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I was introduced to this wonderful Italian dish by one of my dear friends on one of those fridge-is-empty-but-I-am-too-lazy-to-go-shopping days. At first, I thought he was inventing a recipe as he discovered things in my fridge and larder, but as they say, the proof of the [soup] is in the eating! Now, if any of you are looking for a light appetiser, I warn you – this is not it! Although this soup can be served as a first course in small quantities, a large bowl can easily be the whole meal. The ingredients are simple and hearty, and the cooking process simple enough for even an amateur like me to turn out a great dish. An added advantage of this dish is that it can easily be made for vegetarians as well as non-vegetarians. You will notice as you go along that all the non-vegetarian ingredients are either optional or can be easily substituted.

The soup is thought to originate in Tuscany, and typical of northern Italian cooking, is lighter than the thick sauces one would expect in Naples or Palermo. However, I prefer the heartier, thicker version (so I do not have to worry about a main dish!) and have modified the original slightly. I must apologise to most of my Italian friends for the liberties I have taken with the soup – for a nation that went to war over truffles, I understand how what I have done might be considered a sacrilege in some places :-) That said, buon appetito!

Ingredients:

  • Garlic – eight cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • Basil – one bunch (approx. 20-25 small/medium leaves), chopped coarsely
  • Vegetable (chicken) broth – one litre
  • Extra virgin olive oil – 6 tablespoons
  • Plum tomatoes – 800g, crushed
  • Unsalted, stale bread – 350g
  • Salt to taste
  • Pepper to taste
  • (Onion – one medium, finely chopped)
  • (Sugar to taste)
  • (Chili powder to taste)
  • (Turkey pepperoni – 50 – 75g)
  • (Dry red wine – 1/2 cup)

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 30-35 minutes

Serves: 6

Process:

  • Pour the olive oil in a large stockpot and set to medium-low flame. Add the basil and garlic. Many people add onions too, but I do not – I left this in the recipe because it is not uncommon to do so. Heat until onions are brown and soft.
  • Add the tomatoes, and amateurs – make sure the flame is no more than medium-low! Tomatoes do not interact well with excessive heat! Heat until mix is warm; stir regularly. Add the broth and stir it in. If you wish, you can use chicken broth instead of vegetable broth to give the soup a meatier taste.
  • The bread should be about two days old. That way it is fairly hard but not too hard to break into crumbs. Break the bread into small crumbs, about 1.5 inches long, and drop them into the soup. If, for some reason, the bread is too hard to break, soak it in the broth for an hour or two. Then pat it dry and break it into crumbs to add to the soup. Keep stirring at regular intervals.
  • At this point, to push the soup firmly into a southern Italian mould, add turkey pepperoni (or regular pepperoni even, I suppose). Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • Time for some last-minute course corrections and optional extras: if the soup tastes tart, add some sugar. If the garlic flavour is not strong enough for your liking, add some garlic powder (too late for fresh garlic!) and stir. Amateurs should note that these last-minute adjustments depend upon the nature and quality of ingredients. In some places I have lived, the garlic was not potent enough and I had to put an entire head once! Sometimes, the tomatoes are too watery or too tart. The sugar will balance the tartness and the water will be taken care of with an extra minute or two of heating and stirring. Some people also add a bit of chili powder to make it spicier.
  • As a last optional extra, add the red wine and stir. Heat for a couple of minutes more and you’re done!

Some people eat the soup with a sprinkling of Parmesan on top, but I prefer a little drizzle of olive oil on top and a side of fresh mozzarella with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and a twig of basil.

A rich, fruity white wine would go well with this soup.

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