In these quiet days after Christmas and New Year, after the excitement of the holidays has subdued, after the feasts and the family, the chatter and the clinking of chalices, I revert to soup – my safe harbour, my antidote against excess. Soup seems like a good metaphor for these first days of 2017: unshouty, unshowy, soothing. The same could be said for my kitchen windows, which, like my thoughts, have often been fogged, steamy, and heavy with condensation. Perhaps because of this, soup is all I want to eat. And, consequently, it’s all I want to talk about. So there, let’s talk about it.
‘There should be soup all the time, but especially in the winter.’
So writes the wonderful Molly O’Neill in one of her most touching pieces of prose. It’s almost as if she was spying on me; as if she’d drawn a circle on that fogged up window to peek inside my kitchen, and inside my head. Because, you see, I happen to be of Molly’s advice. In January, especially in January, when days are still so dreadfully short, soup should be set on the table often, if not daily, to soothe and comfort. It should preferably be very hot, with vapours coming up in swirls, steaming your face, unplugging your nose and fizzing up your hair. It should, therefore, demand patience. Yes, patience is key: it makes the first spoonful all the more enjoyable.
We make and enjoy plenty of humble soups in our home. Soups like this one. With legumes and greens, sometimes with grains, sometimes tomato-based, others broth-based, almost never cream-based. The best part about it has to be the fact you can throw in whatever greens the market has to offer – or whatever legumes you have in your pantry – and it will turn out to be a very good soup. This one is just a pretty successful version.
The vegetable component is a leaf called minestra nera, a green belonging to the brassica family, in the same way turnip tops do, and originally from Campania, but kale, cavolo nero, spinach or even chard would go well in its place. Dry chickpeas work better here than canned, as the latter would somehow compromise the texture of the soup, which is much more enjoyable when al dente. Finally, some pasta or couscous or other grains make a welcome but optional addition while thickening the broth at the same time. Copious amounts of grated Pecorino cheese will make this out of this world, and a spiral of good olive oil to finish is like cherry on cake. Have lots of bread handy, for you’ll need it.
we are back from a short trip to Italy to visit my family. Spending some time in the garden with my grandmother, looking at her beautiful tomatoes, made me think of these memories related, you guessed it, to tomatoes. Possibly the strongest flavour and connection I have to where I am from, and to the most beautiful time of the year there: summer.
On our first year in London, we tried to grow tomatoes. We had just moved from Italy in early March, and settled into our one bedroom apartment with no balcony or yard but lots of natural light and a big table by April. Short after our move, Jesse declared one night at dinner that no, we didn’t have to give up our dream of a vegetable patch, and that yes, we could make it work just as well indoor. There was certainly no lack of light for photosynthesis! He then bought some heirloom seeds from a company in the US, vases at the local hardware store, and he treated our seeds to organic dirt and compost. We placed some of the vases with dirt and seeds by the window sill, and some on the portion of the table we didn’t use for our meals and served as a desk. It was sacrificed in the name of tomatoes.
Unsurprisingly, most of my family tales have food at their core. No matter if it’s about my dad’s tribulations as a high school student, with only enough lire in his pocket to buy a dramatically small bread roll and three slices of salami for lunch. Or about grandma going to the communal mill/oven to make bread, on a bike loaded with branches and bags of flour; or about grandpa, who spent years as a captive in Germany during World War II, and had been dreaming of polenta e baccalà for months even after he made it home. Food permeates all our personal stories and intersects with our collective memories.
From all these stories, though, one truth emerges clear and sharp: the women in my family were and are some really good cooks, able to put on the table meals for dozens after spending long days in the fields, and taking care of the house. Strong women who could prepare nutritious, filling, if only a tad repetitive food out of humble ingredients. Women whom, in part, I didn’t get to meet, and whose cooking I heard so many times about but sadly didn’t get to experience.
I bought a lovely butternut squash at the market the other week and decided to make a hearty lunch with it – a warming butternut and chestnut soup, and a lentil and rice salad.