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.
I could spend hours typing up the reasons why I love soup, though perhaps the most important is that it makes me feel empowered as a cook. I like to think that, whenever I set off to make a pot of soup, I hardly require a recipe. Rather, I rely on a small repertoire of minestre and zuppe that I can make confidently, swiftly, and with few mental energies, while also avoiding to fall into the well-known trap of la solita minestra (an Italian saying that means ‘the same old soup’ and that can be used literally or figuratively). Some attempts are more successful than others, no doubt. But after much trial and error and dedication to the craft, one eventually gets the gist of it.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt in my dedicated soup making experience is that soup shouldn’t be taken too lightly: it’s all a balancing game. The concept is, again, eloquently expressed by O’Neill:
‘though it’s pretty easy to make, soup can also be as risky as a road trip in a blizzard. Concocted in a blast of excitement, soup can be great or blah or revolting. It’s always a mystery.’
It is, as always, about following a paradigm, and practising it until you can recite the steps by heart: the rest will follow. Begin by finding your foundations: good stock and a solid base (often, a soffritto gently sweating in oil or butter). Then, decide on the combination of flavours: they should be complementary, supportive with each other, willing to blend in. (Soup is a choral affair where soloists are rarely needed.) And finally, embrace slowness: simmer rather than scorch, and let your soup rest and settle for a few hour before you sit down and eat. Patience will again be greatly rewarded.
In the realm of wonderful flavour combinations sits this rib-sticking soup, a recent discovery of mine, and a constant presence on my table ever since. (It has unsurprisingly become la solita minestra, and I’m grateful for it.) I was casually flipping through my battered copy of The Flavour Thesaurus one day, looking for something to do with the butternut squash I picked up at the market. At one point, this recipe caught my eye: a concoction of butternut, cannellini and tinned tomatoes gently stewed/simmered in a rosemary-scented, white wine spiked broth. I could picture the final dish, taste it almost (the author’s prose is so vivid that it doesn’t need any photos: you can easily visualise dishes as they were the characters of a novel).
‘The pronounced sweetness of butternut squash works well with salty ingredients; cut through with something spikily sour; or, in combination with the density of its flesh, as a background for potent herbs such as rosemary and sage’. Niki Segnit
‘It’s going to be a bit tangy,’ I thought, ‘the sweetness played off by the lovely resinous note of rosemary; blushed by tomato, and with an innate creaminess given by the melting beans…It’s going to be good’. So I made it. And it was good, more than good – it was brilliant, surprisingly so. It tasted like no other pumpkin soup I’d ever made before. The wine turned out to be the wild card here: in the right amount, it gives depth to the broth, zing, and, depending on the wine you pick, a nice lemony kick. As for the rosemary, it should be dosed generously, with abandon: you do want to feel its presence, be inebriated by its aroma as you sniff and stir, taste and season. Don’t be shy: think of it as aromatherapy for dark winter days. It works.
Squash Cannellini Rosemary Soup
I made some small changes to the recipe on page 231. Note that the author calls hers a stew, but I like mine a bit more brothy, so it has become more of a soup. Feel free to reduce the amount of liquid if you lean towards a denser dish.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 medium golden onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
700 g (one small) butternut squash, peeled and seeded, cut into small cubes
250 ml/1 cup white wine
1 x 400 g tin cherry tomatoes
2 sprigs rosemary, leaves picked and minced
250 ml/1 cup water, heated
2 x 400g tins cannellini beans, drained (or 400 g cooked cannellini beans, or even chickpeas)
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat the oil in a large heavy-based pot set over a medium heat. Add the onion and sweat gently, stirring often, until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and allow it to flavour the oil for 30 seconds, then add the cubed squash and stir to coat in oil. Reduce the heat and cover. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until the squash appears just softened. Season.
Next, pour in the wine, increase the heat to medium and allow the liquid to evaporate by half. Add the tomato, the rosemary and the water. Reduce the heat to low again, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the squash is very soft and almost falling apart.
Finally, add the beans, stir, taste and season. Carry on cooking the soup for 5 minutes, just so the beans can melt and mingle with the rest. Adjust the thickness of the soup by adding a little water if needed: it’s up to you.
Let the soup rest for 15 minutes, covered, and then serve it, best if with a swirl of peppery olive oil.