When I was younger, I used to think of November as one of the most boring months of the year. The rain that stuck orange leaves on the ground was just a nuisance that I later had to clean off the the bottom of my shoes and from the mats of the car. As I woke to the pale orange of November’s sunrise, I longed instead for summer’s bright gold sunsets.
All this changed when I started to appreciate local products and food in general. Humidity and rain turned into a great excuse to spend hours cooking or sit next to the fireplace (though the temperature is still not that low here!) and that fog became a wonderful makeup for the countryside and for the old villages, turning trees to ghostly shapes and toning down every hue so that everything looks like a delicate watercolor painting.
Food-wise, our corner of Italy thrives with festivals dedicated to local products. Every weekend, farmers and producers celebrate chestnuts, mushrooms, and truffles. Both Emilia-Romagna and the Marche, the two food regions by my house, are very famous for ‘Formaggio di Fossa’, a special kind of cheese that is wrapped in grape or fig leaves, then cave-aged for several months in a pit. Fall is the time topull the Fossa out from underground, a ritual that is surrounded by much excitement. (I am talking about this in the first issue of Provencial Magazine! YAY!)
Most of all, this is the season of olives — some of which will be cured and some of which will be made into extra virgin olive oil. Marche’s olives are really famous, and November is when olives are picked to make ‘olio novello’, the new olive oil, which is dark green, cloudy, piquant and fragrant unlike any other plant fat you might have had. It is such a gorgeous product, that deserves its own post, so I am going to talk about it more extensively a little later this month.
In short, just when everything seems to be dying, this land flourishes with the same vehemence of early summer. I wonder how I possibly failed to see this before.
At home, every fall day is a gift filled with tasty things to cherish before time runs out. I run around the kitchen, thumbing through old family recipes for chestnuts, the freshest porcini, olives and other local products to enjoy fall’s bounty before it disappears.
I rifled around our pantry for some ingredients that would pair well. I found farro, dried porcini, and a fresh bottle of olive oil that we recently bought on a trip to a local olive mill, that is now in full activity with the new olive oil production. These ingredients are always in my pantry, and they made me think of three places of which my heart is the most fond: chestnuts are from Emilia-Romagna where I grew up, porcini are from the dark green woods of Marche, and farro is from the lush, hilly fields of Tuscany, where I often went camping with my friends and took trips with my family.
I cut and diced, and in no time at all, the soup was simmering on the stove. Isn’t it so comforting to hear the bubbling of soups, as you sit down with a book (or, if you’re like me, writing an article for the blog)? The view outside the kitchen window was so beautifully moody kept getting me distracted.
And now I know: there’s no weather that can take away the magic from the nature of these lands and villages.
I took these pictures in the Montefeltro area, in Fossombrone. There are also some from the truffle fair, that I will share in a later post.
As we are approaching Thanksgiving (only 2 days!) you can make this soup once the festivity food craze is over and you need a simple, tasty, healthy bowl of something to warm you up as you think of what to make for Christmas. Starting December, I will start posting Christmas recipes & gifts as well!
As for this soup, this is naturally vegan. I offer it to you in its basic version, but consider adding some vegetables to make it more filling for less calories (see suggestion below). Farro, from Tuscany, is an ancient, unaltered grain that contains potassium, vitamin B, magnesium and is high in fiber and protein. Chestnuts, from the woods of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany are rich in folic acid and are super healthy for the intestine. Porcini, our precious mushrooms from Marche, are one of the most umami-rich foods on earth.
Here are a few ways you can play around with this soup:
For a Vegetarian version: try finishing this soup with some good quality Italian seasoned cheese, like Grana, Pecorino or, if you can find it, Fossa (cave-aged) cheese. A little crumbled blue cheese would be spectacular as well. Still, I think the best fat addition to this soup is extra virgin olive oil, hands down.
For a gluten-free version: brown rice is the perfect substitute here! In this case, do not cook it beforehand, but add it to the pot when you add the chestnuts, and just cook for 30 minutes or until the rice is ready. Brown rice for risotto would be best, but short-grain brown rice would be great as well. You will probably end up with a less creamy soup though.
