It has been a milder than normal winter here in the Northeast part of the country this year. After two brutal winters, this one has been kind to us. Most days have stayed in the 40 degree range, some even getting into the 50’s. All winter storm fronts have come in the form of rain. Days like these remind a lot of people of early spring, to me they are a reminder of San Gimignano, Italy, where on a cold, rainy day in April, I discovered the soul warming, palate orgasmic pleasure of bread soup.
|Guess who said, "we won't need umbrellas today?"|
Oddly enough, I don’t even remember ordering it. I, along with my husband and friends, had been wondering along the cobblestone streets of this magnificent walled city, for hours. It was raining lightly and cold - raw cold, the kind that creeps into you through the spring light-weight jacket that you bought for this trip – and were determined to wear.
And even though I kept them in my pockets, my hands were freezing when we stumbled across a small restaurant whose amber glow from the light inside sent out a warm invitation to this group of weary travelers on this dreary day. There was a rather large number of us, so we divided up and scampered to any and all available tables.
From here on, (and it may have been due to wine that is always at the ready in Italy), the details are a little foggy. I do remember rubbing my hands together and blowing on them to get rid of the sting. Then next thing I knew, the waitress was putting down a steaming hot bowl of soup in front me…in front of all of us, before we even looked at a menu. Now, it is not unusual in this country for the waitresses to take on a rather maternal instinct when serving their patrons. Only a day earlier, a friend who ordered beans with her dinner was told in strong, broken English “No, too late in the day. Too much gas.You’ll have rice”. And she did.
So it is not altogether unfathomable that the waitress just thought we all needed soup! And we did. Truth be told, had I seen “bread soup” on the menu, I probably wouldn’t have ordered it, thinking it would be thick or creamy, a soup style I simply don’t care for. This, though, was anything but. The broth was almost clear with a reddish, yellowish tint to it. I think there were small pieces of carrots and celery, and I could see specks of herbs and spices, like pepper flakes and parsley or maybe, basil. Large chunks of crusty bread were added, apparently right before it was served. Then our new Italian mother came around and swirled drops of extra virgin olive oil over each bowl. I don’t know whether it was the day’s chill, the wine, the friends, the city, the crackling fire, or the warmth of this tiny restaurant…but it was magnificent. To this day, I have never tasted such flavor from something that looked so unassuming.
I have since done a great deal of research on this elusive masterpiece, and found that the recipe for “panata” as it is known it Italy, changes from region to region, from town to town, from household to household! Everyone has their favorite version so narrowing it down to what I remember, has been a task. This comes very close:
- 4 tablespoons quality extra-virgin olive oil
- 5 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 teaspoon crushed dried hot peppers (or more, to your liking)
- 2 (12-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes (San Marzano tomatoes, if possible)
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup clear chicken stock
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 loaf day old Italian bread
- 10 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
- Good quality Parmesan cheese (should not come in a green container)
Saute garlic in olive oil easily, so as not to burn. Add crushed peppers and white wine. Pour canned tomatoes in a bowl and crush with your hands. Then add tomatoes with juice to the pot and bring to simmer. After 10 minutes, add chicken stock and basil. Simmer 10 more minutes and season to taste. After putting broth in bowls, add torn pieces of crusty Italian bread. Sprinkle cheese and add a couple drops of olive oil.
|The soup and wine loving ladies of Tuscany!|
For best results, serve on a cold rainy night. Add a gathering of friends, a few bottles of wine and if available, a crackling fire. I promise, memories will be made!