I am a champion for all things local for many reasons. I believe it is better for the environment, tastes better, and helps the local economy. I try to shop local, drink local, and eat local. But I do have a guilty secret. I LOVE the Zuppa Toscana from Olive Garden.
There are many better Italian restaurants in Austin (Vespaio, Mandola’s, etc.) but no place serves this particular soup. Probably because it is more traditionally a Portuguese soup than Tuscan. Olive Garden is about as “authentic” as Taco Bell but in this cold weather, nothing satisfies like a big bowl full of potatoes, sausage, and kale.
I am pleased to report that I no longer have to stoop to wearing a disguise because I am too embarrassed to dine at Olive Garden to get my Zuppa Toscana fix. I adapted this from various sources of copycat recipes. I wanted to print my own version so all the friends I have made this for can make it themselves as well as trying to liberate others from the tyranny of below average ethnic foods being served up by corporate chains.
¡Viva la Revolución!
- 3-4 slices pancetta (bacon is an acceptable substitute, canned bacon bits ARE NOT)
- 1 pound Italian sausage- I find that the HEB store brand of mild sausage matches EXACTLY the taste of the Olive Garden but you are welcome to use hot or whatever brand you prefer. It does need to be Italian sausage, though, as the fennel plays an important part in the final product.
- 1 large shallot, finely diced- many of the copycat recipes call for onion or some garlic. This is an ok substitute but the shallot flavor is also essential if you are trying to match the flavors exactly.
- 2-3 pounds of small white potatoes- actually any potato you have on hand will work here but it sure is easier slicing the small ones into disks, skin on.
- 3 cans chicken broth- yes, you are a kitchen god/goddess if you make your own weekly from locally sourced chickens but the canned stuff works fine
- 3 cups water
- 1 bunch Kale- remove the large stem in the middle, clean leaves thoroughly, roll into a tight cigar-like bundle and slice about 1/8 of an inch wide strips- Swiss chard is also an acceptable substitute.
- 1/2 cup milk- you can use cream, half and half, even skim- the higher the fat, the better it tastes but I use 2% milk and it saves a ton of calories.
- 1/2 pound parmesano reggiano- what you really want is the rind off the cheese to flavor the soup and shaved bits of cheese to garnish. This is way more cheese than you will need for the soup but chef deserves a treat, so keep some back for “quality control”. And no, the crap in a green shaker container or anything similar is NOT acceptable.
- salt and pepper to taste
Remove sausage from casing. Lots of the recipes I saw called for the sausage to be cooked in the oven or cooked in its casings and then removed. WRONG. You want the bits left in the pan after browning the meat. That is where the flavor comes from. You also want to use a non stick skillet and cook the meat in a single layer that does not crowd the pan. If you overcrowd the pan, you will see all the liquid come out of the meat which will then steam the sausage instead of browning it. Another common mistake is to stir the contents of the pan too often. Let it cook till it browns.
The toasting or browning of foods that exponentially adds to the flavor is known as the Maillard reaction. The little bits of brown goodness that stick to the bottom of the pan is called the fond. Both of these are very, very good things. Now that we know a couple of new terms, back to the soup.
Brown the sausage without the casings. Remove from pan and set aside. Brown pancetta in the same pan. Remove and set aside. Pour off any excess grease. Add shallots to the pan and saute until translucent. Add 1/4 cup of the chicken stock. As you add the liquid, the fond (dark and lovely sticky bits on the bottom of the pan) should loosen as you stir and become part of the cooking liquid. This is called deglazing the pan. Ain’t we fancy! Add the remaining broth, water, and rind from the parmesan. Bring to a boil and add the potatoes. Cook until potatoes are tender. Add browned sausage, pancetta, kale, and milk. Bring back to simmer to heat thoroughly. Serve with a healthy dose of parmesan.