in enough water to cover them by two inches Or you can quick-soak them by covering with water (again by two inches), bringing to a boil, the covering the pot and letting them sit for an hour.
Cooking the beans: Drain the soaking liquid from the beans and add the 5 quarts of water and the cheese rind. Bring to a boil and cook over low heat for 1-1/2 hours. Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables.
Bacon and vegetables: In a large skillet, brown the bacon. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. (If you’re not using bacon, use 4 tablespoons oil here). Add the onion and a teaspoon of salt and some pepper and sauté for 5 minutes until translucent. Add the dried oregano, carrots, potatoes, and zucchini and another teaspoon of salt and continue to cook for 5-10 minutes, until the carrot and potato start to soften. Add the garlic and basil and cook until you smell the garlic, about minute. Set aside until the beans have cooked. (You can start preparing the topping now if you’re going to use it.)
Add the cooked vegetables to the beans and their cooking liquid. Stir in the diced tomatoes and cabbage and cook for an hour and 15 minutes. Taste the soup for salt and pepper and add more as needed. Stir in the rice and chopped parsley and cook 20 minutes longer. Turn off the heat and stir in the cheese.
To prepare the topping: cut the garlic cloves in half and put them in a small saucepan with the olive oil. Turn the heat under the pan to low and cook the garlic slowly until it just starts to get golden. Take the garlic out and let it and the oil cool separately (you can leave the oil in the pot to cool). After you add the rice to the soup, put the herbs, the lemon zest, and the cooled garlic on a big cutting board with a quarter-teaspoon of salt and some pepper. Using a large knife, chop everything together until it’s all minced. Stir the mixture into the cooled olive oil, then either top each bowl of soup with a little topping or put it in the bowl and pass it at the table.