On days like today, when the wind is doing its best to batter through the windows and even the usually ebullient pigeons in the back yard have gone into hiding from the vertical rain, the only thing to do is to escape to the kitchen and make soup. And I’m not talking about something that’s been puréed into oblivion until it’s no better than water; no, I want chunks of strong, green vegetables to bite into. I want anchovies and garlic. I want beans and chilli flakes and plenty of salt. Something, in short, that will warm not just my stomach but my eyes and mind as well.
First things first: what can I put in it? On a day like today I’m not going outside to buy ingredients if I can possibly help it. I root through the veg bowl. Onions are discarded out of hand. They’re bullies, tastewise – I want the fresh strength of green vegetables, not the insidious cloy of alliums. Lemons and courgettes? Nope, not ballsy enough. I’ll save those for a day when the sun’s out and I want light, tangy summer in a bowl. Ah, what have we here? Broccoletti? Perfect. I chop up a good large bunch, stalks, leaves and all and set it aside while I squish a garlic clove. No mimsy garlic presses in this Italian kitchen. No, the cloves are chopped finely with the surprisingly sharp serrated table knives that are the norm here, and then squished with the edge of the blade. Less washing up, less waste, and far more satisfying as a process. Living in Italy has changed my attitude to garlic. Days were when I would happily chuck three or four cloves into one dish. Not now. One clove, maximum, finely chopped and then mashed into puree with the edge of a knife blade. I’m constantly bemused by English friends who, when I talk about Italian cooking, immediately talk about how much garlic is used here. Um, no. You’re thinking of garlic bread. Which is an American invention. What I love about cooking and eating here is the simplicity of it. Long, slow cooking with minimal ingredients which meld to form a far greater whole than the sum of their parts.
Garlic crushed sufficiently, it’s time to fry it and the anchovies in olive oil. On my stove, this is a precision moment. Yes, I have a gas hob, but there’s very little control over it – even on the smallest ring the temperature starts at HOT and quickly escalates to OHMYGODI’MMEEEEEELTIIIIIIIIING. It’s only a few seconds until the scent of lightly scorched fish and garlic reaches my nose and then it’s in with the broccoletti, turning it quickly until it’s all coated evenly. I keep stirring, tossing the greens around the pan, enjoying the smells coming out of it – like seaweed on the shore on a hot summer’s day. A minute or so more, stirring all the while, until a couple of leaves start to brown. Then it’s time to slosh in some water and leave it all to bubble for a minute or so while I search out the beans that I know I’ve got *somewhere*. Now, just to work out where … Ah! Found them, hiding behind the teabags. In they go. The red of the beans against the vibrant green of the broccoletti is a feast for the eyes, and my stomach wants in on the action. It starts rumbling and I stir the soup in anticipation, willing it to come up to the boil faster.
Finally, it’s ready. I grab a bowl from the cupboard and scoop and pour the chunky soup into it. It’s just as I like it. More like a stew than a soup, with not too much liquid, and plenty of solid pieces of green broccoletti and red beans. This is something to really get your teeth into. The final touches: a liberal grinding of chilli flakes and salt, followed by a spoonful of yoghurt. I take a second to appreciate the irony that the addition of Greek yoghurt turns this, visually, into an Italian flag of a dish – but only a second. Spoon in hand, I dig in and enjoy.