Soup during Covid – Parsing Parsley Parsimoniously

Title a bit of a tongue twister, eh?  A cheeky little foray into click-baiting, I admit.
What, you might be wondering, am I alliterating about?
Parsley, that’s what.  And how to make soup with it.

So, let’s talk parsely.  The humble herb that some came to disdain on account of its ubiqitous appearance on a ‘finished’ plate, aka the dreaded GARNISH.  So twee.  So 1980s.  Other people who might otherwise appreciate its contribution to the overall flavour of a dish find themselves distancing themselves from said herb on account of its notorious clingyness – to one’s teeth.   Not just unsightly, it gives one’s gum-receding age away.  But that’s in a restaurant or at a formal dinner party.  Spinach got a bad rap too, for the same reason, in restaurant eating.  I can attest to my own fear of green bits adhering to my teeth in public and my husband and I have a code ‘look’ – one such glance from him and I know I’m in trouble and have to be excused from the table.  At home, however, what is there to stop us?

Where I live and shop for vegetables, i.e. greengrocers or markets here in Frascati or in or around Rome, a bunch of parsley, albeit  a small one, will always be given away by the vendors as a parting gift for the buyer.  It is tradition.  It’s what Italians call ‘odori’ – literally ‘odours’.

The usual  mix of odours consists of one carrot, a celery stalk, maybe a small onion and some sprigs of parsely.  A few wisps of basil will be included during basil growing season.  And it’s a case of first-come-first-served.  You won’t get any odori towards the end of the day, all gone.  Of course supermarkets never give them for free! Oh no, you have to fork out about 1 eu for a bunch of parsley  Are you telling me they can’t afford to? Are we supposed to feel sorry for them?  Just don’t get me started on supermarkets again,  you know how it’ll end.

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Here are some ‘odori’ from last week.

On the other hand, imagine my surprise when I first shopped in the Marche, in the historic, beautiful and small hill-top town of Monterubbiano, where my mother-in-law hails from and where my husband and I spent many a summer holiday with our kids … There I was like a lemon waiting for the shopkeeper to hand me out my odori … and all I got was one measely little strand of parsley, handed over to me as if I were being presented with a precious metal.   When I asked for some basil, the look on the greengrocer’s face morphed along the lines of “you have the temerity to ASK for free basil?”  Oliver Twist.  I hastily said I wanted to purchase a big bunch of basil (I’m into alliteration today, sorry) and how much did it cost.  “Ah, that’s more like it,” his softened facial expression seemed to say.  I realised that the Marche can’t be big on parsley  – not like we are here in Lazio where even the fishmonger will give you some to go along with your catch-of-the-day purchase.  You know how in the UK it is Scotland that gets a bad reputation for people being stingy?  Well, in Italy it’s the citizens of Genoa and the people of the Marche who are guilty as charged.  Isn’t it awful when clichés turn out to be true as far as parsley is concerned?  Which is a tremendous shame, actually, because the people I’ve encountered in all my time in the Marche were always very friendly, kind AND generous.  Just not with their odours.

Another suprise for my readers might be the discovery that in Italy parsley has long held a reputation for helping terminate an unwanted pregnancy.  I thought it was just an old wives’ tale.  When I was pregnant with my first child, more than one person warned me against eating too much parsley and I thought they were frankly bonkers.  We didn’t have the internet in those days.  But look it up and lo and behold – there is some truth to this (here is a link if you don’t believe me, scroll down to where it says “parsley oil”  –  https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/abortifacients).   All of this beggars the question: what about tabbouleh?  I wonder if Middle Eastern women are told to eat less tabbouleh when they are pregnant?

I have to confess that I do occasionally fall into the habit of of wanting to garnish a plate with parsley (or mint), it’s been instilled in me bones – but at least I try to keep it understated.  And à propos of bones: parsley is excellent for our bone health and has lots of vitamin K and other beneficiary components.  Here is a link which makes it quite evident:  https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/parsley-benefits#section8.

And one final ‘fun fact’ about parsely in Italy is an old adage, hardly ever used now.  Whereas  people “turn up like a bad coin” in English, in Italian they turn up like parsley – always in the middle of something.  Meaning, of course, that parsley is lavishly added to hundreds of dishes.

