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From Piedmont, soups with heart

October 12, 2005|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

IT'S a place where women still make glorious egg-yolk-rich tagliatelle, put up jars of peppers and peaches, and, in some villages, bake bread in the communal bread oven. Piedmont, the fabled wine region of northwest Italy, has its special dishes each season, but my favorite time is fall, when the nebbia, or fog, that gives the Nebbiolo grape its name shrouds the steeply canted vineyards, and the leaves have changed to crimson and gold. Wood smoke scents the air and, at night, on the lonely country roads, headlights pick up the occasional truffle hunter and his dog heading off into the forest.

On days the fog is so thick you can't even see your hand, hilltop villages are wrapped in silence. That's when the women make nourishing pots of soup, leaving them to simmer on wood-burning stoves that do double duty as heaters.

Over the years, I've spent weeks at a time in the hills around Barbaresco and Barolo, poking into the kitchens of chefs, winemakers and home cooks, chopping vegetables alongside grandmothers as I listened to stories and recipes that were passed down from generation to generation.

Back home in Los Angeles, I find myself returning to these recipes again and again. When the light takes on a certain clarity and the leaves begin to drop from my pecan trees, I'm compelled to stay in on a Saturday or Sunday, cooking soup.

I love the way a simmering stock scents the whole house, the idea that it goes on for hours, the ritual of getting up from my book to stir the pot. And, of course, I love that I can have a taste of Piedmont in my own kitchen.


Recipes to remember

EACH region in northern Italy has its own version of pasta e fagioli, the hearty bean and pasta soup. In Piedmont, it's typically made with borlotti beans.

Clara Rivetti, wife of wine producer Giorgio Rivetti, freezes the marbled burgundy-and-white beans straight from her garden. (If you want to grow your own, borlotti can be ordered from catalogs such as Shepherd's Garden Seeds). Right now, you can find them fresh at farmers markets. And in a pinch, you can also use dried borlotti or cranberry beans, even cannellini beans.

The pasta is maltagliate, which means "badly cut," namely the scraps left over from making agnolotti or tagliatelle -- and adds to the earthy appeal of the soup. Of course, you can also make a small batch of fresh egg pasta just for the soup, or use good-quality dried egg noodles.

If the soup is made a day or two ahead, it will have more flavor. In this case, wait to cook the pasta until just before serving.

Another memorable Piedmontese soup, also made with borlotti, as well as chickpeas and wheat berries, comes from Locanda Borgo Antico, a sweet little restaurant in the center of Barolo where I've had some wonderful meals over the years.

When chef-owner Massimo Camia served this soup one fall, he told me that it is a dish from the Cinque Terre (a remote part of the Ligurian coast).

"But it also is made in our region," he said. "My father used to always tease us, and call it animal feed, because we raised our veal calves on dried beans and grains. But by changing a few components, it became a great minestra."

The rustic flavors of this bean and grain soup are heightened by a generous dose of black pepper and fragrant green olive oil stirred into the steaming soup just before serving. It's infinitely better than the particular combination of ingredients sounds at first take.

Like many such soups, it's actually better the next day. "Really," Camia said, "it's even better in three days. The more it rests, the more flavor it seems to acquire."

It has the heartiness of a stew, in contrast with a Piedmontese chicken noodle soup that's traditionally made in summer but served in cooler weather too.

The chicken soup recipe comes from Guiliana Clerico, wife of Barolo wine producer Domenico Clerico. Domenico's mother would make the handmade pasta the night before for the minestra di bata il grana -- the wheat harvester's soup.

"They call it 'the soup of beating the grain' because in those days when they did this work it was very hot," Giuliana Clerico explained, "usually July, and neighbors would come to help each other out. For the wives of the farmers in this region, it was perhaps the biggest event of the year. They were cooking for 20 or 25 people. Now because it was so hot and the work was so hard, no one wanted to eat pasta asciutta [dried pasta], so for the lunch break they made this soup, which was rich, more digestible and also easy to cook."

Clerico's version is a refined one made with strips of poached chicken, flavorful diced chicken livers and the handmade tagliatelle (known as tajerin in Piedmont), broken in pieces.

To obtain the rich broth for this soup, Clerico boiled a whole chicken, then shredded the meat and added it back to the broth. The soup is delicious using just the dark meat, which is more moist and flavorful.

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