This soup has no right to be as good as it is, given that the ingredients are basically cabbage, beans and potato. That it is so good is down to the first cooking stage, the soffritto, which creates the heady flavour-base from which this traditional Italian peasant food sings.
It is a perfect winter soup: delicious, aromatic and filling. Served alongside toasted crusty bread it is a meal in itself, and it’s even better if made a day ahead. Though it may seem strange to use three different kinds of cabbage, the contrast between them is startling: the white cabbage is sweet, whereas the kale and cavolo nero are slightly bitter.
Served in a traditional Tuscan way, the soup is finished in the oven layered with bread. To serve it this way, slice some crusty farmhouse or sourdough bread as thick as your index finger, toast it lightly and rub each slice with a cut garlic clove. Using a casserole or similar ovenproof serving dish, ladle a layer of soup in the bottom of it, top with a few slices of bread followed by another layer of soup. Continue until both the soup and the bread is used up and cook in a 180C/ gas 4 oven for 20-30 minutes until the soup is piping hot and the bread has soaked up all the juices.
RECIPE serves 6-8
For the soffritto:
6 tbsp olive oil
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 large celery stalk, finely chopped
4 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 tsp fine sea salt
a good grinding of black pepper
a large handful of flat-leaf parsley, leaves and stalks, finely chopped
the leaves from a sprig of rosemary, finely chopped
For the soup:
250g potatoes, any kind, chopped into 2cm dice
250g white cabbage, shredded
400g cavalo nero leaves (stalks removed)
100g curly kale (tough stalks removed)
2 tins of cannellini beans
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock, plus the water from the cannellini bean tins
crusty farmhouse or sourdough bread, toasted and rubbed with garlic
6-8 spring onions, roughly chopped (optional)
a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, cook all the soffritto ingredients (except the garlic) over a medium heat for around 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until softened and aromatic, add the garlic for the final 2 or 3 minutes of cooking. Don’t be tempted to skimp on the oil, it seems a lot but it is crucial to the final flavour and texture, and only works out at a tablespoon per serving.
Add the potatoes and shredded white cabbage and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently, until the cabbage starts to wilt. Add the cavolo nero and kale to the dish and stir through.
Add the stock and water from the cannellini bean tins, bring to the boil then turn down to a steady simmer and cook for around 30 minutes until the vegetables are cooked through and the potato is just tender. Take one tin of the beans and set aside, the other tin should be mashed with a little of the cooking stock to form a thick paste.
When the soup is cooked, add the bean paste and the whole beans and cook for a further ten minutes to heat the beans through and thicken the soup. Correct the seasoning and either serve straight away alongside the bread, put it in the oven Tuscan-style (as above), or leave it to cool ready to eat the following day.
The chopped spring onions are a traditional Tuscan garnish, scattered over the top when serving, but you can omit them if you wish. Don’t omit the final swirl of extra-virgin olive oil over the top though, it adds a lush silkiness to the finished dish.