26 July 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: The Question is: Zuppa o Minestra?

SARONNO, Italy – a sweet summer lull has settled over Saronno this month, I decided to tackle a question my cousin T asked me a while ago, back when the weather was not hovering in the 90’s.  “What is the difference between minestra and zuppa,” she wanted to know.  But after a bit of research, here is what I came up with.
Summer Minestrone
Minestra is much older than zuppa, by quite a few centuries. The word comes from the Latin ministrare, which means to ‘administer’, and references the fact that minestra was any type of  food served from a single bowl or pot by the head of the household. Traditionally minestra was the primary, and only meal the servants got.

Today the word is used to mean a ‘first course’ in a traditional ‘three course’ Italian meal. I’m certain you’ve seen the word Minestre or Minestre Asciutte on menus here in Italy followed by a list of vegetables and legumes and pasta or rice cooked in stock, including some risottos and pasta dishes like spaghetti with clams.
 Cannallini Beans
Minestrone, which is a variation of the word minestra, is just one of many minestra soups. Minestrone a great vegetable based summer soup and traditionally includes fresh or dried beans or other legumes, potatoes, pasta or rice. In the summer it is served at room temperature and you will see bowls of it sitting out on buffet tables as an appetizing first course in many trattorias. For a good minestrone soup recipe, see http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2011/08/auntie-pasta-summer-soup.html ).

Zuppa is something completely different. Zuppa, with few exceptions, is a broth that has slices of bread in it, but never pasta or rice. The word zuppa comes from the Gothic suppa, meaning soaked bread. As you no doubt remember from your Italian history courses, the Goths, or Visigoths , were the Germanic tribe who invaded Italy in 410 AD and sacked Rome before they moved on to Spain and Portugal. So in Italy we got zuppa from the German suppe, while in Spain and Portugal suppe became sopa.  Brothers from different mothers, but they all had the same Daddy.
Italian Bread - The Real Deal
On the tables of the nobility in medieval Europe, there were no dishes or plates as we think of dishes and plates today. Food was served on slices of bread, called trenchers. At the end of the meal, the ‘bread plates’ were saturated with the juices of the meats and other foods that had been placed on them. The servants would then take those left over bits of bread and recook them in water or stock for their own meals.   

Zuppa was essentially cooked dishwater and would never have been seen on the table of the rich, not in any form. Today, there are many variations of zuppe, souped up variations if you’ll excuse the pun, that appear  on restaurant menus and dinner tables of Italians from one end of the country to the other. For example: Tuscan ribollita. This thick soup of bread, beans, black cabbage (cavolo nero), green cabbage and other vegetables is a Tuscan classic, found on every trattoria and restaurant menu in Tuscany.  It is always made a day or two before it is to be eaten to allow the flavors to develop, which makes it a great dish to prepare during the week and served on the weekend.
Tuscan  Cavallo Nero -
                 1 can of Cannellini beans, drained.
                4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
                1  onion, thinly sliced
                1 leek, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
                1 carrot, cut into 1/4-inch dice
                1 celery stalk, cut into 1/4-inch dice
                1 garlic clove, thinly sliced, plus 1 whole garlic clove
                2 sprigs fresh thyme
                1 sprig of fresh rosemary
                1 bay leaf
                1 pound chopped cavolo nero (black cabbage), roughly chopped
                1/2 pound chopped green cabbage, roughly chopped
                2 scant tablespoons tomato paste
                3 cups water
                4 (1/2-inch) slices good quality Italian bread
                Salt and freshly ground black pepper
                Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a 12-inch sauté pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the onion, leek, carrot, celery, sliced garlic, and herbs. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the black and white cabbages and cook until the cabbage has softened and the flavors have blended, about 10 minutes. Add the drained can of cannellini beans. Salt and pepper, to taste. Remove the sprigs of rosemary and thyme and the bay leaf. Add the tomato paste, and stir until the tomato paste is well distributed throughout the vegetable mixture.

Let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight (or up to two days).

Before serving, gently reheat the soup and sprinkle with a little Parmigiano. Serve with garlic bruschetta on the side.


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