Zuppa di Porcini (Porcini Soup)
Tuscan Meltdowns and....Soup
Tuscany always gets the romantic treatment. Americans love Tuscan sun, wine, hills, olive oil…. Tuscany is a magic word in America and especially at silly restaurants where the word ‘Tuscan’ is used to sex up uninspired menu options in a pinch.
I often have to remind myself that Tuscany is a special word in my native lands. Not because I don’t find Tuscany beautiful, (it is beautiful) but because Tuscany is usually the site of epic road trip meltdowns for Giuseppe and me. Generally by the time we reach Tuscany, we have been in the car for eight hours and we start realizing Tuscany is big, like really big.
We always take the Aurelia, a road that dates backs to Cesar’s time and runs the course of the Italian Mediterranean all the way to Rome. I hate the Tuscan portion of the Aurelia. The views are bland and boring and fail to capture the Tuscany I conjure in my imagination (i.e. Siena and Montepulciano). After hours on the Aurelia, Tuscany just starts feeling like big, fat, endless Texas (and no disrespect to Texans because I also quite like Texas) and any romance I have left for it melts into a puddle of frustrated tears as I scream at Giuseppe for not paying to take the fricking toll road.
Giuseppe has similarly conflicted views of Tuscany but for entirely different reasons. He served in the Italian military and throughout his service, Tuscans with their bizarre, phleghmy accent were a constant source of amusement to him. Giuseppe speaks Neapolitan dialect in a brash staccato that is both halting and symphonic. Tuscan dialect is more guttural and the pronunciation of any word starting with a ‘c,’ comes out sounding more like a ‘ch’ that is a cross between l’chaim!” and a sneeze. Giuseppe still cracks up in a riot of laughter when he remembers a fellow Tuscan private declaring, "Sono holtivatore dihetto,” which loosely translates as“I am a farmer,” but sounds vaguely Slavic when pronounced. Tuscan epithets notwithstanding, even I find the Tuscan accent amusing if not slightly incomprehensible.
As of last week, when we were winding down the old Aurelia, Giuseppe and I had never properly experienced Tuscany together. At a certain point on the Aurelia, we both started going batty and pulled into a local Autogrill. Giuseppe needed a beer and I needed food of some sort. As Giuseppe drank his standard Moretti and I ate my bag of disgusting potato chips, I had yet another Tuscan meltdown. “Why the f*ck are we eating potato chips and drinking beer when we are in fu*king Tuscany?” I screamed at Giuseppe, “we have to stop treating this place like it’s the interstate highway between LA and Las Vegas.”
Searching for an excuse to stop driving and start drinking, Giuseppe called his cousin Angela who lives with her family outside of Grosseto. She graciously agreed to host us for the night. When we arrived at her home, she had prepared this amazing porcini soup for us and served it with a bottle of local Morellino. Now that is the Tuscany I have been imagining. Thank you Angela! She is a true chef and an angel.
Zuppa di Porcini (Porcini Soup)
Serves 4 people as a primo
3oz dried porcini mushrooms (Angela uses wild mushrooms which she forages in the hills near her home, but we can’t all live in Tuscany)
1 Pound button mushrooms, thinly sliced vertically (Angela does not use button mushrooms, but she is fortunate enough to live in Tuscany!)
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Garlic clove, minced
2 Small boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes
Salt (to taste, but no too generous because bouillon cubes are salty!)
Cracked Pepper (to taste)
½ Cup dry white wine
1 Bouillon Cube
5 Cups Water
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
2 Tablespoons cream
1 Cup dried out peasant style bread, cubed
1 Tablespoon oregano
1 Tablespoon hot pepper oil (that is not Tabasco sauce)
Soak dried porcini mushrooms in 1 cup hot water for 30 minutes.
Drain mushrooms, reserving soaking liquid.
Heat olive oil over medium heat in 6qt Dutch oven.
Add porcinis and button mushrooms and sauté, stirring occasionally with wooden spoon for about 7 minutes.
Add salt, pepper, garlic and tomato paste to mushroom mixture and sauté for an additional minute, stirring occasionally.
Deglaze Dutch oven with white wine and allow wine to reduce by half.
Add bouillon cube, five cups water, porcini soaking liquid and potatoes to Dutch oven.
Bring soup mixture to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, uncovered, for one hour.
While the soup is simmering, toss bread cubes in olive oil, salt, pepper and oregano.
Broil on medium for 3 minutes and toss about half way through broiling process.
When the soup has simmered for one hour, add cream and blend soup mixture with an immersion blender to a thick, rustic consistency (based on your textural preference).
Ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with crostini (toasted bread cubes) and a drizzle of hot pepper oil.
Serve immediately and piping hot, best with a glass of hearty Tuscan red wine, such as a Morellino.