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Italian Soups: Stock, Broth... or Water?

IMG_8635In my cooking classes and private dinners here in Umbria, my students & clients are always shocked to hear that the main ingredient in my soups is, well.... good old-fashioned pipe stock.... otherwise known as... water!

Most Italian regional cooking, especially that of Umbria, is a very rustic, peasant style cooking, and making stock just doesn't fit into that equation.  Stocks are part of French haute cuisine, which is what most chefs (especially those on TV) learned as their base in cooking school... and therefore, it is what they preach to everyone at home.  Not that there is anything wrong with that... but it's not Italian!

Stock is when we put bones and vegetables in cold water (no salt), bring it to a boil and then let simmer for a few hours until all of the meaty essence is leached from the bones.  Stock can then either be reduced to form a glace (French) or added to sauce bases (again, French) and soups.  But you will hard pressed to find an Italian recipe calling for stock! 

Broth, or Brodo in Italian, is when we bring a pot of water to the boil first with vegetables, aromatics and salt.  Then we add meat such as a stewing hen, capon or off cuts of beef:  tongue, belly, and leg muscles to the boiling liquid.  The meat is then simmered until tender, and becomes a dish known as Bollito (boiled meat).  The remaining broth, or brodo, would be used to make soupy pasta dishes such as Tortellini in Brodo (tortellini with broth) or Stracciatella (basically the Italian version of Egg Drop Soup).

To make up for the lack of a meaty stock, Umbrians add their favorite ingredient to almost every soup in the book: pancetta.  Pancetta is cured pork belly - similar to bacon, except that it is not smoked, just hung out to dry with a heavy dose of salt, garlic and black pepper.  If pancetta is not used, we might see lard ground up with onions, carrots and celery as a base, or even the extra skin and fat cut off of a prosciutto, as in Fagioli con le Cotiche (Beans cooked with prosciutto skin).

Zuppa di Lenticchie (Umbrian Lentil Soup)

1 cup of Umbrian brown lentils
extra virgin olive oil
1 thick slice of pancetta, cubed
1 med. onion, diced finely
1 carrot, diced finely
1 stalk celery, diced finely
2 cloves garlic
1 small hot pepper
1 bay leaf
4-6 sage leaves
1/2 cup tomato sauce/puree or 2 Tbs tomato concentrate
salt

Heat a medium sized pot,  add a few tablespoons of olive oil and pancetta, and brown.
Add onion, carrot, celery, garlic, hot pepper, bay leaf, sage leaves.  Cook until they become translucent.
Add lentils.  
Add tomato puree.
Add 4-5 cups of water.
Salt to taste.
Cook until lentils are tender, adding water if necessary.
Serve with bread and extra-virgin olive oil.

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