Marcella's Broccoli and Potato Soup

October 22, 2013

Sunday Dinners comes to us from our own chef/photojournalist/farmer/father figure Tom Hirschfeld, featuring his stunning photography and Indiana farmhouse family meals.

Today: Tom learns to be a home cook after a little tough love from Marcella.

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Each year I look forward to making this recipe with the first broccoli from the fall garden. I'll make it several times from mid-autumn to early winter. It requires but a few humble ingredients which, when combined in the soup pot, are as satisfying as knowing you have an uncommitted hundred dollar bill in your pocket.

As with many soups of few ingredients, it requires attention to detail, your best technique, as well as quality ingredients. But if you are anything like me, you find as much enjoyment in the process as the reward.

The process for me starts with chicken stock made from scratch. I use old hens from my flock each year to make my stock, but any bones would work great. From the carcasses I make a very richly flavored stock which I preserve by canning. I use the homemade canned stock for many soups throughout the cold months. I urge you, if you don't already, to learn how to make good stock even if you don't preserve it by canning.

More: A good go-to chicken broth, with a kick.

The next step for me is in my garden. I walk the rows of heirloom broccoli looking for tight, almost purple in color, florets. I give them a delicate squeeze for firmness and if they make the grade I get out my pocket knife and cut the stalks. It doesn't stop there: there are the firm, yellow-fleshed potatoes and the pungent basil leaves stripped from thick, late-summer stalks.

All the ingredients are laid out on the counter top. I have an urge to stick close to Marcella's original recipe, I want her book close at hand and set it next to the cutting board. Even though I have made this recipe from memory I want to make it as Marcella has it written. I like to do this occasionally, to refresh my memory and taste.

I clean the vegetables. With the exception of the potatoes, I cut everything and collect up the ingredients setting them neatly on a sheet tray. Then I move them close to the soup pot so they are at hand.

I came late to Marcella's books in my cooking, even then it took time for her to grow on me. She was a champion of home cooking and I was more interested in preparing fancy and complicated restaurant food. I never met her; even so I often call her Marcella as if I knew her. I bet lots of people do this.

We did have a conversation once through social media. She called me out on a picture of a branzino, a Mediterranean sea bass. I had this fancy picture, a great photograph of the fish on a bed of greens with prosciutto and I posted it. I received lots of positive comments and likes. Then later that Saturday night Marcella asked me, "What are you doing to this poor fish?"

She may as well have rolled up a wet kitchen towel and snapped me on the ass. She called me out. What proceeded from the sting was a weekend-long exchange of messages, me going to the grocery to get another branzino and her teaching me how to simply poach the fish in aromatics and serve it with a simple aioli. Her recipe was by far the better.

What was important wasn't that she taught me how to cook a branzino, or that she shared a recipe with me, but that she reeled me in. In one fell swoop she made me realize the importance of simple home cooking, that making restaurant food at home is silly, often wasteful and that great home cooking isn't about chasing trends and being a foodie but more importantly how to cook wholesome good food for your family.

It might have taken culinary school to make me a chef but in a single Saturday night Marcella turned me into a home cook.

Marcella's Broccoli and Potato Soup

Makes 6 servings

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups yellow onion, julienned
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
2 cups Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, medium dice
2 1/2 cups broccoli florets, no stems
3 1/2 cups stock, chicken or vegetable
6 smallish fresh basil leaves, torn
1/2 cup Parmesan, grated

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Tom Hirschfeld

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Marisa Corrado Walsh
    Marisa Corrado Walsh
  • healthierkitchen
  • plainhomecook
  • lapadia
  • Midge
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


Marisa C. August 4, 2016
This has been a household staple for us for more than a decade, it is delicious, comfort food indeed. However we always use Pecorino Romano since that's the staple cheese in our southern Italian-American house, and (horror) we always include all the broccoli not just the florets.
healthierkitchen October 22, 2013
Love this recipe too!
plainhomecook October 22, 2013
Thank you for the story. You and Marcella have both helped me become all I've ever aspired to in the kitchen - to be a good plain home cook.
thirschfeld October 22, 2013
Thanks so much plainhomecook that is a very wonderful complement.
lapadia October 22, 2013
Ditto to all comments, great story, and Bravo to simple home cooking!
thirschfeld October 22, 2013
Thanks lapadia!
Midge October 22, 2013
Great story and beautiful photos, as always. I'm curious why you prefer canning stock over freezing?
thirschfeld October 22, 2013
thanks Midge! I can it because I don't like to use freezer space and I don't have to thaw it.
Greenstuff October 22, 2013
Love the branzino story! And love that you're following her recipe carefully for a simple soup that you've made on your own many times. I do that with Marcella's pesto--whenever I feel that my own isn't quite what I want, I go back and follow hers to re-ground myself.
thirschfeld October 22, 2013
Thanks Greenstuff! It is the very reason I follow the recipe exactly the first time I make it too.