Somewhere along the line I picked up an excellent cookbook called Soups of Italy: Cooking over 130 Soups the Italian Way by Norma Wasserman-Miller. Her short history of Italian soup in the first chapter is really interesting; she writes that zuppa, the Italian word for soup, derives from the Gothic word suppa, defined as “a slice of bread, soaking.” I did have to look this up: it was by the end of the third century that the Goths and Romans crossed paths via Gothic incursion. I imagine Gothic warriors gathered around a fire, soaking up the juices from some spit-roasted wild game with big hunks of rye bread – did they share with the Romans after battle? Did the Romans eye their meal hungrily? Did the Goths share? Either way, it’s an interesting example of cultural exchange during warfare.

Soups of Italy is also more than just a collection of recipes; she teaches the language and techniques of soup-making, breaking the process down into its basic components. Battuto is the aromatic starter, such as garlic or onion. Sapori are the main ingredients, the vegetables or meat. Brodo is the liquid component, and condimenti – pasta and grated cheese – finish a soup. It’s possible to improvise an entire symphony of soups once you know the basic construction. Not just with Italian flavors; I’ve been able to create nice Chinese and Mexican inspired soups by transposing the basic components to a different geographic key.

But I promised you artichokes. Wasserman-Miller’s recipe for Artichoke and Pasta soup, Minestra de Carciofi e Pasta, was the first one I tried. The tomato-artichoke flavor combination is irresistible . . . savory, tangy, slightly sweet – the elusive flavor of umami all simmered up in a pot of goodness.

I’m an improvisational kind of cook, so here is my variation. It’s more of a chunky artichoke stew – I substitute prosciutto for pancetta, omit the butter and pasta, and add garlic, chicken and mushrooms to the mix. Here are a few notes, then the recipe.

A note on artichokes:

  • First all, don’t let any lingering unfamiliarity with this thistle of deliciousness stop you from trying the recipe. If you have access to the book, Wasserman-Miller does writes about how to prep an artichoke in Soups of Italy. If you’re more of a visual person, Alton Brown does an excellent job of demonstrating how to deal with artichokes in this episode of Good Eats. And by now, bien sur, you certainly have access to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking – the ultimate resource.
  • It really is fine to use frozen hearts – it makes this a simple, hearty, tasty weeknight dish. Just be sure to use broth, not water, when you get to that step.
  • Having said that, it is really and truly is completely worth the time and trouble to find tiny baby artichokes. You have to order them online from Pezzini Farms in Castroville. They’re not expensive to and keep for a while in the fridge. Plus, the taste is incomparable!
  • Wash the artichokes in cold water before you add them to the soup, and pull of any outer leaves that look tough. Baby artichokes shouldn’t have a fuzzy choke so they are easier to prepare and eat.

A note on variations:

  • Leave out the chicken and use vegetable broth for a vegetarian option.
  • If you want something heartier just thicken it with a little flour or cornstarch for a stew-like consistency.
  • It’s especially nice either served on top of polenta. It’s also my favorite side dish to broiled open-face ham, fontina, and asparagus sandwiches.

Now, for the recipe:

  1. Heat 3 tbsp grapeseed oil in your soup pot.
  2. Add a minced yellow onion, a minced clove of garlic, and 4 slices chopped prosciutto, then saute over medium heat for 5 minutes.
  3. Optional – at this point you can add one or two diced chicken breasts, reduce heat, cover the pot, and cook for 10 minutes. Sometimes I just toss in leftover shredded chicken and skip the extra cooking time.
  4. Uncover the pot. Next add the artichokes, 3 or 4 chopped Roma tomatoes, and a handful of chopped chanterelle mushrooms.
  5. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook the vegetables for a few minutes, stirring often.
  6. Add 6 cups of broth.
  7. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Cover the pot, bring almost to, as Wasserman-Miller writes, a “lively simmer.”
  9. Reduce the heat and cook until artichokes are tender, about 30 minutes.
  10. It’s fine to make this in advance and simmer (covered!) until you’re ready to eat, and it keeps fine in the refrigerator for several days.
  11. Served topped with grated pecorino or parmesan cheese and freshly chopped Italian parsley.

Buon appetito!