Recently we sampled a version of zuppa toscana, a type of Italian cream soup, at a friend’s house. One of our hosts was the first to taste it. After one bite he apologized. “Oh, sorry guys. It’s a little spicy.”
Still crunching away on my salad, my reply was, “No worries! We like spicy.” This is true. My husband, especially, adores all things spicy. His heat tolerance has improved dramatically over the years, but that’s another story. 🙂
When I started in on the soup, I was anticipating a slight kick, just a bit of heat, perhaps something a little too spicy for the kids. But after the first spoon, my mouth began to burn almost immediately. It felt as if I was swallowing liquid fire. I scarfed down large bites of bread in between slurps of soup in a desperate attempt to keep the burning at bay. Suffice it to say, the soup was more than ‘a little spicy’.
That being said, the flavor was incredible. Behind the burn was a rich, flavorful soup full of hearty potatoes, salty bacon, fresh kale, and spicy sausage awash in a heavenly bowl of cream.
Had I been able to hold any more food that night, I would have gladly subjected myself to the burn for more soup.
As we drove home that night, I knew I had to make this soup. I looked up several recipes for zuppa toscana. I love looking a different recipes for the same thing. It helps me get an idea of what is crucial to the dish, and what can be easily altered. Many of the recipes I viewed are patterned after the zuppa toscana at Olive Garden. I have never tried the restaurant version, so I’m not sure whether this version tastes similar, but I can say it is scrumptious, with an incredible depth of flavor.
I actually made the soup twice… in two days. I made it for dinner one night and planned to have leftovers for lunch the next day. To my dismay, there was not near enough soup leftover for my husband, my mom (who was visiting), and myself to have a decent helping. I couldn’t bear to eat a lonely grilled cheese for lunch when I had more soup ingredients, so I let my stomach growl for an hour and made the soup.
If you have the time, good food is almost always worth the wait. 🙂
In making it twice, I learned that the soup is forgiving. The second batch turned out better than the first, but they were both incredible.
I’m starting to see that amounts matter, and a good recipe is a great guide, but I don’t have to be locked into exactly the ingredients and amounts specified in a given recipe. I don’t necessarily have to measure every spice or herb that I add. If a recipe calls for 1/2 onion, but I want to put the whole onion in, I do! If I don’t have quite as many potatoes as called for, that’s usually okay. If I’m short a little on cream, no worries. I just put in what I have, tasting as I go, and substituting if necessary. This is such a freeing concept! This is part of why I am really beginning to savor the cooking experience. I can tailor great recipes to fit the ingredients we like and the ingredients we have on hand.
When I do this successfully, I feel innovative and resourceful. I also don’t have to check my recipe every two minutes, always a plus. 🙂
Now, back to the soup. 🙂
First, I fried up some bacon. Some extra crispy bacon. None of this chewy bacon nonsense. (It’s an ongoing struggle in our house whether breakfast bacon should be crispy or chewy. I bet you can figure out which side I’m on.) 🙂
Then I cooked some mild pork sausage, a staple in our home. You could use Italian sausage, which would kick up the heat a notch, but I went with what we had. So, mild pork sausage it was.
Next, I diced up my onion, celery, and potatoes, so they would be ready. My enjoyment of cooking is improved drastically when I prep ingredients before I start the soup pot. No frenzied chopping for me!
I got out a large pot and drizzled in some liquid gold (aka bacon grease). I think it adds a depth of flavor for the soup, actually for any soup. We even keep a mug of bacon grease by the stove, and I use it almost any time I make soup. It’s great for scrambling eggs and frying potatoes, too. If we are out of bacon grease at soup time, butter is my go-to, but oil works, too.
I heated the bacon grease and threw in the diced onions. While they cooked, I added the crushed red pepper and Italian seasoning. The first go-round on the soup, I didn’t add quite enough red pepper (only 2-3 shakes), and I didn’t think to add Italian seasoning until the very end. But the flavor of dried spices and herbs seems to come through better when added early on in the cooking process, so I went earlier the second time. If I didn’t have an “Italian seasoning” on my spice shelf that I’m trying to use up, I would have used oregano or basil (or possibly both).
Note that the 5-6 shakes of crushed red pepper I used the second time made the soup flavorful, but not spicy. For spicy soup, I would try measuring out a teaspoon or more, or adding black pepper at the end (or even just a few little shakes of cayenne pepper…).
