Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Peasants Had It Right!

Winter is here and for me that means soup. I'm not talkin' watery tomato soup out of a can from Campbell's, ugh. I'm talkin' Italian soups that my mother made from ingredients that, except for the chicken, cost under a buck back in the fifties. Hearty, stick to your ribs soups like Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Bean Soup); Pasta Lenticchie (Pasta and Lentil Soup); Pasta Piselli (Pasta with Peas); Pasta e Ceci (Chickpea and Pasta Soup); Scarola e Fagioli (Escarole and Beans); and finally, Chicken Soup (no translation needed.)

Many wonderful Italian dishes like these arose, not out of culinary creativity, but out of economic necessity. The dishes originated among Italian peasants who were poor. Meat was a luxury for many Italian families so it did not feature prominently in their everyday table fare. They had it mostly on Sundays, and of course on holidays, but during the week they ate what they could afford. Beans and greens were plentiful; many even grew their own, and pasta was always available, mainly because they made it themselves. Crusty, fresh-baked bread completed these meals along with a glass of home-made red wine.

Italians entered this country in numbers, starting in the late 1800s and through the immigration boom into the early twentieth century. They settled mostly in areas like lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn where enclaves of Italian immigrants already existed. Lucky for us, these simple but delicious and very nutritious dishes traveled with them. Since I hit my teens, I have developed a severe dislike for winter that grows worse with age. The one saving grace this dark, cold, miserable season offers is hot soup for dinner.

It's ironic that although these dishes were created by and for peasants, they have today gained a new cache with the rich and famous. It has been found that foods like beans, greens, and even pasta are very good for you, high in protein and low in fat. All the chi-chi Italian restaurants in Manhattan now offer these soups, but at ridiculously expensive prices. What some of them charge for a plate of Pasta e Fagioli and a glass of wine is criminal. Don't pay it, it's easy to make your own, and infinitely cheaper.

If you're not Italian, and have not had the pleasure of trying some of these dishes, you're in for a treat. Although some time and preparation is required, the soups are not difficult to make. There are many recipes available on the Internet; below are links to some that looked reasonably authentic. If you're afraid to try cooking them, as a last resort you can (forgive me Mom) buy the canned variety; Progresso makes some very good ones. Always serve these soups with crusty Italian bread, plenty of grated Italian cheese and red wine; they will make you long for winter.
  1. Recipe: Pasta and Bean Soup (Pasta e Fagioli)
  2. Lentil Soup with Pasta - Pasta e Lenticchie
  3. The Italian Chef Recipes - Pasta Piselli
  4. Romanelli's Pasta e Ceci, or Chickpea and Pasta Soup
  5. Escarole and Bean Soup: Giada De Laurentiis : Food Network
  6. Classic Italian Chicken Soup - FoodFit.com

I think one of the reasons I love Italian soups so much is that they are bound up with memories of my mother. She knew how to warm us up when we came in on a winter night, and I think about her sometimes when my wife (a soup whiz herself) makes one of her specialties for dinner. I can't think of a better reason for eating them.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Ah, soup! How could you go wrong with pastina in your soup? What about those little meatballs and escarole, eh? Mom made chicken and beef soups every other Monday night! Great blog.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Jackie Mason does a bit about how soup is better than sex. He says something like: "When you get older, you don't want sex as much as you used to, but you're always ready for soup!" Wise man.