Acqua Cotta

All about acquacotta soup, with recipe.

Acquacotta, "cooked water", has to be one of the most primitive soups around. Traditional in Maremma, the marshy coast of Tuscany around Grosseto, it began as a meal for local charcoal makers, shepherds, and cowboys, who would start with a few backpacked and scavenged ingredients. This area of Tuscany was plagued by malaria (mal, "bad"; aria, "air") until its swamps were drained in the mid-18th century, so villages in the region developed isolated culinary traditions. Each one now prepares a slightly different version of acquacotta. 

Aside from water, the basic components are onion and celery sauteed in extra-virgin olive oil, plus tomatoes and peperoncino (hot red pepper). In place of the last two items, some recipes call for porcini mushrooms or Swiss chard - ingredients that a shepherd might find in the course of an ordinary day. Traditionalists ladle this vegetable soup over stale bread, but modern cooks often choose to pour it over toast. Everyone I know tops the bread with an egg, which the hot soup poaches. In most homes, the customary garnish of sharp, aged Tuscan pecorino has been replaced by milder Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Acquacotta, in any of its configurations, appears in Tuscan restaurants and trattorias as a first course, but just like the charcoal makers, shepherds, and cowboys, I usually serve it as a one-dish meal. Try my recipe on your own wandering crew.

March 15, 2001

Tuscan Veggie Soup (Acquacotta) 

1 large red onion or 1 leek, roughly chopped
1 1/2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 lb. Swiss chard, cleaned and torn in half, or 1/2 oz. porcini mushrooms, soaked and drained
Half of a peperoncino or any hot red pepper, fresh or dried
1/2 cup tomato pulp (seeded, juiced, and chopped if fresh or drained and diced if canned)
3 cups simmering water
sea salt
2 eggs (preferably organic)
2 slices rustic, country-style bread, lightly toasted
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Tuscan pecorino cheese

Place the toasted bread in two soup bowls.

Place the onion and celery in a 3-quart, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pot. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and stir to coat. Cook over a medium-low heat, or until the onion is translucent but not brown. Add Swiss chard (or porcinis, if using) and stir briefly to wilt. Add hot pepper, tomatoes, and simmering water. Season lightly with salt and cook over a low heat (barely a simmer) for 20 minutes, until vegetables are very soft.

As vegetables are cooking, bring about an inch of water and a half teaspoon of salt to a boil in a deep skillet. At the end of the vegetables' cooking time, turn the skillet heat down to a gentle simmer. Add the parsley to the soup.

Break the eggs into a small bowl, one at a time, and slide them into the simmering water. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the whites are set, but the yellow is still runny. When done, use a large slotted spoon to place one egg on each toast slice in bowls. Ladle broth and vegetables over each egg and top with a generous sprinkling of the cheese.

Makes 2 servings. 

-March 2001


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