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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.
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.
- Rinse the beans in cold water and, if possible, soak overnight. Change the water the next day, place in a saucepan and bring to the boil and then drain the beans and start again with fresh water. If not soaking overnight, rinse the beans in cold water, cover with cold water and bring to the boil and then remove from the heat and leave in the water to cool for 45 minutes. Drain the beans and cover with fresh water.
- In either case, now bring the beans to a simmer and add the bay leaves, chilli and garlic cloves. Simmer the beans very gently, without salt, for a good two hours or until they are perfectly plump and tender. Leave to cool in their cooking water.
- Peel the onions and carrots and cut them into dice a little smaller than your little fingernail, say 5mm. Wash the celery and cut to the same size. Warm three tablespoons of olive oil in a big heavy casserole and add these chopped vegetables, letting them stew together for 10 minutes.
- Add the passata and herbs, the beans – setting aside the garlic and chilli – and their cooking liquor and bring back to the simmer. Squeeze the garlic flesh out of the cloves and smooth into a paste and add to the soup. Likewise, chop the chilli, minus its seeds and add in turn. Chop the cavolo nero into thin ribbons and add to the soup. Make sure the vegetables are all covered in water – but only just – and simmer gently for one hour.
- Add the ditalini and cook for a further half hour. Season the soup well with sea salt and some milled black pepper if required. The soup should be pretty thick: theoretically, you should be able to stand a spoon in it. Serve in bowls with a little fine olive oil poured on top and plenty of cheese alongside. I also like to serve bruschettas with the soup but it is by no means compulsory.
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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