Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today, the perfect one-pot meal: acquacotta, an ancient soup from central Italy of wild greens and bread, topped with a poached egg.
Spring is a time for foraging, for making dinner from wild things found and gathered in fields and woods. Out-of-control weeds that grow dotted over lush lawns and take over corners of the garden could actually be your next meal. Take, for example this beautiful and ancient dish, acquacotta (literally, “cooked water,” but also meaning “cooked in water”), a tradition of southern Tuscany and Lazio, where the fields are filled with mounds of jagged-edged weeds and other wild vegetables.
It was once a meal that was thrown together outdoors, over a boiling pot made by butteri (Maremman cowboys), shepherds, or fisherman, wherever they happened to be. All that was needed was dried bread -- bread that was once specifically made and dried to be easily portable for making this dish -- along with garlic, wild herbs, and greens that were foraged from around the fields during the spring and autumn (wild chicory, stinging nettles, dandelions, sow thistle, wild beet, wild fennel, wild asparagus, or whatever else could be collected). Fishermen would also add some small fish from their catch.
It was also a dish made at home, where potato or tomatoes were usually added. And if it was a special occasion (or if you were just lucky), the acquacotta was completed with an egg, cracked right into the soup itself to poach, or perhaps a piece of baccalà. It's the perfect one-pot meal.
The defining characteristic of this dish -- at least alla Viterbese, the way they do it in Viterbo -- is that the vegetables and aromatics are cooked entirely in water, not sizzled in olive oil. And in any case, the classic soffritto is usually forgone for just some garlic cloves, whole and unpeeled, that go straight into the water. To serve the acquacotta, the vegetables and accompanying broth are spooned over a slice of dried of stale bread, which soaks up any liquid. The resulting dish should not be brothy at all; in fact, any liquid that remains in the bottom of the bowl should be removed, as it would interfere with the final touch: some potent extra-virgin olive oil, drizzled over the top.
It's a wonderfully simple dish of clean flavors, where the strong, bitter notes of the wild chicory sing out in contrast to the creamy, mellow egg yolk and bite of raw olive oil. If you can't get your hands on wild chicory -- the traditional must-have ingredient for this dish -- try this with other wild greens or even your favorite regular greens. Broccoli rabe, turnip tops, beet tops, or anything else that is dark green would work for this.
2 large bunches of wild chicory
2 garlic cloves
2 small potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
10 1/2 ounces (300 grams) of tomatoes (Roma are best), chopped
Pinch of salt
4 slices of stale bread from a good, dense, wood-fired country loaf (or if fresh, dry out the slices in a low oven)
Extra-virgin olive oil
A handful of chopped wild fennel and calamint (if unavailable, use fennel tops in place of the wild fennel and oregano, marjoram, or mint in place of the calamint)
Photos by Emiko Davies