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.
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 ….
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
First I revived the limp looking parsley in some water.Then I set about removing the larger stems.
Golly, 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.
What 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.
Once 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.
Ah 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.
A 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!!!
My imperial parsley soup!
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?