Three Soups for Summer
Plus easy homemade vegetable broth
It’s soup season!
You read that right, and I am not crazy. A lot of people put away their soup pots as soon as the first bead of summer sweat forms on their brow, but I am not one of them. I could no sooner stop making soup in summer than I could stop breathing. And I’m not just talking about cold soup like gazpacho or vichyssoise (although those are two good summer soups). I simply can’t imagine seeing all the produce that is just now starting to hit the farmers’ market—English peas, young zucchini, chard, eggplant, tomatoes, beans, all the bright herbs—and not wanting to turn them into soup.
Soup was the first solid food I ate as an infant, in the form of tiny pastina stars cooked in chicken broth, and it could very well be the last thing I eat, if I hang around long enough. It was the subject of my first cookbook, published back in 2006, which was organized seasonally and included an entire chapter on summer soups (and stews).
I would like to note that when I use the word “soup” I am speaking broadly. Italians have many words for “soup,” similar to the way the Inuits and other indigenous peoples have dozens of words to describe snow. Among them: acquacotta, brodo, brodetto, crema, minestra, minestrina, minestrone, vellutata, pappa, zuppa, and zuppetta. Generally speaking, these names refer to the texture or qualities of the soup. If it’s a brothy soup it might be a brodo or brodetto, or possibly minestra or minestrina. If it’s a creamy or puréed soup, it’s a crema or a vellutata. If it’s a heartier, stew-like soup, it’s likely to be referred to as a zuppa, although zuppa can also refer to a fish stew, or, as in the case of zuppa Inglese, a dessert. There are regional name differences, too. It’s complicated.
But it doesn’t have to be. All you need to know is that there are lots of soups in Italy, from the lightest, most delicate broths to hearty porridges dense enough to stand a spoon in. And some of these soups, whether thin or thick, hot, tepid or cold, are meant to be enjoyed in summer.
Tips for Making Great Summer Soups
1. Make homemade vegetable broth. While meat- and poultry-based broths require hours of cooking, vegetable broth can be made in under an hour. It’s a good way to use trimmings such as fennel stalks and leafy celery tops, and it makes soup taste richer.
2. Use aromatics liberally. I look to boost the flavor of my summer soups at every step of the cooking process. In addition to the “holy trinity” of Italian aromatics—carrots, celery and onion—I often add garlic and parsley, and even some diced pancetta to start things off. I might also add hardy herbs, such as minced rosemary, sage, or thyme. I keep a bag of Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds in my freezer and toss one in the pot when I add broth. It turns deliciously gooey as it gives up its rich flavor to the soup. Save tender herbs such as basil and mint for the end of cooking; if you add them too early in the cooking process they will turn muddy, both in color and in flavor. But stirred in at the end, they lift up the soup with their bright color and fresh flavor.
3. Give your soup time to cook. Vegetables especially need time to cook properly to release their full flavor. With few exceptions (there are always exceptions), they should be cooked until tender, mellow in taste and muted in color—sort of the opposite of gazpacho (unless you’re making gazpacho!). Letting soup rest briefly after cooking allows the flavors to come together.
4. Add body to your soup. Pasta, grains and other starches contribute substance and sustenance to rustic summer soups. I often add cooked chickpeas or cannellini beans, or a diced potato. You can leave them intact, or you can mash them up a bit to thicken your soup. I keep a couple of packages of soup pasta in my pantry, such as tubetti and medium-size shells, to add to minestrone, and I save chunks of bread, which I add to pancotto (see recipe below) and to ribollita-style vegetable and bean soups. A beaten egg or two, poured into hot soup (stracciatella-style) is another good thickener. When I want something a little lighter, I thicken soup with a couple of handfuls of Arborio or other short-grain rice, or with farro. I love its nutty flavor and slightly chewy texture.
5. Finish your summer soup with with a generous drizzle of really good, grassy and peppery extra-virgin olive oil. It’s a little touch of magic that brings together all the wonderful flavors of the soup.
6. Let the season guide you. Right now, my farmers’ market has beautiful white and red spring onions, which are perfect for gentle-flavored soups. The first green beans and wax beans have started to appear, along with early cherry tomatoes and all sorts of herbs. There’s a cream of roasted red pepper soup in The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy, but I’ll be waiting until August and September, when bell peppers are at their heaviest and sweetest, to make that.
