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The last week of winter sent us some nasty weather as a parting gift. It has been a peculiar winter hereabouts: many days’ temperature getting up into the 60s, followed by colder spells with lots of wind, then unseasonal warmth again. It had hardly snowed at all until a late nor’easter barreled toward us, threatening Manhattan with 15” or more of snow and wild blustery winds. It was definitely a day to stay home and make soup.

I remembered there were some soup recipes in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook that I’d been meaning to try for a long time, so I pulled my copy off the shelf and started looking through it. Aha: Celery Rice Soup – the very thing! Beloved Spouse is always eager for dishes involving cooked celery, and I had just bought a large fresh head of it.
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With that incentive, he was more than happy to chop all the vegetables for the soup. He began working on the four biggest stalks of celery, then moved on to a big onion and two potatoes, while I measured out ½ cup of white rice, grated ½ cup of parmigiano, and defrosted 6 cups of homemade broth and 2 tablespoons of minced parsley.
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The cooking process was simple. In a soup pot I briefly softened the onion in olive oil, stirred in the celery and potatoes to coat them with the oil, poured in the broth, and simmered everything for 20 minutes. Then I added the rice and some salt and pepper, simmered it for another 20 minutes, and stirred in the parsley. The rice had absorbed a lot of the liquid, making the soup look almost like a vegetable stew.

For lunch that day we ate big bowls of it, topped with grated parmigiano. It was a perfect consolation for a mean, snowy, sleety day: hearty, homey, and comforting, with a mild and delicate flavor of celery.
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A few cold, windy days later I turned to another recipe from the same book: Pugliese-style Zucchini-Potato Soup. Its ingredients are similar in type but even fewer in number than the previous one’s: potatoes, zucchini, and spaghetti, with condiments of garlic, olive oil, and grated parmigiano.
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The cooking too is even simpler: Bring salted water to a boil, add cut-up potatoes and a minced clove of garlic, cook 10 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Add cut-up zucchini and broken-up spaghetti; cook 10 more minutes, until the spaghetti is al dente. Stir in olive oil, black pepper, and grated cheese. Serve, passing more olive oil at the table.
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This minimal peasant soup was, once again, just what the weather needed. The final dressing of cheese and olive oil completed and enhanced its simple basic flavors. Beloved Spouse said it struck him as a grandmother’s soup. My only complaint was for the blandness of the out-of-season zucchini: They didn’t contribute all they should have to the mixture.

But the vernal equinox is past, Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilting toward the sun, the days are getting longer, and soon the growing season will be upon us. And if winter delivers any Parthian shots to us, I can retaliate with the rest of my two soups.
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I like the Italian tradition of eating lentils on the first day of the new year. It’s supposed to bring good luck – and as the world seems to be heading, luck is going to be in great demand in 2017. Moreover, because they look a little like coins, lentils also signify prosperity. We can hope for that too.

lentils

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Most often, the centerpiece of our New Year’s Day dinner is a cotechino sausage on a bed of lentils, a classic dish that I’ve written about before here. We like to use an imported, fully cooked cotechino from Levoni, which has great depth of flavor and a wonderfully gelatinous character. And when we can get them, we use Castelluccio lentils – a special, small, golden brown variety from Umbria.

This year I decided to unbundle the traditional combination, using the cotechino in a small bollito misto for two and the lentils in a soup. I found a soup recipe that I liked in Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking. It’s simple; it’s made with reliably flavorful ingredients, and there wasn’t a single one of them that I didn’t already have in pantry or refrigerator. Here they all are (half a recipe’s worth):

ingredients

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To begin, you lightly brown chopped onion in olive oil and butter; add chopped carrots, celery, and pancetta; and sauté those for a few minutes. Next, stir in chopped canned Italian-style tomatoes with their juices.

soup-base

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That mixture simmers, uncovered, for 25 minutes. Then you add the lentils, stirring them around a bit to coat with the soup base. Then salt, pepper, and broth – in our case, Beloved Spouse’s best homemade broth. About 45 more minutes’ cooking, covered, and the soup is done.

