Water Works: Though stockless, this Italian peasant soup is rich with flavor

It was the hottest day of the summer in Florence, and I was on a mission to find acquacotta, a Northern Italian soup whose name translates to “cooked water.” I had scoured the city all morning trying to soak up every bit of Florence in between my carefully selected meals, all of which would be quintessentially Tuscan. I had read that acquacotta, considered cucina povera, or peasant food, was a stockless vegetable soup with a poached egg and toasted bread with cheese – what I consider the perfect trifecta of ingredients.

When I found it at a restaurant appropriately named Acquacotta – schlepping bags of Florentine treasures, starved, exhausted and drenched – I was greeted by a smiling woman who most likely thought I actually was a peasant. She seemed to appreciate my broken Italian when I ordered wine, an antipasto platter, white beans in olive oil and a bowl of acquacotta. “Yes, all for me” was the look I proudly gave her as my order concluded.

When my much anticipated soup arrived, it was perfection. The broth, filled with mushrooms, tomatoes and beans, was perfectly seasoned. The egg, which sold me on the dish from the start, added beautiful color and interesting texture. And then there was the lightly toasted bread, coated with melted Parmesan on one side and soaking up broth on the other. It was the perfect lunch, regardless of the weather.

As a regional dish, acquacotta has many variations. Ingredients change depending upon the bounty of the season, the locality and the cook who makes it. The version of acquacotta below is from the Maremma region of Tuscany and includes a poached egg, which adds a wonderfully rich layer of flavor once you break the yolk and mix it into the broth.
Cucina povera is the culinary equivalent of making the best with what you’ve got. Essentially you can add any vegetable to acquacotta, or just work with the contents of your fridge. Many recipes will call for swiss chard, a vegetable I normally love, but I find that the flavor overwhelms the other ingredients; I prefer to use spinach instead. And because acquacotta doesn’t rely on stock, a little flavor building is necessary. Fresh herbs like basil offer a flavor boost, and using aromatics like leeks rounded out the flavors of the vegetable purée. I also think the use of an earthier mushroom was a very important component in creating the umami factor – that indescribable comfort food flavor. I used porcini mushrooms, which lend a robust flavor. If you can’t find them fresh, buy dried and reconstitute them. If you do use fresh mushrooms, sweat or sauté them before adding them to the soup to reduce the high water content and release their flavor.

As winter marches on and we all tire of the weather, think of the sweltering summer that lingers four months from now. In the meantime, evoke sunny Italy with a warm and comforting bowl of acquacotta.