And now onto the recipe itself.  I was convinced, but con-vinced (please note the emphasis) that my trusty ‘The Prawn Cocktail Years’ book, first published in 1997, contained a recipe for parsley soup.  It turned out the recipe was, instead, for parsley sauce.  Sigh.  Onto internet investigating for ideas but all my research forays always came up with other ingredients to tartify the soup – mostly potatoes. So … nothing.  Head scratching.  More head scratching.  I knew, just knew, that I had eaten parsley soup at some point in my life, I was not making this up!  Until … ta da da daaaaa.  I remembered the vaguely-coloured watery ‘stuff’ that passed for soup and was regularly served to us for dinner when my family was living in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Soup with parsley in it.   Not parsley soup.

The Neapolitan/Campania people have a sense of humour that is hard to beat in Italy.  (Please pardon this apparent non sequitur – it will make sense when you reach the end of this paragraph.)  And Neapolitans adore their pasta, just like all Italians.  But forget about rice: they are not rice-eating people at all.  One of the very first schools of medicine in the world was located in Salerno (this is before universities came about, so  I am talking a long long time ago) and once the Spaniard occupation starting cultivating rice around those parts, it was considered very precious.  Very expensive too, presumably.  The doctors from the Medical School of Salerno deemed rice to have curative powers and regularly prescribed it when people were poorly or recovering from some malady.  Just plain, boiled, no frills.  So, let’s face it, thoroughly uninteresting.  Very white too.  Which is why, to this day, when an Italian has a dicky stomach he will insist on ‘mangiare in bianco’, on eating ‘white’ – i.e. simple, plain food with no sauce or any other redeeming flavour enhancer.  As a result of all this plainness and whiteness and blandness, the Neapolitans tend to refer to rice as “sciacqua panza” – a stomach rinser.  Food that will ‘rinse’ out your stomach but won’t satisfy your appetite or your taste  buds.   At the risk of extending the metaphor inappropriately, let us just say that ‘sciacqua panza’ can be applied to any dish that rhymes with ‘meh’, dull.

I apologise for going off at a tangent like this but … but when the Proustian moment dawned, when I was carried back to the plain vegetable soup we were saddled with in Dhaka as I was growing up, ‘sciacqua panza’ was all I could think of.  Thus it was, that I became inspired to come up with a parsley laden soup that would have no truck with stomach rinsing whatsoever – quite the opposite.

What also contributed to this tall order was the vision of a prodigious amount of parsley accumulating in the  bottom drawer of my fridge staring balefully at me, as if to say: you are wasting food, how long do you think we (i.e. the parsley) can stay fresh enough to be eaten?  I don’t know about you but food ‘talks’ to  me. I was being told off.  I was being reminded that wasting food is not okay.  So, naturally, a little self-complacency muscled its way as a ‘secret’ ingredient into the composition of this recipe.  I was being frugal.  So there ….

INGREDIENTS

Lots and lots of parsley leaves, carrot, celery, onion, peppercorns, olive oil, 1 tiny tomato or else a squeeze of tomato paste, salt, some lemon zest.  Parmigiano/parmsan.  Optional: zuppa imperiale

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First I revived the limp looking parsley in some water.4Then I set about removing the larger stems.

5Golly, look at that knife!  Stealing my photographic thunder because it makes it hard for you to espy the slice of lemonzest at the top and a small tomato all chopped up on the right.  On the left is the chopped/minced parsley.

IMG_7315What you see here are, all chopped up, the carrot, the celery stalk and one spring onion. If you peek hard enough you can also see the peppercorns.  A good drizzle of olive oil and you turn the heat on.

6Once the soffritto has cooked for a bit, you add the parsley, the lemon zest and the tomato and plenty of water.  Add some salt but not too much …. you can always add more later.

7Ah yes, put the lid on.  You don’t want the soup to evaporate as it cooks.

And that’s it!  When the soup is ready, you serve it with some parmigiano sprinkled all over it.

BUT, aha! … I had espied something very naughty-but-nice in my freezer.

8A bag containing something called “zuppa imperiale”.

Zuppa imperiale is a soup from Bologna.

What tranforms an ordinary albeit perfectly good meat stock/broth soup into something worthy of the sobriquet  ‘imperial’ is the addition of what you see above.  Those little golden cubes.  They are made up of whole eggs, semolina flour, and parmigiano.  The batter is baked in the oven and left to cool.  Then it is cut up into very small cubes. Which can be frozen but are usually sold fresh.  I had bought these from that historic, iconic and beautiful store in Bologna called Atti where they are famous for their fresh pasta and tortellini and all sorts of inviting typical foods (see link to the shop at the bottom of this post).  Naughty but nice because you end up putting on a lot of weight when you eat in Bologna!!!