A dab of butter and some grated parmigiano garnish each bowl.

lentil-soup

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It was a simple, satisfying soup. The lentils, so tasty in their own right, were gently enriched by the flavors of the other ingredients. A very pleasant prelude to our little new year’s bollito.

bollito

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Incidentally, this post marks the beginning of my eighth year of writing this blog. I’ve very much enjoyed doing it, and I’ve learned a lot about food and cooking. I hope my readers will continue to find my culinary adventures and excursions interesting. Buon Capodanno e buon appetito!

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It’s high asparagus season here. My greenmarket is bristling with battalions of bright green spears. (Excuse the alliteration – I couldn’t resist it!)

asparagus collage lo rez

Most of the time I’m happy with asparagus prepared very simply, but all this abundance set me thinking of other things to do with them. One that quickly came to mind was my own recipe for Creamy Asparagus Soup Milanese Style, from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. This is the richest, most velvety version of asparagus soup that I’ve ever encountered. It’s quite a bit of work, compared to some, but definitely rewarding.

As usual making a half recipe’s worth, I started by cleaning and cutting up a pound of asparagus: snipping off and reserving the tips, trimming just a little from the bases, and cutting the stalks into 2-inch pieces.

preparing

I mixed 2 cups of milk with 2 cups of all-purpose broth and brought it to a simmer. In a larger pot, I stirred flour and butter together for 2 minutes, then gradually added the milk-broth mixture, stirring vigorously to produce a smooth cream. The asparagus stalk pieces went in next.

cooking

This soup base simmered away, uncovered, for an hour, being stirred every 10 minutes to prevent sticking. Meanwhile, I cooked the asparagus tips in boiling water for 5 minutes, until tender, and made a cup of lightly toasted croutons from my own sandwich bread.

Next I pureed the soup base through a food mill. This is a fairly tedious process, but it’s the best way I know to extract all the goodness from the asparagus while leaving behind all the fibers.

pureeing

The smooth soup went back into the pot to be brought back to a boil. Here I confess to a defect in my published recipe: At this point it should have said “taste for salt and add as needed,” but I somehow skipped that instruction. It definitely does need some salt.

Then came the payload: In a warm serving bowl, I whisked together 2 egg yolks, 2 tablespoons of softened butter, ¼ cup of heavy cream, and a tablespoon of grated parmigiano. I slowly poured in the soup, whisking constantly; floated the reserved asparagus tips on it (actually, most of them sank, so you can hardly see them in the picture); and served, passing the croutons at the table.

serving

This is an extraordinarily luscious soup. “Heavenly” would not be too strong a word. You really need the croutons for textural contrast. The egg yolk and cream enrichment is generally a French technique, and indeed there’s a lot of French influence in Milanese cooking – but the effect of using broth and parmigiano (you could probably increase the quantity slightly if you wished) makes this a dish that clearly comes from Italy.

Leftovers, if there are any, are very good cold, too.

 

 

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Millecosedde

The blizzard that engulfed the East Coast a few days ago provided the perfect occasion for me to make millecosedde. This Calabrian “soup of a thousand things” is a classic down-home, depth-of-winter dish, just the kind of comforting food you want when all you can see out your windows is madly swirling snow.

