Italian Table Talk: Zuppa di moscardini
Soup is the measure of a good cook. It may be a simple and humble vegetable soup or an extravagent bisque, but either way, it needs to be made with the knowledge of how to get the flavour out of your ingredients. Layers are key. As is texture. And a good stock goes a long way. It’s a dish that takes not necessarily time but a certain amount of skill and instinct in the kitchen.
We decided that soup should be this month’s theme for our Italian Table Talk (a monthly discussion on Italian food traditions, if you’re new) series, not only because (over in the Northern hemisphere anyway) it makes a great seasonal dish that warms and comforts, but because we all love it. Giulia prepares Tuscan bean and farro soup, Valeria does risi e suca (pumpkin rice soup, yes please), while Jasmine does brodo di pollo, chicken broth. I personally really enjoy making soup – the washing up is always easy. And there’s something quite alchemistic about throwing things into a bubbling pot together, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, adjusting flavours here and there. Then, there’s the result – when done right, comforting, warming mouthfuls of flavour and lovely texture. What’s not to love?
It’s interesting that in English we use the word ‘soup’ to describe an array of textured dishes that go from cleansing, clear liquid broths to a thick and creamy purees. La zuppa in Italian is usually a hearty soup, while brodo describes broth soups, vellutata, passata or crema, a creamy, pureed soup and minestra a chunky soup – usually, a rustic dish of peasant origins. In Tuscany, it’s often fortified with legumes, blended to a creamy density, or stale bread, repurposed, to create a thick pappa that stands firmly on your plate rather than flows, like this ribollita or this pappa al pomodoro.
I do love a good seafood soup. There’s nothing quite like Livorno’s cacciucco if you’re going to go all out and you have plenty of people to share it with AND you don’t plan to eat anything else at all that day. But failing that, a simpler and decidedly tasty zuppa di moscardini, a soup of baby octopus, makes a wonderful lunch that will transport you to the Mediterranean with just one bite.
The key is to sear the octopus quickly at the beginning, then cook it long enough that it becomes so tender you can cut it with your spoon. In the process, the octopus soaks up plenty of flavour and takes on the slightly purple colour of the red wine and the dark red of the tomatoes. A hint of warmth from the chilli and some bread, lightly toasted and rubbed with garlic are musts.
Zuppa di moscardini
Baby octopus soup
Usually baby octopus has already been cleaned for you,which makes for a very easy dish. But if not, cleaning them adds just a little bit of labour to the dish. To do so, you simply need to remove the eyes, beak and insides and rinse well under running water. Pat dry with kitchen paper. Done.
- 1 kg baby octopus, cleaned
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed (plus one whole clove for serving with the bread)
- 1 small red chilli, sliced
- salt and pepper
- 1 glass of red wine
- fish stock (or vegetable stock or water) to cover
- 1 400 gr can of peeled tomatoes or tomato puree
- a splash of red wine vinegar (optional)
- parsley, chopped as garnish
- bread to serve
In a medium soup or casserole pot, sear the octopus with a splash of olive oil over high heat. When the octopus has been seared all over, lower the heat and add the onion, shortly followed by the garlic and chilli. Season with salt and pepper. When the onion has softened, add the red wine and simmer until reduced. Add the stock to cover and cook 15 minutes covered with a lid, then add the tomato. Cook a further 15 minutes on low-medium flame or until the octopus are very tender. Top up with water or stock as necessary if the liquid is reducing too quickly. If you like a splash of sourness, add the vinegar. Serve with chopped parsley garnishing the top and grilled slices of bread rubbed with a raw clove of garlic