Tuscany keeps things quite medieval with this traditional pancotto. Stale bread is cooked in a broth made with a classic trilogy of chopped carrot, celery, and onion. Chile and Pecorino Romano cheese add flavor, fresh herbs (typically nepitella, or calamint) add color. But it remains a simple, comforting dish -- not much different from its peasant origins -- that warms up and fills bellies on cold nights.
A dish like this will have a different recipe in every household. Pare back for more simplicity, add a few extras for more oomph: You can use beef or vegetable stock instead of water (or you may like to use half and half), more garlic, or perhaps add chopped pancetta with the soffritto of carrot, celery, and onion. The important thing is the bread. It should be a delicious, white, quite dense country loaf with a good, crunchy crust -- and it should be a couple days old. It doesn't have to be dry as a bone, but it shouldn't be too fresh and springy. If you do have fresh bread and you'd still like to make this recipe, slice in into thick slices and dry it out slightly in a very low temperature oven; try not to toast it, as this will affect the taste. —Emiko
(250 grams) stale white bread (Italian style loaf), crusts on
extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
onion, finely chopped
small carrot, finely chopped
celery stick, finely chopped
clove garlic, peeled but whole
dried chile (or chopped fresh chile)
(1 liter) water or stock (vegetable or beef)
(80 grams) finely grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese, divided
Handful of fresh herbs, such as oregano, marjoram, or parsley
Roughly chop the bread into chunks, pass under some cold running water quickly to soften (but not soak), and crumble into pieces. Set aside.
Add the olive oil to a large casserole or soup pot, and gently saute the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic with a pinch of salt until softened but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add the chile and water and bring to a boil. Let simmer gently until the vegetables (in particular the carrot) are cooked through and the broth is fragrant, about 10 minutes.
Add the bread and cook until the soup has become thick and creamy with the appearance of oatmeal, about 10 minutes. Stir through half the cheese and remove from the heat. If you can find it, remove the garlic clove. Let sit a further 5 to 10 minutes, covered, before serving in shallow bowls with the rest of the cheese sprinkled on top, some herbs, and a drizzle of olive oil.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.