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My imperial parsley soup!

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This photo shows the soup to better advantage because the soup plate is white.  Well.  Nothing sciacqua panza about this soup, I am very glad to report.  Plenty of taste – the imperial cubes and the parmigiano saw to that.

And for once the word ‘frugal’ didn’t  make me sad.  This is indeed a frugal soup, ingredients-wise, if you omit the imperial cubes.  Anyone can make it.  And if you haven’t got parmigiano, then add some cheddar, why not?  Some croutons too, why not?

Who said parsley was only for garnish, eh?

Foodie Must-See: Inside the Historic Atti Bakery

 

Squash Soup and Veggie Frenzie

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If you’ve read my previous post, this (the above photo) is what I ended up making with the squash/pumpkin I had bought at the market.  I made soup.  The soup is utterly vegetarian and, if you eschew the grated parmigiano at the end, it is most definitely vegan too.  If you are interested in the recipe and want to skip my meanderings, please scroll straight down to where it says “Ingredients”.

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I defy anyone to have not reacted even in some minimal way to Megan and Harry’s bolt from the blue statement a few days ago.  I don’t usually watch the news much but even I found myself glued to various TV programmes prying into the story and trying to navigate what ‘really’ is going  with the couple and the British monarchy.   I did find it terribly rude of them to make the announcement without forewarning granny Elisabeth beforehand.  Then it turns out they actually did but only minutes before they went media public? What is at the bottom of wanting to dash off and do their own thing, with their own website ?(Sussexroyal.com doesn’t sound very royal at all to me, but it is catchy I suppose.)

Anyway, discussing the events with friends and family, what stood out for me in the end is that … the world is changing.  Has changed.  Will change.

If the only constant is indeed change, as hindu/buddhist traditions have been banging on about for centuries, with modern physics following in hot pursuit, how are we to accommodate constance and continuity, instead, without turning into paper cut-out doll versions of ourselves, stiff pinocchio-like wooden puppets, as opposed to heart-and-guts living, thinking, loving bodies and people/souls?  Let’s face it, not many people embrace change lock, stock and barrel and most of us rather fear it when it’s thrown in our face, even more so when it’s not our choice number one.  Very often because it means we have to reinvent ourselves, and that can be somewhat tedious when there are so many other important matters to be dealt with on a daily basis.  Like waking up in the morning, brushing our teeth,  looking after people, remembering to throw the rubbish/recycling out, dealing with a boring job, dealing with having to find a job,  dealing with a difficult partner, dealing with living solo after a broken relationship, dealing with people who have not had the benefit of good manners incorporated in their upbringing.  All that and more.

One of the reasons I love cooking and eating so much, I believe, is not just animal appetite and greediness or sensual satisfaction.   I think it is a quasi therapeutic exercise for me – my byline for this blog is “good food to put you in the mood”, remember?  In the mood for what? Well, that depends.  Sometimes we are upbeat, sometimes melancholy, sometimes melodramatic, sometimes quiet, sometimes musical, sometimes sexy, sometimes gossipy, on occasion silly  billy full of love – it’s easy to run the whole gamut and range of human moods via food and eating.  For food is indeed life.  There are no two ways about it.  No-food equals starvation equals diseased  bodies equals death.

And food can also equal fads.  Is it just me who sees the irony in how we all seem to be so preoccupied with our health in an era when the human lifespan is getting longer and longer thanks to better living conditions, access to food and improved medical health care.  It is sometimes nose-scrunchingly puzzling to understand just why, why?, these food fads continue to burst forth.  Fashion I suppose, maybe.  Refreshment?  Seasons are the refreshments of the world we live in, of our days, a reminder of change being unrelenting but reassuring too.  So it may well be that the same old food recipes can strike people as stagnant and very boring, same ol’, same ol’, same ol’.

