Yet again


Potato soup this time or zuppa di patate if you like, with very large parmesan toasts.


I know I swore off writing about soup and soup-like-things for a while.

Is two weeks a while?

Actually I’m not really sure what I was thinking anyway, not writing about soup! It wouldn’t feel right around here, it certainly wouldn’t feel as if I was sharing what we put on the table day in day out because very often – for either lunch or supper – we have soup, invariably hearty, often thickened with pasta and always accompanied by bread.


I’d had my eye on this recipe from Elizabeth David’s Italian food for a while before I finally made it. It sounded like just the thing for one of our soup lunches…….if it worked? For I have to admit for all my curiosity and as much as I wanted it to work, I did wonder if the soup might be a little austere – olive oil, a large potato, an onion, bread, water – not that far removed from something out of a novel by Dickens’ thats simmered up in a vast pot then ladled out by Mr Bumble to dirty, misfortunate and undernourished orphans… I also imagined the soup to be very very beige………. beige, frugal, austere, undernourished……..

Am I winning you over here ?

Actually I’m not being fair, the recipe isn’t really that austere, there’s stock or a little bacon, olive oil, nutmeg, parmesan for goodness sake, I overlooked them in favour of my Dickensian exaggeration. A better description would be simple and quite humble, both good things in my book.

Anyway I was curious.

I probably wouldn’t have been if it hadn’t been Elizabeth David‘s recipe, because as you may have gathered – I can be very tedious about these things – I am quite devoted to both her writing and her recipes. She’s the person who has most inspired, influenced and educated my cooking and my eating habits and I trust her excellent taste.

Like any self-respecting devotee I have all her books – two editions of several – which I refer to as ‘my favourites’  either with the enthusiasm of a  7-year-old child talking about chocolate biscuits or with my earnest fervour usually reserved for paintings by old masters. I am slightly obsessive and possessive, I don’t believe anyone likes her quite as much as I do and I’m very put out if they do……

Following her recipes though….

For some reason I get anxious, the cooking equivalent of being tongue-tied and awkward in the presence of someone significant. Following her recipes matters, like trying to please your favourite teacher or attempting to make a cake just like your grandma did from her ancient illegible recipe…it really matters…. My anxiety is exacerbated because even though Elizabeth David describes things beautifully and with painstaking detail she can just as easily be laconic and impressionistic which can leave me – pedantically following her every word – a little lost.

The first time I make an Elizabeth David recipe is usually a rather emotional experience that sees much muttering to myself…..Take this soup for example, a very basic recipe of 6 sentences. The first sentence reads like this; ‘Cut the potatoes into thin strips, as if you were going to make very small chips.’ Easy…..Oh dear Elizabeth, I have fallen at the first hurdle, what kind of chips ? are we talking French or English fish’n’chip shop chips here, Thin, how thin, skinny, I fear this is fundamental. Next, ‘Chop the onion’. How Elizabeth, how ? diced, in two (you never know) half-moons, fine, rough and chunky, I wouldn’t care if this was anyone else but it’s you Elizabeth. I sometimes even imagine her voice – I’ve read she didn’t suffer fools gladly – ‘Oh for god’s sake just chop them you foolish girl, use your common sense’ she says disapprovingly before pulling on her slim cigarette.  Another one, ‘Brown the onion’ oh bloody hell, the onion, the one I have chopped incorrectly, I know this really matters, it’s a flavour thing which could make or break my soup… soft golden brown, chestnut-brown, dark french onion soup brown which I know from experience is a minefield, caramelized to carbonized before your very eyes.

I could go on, I could talk about other recipes that have left me paralysed with indecision..but won’t, needless to say this pantomime continues until whatever I am making is on the table.

This might all sound rather an unpleasant experience, it isn’t, I like it. I adore cooking from her books. First she captures me with her words and then leads me through each recipe, sometimes with exquisite detail, sometimes with sweeping brevity that encourages me to think and work with the ingredients, to struggle just a little, to mutter and talk to myself in a slightly deranged way and argue myself to various conclusions. In short to make the recipe my own.

So, the soup.

The zuppa di patate con crostini or the potato soup with very large parmesan toasts.


It works.

It’s a lovely soup, the final bowlful is so much more than just a sum of the individual parts. Yes it’s quite frugal, but in a nice way, the flavours are lovely and pure, a soft, gentle potato and onion soup with body but not too much (you are going to add bread afterall, parmesan toasts no less) spiked with bacon, thyme and nutmeg…

Maybe it would help if you read the recipe

Zuppa di patate from Elizabeth David’s Italian food

For four people prepare 10oz (280g)potatoes, 1 medium-sized onion and 8 small slices of bread. You also need 2 pints (1.1litres) broth, 3 tbsp of olive oil, thyme, salt, pepper, grated cheese, nutmeg and 2oz (60g) butter.

