When the cold weather sets in – we’ve been lucky in Italy since this happened only rather late in the calendar – all I want is to curl up with a bowl of soup and a glass of wine. Soup also factors into my new year resolutions of eating more vegetables and cooking healthier meals for the family.
Italians have long applauded the health merits of cavolo nero (kale) but the ingredient that is now the protagonist of a food craze has been used in Italian kitchens – Tuscan, to be precise – for centuries, providing sustenance, vitamins and a full stomach to farmers and other less fortunate hard workers.
The origins of Tuscan soup date back to the Middle Ages in the affluent areas around Siena and Florence when servants would scavenge the remains of their masters’ banquets for a meal. So foods like stale bread were broken into chunks and cooked in broth made with vegetable scraps. When lucky, there would be some beans and other legumes in the soup. In the case of a bigger banquet, one in which the leftovers included meat, pork rinds and bones, these got thrown into the pot too with festive elation downstairs in the pleb kitchens.
Zuppa di Magro is Ribollita’s lesser known cousin. That popular twice-cooked Tuscan vegetable soup Ribollita is made with pretty much the same ingredients as Zuppa di Magro (kale, beans and stale bread) plus a slew of other vegetables that need to be re-boiled the next day. Its description has filled volumes in the press and may have easily originated from the more frugal Zuppa di Magro, which roughly translates to “lean soup”. But don’t let the humble moniker fool you, this soup is a meal fit for kings!
There are of course many versions of this soup but the one I make is described by Pellegrino Artusi in his delightful 1891 book, “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene”. This version is easier to prepare than Ribollita and is hugely rewarding.
I won’t get fussy and say that one should pick only heads of cavolo nero that have survived at least two gelate, meaning it’s gone through multiple bouts of freezing weather. The reason for this is that frost pulls on the fibers of the cavolo nero making it softer and less coriaceous and leathery. Let’s just say, the colder the weather (below zero) the cavolo nero has had to stand, the better.
1-2 slices of stale bread (ideally Tuscan, which is unsalted) per guest
150 g (3/4 cup) cannellini beans
50 g (1/4 cup) olive oil
1 quart water
1/4 savoy cabbage, coarsely chopped
1 large head of cavolo nero, coarsely chopped
1 handful Swiss chard (stalks and leaves), coarsely chopped
1 small potato, cubed
2 tbsp pork belly, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves
1 tbsp onion, minced
1 celery rib, finely chopped
1 small bunch of Italian flat-leaf parsley, minced
Tomato concentrate, 1 squirt
If you’re using dried beans, soak them overnight.
Otherwise, if using fresh beans, start by placing them in the cold water with the pork belly, bringing to a boil and cooking for about 1 hour, adding hot water if necessary.
On a separate burner and in a large pan (Artusi suggests aluminum or copper) sauté the chopped garlic, onion, parsley and celery in the olive oil. When the onion is slightly golden add the greens in this order: cavolo nero, cabbage and Swiss chard, at 5-minute intervals. Lastly, add the cubed potato. Adjust seasoning and add a squirt of tomato concentrate and let the soup simmer on medium heat for 20 minutes. Should the mix appear too dry you can add a ladle or two of the beans’ cooking liquid.
Add the cooked beans and the pork bits to the veggie mix, as well as their cooking water, then cook while stirring for another 10-15 minutes.
Toast the slices of stale bread and rub them with a fresh clove of garlic, placing 1-2 slices (depending on size) into each bowl. When the soup is ready, ladle it over the toasted bread and finish with a thread of extra-virgin olive oil and a few turns of the pepper mill.
Artusi concludes his recipe with one more tip – È buona calda, e meglio diaccia – or, “It’s good eaten warm, even better eaten cold” (the next day).
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.