My sister and I were talking along these lines a few days ago, nice glasses of Frascati wine to keep us going, as we took some of our reveries to task.  And since we both love cooking, and easy recipes in particular, the subject touched upon vegan recipes.  Neither of us is a vegan.  And I would be the world’s biggest fibber if I said that vegans hadn’t irritated me in the beginning.  Whilst the ethos of not hurting animals is obviously laudable, there was a lot of holier-than-thou preaching and even religious-like intensity in conversion that I found distasteful.  Dietary rectitude.  One of the more tiresome (for me) offshoots of veganism was the rebranding of recipes and dishes that had been around for ever as being ‘vegan’.  “Vegan lentils”, for instance. Since when had lentils not been vegan?  Don’t get me started on gluten- free commercial homogenising, either, with labels that are utter nonsense, such as “gluten free rice”.  Seriously?  “Vegan burgers” was another one. A burger is supposed to be made with meat otherwise it is a patty.  Why desire to keep the name of a food that you vociferously want to eschew from your diet on the grounds of ethics?

I continue to think that it is not a healthy way to eat (Vitamin B12, for instance, is hard enough for vegetarians to assimilate let alone vegans).  Veganism is so often presented as a dietary nostrum.   Not convinced.  I also believe that one cannot disregard biology and evolutionary history (https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/food/debunking-a-few-myths-about-meat-eating-and-vegetarianism).

I do think that we should all be more mindful of how animals are treated from start to finish, from how they are raised to when and how they are slaughtered.  And if there are countless articles on how modern cattle rearing is cause for much of the world’s travails, it is also true that farm animals raised ‘properly’ really do contibute to the health of the soil which will then be able to produce lots of nice veggies and cereals for us.  Read the following The Guardian article:  “Intensively farmed meat and dairy are a blight, but so are fields of soya and maize. ”  Also: unless you’re sourcing your vegan products specifically from organic, “no-dig” systems, you are actively participating in the destruction of soil biota, promoting a system that deprives other species, including small mammals, birds and reptiles, of the conditions for life, and significantly contributing to climate change.” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/veganism-intensively-farmed-meat-dairy-soya-maize)

This is, as we all know, a contentious subject and one that I don’t have time for within the context of this blog post, not in the detail it deserves.   Why?  Because it’s bloody complicated, that’s why.  There are too many considerations to take into account.  The bottom line, however, as far as I am concerned is the following one.  Would I be able to slaughter a cow, say, or a pig or a lamb?  And the answer is no.  So there you go … I have to admit that there is some kind of double-standard to my reasoning on food choices.  I have gone fishing and done that.  I come from a family that went hunting/shooting for little birds and remember my grandmother plucking their feathers, and their little dangling heads.  Still, even if I knew how to shoot, I don’t think I would enjoy killing lots of birds.   I am able to eat snails, and have bought them live.  I saw my grandmother kill a chicken when I was little.  It didn’t seem to bother me then.  But I don’t think I would be able to.  And yet I continue to eat chicken, and duck, and lamb, and pork, and beef.  All of which leads me to think that who knows? in the future? Change, as I wrote at the beginning of this post, is inexorably on its way.  I might indeed end up being vegetarian.  But not vegan.  I have no qualms over good quality milk, cheese, eggs and honey.

All this to say that … despite not being vegetarian or vegan … I am absolutely obsessed with vegetables.  It is the reason why I define myself as a vegetarian who eats a lot of meat.  I can easily skip meat or fish at a meal but I definitely cannot …. will not … skip vegetables.  “And by the way, I do think veganism is here to stay, ” my sister said the other night as we delved into some vegan recipes she was looking into.

Bring it on say I.  I live in a country where so many people, in the not so distant past, had to be vegans pretty much because there was little else for them to eat.  Meat was out of the question, only for the very rich.  Some fish maybe.  A little cheese too.  But for the rest, only vegetables and cereals.  The cuisines of the Middle East, Persia, the Indian Subcontinent and the Far East are chock-a-block full of vegan recipes.  I think that veganism, or at least a version of veganism,  has been around for a long time only perhaps we weren’t aware of this.

So … Happy New Year everyone.  Enjoy your vegetables and cereals!  And, say I, also your milk, cream, butter, cheeses and eggs.  Try and help the cause for the better treatment of animals.

Last, please remember that some animals are human animals.  There is a lot of human trafficking where vegetables are concerned.   Immigrant workers in Sicily,  is just an example, bringing us the joy of delicious tomato varieties at a terrible cost to them. K

Kindness for all.  The little we can do, let us do.

INGREDIENTS: squash, onion, garlic, olive oil, salt, peppercorns, nutmeg, parsely, freseh sage leaves, parmigiano/parmesan

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Squash or pumpkin.  Cut it up and remove the skin.