I had on hand all the ingredients called for in my recipe from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen – fortunately, since I had no intention of venturing out that day. Following my own headnote suggestion, I started by checking the odds and ends of dried beans in the pantry, aiming for color contrasts. The best candidates were Great Northern (white), Rio Zape (red pinto), and Casteluccio lentils (golden brown).

beans soaking

I’d put them on to soak the night before. (The lentils didn’t need it, but it didn’t hurt them.) In the morning I drained them and put them in a big pot with shredded Savoy cabbage; sliced carrots, celery, onions, and mushrooms; and Beloved Spouse’s best homemade broth. After they had simmered together for an hour and a half, I stirred in salt, pepper, and a healthy dose of olive oil, and cooked for another half hour.

soup cooking

The pot then sat on the back of the stove until dinner time approached. The beans had absorbed most of the liquid by then, so I had to add some water to loosen up the soup. Separately, I boiled a batch of ditalini pasta, added that to the soup pot too, and cooked it for five more minutes. Off heat, I stirred in another dose of olive oil – extravirgin, this time – let it sit for a final five minutes, and served, adding freshly ground pepper and grated pecorino cheese to each bowlful.

millecosedde

Wonderfully warming, hearty winter food. Let it snow! (And it sure did: more than two feet in Manhattan.)

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Three Roman Soups

???????????????????????????????As a title, “Soups Roman Style” doesn’t have quite the cachet of “Marriage Italian Style” and “Divorce Italian Style,” those two mordantly comic films of the ‘60s, but in fact the Roman style of cooking produces some very interesting soups. I’ve recently made three traditional ones from Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds, Oretta Zanini de Vita’s book of recipes and lore from Rome and Lazio.

All three soups draw an underlying flavor from similar base ingredients, starting with a battuto of pork fat, onion, celery, and parsley, chopped together.

battuto

In each case, after a scoop of battuto is rendered out in the bottom of the soup pot, a small amount of tomato ­– fresh, puree, or paste – is added and cooked briefly. The main liquid is vegetable broth or water. And each soup is finished with a generous dose of grated pecorino cheese, which Rome and points south use much more frequently than they do parmigiano. So much for the similarities: The other ingredients in each one made these soups quite different from one another.

 

Minestra di pasta e patate

Our household really likes a dish of pasta with potatoes. It’s a combination that Americans often think odd – starch and starch! – until they taste it. I’ve enjoyed versions from several regions in Italy and even published one of my own (in my dear departed mini e-cookbook Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce). This Roman version is another good one, and very easy to make.

I stirred quarter-inch cubes of russet potato into the battuto-tomato base, added broth and freshly ground pepper, and simmered until the potatoes were just tender. Then I stirred in a batch of mixed odd bits of soup pasta and continued cooking until they were done. Finally I stirred two tablespoons of grated pecorino right into the soup. Between the cheese and the rather salty broth (I had used vegetable bouillon cubes), no extra salt was needed.

pasta and potato soup

This was a hearty, sturdy soup. More so than any other pasta with potatoes recipe I’ve tried, it had something ineffably Italian about it. I guess that’s the effect of the battuto. Everything blended into a comforting single flavor, given palatal interest by the different textures of potatoes and pasta. We enjoyed it very much.

 

Minestra di quadrucci e piselli

In this recipe, fresh peas take the place of the preceding recipe’s potato; small squares of egg noodles are used instead of dry pasta; and the liquid is water, not broth. This being November, I had to use defrosted peas, but they worked quite well. Again, I’d stirred about two tablespoons of pecorino into the soup pot before serving.

peas and quadrucci soup

This was a much more delicate soup than the previous one, with the almost solo voice of the peas sustaining it. The pecorino wasn’t a strong presence in itself, but it nicely moderated the sweetness of the peas. It felt like a springtime soup – as of course it would have been, in Italy.

 

Minestra di riso e cicoria

Here the main ingredients are rice and chicory – curly endive. If that second recipe was a spring soup, this one is definitely fall or winter fare. There was no chicory in any of my local markets this week, but I was able to make it with its nearest relative in the endive family, escarole. The greens had to be boiled, drained, squeezed, and chopped before going into the soup pot for a few minutes’ sauteeing with the battuto and tomato. Then I stirred in the rice and broth and simmered until the rice was tender. This time, the grated pecorino wasn’t to be stirred into the soup as it finished cooking but rather sprinkled on the individual bowls.

scarole and rice soup

This was a pleasant, mildly flavored soup (escarole being less bitter than chicory), but at the same time comforting and filling – good, hearty, chilly-weather food. The rice took up all the broth so quickly that I had to add quite a bit of water to keep the mixture from almost solidifying. I don’t know whether that might have been because I had on hand only American long-grain rice, not the short-grain riso comune, which Italy prefers for soup.

