Eat soup

Food: Taking stock of the Italians

I am not sure at what point a soup becomes a stew - the dividing line is so fine it seems that just a few drops of liquid will send it scuttling in one direction or the other.

The Italians have a range of dishes that go by the name of soup but walk a tightrope in-between: minestra in brodo - steaming pots of broth and vegetables with pasta and beans that have the same capacity to inwardly nurture as a creamy mound of risotto or a plate of pasta.

They are what my mother-in-law would call soupy stews: the great family standby that has survived the centuries. With a cheeseboard, some warm crusty bread and a green salad in attendance, it's about as homely as it gets in early January.

Minestrone, that grand ancestral vegetable hot-pot, putters away on the stove for two to three hours and is thick enough for a spoon to stand upright. There is no stock involved, just water that turns into a nice vegetable broth as it progresses. I like my minestrone with pesto stirred into it at the end, and plenty of freshly grated Parmesan and olive oil.

The golden rule for minestrone, and all soups for that matter, is that if the vegetables aren't good enough to eat as they are, then they're not good enough for the pot.

Bread is so much at home in a broth that in south-west France, la soup is patois for bread. If added at the end, and left just long enough to soak up some of the liquor, it has the same appeal as dumplings. But the bread needs to be stale to hold its own. So, for once, those capricious loaves of ciabatta that fade and die so instantly come in handy.

Pappa a1 pomodoro is the delicious pink, pappy tomato soup made with bread that is so good in summer. But winter vegetables lend themselves to the same idea. The texture of leeks in such a soup is sublime, beefed up with porcini.

The River Cafe are past masters at this kind of fare; their ribollita is a particular triumph. Essential to its authenticity is covolo nero, a spindly dark green cabbage with puckered leaves like seersucker. I have traced this to a specialist greengrocer, but it's not easy to come by and you may have to settle for Swiss chard, or the dark green outer leaves of Savoy cabbage or kale.

It is the River Cafe's slipped-hand approach with the olive oil that makes the soup so luxurious. The new season's oils, harvested last autumn and just filtering into the shops, range from intensely peppery and spicy, to more sedate. A small oil slick on top of your minestra is one of the best uses for them.

Pearl barley disappeared from my life for a long period, but I have rediscovered it in thick barley and vegetable soups. The liquor takes on a comforting viscosity enriched with the necessary olive-green slick of oil. Left overnight, however, and it definitely crosses the boundary into stew.

Leek porcini and bread soup, serves 4-6

This is the quickest of the soups

15g/ 1/2 oz dried porcini or other dried wild mushroom

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 sticks celery, sliced

900g/ 2lb leeks, trimmed weight, sliced

6 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

275ml/ 1/2 pint white wine

1.4 - 1.75litres/ 21/2 - 3 pints vegetable stock

5 sprigs thyme

sea salt, black pepper

Three-quarters of a loaf of semi-stale, open-textured bread such as ciabatta, crust removed, torn into pieces

3 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

To serve: extra virgin olive oil, freshly grated Parmesan

Cover the porcini with boiling water and soak for 15 minutes. Remove and slice them, and reserve liquor. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and sweat the celery, leeks and garlic for 10 minutes.

Add the wine and reduce it by two-thirds, then add the vegetable stock and the mushroom liquor, discarding the last little gritty bit, the mushrooms and thyme. Season with salt and some black pepper, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Remove thyme, add bread and parsley and stir.. Add some remaining stock to achieve soup-like consistency. Adjust seasoning, drizzle a little olive oil over each bowl and serve with the Parmesan.

Barley and vegetable soup, serves 4-6

I'd go for thick slices of toasted French bread with this, moistened with olive oil.

275g/10 oz tomatoes

450g/1lb butternut squash

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 celery heart, sliced

1/2 tsp finely chopped red chilli

175g/6 oz barley soaked for 2 hours and drained

2 litres/31/2 pints vegetable stock

1 bay leaf,

1 sprig thyme

400g/14 oz new potatoes, peeled and cut into 2.5 cm/1" pieces

sea salt, black pepper

5 tbsp coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

To serve: extra virgin olive oil

Skin the tomatoes by plunging them into a pan of boiling water for 20 seconds, and then into a sink of cold water, slip off the skins and chop them, discarding the core. Cut the skin off the butternut squash, remove seeds and slice the flesh.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and sweat the onion, celery and chilli for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes, the squash and the barley and stir.

Add the stock, the herbs and potatoes, 2 teaspoons of salt and some black pepper. Bring to a simmer and skim off any foam, then cook over a low heat for an hour. Stir in the parsley, adjust seasoning and serve each bowl with more olive oil drizzled over.

River Cafe's Ribollita, serves 4-6

To cook the canellini beans, soak 75g/3 oz dried beans in a generous amount of water overnight with half a tablespoon bicarbonate of soda. Drain the beans and place in a saucepan, cover with fresh cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, then drain again. Pour in enough cold water to cover by about 5cm/2", then add 1 small tomato, half a bulb of garlic, unpeeled, and a few sage leaves. Return to the boil, cover and simmer for about an hour until tender, skimming occasionally. Reserve in cooking water.

150g/5 oz cannellini or borlotti beans, cooked

1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

1 whole head celery, chopped

225g/8 oz carrots, peeled and chopped

2 medium red onions, peeled and chopped

2 tbsp olive oil

1 x 400g tin peeled plum tomatoes, drained of their juices

550g/1 1/4 lb cavolo nero, stalks removed, leaves coarsely chopped

1 loaf of stale ciabatta bread, crusts removed, sliced or torn

sea salt, black pepper, extra virgin olive oil

Fry the parsley leaves, garlic, celery, carrot and onion in a large saucepan for about 30 minutes until the flavours combine. Add the tomatoes and continue to cook on a gentle heat for a further 30 minutes, then add the cavolo nero and half the beans with enough of their liquid to cover. Simmer for 30 minutes.

Puree the remaining beans in a food processor and return to the soup with just enough boiling water to make the soup liquid. Add the bread, a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. As exact amounts are not possible, you must balance the amount of liquid to bread so that the soup is very thick.

Minestrone, serves 4-6

2 carrots

1 potato

110g/4oz celeriac, weight excluding skin

1 small aubergine

225g/8 oz courgette

110g/4 oz green beans

1 stick celery

2 leeks

110g/4oz peas

1 beefsteak tomato, skinned, seeded and chopped

2.3 litres/4 pints water

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled

sea salt

110g/4oz macaroni

25g/1oz vermicelli, broken into 2.5 cm/l" lengths

175g/6 oz young spinach leaves

To serve: extra virgin olive oil, freshly grated Parmesan

Pesto:

25g/1oz basil leaves

25g/1oz flat-leaf parsley

2 garlic cloves

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Peel the carrots and potato and cut into neat 1 cm/half-inch cubes. Also cube the celeriac, aubergine and courgette. Trim the beans and cut into 2.5 cm/one inch lengths, and trim and slice the celery and leeks. Place these vegetables with the peas and tomato in a large saucepan along with the water, olive oil and garlic cloves, sliced. Add some salt and simmer the soup, uncovered, for at least 2 hours.

To prepare the pesto, finely chop the herbs and garlic together. Put them in a pestle and mortar with the olive oil and crush, as far as possible, to a paste.

Some 20 minutes before the minestrone is to be served, add the pasta and the spinach leaves. Stop cooking the soup while the macaroni is still firm to the bite. Stir in the pesto and allow to stand for a few minutes. Adjust the seasoning.

Serve the minestrone with a generous addition of olive oil to each serving, and accompany it with a bowl of Parmesan

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