Friday, May 11, 2012

Minestra di Patate e Finocchio

The Little Bookroom recently published the second in what I hope is a long series of Italian cookbooks containing recipes from the kitchen of the American Academy in Rome (AAR). I wrote about the series’ first book Biscotti [2010] by Mona Talbott and Mirella Misenti (here). The second book entitled Zuppe [2012] by Mona Talbott equals the outstanding Biscotti. Featuring seasonal soups served at the AAR, Zuppe educates and inspires; it is a fantastic cookbook.

Talbott organizes Zuppe’s fifty recipes into sections that focus on the produce and ingredients available in Rome during the four seasons. The first section presents recipes for autumn, which is when the new AAR Fellows begin their studies. One particular recipe in this chapter exemplifies what makes Italian cooking and Talbott’s Zuppe so exciting: the straightforward use of seasonal ingredients. The recipe for Minestra di Patate e Finocchio (Potato and Fennel Soup) couldn’t be simpler: sweat onions and fennel in olive oil; add potatoes and stock; season and simmer. The resulting soup tastes clean, comforting and delicious.

Most of Zuppe’s recipes contain only a handful of ingredients. Simple dishes often need high-quality ingredients to achieve the best results. The AAR receives outstanding local produce from Giovanni Bernabei, an organic farmer located just south of Rome.  (Signore Bernabei’s portrait in the AAR’s kitchen speaks to his role in the Academy’s Rome Sustainable Food Project.) Although a few ingredients in Zuppe might prove a challenge to source (e.g., dried cicerchie or grass peas), Talbott provides easily obtainable alternatives (in the case of cicerchie, use dried chickpeas). Otherwise, creating these Roman-inspired soups in the US shouldn’t pose a problem, especially if you have access to a local farmer’s market or even a good grocer.

To celebrate Zuppe’s arrival, here’s the complete recipe for Talbott’s Minestra di Patate e Finocchio. The soup serves 4 to 6.
  • 1.5 kg / 3 lb potatoes
  • 1 large yellow onion
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • 2 large bulbs fennel
  • 90 ml / 3 fl oz olive oil
  • 3 litres / 3 quarts chicken stock
  • Salt
  • Grana Padano
  • Black Pepper
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Peel and cut the potatoes into 1-cm / ¾-inch cubes and store in cold water until you are ready to use them.

Cut the onion into small dice. Peel, de-germ and roughly chop the garlic. Remove fronds from the fennel and set aside. Chop each fennel bulb into four wedges, then cut each wedge into 5-mm / ¼-inch slices.

Sweat the onion, garlic and fennel in 90-ml / 3 fl oz of olive oil in a 6-litre / 6-quart stockpot over a medium heat until tender. Add the potatoes and chicken stock; season with a generous pinch of salt. Bring the soup to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for about 20-25 minutes or until the potatoes are tender and beginning to collapse.

Chop a large handful of the fennel fronds you have saved and add to the finished soup. Re-season with salt if necessary.

Serve with extra virgin olive oil, grated Grana Padano and freshly ground black pepper.

A few notes and comments. In Mediterranean climates, fennel’s season runs from spring to fall. When buying fennel, look for a firm, heavy bulb. Trim the base and cut off the top where the stalks enter the blub. Generally you will need to remove a layer or two from the bulb before sectioning and slicing the fennel.

Grana Padano often substitutes for Parmigiano-Reggiano as a cheese grated over soups and pastas. Compared to the more expensive Parmigiano-Reggiano, it tastes mild and delicate. Grana Padano may be difficult to find in parts of the US unless you have access to good cheese shop. (Bay Area readers: Berkeley Bowl West carries it.) If you cannot find Grana Padano, don’t hesitate to use Parmigiano-Reggiano.

If you have an interest in Italian food, I highly recommend Zuppe. Here’s hoping that Mona Talbott’s next installment for The Little Bookroom covers pasta!