Soup is one of the easiest things in the world to cook. I often wonder why more people don’t make it at home.
Italian soups are particularly appealing as they are so varied, being made from common pantry ingredients, such as beans, vegetables, meat scraps or even bread. Brodi are clear broths in which soup pasta such as orzo, ravioli or tortellini may be cooked. Minestre are quite light, while minestroni or “big soups”, are hearty, filling soups with plenty of vegetables, beans, and perhaps pasta or rice. Minestrine are fresh-tasting, light soups that consist of mostly puréed vegetables, and zuppe are rich, satisfying soups of anything from vegetables to fish.
Minestra di Lattuga e Crescione — “Lettuce and Watercress Soup”
This soup contains lettuce, an ingredient that’s not commonly found in cooked dishes. I used green leaf lettuce, but you can certainly use Boston lettuce, Bibb lettuce or romaine. Lettuce isn’t necessarily limited to only salad and Thai food. You can braise it in as the French do, with peas, small pearl onions and mint. The watercress is there to give the soup a little bit of “heft”.
1 large yellow onion, peeled and trimmed
2 medium carrots, scrubbed, peeled and trimmed
2 celery stalks, trimmed
celery leaves from the celery stalks (optional)
2 thick slices pancetta
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 tablespoons olive oil + more for the fried bread
1 head of lettuce, trimmed of its outer leaves
1 head watercress, trimmed
4-5 cups chicken stock
sea salt, to taste
freshly milled black pepper, to taste
3-4 slices slightly stale Italian bread
grated pecorino romano cheese or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (for garnish)
extra-virgin olive oil (for garnish)
Chop onion, carrots and celery finely. If you have any celery leaves, mince those. A mezzeluna is perfect, or if you don’t have that, a large kitchen knife or a food processor. You want the vegetables to be as finely chopped as possible.
Looking at the pic above, I could have chopped the vegetables smaller than that, but I have a very small workspace to function in. Oh well. Finely dice your pancetta the same way. If you don’t have pancetta, you can substitute bacon instead.
Melt unsalted butter in a large Dutch oven or soup pot. Add the olive oil and pancetta. Cook, stirring frequently, or until the pancetta begins to brown. Add the onion, carrot and celery, and the celery leaves if you’re using them. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 25-30 minutes or until the vegetables have softened considerably. Do not let the vegetables brown at any point during this time. If they brown, the heat is too high. Next, add shredded lettuce and watercress.
Then add enough chicken stock to cover. You can use vegetable stock if you prefer, or water. Taste for salt and pepper, then bring the heat back up to medium and partly cover. Let the soup simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. You can add cooked beans or rice if you like, or pasta, but it’s good enough to serve as is. Taste once more for salt and pepper.
For the fried bread, cut Italian bread into rough slices, then fry in 6 tablespoons olive oil until golden brown. Place on a paper towel-lined plate.
To assemble, place a couple of slices of fried bread on the bottom of a soup bowl. Ladle soup on top of the bread. Stir in some grated pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Serve at once.
Time: About 90 minutes, including prep.