I think the best Italian food that never makes it abroad are the soups. I guess it must be because they don’t look glamorous enough to be included in Italian restaurants (and anyway, I still have to find an Italian restaurant abroad nearly as good as some restaurants in Italy), and they are that good because of difficult to source ingredients. If you have travelled in Tuscany and had a chance to eat any of the soups there, you know what I am talking about. They redefine the somewhat boring concept of soup: they rely on arrays of vegetables, herbs, heirloom pulses and grains, little bits of meat, and of course olive oil, to produce drop-dead-gorgeous flavours and textures. And it is not only Toscana of course, although my favourite ones are from there.
Last weekend I went to the local market with a fresh pair of eyes, determined to try something new. I have realized with a bit of a shock how lazy I have been in my food choices. I like carbs, vegetables and fruit. I’ve tried all the funny looking vegetables at the Vietnamese shop, always have at least three varieties of rice in my pantry, and have eaten all the types of organic, wood-oven bread they sell at the market. On the other hand, I don’t like meat, especially if I can’t identify what is in there, so I have left the huge selection of Wurst and Aufschnitt (cold cuts) largely unexplored. Also, I don’t like vinegary food very much, so no Gewuerzgurken (pickled cucumbers), Sauerkraut, and the endless ready-made salads on sale. But I know this is mainly laziness, cooking with what I’m comfortable with instead of pushing my boundaries a bit to discover new flavours.
Last weekend I kept my eyes open and bought what was available. I ended up recreating a soup I have not eaten in a long time: la jota. Food venues in Trieste are called buffet: in the rest of Italy they will be called tavola calda, a place making a few hot dishes throughout the day, usually closed in the evening. When you enter in a buffet you are always welcome by the smell and sight of a huge pot where all the bits of port, smoked and not, are boiling throughout the day, together with a slightly more acidic note: capuzi garbi, or Sauerkraut. When I was cooking this soup the smell brought me back straight to a buffet. It is a very poor soup, made with the cheapest cuts of meat, usually smoked, Sauerkraut, potatoes and beans. You can add other vegetables (onions, carrots, celery…) or more meat (a sausage or two), or leave the meat out. In theory I should not like it very much: I don’t like smoked meat, I don’t like strong pork flavours, I don’t like the sour touch of sauerkraut. But somehow this totally works to create a very hearty soup, almost addictive, very much in the mood with this gray and rainy summer (see the sad-looking picture, and I took it with full daylight! where’s my light gone?). A soup which, like all good soups, is way better if left to rest for a day or even two. I used smoked pork ribs, which I bought ridiculously cheap at the market: I remember they were everywhere in Trieste. Any smoked bit of pork will do, or you can even try non smoked and use a ham bone. I find fresh Sauerkraut at the market, which is way tastier than the tinned variety. I’ve seen it on sale only in Germany or in some regions of Italy, not sure about the rest of the world: fresh Sauerkraut must be eaten within a few days. You can actually make it at home, but I’ll probably pass on that for now, since the fresh ones are ridiculously cheap and definitely good.
Jota (beans and Sauerkraut soup)
200 gr dried borlotti beans
2 smoked pork ribs, or a ham bone, or a piece of smoked pancetta
200 gr Sauerkraut
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon flour
salt and pepper
Soak the beans overnight. The day after put the beans in a pot with the smoked ribs, the peeled and roughly chopped potatoes, and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer until the beans are tender but not overcooked (I used my pressure cooker and it took about 30 minutes). Meanwhile prepare the sauerkraut: put them in a small pot, cover with water, and let it boil until the water is completely gone. Don’t skip this step or the Krauts will be a bit hard and have an unpleasant consistency. Add them to the beans and let it simmer again. Peel and slice the onions and mince the garlic. Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a small pan, add the onion and the garlic and cook gently until soft and fragrant, adding a pinch of salt to draw out moisture. Mix the flour, mix well and leave the flour to toast a bit. Turn off the heat and put into the bean soup. Adjust seasoning and let it simmer until the flavours mix with each other, another 20-30 minutes (without pressure). You can mash or whizz in a food processor part of the beans and potatoes to get a creamier soup is you like. Before serving you can scrap some of the meat off the pork ribs, it will be melting tender and very tasty. Serve with a bit of olive oil and black pepper to taste.