 

Final Thoughts

I also had to reduce the proportions of all the solid ingredients in all three recipes. An Italian minestra can be made to various degrees of thickness, from a truly soupy substance to what is almost a moistly sauced bowl of pasta or risotto. These recipes were heavily weighted toward the vegetables, pasta, rice, and pecorino. I was making half quantities of recipes indicated as serving four persons, and even with those reductions, my soups easily fed the two of us twice. It did make me wonder if the English translator, who claims to have made adjustments for an American readership, had ever actually made these dishes herself.

I may be becoming a crank on this subject, but too many recipes published today seem not to have had either proper editing or proper testing, making them recipes for failure. In the long run, that may make a lot of beginning cooks give up on the task of preparing their own food – and that’s a small but sad crime against humanity.

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Cockaleekie

Cooking chicken and leeks together in a dish makes both taste better than they do on their own. Evidently, it’s a real synergy: The combination creates umami, that mysterious fifth taste discernable to human palates. The chemistry of it seems complicated (ribonucleotides and glutamates) but the effect is simply to make certain ingredient pairings produce unexpected flavor.

T-L BritishThat was definitely the case with the Cockaleekie I made this week. The recipe I used – from the Cooking of the British Isles volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series – is just about the barest version there is of this old Scots soup. Just six components: chicken, leeks, barley, salt, parsley, and water.

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ingredients

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The full recipe (I was making half) called for a stewing fowl. What I had were very large chicken legs from my favorite poultry farm out on Long Island, and I knew such well-grown birds would yield plenty of developed flavor. I dropped the legs into a pot of cold water, brought it to a boil, and skimmed briefly; added the cut-up leeks, barley, and salt; and simmered until the chicken legs were almost ready to fall apart – about an hour and a half. On the face of it, this seemed to be the essence of all the old jokes about British cooking: Whatever it is, boil it to death. I took the legs out, let them cool somewhat, skinned and boned them, and cut the meat into shreds.

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Then all there was left to do was return the meat to the soup pot, heat everything through, and sprinkle on the parsley.

cockaleekie

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I had worried more than a little that the soup might be too austere – as pale in flavor as in appearance. Some cockaleekie recipes buttress the broth with additional ingredients: celery, carrots, butter, thyme, bay leaf, chicken bouillon. A very traditional variation even includes prunes. But I meant this to be a test of the basic recipe, and to my delight this pure, minimal version passed with flying colors. It was subtly rich, warm and welcoming; the quintessence of chicken and leek. I’m not a food chemist, but I guess I achieved umami.

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Not-very Mexican Corn Soup

The new recipe I tried this week was irritatingly ill-written. With certain substantial changes, I felt it made a decent dish, though Beloved Spouse didn’t agree. But it might have been a complete washout.

My making it was occasioned by having a few extra ears of fresh corn in the refrigerator. I’m very fond of corn soup as it’s usually done in Mexican cuisine – with rajas of poblano peppers, sour cream, and queso fresco – but this day I wanted a version that would use ingredients I already had on hand. That included not just the corn, but the near-last of the season’s tasty small heirloom tomatoes.
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tomatoes

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Searching on the Web, I was attracted to a recipe for Mexican Corn Soup, credited to the TV food network. Now, I don’t watch the food channel, so I’m not familiar with the quality of its recipes. On a casual reading, the recipe looked reasonable, so I copied it out and gave it a try.

Here’s the first problem I encountered. The ingredient list included 2 cups of chicken broth. The first paragraph of the instructions called for using 2 cups of broth. The third paragraph called for the “remaining” 2 cups of broth. 2 + 2 = 2? Well, I said to myself: just a typo. It must have meant 4 cups of broth.