You could also get this soup insanely creamy by using gluten-free oats, and adjusting the amount of stock accordingly.
A great addition: Have some truffle oil or truffle paste? Add a teaspoon and send this soup to heaven!
Add some vegetables: This is the soup in its pure and unaltered version, but it can get a little too dense, especially if you’re not using fresh porcini. I suggest adding an extra cup of mixed mushrooms (when you add the porcini), and/or a couple cups of tuscan kale or spinach. Squash or peas would be a great fit, too. You will of course need some more stock.
Substitutions: Consider swapping half the farro for lentils. in this case, add them along with the chestnuts. If they get mushy, well, that’s even better! They will contribute to the creaminess of the soup.
If you cannot get a hold of porcini for the life of you, use a mix of your favorite flavorful mushrooms. I personally don’t love Shiitakes, but if you like them, their umami is very similar. Any kind of earthy, meaty mushroom will do.
If you can’t find farro, try looking for ‘spelt berries’ – they are pretty much the same thing.
You can also purèe the chestnuts with some stock before adding them to the soup for a super creamy variation!
- 1 small carrot, finely minced
- ½ a medium onion, finely minced
- A small celery stick, finely minced
- 80g Pearled farro or spelt berries
- 200g fresh or frozen porcini mushrooms, or 10-15g dried mushrooms
- 15 chestnuts
- 1 tbsp concentrated tomato purée
- 250 ml / 1 cup vegetable stock, plus more if needed
- A garlic clove
- A sage leaf
- A few rosemary needles
- 1 generous tablespoon of olive oil
- Salt & pepper
- Extra virgin olive oil, to garnish
- First, make sure to soak the farro: overnight is ideal, but 6-7 hours will do. Pre-cook it in plenty of boiling water for 40 to 50 minutes, depending on the quality of the farro. It will still be 'al dente'.
- Soak the porcini in warm water. Let them sit for 2-3 hours and, once ready, strain and reserve the liquid.
- Roast the chestnuts: preheat the oven to 400 F˚ / 200 C˚. Make an indentation into each chestnut, and arrange them cut side up on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, until fragrant and until the shell crisps up and comes off easily. Peel them once the chestnuts are cool enough to handle.
- All of the above can be done a day in advance.
- Add the oil, the sage leaf, rosemary and garlic to a pot. You can either finely mince these, or leave them whole and remove them once they released their aroma in the oil. Stir-fry on low for 2-3 minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the minced carrot, onion and celery, and let them sweat until translucent and aromatic, about 5 minutes. Add a splash of stock or water to the 'soffritto' if it threatens to stick.
- If using fresh porcini, wipe off the dirt with a damp cloth or with a special mushroom brush, and cut them into small cubes. If using dried porcini, roughly chop them. Add the porcini to the stir-fry, and mix well.
- chop some of the chestnut kernels, and mash some others. Add them to the pot, along with the tomato paste, stir well and cook for 5 minutes. At this point, if you decided to leave the sage and garlic whole, fish them out of the pot. Season with pepper, and about ½ tsp salt (but adjust according to the kind of stock you are using).
- Add the stock and adjust the heat to low to get the soup to a steady, low simmer. After about 20 minutes, add the pre-cooked farro. Cook for 10 more minutes, stirring every now and then, and more stock if it dries up too much. The soup should be thick, but feel free to add more liquid if you fancy a soupy consistency. Adjust salt and pepper to your liking.
- Once the soup is ready, garnish with some good extra virgin olive oil - possibly, some 'olio novello' (new oil) if you have it!
- This is the kind of soup that only tastes better the day after, and freezes wonderfully, so feel free to make a double/triple batch.
* The recipe for this homemade bouillon can be found in the Fall issue of Chickpea Magazine!
How do you use chestnuts? And are you planning a post-thanksgiving cleanse? Are you already thinking of what to make for Christmas? Let’s share ideas!!
PS: don’t feel like you have to be vegan/vegetarian to comment! I’m curious about ALL of your menus and there’s no need to be shy here! :)