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Drizzle plenty of olive oil into the pot and brown a roughly chopped onion for a few minutes.  This happens to be a small pressure-cooker.  I think they are brilliant when it comes to soups.  I also included a few peppercorns and plenty of salt when I later added the cut up squash.

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Next it was time for parsely and sage leaves.

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A little bit of garlic, too, why not and a good twist of nutmeg.

16Pour in the amount of water that’s required.

17Pressure cook the soup for … oh gosh, sorry, I can’t remember.  I was busy with other stuff.  Ahem, er … let’s say twenty minutes?

18Once it’s safe for you to open the lid of the pressure cooker, do so and then blend all the ingredients.  It was a bit too thick at this stage, so I added a little more water.  I tasted it, and had to add a bit more salt too.

19A snowstorm of freshly grated parmesan/parmigiano and Bob’s your uncle.  No cheese and you are veganic.

Silver spoon optional.

Stale Bread, Kale and Bean Soup (Pancotto con fagioli e cavolo nero)

I am reposting a recipe from 2012  because you know what? It still makes sense.  Especially for this time of year.  It is thoroughly vegetarian and if you are vegan all you have to do is leave the cheese bit out.

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/dont-dread-stale-bread-make-soup-instead-soup-series/

Don’t dread stale bread – make soup instead (Soup Series)

There is a very traditional soup, with variations throughout Italy, whose body consists of stale bread, added to which, besides broth, are other herbs or vegetables and usually some kind of grated cheese and olive oil.    They all taste pretty delicious in a comforting way and a very dear American friend of mine thought it was a pity, really, that the only name Tradition managed to come up for them was “pancotto”:  which literally means “cooked bread”.  The Tuscan version  has an even less attractive nomenclature: “acquacotta” — which translates as “cooked water”.  It doesn’t sound very enticiting, now, does it?  I thoroughly concur with my friend even though I had never thought about it until she mentioned it.

These were soups that came from whatever scraps a housewife could put together.  Bread holds a sacred place in Italian food generally, it is revered and no meal is ever complete without it.  Even today, Italians will feel very bad about throwing away stale bread, thinking it the height of waste.  There are always uses for it … and soup would have been just one of them.  So …. let’s see what kind of cooked-bread I ended up making!

Please believe me when I say this bread was very dry and stale indeed.  You would have had a very hard time trying to cut it with any knife …

Here is an ugly but very useful large pot …. lots of water within which I heated before adding the stale bread:In it goes …

And when it’s gone all soft and mushy again, out it comes, and gets put into another large pot.

I roughly chopped and then washed some cavolo nero (kale).

That got cooked too, for a few minutes, in the same water that had softened the bread. Drain and set aside.

This is what is left and gets thrown away.  It is too bitter and would ruin the soup.

Drizzle some olive oil into the pan and add chopped garlic and chopped onion and a few peppercorns.

Some carrot and celery will also add to the final taste.  Sauté for a few minutes but do not brown.

These are two rinds of parmesan cheese … another food item that would never have been thrown away (I keep mine in the freezer).  The rind can be grilled but most usually it makes a great addition to any hearty soup.

Beans would very often accompany these soups … and so who am I to disagree with tradition!  Keep some cooked beans to hand.  They get added to the soup after it has cooked for a while.  If you add them too soon, they become too mushy.

THE COOKING OF THE BREAD AND WATER BEGINS!

Add the parmesan rinds to the soup pot …

The “cavolacci” (translation: “bad” or “ugly” cabbage) as they are called here in Lazio go in next ….

Next, the soffritto … the sautéed carrot, onion, celery and garlic ….

Pour in water, enough water to cover everything.  Turn on the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes.  Add salt and pepper somewhere along the timeline.

Add the cannellini beans about ten minutes before serving.

I love my herbs, so I always add some chopped mixed herbs too, towards the end.  This is a mixture of parsely, marjoram and rosemary.

The parmesan rinds will have given off their final taste to the soup and can be removed. Taste the soup and make sure all is well in the salt-and-pepper department.

SERVE

You can serve this soup with either grated parmesan or pecorino.  A drizzle of olive oil.  And for those who like chilli, add that too.

A soup based on leftovers doesn’t sound like much, does it?  And yet … and yet … and yet … it tastes dashed good, yes, you bet!

P.S. And yes, I do know what Lord Curzon supposedly said … “No gentleman takes soup at luncheoon”.  Well, in Italy they did and they do … and it wasn’t just the ‘gentlemen’!