RECIPE: Brodo di Magro (Vegetable Broth)
Homemade broth always improves the flavor of soup. This is my basic recipe, which I adapt depending on the season (pea pods in spring, mushrooms in fall). When I really want to boost the flavor, I roast the vegetables before simmering then with water. But for a light, fresh, summery broth it’s not necessary. (Recipe adapted from The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy.)
Makes about 1 1/2 quarts (6 cups)
2 large or 4 to 6 small carrots, trimmed and cut into pieces (peeling is optional)
2 ribs celery, cut into pieces; plus some leaves
1 large yellow onion, quartered; 2 quarters each stuck with a whole clove (the clove is optional)
1 leek or spring onion, white and green parts, well washed to remove any sand, trimmed and cut into pieces
2 to 4 stalks and feather leaves of fennel (save the bulb for salad or another use)
12 ripe cherry tomatoes, or 2 smallish ripe tomatoes, or 1/2 cup chopped canned tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
Handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley sprigs, including stems
2 sprigs fresh marjoram
A small handful of thyme sprigs
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
8 cups spring water or filtered tap water
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (120 ml) dry white wine
Coarse or fine sea salt
1. Place all the vegetables, herbs, and spices except the salt in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot. Pour in the water and drizzle in the olive oil. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; lower the heat to medium-low and simmer gently for 45 minutes, until the broth has taken on the flavor of the vegetables. Pour in the wine and season with salt. Start with 2 teaspoons and add more if needed. Let the broth simmer another 15 minutes; it’s done when it has reduced slightly and has a full flavor. Taste and add more salt if needed.
2. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve lined with damp cheesecloth into a clean container. Discard the solids. Let the broth cool to room temperature; then cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for longer keeping.
RECIPE: Minestra di Pasta e Piselli
Right now, at this very moment, there are fresh English peas at your local farmers’ market just waiting to be shelled and turned into this soup. Or frozen peas at your local supermarket. Either works nicely in this recipe. If you are using fresh peas, remember that they are perishable and turn starchy quickly, so shuck and cook them the same day you buy them (or pick them if you happen to be a gardener).
This soup is seasoned with fresh marjoram, an underappreciated herb, in my opinion, except by the Ligurians, who use it liberally. It has a lovely floral perfume that is a good match for sweet peas. (Recipe from The Glorious Pasta of Italy.)
Makes 4 servings
1 1/2 pounds English peas in the pod; or 1 1/2 cups (210 g) shelled fresh peas or frozen peas
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil; plus best-quality olive oil for drizzling
2 spring onions or 1 small white onion, finely chopped
2 ounces (57 g) pancetta, cut into small dice
1/2 to 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh marjoram
Freshly ground black pepper
6 to 7 cups (1.4 L to 1.7 L) homemade vegetable broth (or best-quality commercial)
1 small piece Parmigiano-Reggiano rind, plus 1/2 cup (40 g) or more freshly grated cheese for serving
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups (170 to 215 g) tubetti, ditalini, conchigliette (small shells) or other small pasta shape
Fine sea salt
1. If using freshly shelled peas, blanch them first. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Drop in the peas and cook for 60 to 90 seconds. Drain and transfer the peas to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Let them sit for a few minutes, then drain thoroughly and transfer them to a bowl. If using frozen peas, remove them from the freezer to thaw.
2. Warm the olive oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Stir in the pancetta and cook, stirring from time to time, until the pancetta is just beginning to brown and has rendered some fat, about 10 minutes. Stir in the onion and cook 5 to 7 minutes, until beginning to soften. Sprinkle in the marjoram and season with black pepper. Cook another 5 minutes or so, until the onion is translucent and the pancetta has crisped up a bit but is still mostly tender.
3. Pour in 6 cups broth and raise the heat to medium-high. Toss in the parmigiano rind and bring the broth to a boil. Stir in the pasta, using 1 1/2 cups (170 g) for a soupier soup and 1 3/4 cups (215 g) for a thicker soup. Cook the pasta until it’s nearly al dente, then stir in the peas. Cook until the pasta is done and the peas are heated through. Add an additional splash of broth or water to loosen the soup if needed.