Cut the potatoes in thin strips, as if you were going to make very small chips. Chop the onion. Heat the olive oil in the saucepan, brown the onion, then add the potatoes and season them with salt pepper, nutmeg and thyme. Pour over the boiling broth. In 15 minutes the soup will be ready.

To go with it, prepare the following crostini: saturate the slices of bread with melted butter; spread them thickly with grated parmesan and cook them in a moderate oven (180°/350F/gas mark 4) for 10 minutes.

This soup, which is good and so easy to cook, can be made with water instead of stock provided a little bacon or ham (about 2oz/60g) is cooked with the onion to give it flavour.

I expect you are wondering what on earth I was going on about, it all looks straightforward enough you are thinking…..she must be quite incapable.

I fear you may be right

Anyway. I have made this soup both ways, first with chicken stock and then with plain boiling water but adding some bacon to the onion. I liked both, but maybe the plain boiling water kept the flavours purer and simpler


The parmesan toasts, These were a revelation – I like her description so much, particularly the use of the word saturate – I am going to type it out again.

Prepare the following crostini: saturate the slices of bread with melted butter; spread them thickly with grated parmesan and cook them in a moderate oven (180°/350F/gas mark 4) for 10 minutes.

They were as nice as they sound, I think I might be making these rather alot.

Just for the record, in case you were wondering, I cut my potatoes into 2″ long 5mm wide sticks, I diced the onion finely and my brown was golden, texture like sun. When the soup was cooked I also mashed some of the soft potato sticks against the side of the pan with a fork to thicken things up.

Pause for breath.

I am not really sure where all this came from today, can you find the recipe in today’s muddle? Do you want to? I fear this whole post is rather like the deranged muttering I do whilst cooking……… Anyway I hope have a good weekend wherever you are.


Filed under food, Rachel's Diary, recipes, soup

17 responses to “Yet again

  1. I don’t think you need have worried here – it looks like you have done Elizabeth David proud. She is hands down my favourite food writer and I think that I probably have a similar attitude when cooking from her recipes – I never want to let her down. Meanwhile I will be saturating bread in melted butter and smothering with parmesan forthwith.

    • rachel

      Thats very nice of you spud – but my imaginary ED has just rolled her eyes in dispair at all my mutterings….
      Yes go forth and saturate.

  2. What a perfect way to start my weekend…reading Rachel’s mutterings…praise, indeed.

    And…I, too, was wondering (worried) about the width of the potato strips as soon as you said it and fretted about the width of the strips throughout until your ‘pause for breath’.

    Patiently awaiting the first edition of ‘rachel eats’…

  3. Not deranged at all. I enjoyed the interior conversation with the cookbook author.

  4. i had bought her french provincial cooking cookbook on ebay 6 months ago and the thing got lost in the mail. i was so upset. but i forgot to try and buy it again. thanks for the reminder! anytime you make anything that is “saturated”in butter has to be good. i’m not put off by all the soup – we’ve made so much soup recently i’ve been wondering when I am going to be irritated at myself. when will i stop craving it? probably not until the end of january when i’m so sick of winter that i start to psyche myself into eating salads and warm-weather dishes just to pretend it’s not so crap outside!

  5. I like the idea of nutmeg in this soup, which reminds me–I must begin reading Elizabeth David. Several years ago I purchased Is There a Nutmeg in the House? for my Mother-in-law, but I’ve never read any of her books myself. This must change, and soon. The crostini instructions are perfect! “saturate…with melted butter” “spread…thickly with parmesan” Yes yes!

  6. i don’t think its muttering, i love it. you are funny and i love that you don’t put on airs and act like you invented soup…you always make me want to cook and EAT! and the soup…YUM.

  7. I like the mutterings and the uncertainties – they are in turn amusing and reassuring and don’t stop writing about soup, I want to make this now. x

  8. Ha! I love your Dickensian exaggeration.
    But, truth be told, these seemingly austere things, well prepared, can be quite lovely and satisfying of themselves.
    That–and a saturation of parmesan toasts.
    (like a covey of quail or an embarrassment of riches!)

  9. I just found your blog through my google reader and I’m so glad I did. Lovely writing and beautiful photos!

  10. Keri

    Thank you for a simple soup — and for the Stranglers reference.

  11. your blog is becoming lovlier and more wonderful to read every day. like orangette but a zillion times better. (how i used to once like that blog… until the over sincerity killed me dead)

    saturate with butter. and then bake with cheese? two please…

  12. it’s a really beautiful soup, beautiful photos- again, of smthg beige, and yet, you capture the subtle colours so, so well, R. i am also a huge fan on ED (i think i use that phrase a lot w you, ‘i am also…’ as we seem to like a lot of the same things). ED has been a huge influence on me as well- i certainly did learn one thing- do not take ED’s advice and try to make an aioli by hand! a lovely post, R. x shayma

  13. Pingback: Recipes to Try | Live and Learn

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