Good olive oil, run-on sentences, and bread soup.

I have long felt hard done by for the lack of a large Italian grandmother in my life. My grandmothers have all been quite fantastic, of course, but we’re so Canadian that one not-too-distant relative was mentioned briefly in a Farley Mowat book, which I am pretty sure is the Canadian equivalent of boasting ancestors arriving on the Mayflower. Which is not to say that Canadian is a milquetoast heritage – it’s got more than its share of culinary ooh-la-la, and not just what Americans call Canadian Bacon (which is actually just ham). But what it doesn’t have is olive oil.

You know where does have fantastic olive oil, though? San Francisco. So maybe an Italian grandmother is not entirely what I need – maybe I need an American BFF instead.

Years ago I discovered the good olive oil, and it comes from a shop in the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. It’s made from organically grown California olives, and I would do some very morally questionable things to have access to a lifetime’s supply. Unfortunately, they don’t ship to Canada. It’s like being in love with someone who doesn’t return your calls.

So when we went back recently, I had but two orders of business: get myself to City Lights Bookstore which is the kind of place I nearly fall down weeping at the entrance to which means that I chose the right major in spite of the long-term earning potential I sacrificed; and, get to the Ferry Building for the good olive oil. I misjudged the distance from Fisherman’s Warf to our oily destination, causing my party of five to have to hike nearly thirty minutes in bad footwear, but it was totally worth it. For me.

What I love about the good olive oil – Stonehouse Olive Oil, if you’re too lazy or captivated by my elegant prose to click the link above – is that it tastes how I imagine fresh olive oil in Italy would. They sell each batch the same year it’s harvested, so it’s as fresh as you can get without actually sticking your face under the olive press.

Oh, San Francisco – what scandalous, depraved, excellent things I would do to be able to live with you forever.

Anyway, I got the oil, and I’m hoarding it. Except I used some tonight, a good amount of it for someone who is unsure when they’ll be back to the States to get more. We had soup – an enormous pot of it, because it’s the week before payday and we’re just back from vacation and OMG-broke, like, so much so that I jammed the vending machine at work with foreign money this morning trying to get an orange juice. I make big pots of soup when I’d prefer to stretch a meal into three to avoid starvation, and this, made of pantry staples, will take us handsomely through lunch and all the way to dinner tomorrow. For regular households, that means eight to ten servings. It’s easily adapted to smaller feedlots, however, so fiddle with it until it’s to your liking.

Bread Soup

(Serves 8 to 10.)

  • 1/4 cup good olive oil (I don’t believe I ever specify extra-virgin, but it’s what I mean by good olive oil)
  • 5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 lb. stale bread, cubed and toasted (about four thick slices)
  • 2 28 oz. cans whole tomatoes, plus juice
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 19 oz. can cannelini or white kidney beans
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley (flat-leaf is better, but the curly stuff is okay if that’s all you can get)
  • 1 tbsp. lemon zest
  • As much pepper as you feel you need

In a large pot over medium-high heat, warm olive oil. When olive oil is hot, add garlic, and sauté until fragrant and lightly golden, about two minutes.

Meanwhile, whizz bread cubes in a food processor or blender until you end up with coarse crumbs. You don’t want to grind the bread too finely, or you will end up with a soup with boring texture, and no one wants that.

Add bread crumbs to the oil, and stir to coat. Immediately begin squishing tomatoes into the mix, adding juice quickly and scraping the bottom of the pot to ensure nothing burns to it. Add the wine. Stir again. Add the broth.

Reduce heat to medium, and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

After a half-hour, add beans, cheese, parsley, lemon zest, and pepper. Simmer an additional five minutes, until parsley has wilted and the whole thing smells magnificent.

If it’s a dark and stormy night and the water runs down the window so fast your cat can’t keep up with the drops, serve piping hot, with a swirl of your favourite olive oil, a lemon wedge, and a fat hunk of crusty fresh bread. And wine. Red wine. If it’s not, this is pretty nice chilled, like a hearty gazpacho, but serve with a charming white wine, a Pinot Grigio or a Sauvignon Blanc instead.

It’s delicious on the first round, like a bread and bean stew, but even better the second day. The hallmark of a quality meal, if you ask me and my imaginary Italian grandmother.

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