With Italian bread soups, not a crumb is wasted Repast: Hearty pieces of rustic, crusty loaves have thickened and helped flavor broths of peasants for centuries.

March 11, 1998|By Cathy Thomas | Cathy Thomas,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Bravo, bread soups. Not one bread crumb goes to waste.

For centuries, Italians have turned leftover loaves into scrumptious recycled repasts. Stale bread plumps as it absorbs the luscious flavors from the warm broth. It softens into a glorious texture, filled with the scent of fresh vegetables, legumes and herbs.

Not so long ago, it was difficult to find rustic, artisan-style breads, the key ingredient in these soups. But now coarse-textured, hard-crusted beauties are sold in almost every supermarket. And because they're free of preservatives, they turn from awesome to agate in just two to three days. Whether sourdough, whole wheat or seedless rye, dried-out slices can be a culinary asset.

Depending on when and how it is added to the soup, it can remain a distinct slice or become completely amalgamated into the broth.

* Ribollita: Ribollita, the most famous of all Italian bread soups, is a good example of the amalgamated variety.

All but the most stubborn crusts of bread dissolve into the aromatic blend of cannellini beans (large, white, Italian kidney beans), vegetables and herbs. An optional Tuscan-style drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil can be added on top, along with a few grinds of black pepper.

"Ribollita is thick enough to eat with a fork. The name means reboiled," says Alberto Morello, chef at Prego Ristorante in Irvine, Calif. "It is always reboiled before being served the first time, but it is often saved for the next day and boiled yet again."

Morello contends that allowing the soup to rest in the refrigerator one or two days promotes fuller flavors, especially for the cook's palate.

"When you're cooking the soup, your nose and taste buds get tired, like overworked muscles," he says. "Let them rest and the soup tastes better. It's like someone else made it for you."

Cavolo nero, a dark bluish-green kale, is a traditional ingredient in ribollita. Morello says you can substitute other greens, such as savoy cabbage, Swiss chard or broccoli raab (rapini). He adds that Asian markets are often good sources for greens with a slightly bitter edge. The bitter greens melt into the creamy beans and spongy bread. It's rustic delectability.

* Acquacotta: In some Italian bread soups, the soup is poured over a thick slice of bread and allowed to sit a minute or two before serving. Although the bread softens, it stays whole.

"Acquacotta is a simple preparation of vegetables and herbs cooked in water and poured over stale bread," says Norma Wasserman-Miller, author of "Soups of Italy" (William Morrow, 1998, $25). "With every spoonful, the bread acts as a thickener and a flavor enrichment. In Italy, it was used in this manner long before the discovery of the New World. Before potatoes. Before tomatoes.

"But it's important that the bread be dried out to properly absorb the soup. Dry, but still malleable. If you're using fresh bread, slice it and place it in a 325-degree oven until dry but not brown, about seven minutes."

Yellow Pepper Bread Soup (Acquacotta alla Grossetana) is one of her favorites. It's hard to believe that such a simple mixture can have so much flavor. The soup is a colorful blend of chopped red onion, yellow bell peppers, tomatoes and celery sauteed in olive oil and augmented with water, then poured over country-style bread. Traditionally, beaten eggs are whisked into the warm soup, but I prefer Wasserman-Miller's lighter version, which omits the eggs and garnishes the finished soup with chopped fresh basil. The soup sits for two minutes before you serve it so that the bread can soften.

* Onion soup Italian-style: Unlike the French version of onion soup in which the bread is placed on top of the soup, covered with grated cheese and broiled until bubbling, the Italian version pours the onion soup over toasted bread that has been rubbed with garlic.

'Cipollata, a Tuscan onion stew, is a specialty of central Italy," Wasserman-Miller says. "Historically, bread soups didn't have meat; they were peasant soups and meat was only for the upper class. And they were water-based, not meat-broth-based. So this is a different style of bread soup."

In her recipe for Cipollata, onions are slowly simmered with pancetta (spicy Italian bacon) and a little sweet Italian sausage. Beef broth (either homemade, canned or made with bouillon cubes and water) is added to the caramelized, melt-in-your-mouth onion mixture. It's poured over the toasted bread (fresh from its garlic rubdown) and served immediately.

* Fast and easy variations: Traditionally, bread replaces pasta or rice in Italian bread soups. But sometimes I use thin slices of toasted bread as a crisp crouton, or crostini, on top of a fast pasta-based soup. It adds crunch as well as flavor.

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