I can tell autumn has arrived when I’m welcomed by a chill when I go downstairs in the morning to open the windows; when I fish out my heavier scarves from the wardrobe to protect myself from the cold wind; when apples, pears, chestnuts, mushrooms, and squashes begin to crowd the market stalls.
But most importantly, I know autumn has truly arrived when I find myself craving soup every other night. I might make a simple vegetable minestrone, a thick and creamy chickpea and pumpkin soup, a clear chicken broth speckled with tiny pastina, or a hearty barley and cabbage soup hailing from the Alps.
If summer is all about the salads, fall is when soups make their glorious return to home kitchens and trattorias alike.
To quote the writer Laurie Colwin, from Home Cooking: “There is nothing like soup. It is by its nature eccentric: no two are ever alike, unless of course you get your soup from cans.”
Soups are warming and comforting, and most of the time almost effortless. Simply collect all your ingredients and simmer them together on the stove, slowly warming up your kitchen with the steam rising from the pot. Ladle a hearty serving into a bowl and grab a spoon, and the instantly comforting effects begin even before your first sip: your fingers, wrapped around the sides, start to forget the chill they experienced outdoors and ease your body into a cosy warmth.
These affordable, filling dishes are a perfect example of cucina povera, Italy’s peasant cooking tradition. A bunch of seasonal vegetables, legumes, or stale bread are stretched into satisfying dishes meant to feed a crowd.
Stale bread plays a key role in Italian soups, as you could actually call zuppa just a soup made with bread inside. The other soups could be defined as minestra or minestrone, a brothy soup enriched with pasta, rice, barley, or farro. Blend vegetables and thicken the result with cream, and you’ll have a passato; if using many vegetables, a vellutata, if using just a couple of ingredients, or a crema, when there’s just one vegetable.
Soups thrive on leftovers, too, as they can turn a scant cup of lentils, a wedge of roasted butternut squash, and a few cups of good homemade stock into a full dish.
Making a pot of soup is relaxing, the best way to end a day: a quiet simmering, a hypnotic stir, a velvety texture, each spoonful warming you from the inside and bringing back childhood memories. Soups, for me, are the quintessential autumn food, a comfort for the stomach and the soul.
Cacciucco di Ceci | Tuscan Chickpea and Chard Soup
The most famous cacciucco is a coastal cucina povera fish soup from Livorno, made from the smallest and least valuable fish left over on the fishing boat or unsold at fish counters. Cacciucco di ceci, however, is not a fish soup, but one defined by chickpeas and chard. If not for a salt-packed anchovy melted into the olive oil at the beginning, this would be a vegan dish. (If you do not have dietary restrictions, however, don’t skip the anchovy; it’s a powerful flavour-booster.)
If you have time, soak half a pound of dried chickpeas overnight, cook them on low heat for a couple of hours until soft, and then use them for this recipe.
Don’t discard their cooking water, as it will add a more intense flavour and a creamy texture to the soup. But if you are in a hurry, don’t worry: you can use good-quality canned chickpeas instead, and in less than half an hour, you’ll have a hearty dish packed with greens and vegetable proteins.
Add a few slices of toasted bread—rub them with garlic if you like—and you’ll have a wholesome, balanced meal that will warm you up from the inside.
Cacciucco di ceci
- 1 salt-packed anchovy
- 60 ml (¼ cups) extra virgin olive oil
- ½ red onion, peeled and finely sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 3 canned peeled tomatos Roma tomatoes, diced
- 400 grams (¾ lb) Swiss chard, rinsed and cut into strips
- 700 grams (4¼ cups) cooked chickpeas
- 700 ml (3 cups) chickpea cooking water, or water
- Fine sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 8 slices toasted bread
- Rinse the anchovy under cold running water. Slice it open, gently remove and discard the spine, and separate into two fillets. Lay the fillets on a piece of kitchen paper to dry.
- Pour the olive oil into a pot over low heat, then add the finely sliced onion, minced garlic, and anchovy fillets. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes, until the anchovy has melted in the olive oil.
- Add the diced tomatoes, stir thoroughly to combine, and cook over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes, until the tomatoes begin to turn into a sauce.
- Add the chard, stir, and cook covered for 10 minutes, on medium low heat, until the chard wilts and softens.
- Blend ⅓ of the chickpeas with the chickpea cooking water, then add the mixture to the pot. Add the remaining chickpeas, increase the heat until the mixture is simmering vigorously, then simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
- Ladle into warmed bowls, add two slices of toasted bread to each bowl, and drizzle with olive oil to serve.
- The soup is even better the next day. Let cool completely, then cover and refrigerate. Reheat gently over low heat, adding a bit of water as necessary to thin.
More comforting soups from the blog archive
- Acquacotta, the Tuscan stone soup. In addition to bread, water and onions, there are the tomatoes, a can of peeled tomatoes that Mum made during the summer, the egg cooked in the soup itself and a good deal of grated pecorino cheese, which is just divine as it melts with the liquid egg yolk.
- Pasta e fagioli, bean and pasta soup. A classic battuto, made of minced carrots, celery and onion, to begin, then cannellini beans, a good pasta and a spoonful of tomato paste to give flavour and colour. Finish with a drizzle of raw extra virgin olive oil and some freshly ground black pepper.
- Potato and artichoke soup. The soup can be served with more sautéed artichokes and golden bread croutons cooked with savory, or even with some toasted hazelnuts and almonds, if you want to keep the soup gluten-free.
- Potato, porcini, and chestnut soup. A comforting Tuscan potato, porcini and chestnut soup, the perfect home food, a comforting dish that can easily please your friends for dinner.
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