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Marcella Hazan's Broccoli and Pasta Soup

Broccoli pasta soup

I'm sorry about dropping off the face of the earth last week. I really had no intention of going silent, but Hugo stopped napping - just stopped, yes, the horror - from one day to the next and the days went by in a blur. I was trying to keep things together while Hugo was flying on what must have been fumes and one evening, after he'd finally gone to bed, I sort of sat and whimpered in defeat in the kitchen for a bit. There might have been some cheese.

Anyway! Luckily for us all, but, let's face it, mostly me, Hugo has started napping again (praisegodthealmightyforeverandeveramen). And better yet, I have found the best soup of the year. I know it's only February 25, but I'm going to wager that this is it for the rest of 2013.

People, it is fabulous.

Blanched broccoli

Okay, now you're going to think it seems a little fussy to start. And you would be right, technically. There's the dissection of the broccoli, the blanching in two steps, the pan-frying, the pureeing. Yes. But that's really it for the work - the soup itself is a silly little throw-together. Put broth and broccoli stalk purée in a pan, then add some pasta to cook, then add the remaining sautéed broccoli. Parmesan on top of each serving and that's it! See? Not so bad, after all.

Because you cook the broccoli so briefly (you must follow Marcella Hazan's cooking directions to the minute, lest you want pallid results), it retains vibrant color, a fresh flavor and its wonderful just-tender quality - you know, almost rubbery, but in a good way? The pasta adds pleasing nubbiness to each spoonful and the Parmesan and garlic and broth all come together in the way they should, reliably producing the taste of Italy in your soup spoon. Magic.

Pureed broccoli

I imagine this is not news to most of you, but just in case there's someone out there who has yet to figure it out, Marcella Hazan's cookbook, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, is sort of a non-negotiable acquisition if you want to know what Italian food really tastes like. It has no photos and Marcella's tone is severe - she doesn't want to pal around with you, she wants you to do what she says, just like any bossy Italian lady worth her salt - but it is such a valuable resource.

(Since I can pretty much guarantee that Marcella doesn't read this blog and I therefore won't incur her wrath, I shall confess the following: the original soup calls for homemade meat broth and homemade pasta. I, er, used my trusty Better Than Bouillon (scraping the bottom of the jar! thank goodness we fly to the States on Friday) and Barilla soup pasta. The soup was divine, life is short, do what your conscience tells you.)

(Oh! And one more thing: a certain 8-month old ate more of this soup than he did of his dinner. So it's baby-approved, too.)

Marcella Hazan's Broccoli and Pasta Soup
From The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

Serves 6

1 medium bunch of broccoli
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic (or two whole cloves)
2 cups beef or chicken broth
1/2 cup small, coarse soup pasta (I used these)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Detach the broccoli florets from the stalks. Trim away about 1/2 inch from the tough end of the stalks. With a sharp paring knife, peel away the dark green skin on the stalks. Split very thick stems in two lengthwise. Wash and set aside.

2. Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of salt, which will keep the broccoli green, and put in the stalks. When the water returns to a boil, wait 2 minutes, then add the florets. If they float to the surface, dunk them from time to time to keep them from losing color. When the water returns to a boil again, wait 1 minute, then retrieve all the broccoli with a slotted spoon. Do not discard the water in the pot.

3. Choose a sauté pan that can accommodate all the stalks and florets without overlapping. Put in the oil and garlic, and turn the heat to medium. Sauté the garlic until it turns pale gold. Add all the broccoli, some salt, and turn the heat up to high. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently.

4. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the broccoli florets to a plate and set aside. Do not discard the oil from the pan.

5. Put the broccoli stalks into a food processor, pulse for a moment, then add all the oil from the pan plus 1 tablespoon of the broccoli water. Finish processing to a smooth purée.

6. Put the purée into a soup pot, add the broth, and bring to a moderate boil. Add the pasta. Cook at a steady, gentle boil until the pasta is tender, but firm. Depending on the thickness and freshness of the pasta, it should take about 10 minutes. You will probably need to dilute the soup as it cooks, because it tends to become too dense. To thin it out, use some of the reserved broccoli water. Take care not to make the soup too runny.

7. While the pasta is cooking, separate the broccoli florets into bite-size pieces. As soon as the pasta is done, put the florets in the soup and continue cooking for 1 more minute. Taste and correct for salt, and serve the soup promptly with the grated Parmesan on top.