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LOST ITALIAN: A soup to fight the winter cold

Parmesan cheese tops off the Acqua Cotta soup. David Samson / The Forum1 / 2
The Acqua Cotta soup is ladled over the bread. David Samson / The Forum2 / 2

FARGO --  The new year has arrived, and our recent return to winter weather has given Tony a craving for a Tuscan soup specialty called acquacotta, which literally means “cooked water.”

Acquacotta (pronounced “aqua-coat-a”) is a comforting vegetable soup with an ancient peasant history, and is said to have originated among the shepherds and coal men of the Maremma area in coastal southwestern Tuscany. These workers were often away from home for long periods of time and traveled only with foods that could withstand the journey.

In those days, acquacotta consisted simply of water, bread, onions, tomato and olive oil, and any other vegetables or herbs that were on hand. It was an excellent way to utilize stale bread, as hearty chunks of old bread would soften and become edible in its function as the base of the soup.

There are variations of a legend surrounding this Italian soup about a poor traveler who arrived in a village with just a stone, but was clever enough to convince the reluctant villagers to contribute ingredients to enhance his amazing “stone soup.”

Somehow, knowing that there’s a legend attached to it makes this soup taste even better.

A broth-based soup, acquacotta is light and simple, yet surprisingly comforting. It’s also quite affordable, and good for you, which makes it an excellent post-holiday option for a light lunch or dinner.

Today acquacotta is widely popular throughout Italy, and over the years more ingredients have been added to the soup. While the preparations are as varied as the regions of Italy, the use of egg and bread are the unique signatures of this soup and are present in nearly every version.

This recipe is an excellent way to use up old bread, but fresh bread is also fine. We like to use a loaf of good, crusty bread like French or Italian loaves, which we slice along the bias (for bigger pieces) and then toast in a 400-degree oven for three to five minutes until a light golden brown. The slices of bread should be generous enough to fill the bottom of your serving bowl.

We’ve added celery and carrots (great flavor builders for any soup), as well as red bell pepper, tomatoes and spinach for additional flavor, color and nutrition. While water was the original base for this soup, we prefer to use a low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock instead, which further enhances the flavor.

You can be as creative as you like by adding cannellini or kidney beans, mushrooms, parsley, basil, or whatever vegetables and fresh herbs you have on hand; but, keep in mind that acquacotta is, at its essence, a simple vegetable soup.

Some versions of acquacotta place a poached or fried egg on top of the soup, while others, like ours, use beaten eggs that get mixed in with the broth. We beat the eggs first, then mix them with grated Romano cheese. We place a slice of the stale or toasted bread in each bowl and pour a bit of the egg and cheese mixture over each slice. Then we ladle a hearty helping of the broth on top and serve.

According to Tony, making acquacotta is a fairly simple process. “All you have to do is sauté some vegetables, add the stock and you’re done. That’s it.” Sounds to me like the perfect antidote to a chilly winter day.

Acquacotta/Tuscan Stone Soup

Ingredients

3 medium yellow onions, chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 pound peeled, chopped tomatoes

1 pound fresh spinach leaves

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

6 cups water or chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

4 fresh eggs, beaten

1 cup Romano cheese, grated

Salt and pepper to taste

Slices of stale or toasted Italian or French bread – slice on the bias for good size

Directions

Heat oil in a large stock pot, add onions, celery, carrot and bell pepper and cook over medium heat until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the spinach leaves and cook over low heat until the greens have wilted.

Add the tomatoes and cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes. Add the water or stock and taste-test for seasoning, simmer over medium-low heat for 15 minutes.

Mix the eggs and cheese together. Line each serving bowl with one slice of toasted bread and spoon the egg mixture over each slice of bread.

Stir the soup well and ladle into each bowl – enjoy!

Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello’s restaurant in Moorhead. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com.

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