Zuppa alla Frantoiana – Tuscan Recipe –

by Samuele Sodini

Although the weather was still warm and sunny here in the Garfagnana, I knew it was autumn from my sudden craving for a thick vegetable soup.
Since you might be feeling the same, here is the story of my soup. It isn’t a recipe, because it must be composed of a judicious selection of what is in season.
A good soup takes time. Plan to relax and indulge in some slow cooking.
What would you do with the time you save by opening a tin that can compare with the feel of getting your hands messy with real ingredients, the challenge of mastering the technique of chopping an onion, the smell at each stage of the cooking, the complex flavours of a well-wrought soup and the enjoyment of savouring it on your own or sharing it with family and friends? My soup begins at Cinzia’s stall in the Bagni di Lucca mercatino where I find new-season cabbages, verza and nero, and zucca and some end of season green beans, fresh borlotti beans and zucchini. Cinzia makes me a present of odori (carrot, celery and parsley) on which every soup is based.
From the shop in my village, which I try to patronise as much as possible, I buy some pancetta, a large onion, garlic and a lemon.
The potatoes and San Marzano tomatoes come from my vegetable patch, and from my fridge a piece of parmesan rind I’d been saving for this moment.
I use Marcella Hazan’s method of compiling a soup, adding ingredients one at a time and allowing them to sauté for 2 or 3 minutes before adding the next.
This develops the flavour of each ingredient and has the added advantage that you can prepare the next ingredient while the previous one is cooking.
But first I shell the borlotti beans and put them to boil with some sage leaves and a whole clove of garlic. They’ll be soft in about 30—minutes, which is just when I’ll need to add them to the soup. I pour enough extra virgin Lucca olive oil to more than cover the bottom of a capacious soup pot.
I never use the cheap industrial oils. After all, I’m not servicing a car; I want the oil to contribute the flavour of olives to the finished soup.
The finely chopped pancetta and thinly sliced onion go into the hot oil together over a medium flame and sauté until soft and lightly coloured and the odour wafting from the pot changes from pungent to sweet. I stir from time to time while preparing the next ingredients and adding them in the following order: chopped carrots, chopped celery, diced potato, diced zucca, diced zucchini, green beans cut in small pieces. With each new ingredient the aroma changes.
I pour boiling water over the tomatoes while shredding the cabbages and adding them. As the moisture comes out of the cabbage, the sound begins to change, less the sizzle of frying and more the hiss of steaming. I turn the flame to low and cover the pot while I skin the tomatoes, remove the seeds, chop them and add them.
My pile of chopped tomato is about the same size as the pile of chopped onion I put in earlier; to my taste tomato is a bully and makes all the other more subtle vegetable flavours cower in a corner.
After about 10 minutes, I add salt and pepper, the liquid from the borlotti beans and enough hot water to cover, toss in the parmesan rind (another Marcella trick), replace the lid and keep it at a very slow boil. I put half the beans through a food mill and add the puree to the pot, reserving the whole beans to add a little later.
After washing up it’s exactly the right time to add the whole beans and make a battuto by chopping finely the parsley, garlic and grated lemon rind, which I scrape into the soup along with a spoonful of tomato paste dissolved in a little water, correct the seasoning and leave it to simmer for another 15 or 20 minutes.
The story is coming to an end. I toast a slice of bread, put it in the bottom of a soup plate, ladle the soup on top and drizzle it with olive oil fresh from the frantoio. I eat the soup and am pleased with the plot.
It will be even better tomorrow after the flavours have had time to marry.

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