Rachel Roddy’s Tuscan vegetable broth recipe | A Kitchen in Rome
A Kitchen in Rome: Todays recipe is inspired by the hearty Tuscan soup known as acquacotta, simmered slowly with onions, celery, tomatoes and basil, served on hunks of rustic bread and topped with a delicate poached egg
Todays recipe is very much inspired by acquacotta. It had been ages since Id made this soup. For a while it was a regular, so I know the recipe well, but having been out of kinds in the kitchen lately, I sat down with a cup of tea and looked at the recipe before I got started. Not so much for the ingredients and quantities, which are pretty flexible, but to remind myself of the order of things, the details which build certain differences: evenly sliced onion and celery, ideally with celery leaves too; bothering to peel the tomatoes; the long, slow cooking of the soffritto in lots of olive oil; adding hot water; the gentlest simmer for the eggs; garlic rubbed on the toast; bowls and slotted spoonful at the ready. I had all the ingredients I required, most importantly the bread which was stale-going-on-hard.
Acquacotta is a traditional recipe from the Tuscan part of Maremma. The name entails cooked water, and is best described as a simple vegetable soup served over bread, and perhaps topped with an egg that has been poached in the soup. The dish has a long history, devised, perhaps, by those who worked away for significant periods woodcutters and shepherds and butteri, the cowboys who herded cattle on the vast, flat plains of Maremma. Carrying merely petroleum, salt and increasingly stale bread, construction workers would cook in water whatever wild greens, vegetables and cardoons they might have found. They would then soften their bread back to life in this cooking water. If there were eggs, those too would be broken into the simmering pan.
Over time, acquacotta has become synonymous with Maremma, and it is served just about everywhere, in trattorie, eateries and homes, often made according to recipes passed down through families. Time has created a new sort of necessity, that of protecting recipes people hold dear. That sometimes entails wander is frowned upon, which seems so at odd with the fluctuation, inventiveness and general anarchy that stimulates home cooking so wonderful. Strong opinion and advice, however, is another thing, and for me welcome. For some years now, we have been visiting a town in Maremma called Saturniain during early October. For got a couple of days, we enjoy the hot springs that burst into an extraordinary cascade near an old mill( a beautiful and bonkers place ), walks, and bowl of cooked water, white beans, pici pasta with garlic sauce and loadings of red wine. I have eaten lots of what I understand is pretty classic acquacotta: onions, celery, tomatoes and basil, sometimes so thick with bread the spoonful stands to attention, which can be quite hard work. I have enjoyed brothy bowlfuls scented with green herbs, others with cardoons, and one absolutely delicious version with potato, chicory and wild borage that personified so much of what I love about Italian food: ingredients treated with a minimum of fuss to bring out the best in them, bold and clear flavours, and real resourcefulness.
So, to my version, which takes inspiration from all the bowl I have eaten. First up, bread, which should be at least a day old, or more. In Maremma, local unsalted bread is used, but a decent, compact country loaf working for you. The foundation is lots of onion and celery, cooked slowly in plenty of extra virgin olive oil. Next, tomato: just enough to give the soup rosy cheeks. I always add potato, because I really like it, and also something green, ideally with a little bit of bitterness. It is important to add salt as you go along it brings out flavours: a small pinch with the onions, another when you add the potatoes, a final one at the end, along with black pepper.
Once all the ingredients are in the pan, the soup needs to simmer for about 45 minutes, or until its flavor is mellowed. Its not a shouty soup. Make sure it is at a gentle simmer before breaking the eggs in carefully they should wobble ever so somewhat while they put on their white coats, which takes 2-3 minutes. Now, get the bowl ready. Some traditional recipes indicate sprinkling grated pecorino on the bread, but I prefer to swipe it with a cut clove of garlic( so it does holler ). Ideally, the yolks of the eggs poached in the soup should be runny, which means you need to work speedily with a ladle and a slotted spoonful, inducing sure everyone get broth, enough vegetables, and an egg, perhaps more broth, and then get the bowl and everyone to the table. As I told, this is my version, which runs even when I am out of kinds. Use it as a template, adjusting according to what you have, and how you like your water cooked.
Vegetable soup with bread and eggs, inspired by acquacotta
80ml extra virgin olive oil
2 onions( ideally one red, one amber)
4 pale celery sticks, with pale leaves
4 peeled plum tomatoes( fresh or tinned)
1 large potato
Salt and black pepper
A tiny pinch of fried red chilli snowflakes( optional)
A big handful of mixed chopped greens: spinach, chard, borage, sorrel, dandelion, wild fennel or fennel fronds
4 slices of 2-day old bread( sourdough or a compact country bread)
Pecorino or parmesan cheese, or a garlic clove, for the toasted bread
1 Peel and very thinly slice the onions. Chop the celery into thin arc( cut any particularly wide stems in two lengthways ). Warm the olive oil in large heavy-based pan and add the onion, celery and a pinch of salt, then fry gently over a medium-low heat until soft and translucent.
2 Roughly chop the tomatoes and add to the pan. Peel and dice the potato and add that too, along with another pinch of salt, and the chilli, if you are using it. Cook for another few minutes.
3 Add 1.3 litres of hot water, lower the flame and leave the acquacotta to simmer for 45 minutes, adding the greens in the last 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
4 If the bread is very old and hard, it wont need toasting. If it is just a day or two old, toast it. Prepare the bowls by putting a slice of old/ toasted bread at the bottom of each and then rub with the cut side of a clove of garlic, or sprinkle it with a little grated cheese.
5 Making sure the acquacotta is simmering very gently, carefully transgress the eggs into the pan, then leave them to poach for 2-3 minutes. Employing a ladle, put some broth and vegetables in each bowl, inducing sure everyone gets a bit of everything. Then use a slotted spoon to lift an egg on to each, before adding a bit more broth.
Rachel Roddy is a food blogger based in Rome and the author of Five Quarterss: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome( Saltyard, 2015) and winner of the 2015 Andr Simon food book award