4. Remove from the heat and stir in 1/2 cup (40 g) grated Parmigiano cheese. Taste and add salt and additional pepper, if you like. Ladle the soup into bowls and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Serve immediately, with extra cheese on the side.
RECIPE: Pancotto di Zia Gilda
My mom’s oldest sister, Gilda, never thought of herself as a talented cook but the rest of us knew better. This wholesome soup of bread, zucchini, eggs, and cheese was among her specialties, and I always make it when the first young summer squashes appear at the farmers’ market. You can serve it piping hot, but I love it best just warm. (Recipe from The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy.)
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus best-quality olive oil for drizzling
1 small yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 pound (454 g) young zucchini, sliced into thin coins
4 cups (1 L) homemade vegetable broth (or best-quality commercial)
3 cups (5 oz/150 g) 1- to 3-day-old bread (it should be dry), in large pieces (if it’s not hard, toast it in a low oven until dried out)
2 large eggs
1 cup (80 g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
8 to 10 fresh basil leaves
1. Film the bottom of a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot with the olive oil. Stir in the onion and cook on medium-low heat for 7 to 8 minutes, until soft and translucent.
2. Pound the garlic and salt with a mortar and pestle. Or finely chop the garlic on a cutting board; sprinkle on the salt and chop it in with the knife to make a pasty mixture of garlic and salt. Add this to the pot and stir well. Cook for about 1 minute, until the garlic releases its fragrance. Stir in the zucchini and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until the zucchini slices are tender but still hold their shape.
3. Pour in the broth and raise the heat to medium-high. Bring the soup to a boil and add the bread. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook gently, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes, until the bread has broken apart and thickened the broth.
4. Break the eggs into a bowl and beat in the cheese. Pour the mixtre in a stream into the soup and stir so that the eggs form raggedy strands. Simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from the heat.
5. Tear the basil leaves and stir them into the soup. Let it rest briefly, then ladle into bowls and finish with a drizzle of your best olive oil.
RECIPE: Broken Pasta Soup with Chickpeas and Tomatoes
This is the lightest of the three soups, a real treat on a warm summer night. The recipe is adapted from the one in my friend Rolando’s book, Autentico: Cooking Italian, the Authenic Way. Because it’s a brothy soup, the flavor of the broth is really important, so take the time to make it homemade. It’s also worth soaking and cooking your own chickpeas, if you can, as they will be firmer and taste better.
Makes 4 servings
1 cup (200 g) dried chickpeas
6 cups (1-1/2 L) homemade broth
8 ounces (227 g) packaged spaghetti or linguine
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
8 fresh basil leaves
Best-quality robust extra-virgin olive oil
1. Place the chickpeas in a bowl and cover with 3 inches of spring or filtered water. Let soak overnight at room temperature.
2. Drain the chickpeas and place them in a large saucepan. Add enough water to cover them by 3 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until tender, 45 to 90 minutes. Drain and measure out 1 1/2 cups. Reserve the rest for another use (like hummus or salad).
3. Bring 3 cups of broth to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Break the pasta into 1-inch lengths and stir them into the broth. Cook, according to package instructions, until al dente.
4. Drain the pasta through a fine-mesh sieve, reserving the broth, and set aside. Return the broth to the saucepan and add the remaining 3 cups. Stir in the chickpeas and heat over medium heat until the chickpeas are warmed through.
5. Divide the pasta among four soup bowls. Ladle the hot broth on top, dividing the chickpeas evenly among the bowls. Sprinkle with the cherry tomatoes. Tear the basil leaves and scatter on top. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and serve.
What I’m consuming (besides food)
Disc golf has been growing in popularity. But in Novara di Sicilia they have something even better: Cheese golf!
I was fascinated by this New Yorker dive into Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (in anticipation of at least two and possibly three new cinema versions in the works).
An Italian-Scotsman bought the entire (tiny) rural village between Rome and Naples that his ancestors hailed from, and has been restoring it, with plans to turn it into a cultural and agricultural destination.
What are you consuming these days? Food, books, movies, podcasts, etc…
PICTURE ITALY: Abruzzo, May 2022
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