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February 21, 2014 8:12 pm
It used to puzzle me what the Italians did with their vegetables. Most Italian towns boast markets with a magnificent array of them. Since the growing season extends to 10 months of the year, Italians are always well served. Yet, in restaurants, vegetables are conspicuous only by their absence.
One reason for this is that they don’t think it is their business to give you vegetables. These are for the home. The business of restaurants is to give you antipasti, primi and then a good chunk of protein. “Meat and two veg” is an alien concept, although countless Italian restaurateurs in Britain have submitted to that undying British demand.
Yet Italians eat an awful lot of vegetables. I suspect that in all but the wealthiest households, protein is an occasional pleasure rather than a daily expectation. Some vegetables – artichokes or chicory, perhaps, fried courgettes or broad beans – are eaten as a course in their own right but, more often, they will be cooked with pasta or in a soup, both of which will constitute a good lunch.
In north and central Italy, soup is everywhere. It might be ribollita or minestrone or simply zuppa di fagioli. If the minestra here is the late winter, basic model, different vegetables will slowly be added to it throughout the year, with peas and beans often replacing the dried beans, followed by fresh borlotti or cannellini beans in the late summer and courgettes, fresh tomatoes and squashes all finding their place in due course.
There is a stage in the making of such a soup when it all comes together and becomes much more than the sum of its parts. I think that this “greater whole” is inhibited by the use of stock, as it tends to cloud the bright fresh flavour of the vegetables. It is an act of faith to trust vegetables but it is one that is amply rewarded.
|200g||dried borlotti beans|
|6||fat cloves garlic|
|1||head cavolo nero|
|100g||ditalini or similar soup pasta|
|50g||parmesan, finely grated|
|40ml-50ml||best olive oil|
Adding diced pancetta to the soffrito at the beginning certainly gives an added dimension to the enterprise but it is optional. It is not really worth making a smaller amount: it will improve over two or three days. Serves eight.
Rowley’s drinking choice
It is said that no wine, barring sherry, should accompany soup. But this is almost a thick stew and I can think of no wine that will not sit happily alongside it. Let’s plump for a chianti, not too intense, two or three years old.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
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