Cooking the onions is a patience test for me. If you read my post on stir fry, you know I’m picky about my onions. I like all of the flavor and none of the crunch, especially in foods eaten warm. I can take a little crunch in a summer salad, but a soup should be onion-crunch-free (for me). I like them golden brown, or honestly, even darker. Awhile back, I learned from my sister that you can add a little water as needed to keep them from burning. This also brings up the flavor that’s crusted onto the pan into the onions, making them taste even better. (Fun fact: I just learned that this process is called “deglazing”.) The other benefit of adding water is that it steams the onions a bit, cooking them thoroughly, and faster than if I just sautéed them. This is especially true when the pan is covered, so I frequently cover my onions. 🙂
When the onions were lightly golden, I added the minced garlic. A couple minutes later I added the celery. I let that mixture cook until I was fully satisfied with my onions. 🙂
Next I poured in some water mixed with some Better-than-Bouillon Chicken Base and added the potatoes. I boiled this mixture until the potatoes were mostly soft, but not mushy.
Then I stirred in the sausage and a few handfuls of spinach. Apparently Olive Garden uses kale instead of spinach (and so did the super spicy version we tried at our friend’s house). Many of the copycat recipes use spinach. I opted for spinach solely because we can eat the leftovers. I haven’t ventured much into eating kale, and didn’t want to waste whatever was leftover after making the soup. Having said that, I might opt for the kale next time because I think it is more sturdy in the soup.
Next, I poured in some heavy cream. The first night, I didn’t measure precisely, but aimed for 1 1/2 cups (out of the 2 cup container). So, the second day I added what was left. It was probably at least half a cup, and could have been closer to 3/4 cup.
Surprisingly, I liked the creamy aspect of the soup better with less cream. It was almost too heavy the first night.
I like creamy soup, and I don’t believe in substitutions that sacrifice taste, but in this case, a little cream was better than a lot. If it had needed more liquid, I may have added some milk, or even just a splash more chicken broth.
Once everything was mixed together, I tasted the soup.
This is fast becoming my most important cooking skill. Tasting.
I have learned that I can save myself a disappointing dish at the table just by tasting it on the stove. And soup is an easy dish to adjust the flavors at the end.
After tasting, I decided to add a few shakes of chili powder and a couple shakes of garlic powder. They both give it a little oomph. 🙂 (In case you were wondering, oomph is a highly necessary quality of good soup.) This is a good time to add salt and pepper too, if your taste buds lead you in that direction. I added salt the first time, and didn’t need it the second time.
We ate it this soup with aromatic three-cheese bread, and then again with grilled cheeses for dipping. I am wishing sincerely that I had more leftovers…
Though they may not read this, thank you, dear friends, for inviting us over, and serving us delicious, spicy soup. It will be a frequent meal in our home for years to come. 🙂
Zuppa Toscana (adapted mainly from THIS RECIPE at Damn Delicious)
*serves 4 generously or serves 6 not so generously… if you need to serve 6, make salad and sandwiches to round out the meal. 😉
- bacon, for garnishing (a few slices… or more… there’s no such thing as too much bacon)
- 1 lb mild pork sausage
- bacon grease (or butter or oil)
- 1 sweet onion, diced
- crushed red pepper (several shakes)
- Italian seasoning (several shakes), optional
- minced garlic (1-2 tsp, or to taste)
- 1-2 stocks celery, cut in half length-wise, and finely chopped
- 4 cups chicken broth (or water with the corresponding 4 tsp Better-than-Bouillon Chicken Base)
- 2-3 russet potatoes, peeled and diced
- 3 large handfuls spinach
- 1/2 – 1 cup heavy cream
- chili powder, to taste
- garlic powder, to taste
- salt and pepper, to taste
- Prep: Fry bacon until crispy. Brown and drain the sausage. Cut up the veggies.
- In a large pot (or stockpot), heat the bacon grease over medium heat and sauté the onions. Add in crushed red pepper and Italian seasoning while the onions cook. When the onions are golden, add in garlic and celery. Continue to cook until onions are a nice golden brown (or darker), adding water 1 TBSP at a time as necessary to deglaze the pan and to prevent burning. 😉
- Add in chicken broth and potatoes. Cook until potatoes are soft, but not mushy, about ten minutes.
- Add in the sausage and spinach and cook about one minute.
- Next add in the heavy cream. Adjust with milk, additional chicken broth, or more cream to achieve desired consistency. Taste and add chili powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper as needed.
- Serve hot, preferably with rolls, freshly baked cheese bread, or grilled cheese sandwiches.
Enjoy something scrumptious today!