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A hearty soup of beans and greens is an example of the delicious meatless meals enjoyed in Italy during Lent.
Italians are known for enjoying “la dolce vita” (“the sweet life”), and if you doubt that’s true, look no further than Lent.
Lent is a period of penitence and deprivation in the Catholic Church. In early times, those who broke the rules were in for some serious punishment; the emperor Charlemagne, for example, executed those who ate meat during Lent. But Italians managed to turn even their “cucina di magro” (lean cooking) into a feast.
“The Italian love for a good meal, combined with the native ingenuity of making the best of any given situation, produced a rewarding variety of meatless dishes,” G. Franco Romagnoli wrote in “La Cucina di Magro” (Steerforth Italia, 2002).
Carol Field, author of “Celebrating Italy” (William Morrow, 1990), says that “although abstinence is the theme of Lent, a profusion of meals and events threads through the season.” She details how, in one town, a wine-sodden Fat Tuesday feast continues through Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent). It is not until Thursday that a ritual Lenten meal is eaten in the form of salted sardines — “although,” Field adds, “the fact that they are so salty provides a perfect excuse to keep on drinking.”
Another village marks Ash Wednesday with a six-course fish dinner — Field calls it “an enormous blowout” — attended by 2,000. Even the “regular” Lenten fare she chronicles sounds like a sophisticated restaurant menu: frittata with crayfish, polenta made from chestnut flour and served with salt cod and roast herring, pasta with tuna, artichokes stuffed with sweet peppers.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the host of public radio’s “The Splendid Table” and the author of several cookbooks, notes that before World War II, consuming meat was a rare event for all but the wealthiest Italians. “Most people ate meat maybe twice a year, at Christmas and at Easter,” she said during a recent telephone interview. The “peasant” cooking that evolved was heavy on grains, legumes and vegetables, with meat appearing as a flavoring, if at all. It’s a model diet, she said, that’s high in fiber and healthy oils, low in animal fats and dairy. “It’s the way we are eating today,” she said.
Kasper’s book “The Splendid Table” (William Morrow, 1992), offers many meatless recipes, including this one for a soup originally from the hills near Modena, Italy. It is perfect for a cold winter night. And, as the author notes, if you are not observing Lenten restrictions, a little pancetta or meat broth might “find its way into this recipe.”
Mountain soup with garlic croutons
Yield: 8 first-course servings, or 6 generous main-dish servings
For the soup:
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, minced
1 medium carrot, minced
1 stalk celery, minced
1 (3-inch) sprig fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried
1 large baking potato, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
1 large clove garlic, minced
½ small green cabbage, chopped
Leaves of 1 bunch Swiss chard or 14 large romaine lettuce leaves, chopped
½ head black cabbage (“cavolo nero”) or 24 stalks curly endive, chopped
3 1/3 cups canned borlotti or pinto beans, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons tomato paste (preferably imported from Italy)
9½ cups water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the croutons:
4 large slices country bread
1 large clove garlic, halved
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
In a 6- to 8-quart pot, heat oil over medium. Saute onion, carrot, celery and rosemary 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Stir in potato, garlic and greens and let them soften and wilt into the browned vegetables, cooking over medium heat, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Stir in beans, tomato paste and water. Bring to a gentle bubble, partially cover and cook 40 minutes, until thick. Season with salt and pepper. At this point you can cool the soup and refrigerate it, covered, up to 3 days.
No more than a few hours before serving, make the croutons. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Rub both sides of each bread slice with the split garlic and brush with oil. Cut each slice into 4 pieces and toast on a cookie sheet, about 3 minutes per side.
To serve: Warm 8 soup bowls in a low oven. Make sure the soup is bubbling. Put 2 croutons in the bottom of each bowl. Ladle the soup over them and serve hot. Pass olive oil in a cruet and encourage everyone to drizzle about ½ tablespoon oil into the soup and top with a grinding of fresh pepper.
Recipe from “The Splendid Table,” by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (William Morrow, 1992).
Marialisa Calta is a syndicated food writer who lives in Calais.
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