In the Piemonte region of northern Italy where Margherita Aloi grew up, this potful of spring greens in broth, thickened by fat rice kernels and potatoes, is known as a “cleansing soup”…especially for women.
I’ve never been altogether sure what “cleansing” means, but it likely has something to do with the greens, rich in digestion-enhancing fiber, and with the idea of giving the female reproductive system a tune-up during the season of rebirth.
Anyway, it is a wonderfully nourishing spring dish, and I love the idea of a soup made by women, for women.
According to Margherita, who eventually became a Connecticut chef, this traditional soup made sense not only because greens and young onions are spring crops, but because this was the time women were working in the rice fields. A woman could make a big batch ahead of time and then at night, when she was stanca morta–dead tired–simply heat it up.
Before automation, women were considered perfect for rice-field duty because they had the small hands (and patience?) to plant and cultivate the seedlings. For a glimpse of gritty realities guaranteed to blast away nostalgia for that hard-scrabble era, I recommend Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro), a neo-realist film of the ’40s.
As a simple meal made with inexpensive ingredients, Margherita’s spring greens and rice soup is squarely in the cucina povera tradition, and I included the recipe in Piatto Unico, my cookbook on Italian one-course meals. Its comforting flavors remind me a bit of my mother’s potato soup. Hers was a more rudimentary soup–just potatoes, onions and water, seasoned with a dollop or two of butter plus salt and pepper.
My mom told me that, living on an Army base during World War II, she and my dad ate potato soup toward the end of the month while waiting for the next paycheck and round of ration cards. But she remembered early marriage as a happy time and that association may explain in part why she went on making potato soup throughout her life.
The other reason, I think, is that she craved the honest flavors of that soup. And I feel the same way about this greens and rice soup. I like to combine mild greens such as chard, spinach or beet greens with bitter varieties like dandelion greens or kale. But any combination of greens–and, for that matter–any kind of rice will yield a delicious and nourishing soup.
- 10 ounces to 1 pound spring greens such as baby spinach chard, dandelion greens, watercress, and edible flowers (choose two varieties if possible), washed well
- 2 cups cleaned, thinly sliced leeks or spring onions (white and tender green parts) or any others in the onion family
- 2 cloves garlic chopped
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil or a combination of butter and olive oil
- 2 cups peeled, medium-diced potatoes preferably russet potatoes
- 3 quarts chicken broth or water or a mixture
- 1 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice or other varieties such as jasmine rice, brown rice or long-grain white rice
- 1/2 bunch asparagus trimmed, cut in short lengths (optional)
- 1 small hot red pepper seeded and slivered, or hot red pepper flakes to taste
- Sea salt or kosher salt
- Best-quality extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
- 1 to 1 ½ cups freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or other hard grating cheese
Leaving small leaves whole, thinly slice the other greens, including stems.
Heat a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Combine the leeks and garlic with the olive oil, stirring until coated. Cover the pan and cook, stirring often, until they soften but do not brown, about 10 minutes.
Add the potatoes and cover with broth (if using water, add 1 tablespoon salt). Bring to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, until barely tender. Stir in the rice and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes.
Add the asparagus, hot red pepper, and shredded greens. Season with salt and simmer just until the greens are tender (add more water as necessary for a soupy consistency). Serve the soup warm, topping each serving with a thread of olive oil and sprinkle of cheese. Pass the rest of the cheese at the table.