Waayyyyyyy back when I had just moved to Washington, DC and didn’t have cable I spent a lot of time watching the cooking shows on PBS. There was one show in particular which had this older Italian guy who basically traveled around Italy making something from the region. To this day I can’t remember the show or the guy (who was some sort of chef) but I remember this ‘soup’ from his stop in Valle d’Aosta.
I say ‘soup’ but it isn’t really a soup. More of a casserole type dish than anything which fits in well with this alpine region nestled in the northwest of Italy bordering France and Switzerland. As you might imagine the cuisine of this western Alps area is heavy on meats and cheeses on all sides of the border. Soupe Paysanne Val d’Aosta or Zuppa Valdostana is exactly what you’d expect in a typical rustic, peasant dish. Thick and hearty, made with stale bread and whatever bits you have laying around. It is not a light lunch or dinner!
Anyway, I did some bread baking this week and one loaf came out rather flat. What to do with the ugly duckling? I already had Carol Field’s Italian Baker out so I looked in the leftover bread section for an idea. Lo and behold there’s the soup. Now, one difference I noticed between her recipe and some others (including the PBS guy) was the absence of any cabbage. Hers is just bread, cheese, and broth. Kind of blah.
Delving a little more into my research and I discovered you don’t have to stop with cabbage. Like all good rustic dishes there are many variations including plenty with ham, pancetta, and/or lardo added to the layers. Lardo?!?! Ok, NOW you’ve got my attention! So, even though Carol Field has done me justice over the years I closed the book and decided to go with the pumped up versions. I mean come on, just bread and cheese or bread, cheese, ham, lardo, cabbage, and cheese? Exactly.
This turned out nicely! Very hearty. If you suffer from insomnia I think this would be an excellent sleep aid. I made it with three layers of regular bread slices (1/2 inch thick?) but I think you can get away with two layers of really thick slices. Make sure your bread is really stale too, or put the slices in the oven for an hour at 200°F to dry out. You want them really dry in order to soak up all the broth. Believe me, it will soak up 5 C of broth.
And don’t be afraid to load up the cabbage, meats, and cheese. I used a smaller head of cabbage and as you can see didn’t have much left for the top layer (so I added more meat and cheese, oh darn). I really like the cabbage in it. In fact I’d say add more cabbage and use less bread for a better mix. It adds a nice texture to an otherwise soft dish and the green helps convince you there’s some sort of healthful aspect to it.
Zuppa Valdostana / Soupe Paysanne Val d’Aosta (serves 6)
- 6-9 slices of thick, stale, rustic bread
- 1 medium sized Savoy cabbage, cleaned and chopped
- Olive oil
- 6 ounces Fontina cheese, sliced thin
- 6 ounces Taleggio (or more Fontina)
- Slices of speck, ham, and lardo (optional)
- 5-6 C Beef stock
- 1 bay leaf
- Salt and pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 400°F.
In a large pan, heat up some olive oil on the stove top over medium heat. Add the shredded cabbage and cook until softened. Remove from pan and set aside.
Layer 1/3 of the bread on the bottom of a casserole or oven-proof pot. Next place some of the cabbage on top of the bread. If you’re adding pancetta, ham, and/or lardo, put those on top of the cabbage. Finally, cover this layer with 1/3 of the cheese slices on top of the bread. Repeat two more times.
Bring the beef stock to a boil on the stove. Ladle over the bread, cheeses, etc. into the casserole up to just about covering the last layer of bread.
Bake in the oven, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes or until the top gets brown and crisp.
Scoop out into bowls and serve hot.