One of the things I absolutely LOVE about Tuscany is seasonality in the local cuisine. It’s not trendy like it is in the states, it’s just the way it’s done because: IT MAKES BLOODY SENSE. I love how the markets change the availability of foods with the season and I love that restaurants change their menù, too. I can’t stress enough how much that I love that eating seasonally isn’t mega trendy like it is back in the states because otherwise it would come at a hefty inflated marketed price. In Tuscany, we can get a bunch of local, organic kale for THIRTY CENTS while in Seattle the same costs $3 a bunch.
In Florence the international “transplant” community tends to stick together and I’d like to think I have a good mix of international friends and locals. The few transplants I know happen to be from my beloved Pacific Northwest, and one in particular is from Seattle (Melissa) and she happens to be a chef at one of the best restaurants in Florence- Vivanda.
(Update for 2020: In Seattle, she owns/runs this awesome community-driven Filipino restaurant Musang)
It’s really funny because when I arrived with a wine studies program, I wanted to work or intern at Vivanda so badly because they have a strong emphasis on all the things I love about Italian food and wine: artisanally made specialties like cheeses, organic wines from native grape varieties (which they produce themselves), seasonal, gourmet dishes which reflect Tuscany’s agricultural landscape.
Furthermore, I studied at a wine school that was adjacent to Mel’s culinary academy in Florence, but we didn’t meet in either circumstances but instead at a 20’s themed cocktail party at one of the coolest cocktail bars in Florence- Mayday. You’d think I’m reciting a cheesy love story but it’s just the lovely coincidences of wandering this wonderful planet.
I told her that one of my resolutions for the year was to become a better cook and to learn the little basics that I do not have. I love cooking and people tend to enjoy what I make, but I am my own strongest critic and I know there are so many things I need to improve, learn and develop which can’t be taught in a recipe book. One of those things is making a tasty soup.
The winter in Tuscany churns out vegetables ideal for soups like kale, beans, potatoes, squash, carrots…you get the point. And whenever I made a soup, usually they were too chunky in order to preserve the flavor (i.e. less water) or I’d cheat and use store bought broth cubes.
I actually learned my 1st soup from Mollie Katzen in her Moosewood Cookbook (one of my favorite cookbooks of all time) and it was a sort of browned onion and sweet potato soup that I kept chunky and cheated on with the aforementioned methods. Chef Mel said we’ll fix that so we spent an afternoon making a Tuscan kale and cannellini bean winter soup.
The mistakes I realized I had been making for way too long:
Knife skills: I have always made a point to invest in a good knife but I never knew how to really use it. Chef taught me 1st: when making any sort of soup base (celery, carrots and onions) they should be diced all the same size and the smaller dices the better- for more flavor release. Make sure to keep your knife sharp, too.
Salt- Apparently sale grosso (coarse sea salt) is my new best friend. It helps this soup base caramelize and sweat out all it’s umami savoriness that makes any soup (or even ragù) tasty.
Timing and layering- I didn’t realize I should add water slowly to promote more caramelizing and to not dilute flavors too quickly. I also thought I should have to put in potatoes and kale in with the broth. No, this should be added into the stock pot before filling with broth or water.
The use of savory herbs: I always used to snippet in sage in any soup base and through in a rosemary twig. NO NO NO! How I was wrong! I learned that you should wrap up savory herbs with string and let the bunch sort of marinate and release its aromas in the soup and fish it out when the soup is ready.
Recycling rinds of aged cheese- This my friends, is a genius use of something we would normally throw away. Parmesan, Grana Padana and Pecorino is chock full of umami and the rind is even more concentrated in it but it’s way too hard and dry to eat so we usually chuck it out. NOOOOO!!! Don’t you ever chuck it out again! Save the rinds in the fridge and throw them in with the tied-up herb bunch and that will create your savory DIY broth that needs no stock cube or boxed broth.
Simmer time- Simmer the soup after you have layered in all of the ingredients until you feel the flavor is complete. Taste along the way. Throw out your kitchen timer. Your palate should be the judge of the finished product, not an invention as arbitrary as time
Here’s a quick recipe (I don’t remember it exactly how I did it with chef lady but this is the general gist):
2 carrots, 3-4 shortish stalks of celery, a red onion or 2 shallots.- soup base
Chop these in little dices. Add oil to a warmed large stock pot (olive oil, another delicious luxury we have FRESHLY PRESSED in Tuscany). Add the base and a tablespoon of sale grosso. After a few minutes, add a little bit of filtered water and let the base caramelize for about 10 minutes.
Chop up a tomato. Chop up a clove of garlic. Chili pepper flakes or crushed whole dried chili are optional for a bit of a kick. Add it into the base. Let it cook down for a few minutes.
Add in a large cubed potato and chopped bunch of kale. When the kale is sort of wilted, fill the pot with enough water that the veggies are covered. Pour in a cup of nearly cooked white cannellini beans. If the beans are canned or already cooked, then put them in the soup more towards the end of the simmering process (like 10-15 minutes before) as to not over cook them.
Plunge in a tied bunch of herbs of choice like sage, rosemary and parsley. Throw in a couple rinds of aged cheese that you have now saved. Add a bit more or sale grosso. Bring to a boil and then turn down to simmer until the broth knocks your palate with a good umami layered punch. You’ll know when the time is right.
When the soup is ready, fish out the herb mass and the cheese rinds. Bowl up. Make a “C” drizzle with some FRESH olive oil and grate some Pecorino (Or Grana or Parmesan) on top. Crack some fresh black pepper on top and there you have it!
Wine pairing suggestion: Serve with a glass of LIGHT red wine like a young chianti, french gamay, pinot nero, primitivo or nebbiolo.
Yours in winter warmth,