February 6, 2014

Italian Table Talk: On Soups and Risi e Suca


Rice used to come to the table in the shape of steamy platefuls of creamy, buttery risotto. It could have been with mushrooms, or asparagus, or shrimps, or chicken gizzards; sometimes even with spinach - not often, thankfully, as it was my least favourite, and seemed more like a trick to make me eat the dreadful leafy greens. My grandma, especially, has always had the habit to make risotto for Sunday lunch, as a primo, followed by a meat course. It had become almost a ritual, and a welcomed one. I was always going for second helpings even though her risotto was known for being quite thick, a bit heavy, and certainly not what purists would call a 'properly done' one.

Since the beginning, then, I had associated rice with something quite festive, a nice change from the everyday bowl of pasta. However, as I discovered later, it hasn't always been the case - it was actually the other way around. Rice, in the flatland of Veneto as well as those of Lombardy and Piedmont, in the North of Italy, was a staple food, far more widespread and widely available to the masses than dry (or fresh) pasta. Rice was a key source of energy in people's diet alongside polenta, and it was often combined with legumes and other vegetables, and sometimes small amounts of animal fats, for a complete meal. Many traditional Venetian cookbooks will list recipes featuring rice, whose amount overshadows the one of pasta recipes. Pasta seemed to be something reserved for the Sunday meal, well dressed with oily meat rag├╣ - but only for those lucky enough to afford it.

Not only was rice an everyday food, but it was also rarely made into risotto. Rather, it was mostly throwin into soup. Many famous Venetian primi piatti, especially those of the cucina povera, i.e peasant origins, are actually rice-based soups: risi e bisi (rice and peas) in the spring, risi e faxoi (rice and beans, an alternative to pasta and beans), risi e patate (rice and potatoes), risi e verxe (rice and cabbage), and risi e suca (rice and pumpkin), in the fall and winter months. These dishes were nourishing, economical, seasonal - and even relatively healthy.

Risi e suca is definitely one if my favourite soups. As far as I can remember, I have always loved the flavour of pumpkin, particularly in savoury preparations. Although it wasn't my mum's strongest suit - she never really liked pumpkins, and really hated cutting them - she would still make this bright orange, creamy soup a couple of times a year, whenever grandma would send us one of her deliciously sweet pumpkins. Her trick to balance out the overall sweetness of this soup was to add a little bit of freshly made (non-aged) salami in the onion soffritto. The other trick: she would also blend the cooked pumpkin with its cooking water to make a smoother broth, and eventually, a creamier soup. I am not sure if any of this is truly orthodox - there seem to be no trace of salami or blending techniques in any Venetian cookbooks (written in dialect!) I came across. But as you might know by now, she liked to break the rules. I like to think they are these anarchic recipes I am bringing with me - they teach me a lesson in being myself without forgetting where it all comes from.

This month Italian Table Talk is dedicated to the warming theme of soups. Come and join us for a comforting steamy bowl: Giulia brought a fantastic recipe for zuppa di farro e fagioli della Garfagnana, so thick you can spread it on bread; Emiko cooked zuppa di moscardini, a seafood soup from the Tuscan coast; and Jasmine made chicken broth, an essential base for a lot of other preparations.

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Risi e Suca (Rice and Pumpkin Soup)

The best type of pumpkin for this soup is the Chioggia variety, as it seems to be the sweetest; alternatively, a Mantovana or a Violino would work well. As for the type of rice, the varieties grown in Veneto are Vialone Nano, Arborio and Carnaroli. I used Vialone Nano because I enjoy the melt-in-the-mouth texture it gives to the soup. It might not look too appealing or attractive, but it is a true comfort food - give it a shot while pumpkins are still around - alas, not for long.

Serves 4

1 small white onion
1 small Italian sausage (optional)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil or butter
800g pumpkin
1.5 L vegetable or chicken broth
200g Vialone Nano rice
Fine grain sea salt
Black pepper, freshly ground
Parmesan cheese, grated


Peel the pumpkin, then cut into quarters and remove the seeds using a small, sharp knife. Cut into small cubes. Set aside.
Heat the oil or butter in a large pot, add the finely chopped onion and fry until translucent. If using, remove the skin from the sausage and crumble it into the pot with the onion. Once nicely browned, add the pumpkin. Lower the heat and cook until it softens, about ten minutes. At this point, pour the stock, just enough to cover the pumpkin. Place a lid on the pot and cook for about 15 minutes. When the pumpkin is soft and falls apart, remove from the heat and cream with an immersion blender. 
Put back on the heat and add the rice and more stock. Cook on medium-low heat for twenty extra minutes - the rice must be very soft. Add more stock as needed. Before serving, taste for salt and season accordingly. Finish off with abundant freshly ground black pepper.
Serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

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6 comments:

  1. Loved reading about that. I always associated Italians and rice with risotto, and I thought it was more of a regional thing rather than a special occasion thing re: pasta or rice. In Asia, rice is definitely the staple and it comes in a steaming huge heap too, though often simply plain and then enjoyed with lots of little side dishes. When we were younger, my mum used to add cooked rice to broth too, and I loved it and I still have it now when I cook for myself. It's so comforting to drink up a flavourful soup and have little sweet starchy grains with every mouthful. It's often with a light clear soup though, so not liek the one you have above, but I am so keen to try this out! It sounds delicious and looks lovely too! I'm not familiar with those Italian varieties of pumpkin, but for Asians, the kabocha squash is the sweetest and my favourite :)

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    1. Kabocha squash will be perfect! Risotto exported itself far better than rice soup as I guess it appeals to more people, and also because rice soup was 'food of the poor'...Yet, these dishes are starting to be rediscovered because in the end, they are quite nutritious and healthy, and also cheap (which helps). That said, I find a little bowl of steamed rice next to a bowl of piping hot broth very comforting, and it is too bad that it is considered 'food for when you're sick' here, because really, there so much more to enjoy there!

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  2. Nice post, very informative. Love the simplicity of this soup.

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    1. Thank you Cheri - simple things sometimes can be surprisingly special...

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  3. So every time I learn something new. I could expect rice to be used more than pasta, but I though it would have been to make risotto, not soups! This seems so perfect in this rainy monday! Orange is the colour of happiness!

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    1. Agreed - orange can really make a gray day turn a bit brighter, and I m trying to eat as much as possible. I thought so too - risotto vs soup -but then I thought about it and really, risotto for a crowd takes way too much effort and attentions, while a rice soup comes together on its own really. Makes sense if we think of the number of people sitting at the same table at the beginning of 1900s, up until the 1960s :)

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