The recipe also wanted me to scrape the kernels off raw ears of corn, using a small knife or spoon. I think doing it that way is absurd: It mashes the kernels into a squirty mess. My serrated bread knife cut them off easily and neatly. While the recipe expected a yield of 3 cups of kernels from 4 ears, my 3 large ears made 4 cups. No big problem there: I’d just up all the other quantities a little. (I did, but to keep this description simple I’ll write as if for the recipe’s quantities.)
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corn

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Then I was to put half the kernels in a blender, with 2 roughly chopped tomatoes, the first 2 cups of broth, and some oregano (not specified as the Mexican type, which is very different from Italian; I assumed Mexican oregano would be preferable, and so used that) and puree it all until smooth. Two problems there: (1) No normal-sized household blender will hold that amount of fluid food without spewing it all over the kitchen. Even my big food processor had to do it in batches. (2) 2 cups of corn, 2 chopped tomatoes, and 2 cups of broth don’t make a puree; they make a liquid.

My faith in this recipe was rapidly waning.

The next step was to cook 4 slices of thick-cut bacon “in a large saucepan, turning once, until brown and crisp, about 10 minutes.” I dutifully used a saucepan, though a skillet would have done it much more handily, and turning the bacon only once in all that time is just silly. When the bacon strips were done, I set them to drain on paper towels and softened chopped onion and garlic in the remaining bacon fat in the saucepan. Nothing wrong with that step, at least, though it took a lot of stirring to get the bacon residue off the bottom of the pan. Dicing the bacon before crisping would have been smarter, easier, and better for the subsequent soup.

Moving right along, the next direction called for adding the alleged corn-tomato puree to the saucepan, along with the problematic second 2 cups of broth. That much additional liquid would have thinned out the soup drastically, so I used no more broth. Then I had to bring the soup to a boil, stir in the remaining corn kernels, and simmer, stirring occasionally, “until thickened, about 20 minutes.” I was also to “remove any foam as it develops with a large flat metal spoon.”
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foam

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Foam did certainly develop, as can be seen above, but I didn’t skim it off because it was the kind that I knew would melt back into the soup during the cooking. It did. And the soup actually thickened in the specified time, which, given the recipe’s track record so far, surprised me.

Finally, I was to stir in salt, pepper, chopped parsley, and an optional ½ cup of heavy cream. I did add the pepper and parsley; held off on the salt because there’d be a garnish of salty cheese, as well as saltiness from the bacon; and skipped the cream. Since a taste had told me the soup was extremely sweet from the corn, more cream sweetness struck me as exactly the wrong sort of addition.

At serving time, an optional garnish was queso fresco, to be crumbled into the soup bowls along with the bacon. The Mexican cheese I had on hand was cotija, a stronger, dryer, saltier cheese, somewhat resembling ricotta salata, and like it an ideal texture for crumbling. I thought it would be an important counterpoint to the corn’s sweetness, and so it was.
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soup

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It was a strange-tasting soup. Didn’t seem very Mexican. There was a hint of something like cumin in the flavor, and I couldn’t think what was causing it. My broth was a homemade mélange of poultry, meat, bones, and vegetable trimmings, not pure chicken broth – but it had never made enough difference in other recipes to account for the oddity here. Beloved Spouse doused his portion with Cholula hot sauce to cut the extreme corn sweetness; I just heaped more crumbled cotija on mine.

I can say I mildly liked the dish, but I’m sure I’d have hated it if I’d blindly followed the recipe.

As for that fundamental 2 + 2 = 2 problem, I think the error was to put any broth in the blender at all. The only 2 cups should go into the saucepan at the end. Not that I think that would have altered the final flavor of the soup: Sweetness that intense comes from modern super-sweet corn, and there is nothing we can do about it.

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