Week one in Firenze
I had this vision of what I thought it would be like to live in Italy. I saw myself skipping through the streets of Florence, strolling into neighborhood restaurants with ease and joining the chefs in their kitchen as they took me under their wing and taught me all of their Italian secrets. I pictured Nonna in the alley, making pasta, and me joining as we spoke our broken languages and laughed with floury faces.
Enter reality: At any given moment, you’re surrounded by a collection of Ristorantes, Trattorias, Osterias, Enotecas, or all of the above. The entire city is practically edible. There is so much food culture that it seems to seep out of every crack of cobblestone, every steamy alley way, and every door you walk past. It smells like truffles and tobacco, and every few feet you pass a tired chef out for a smoke break. Florence is a small city with big flavors, and I am nothing but a grain of salt here. Most of these Florentines we walk by seem too busy to even share the sidewalk, let alone spend their time to get to know another American tourist. It’s a scary, intense, and overwhelming feeling, and I am learning to love it. Key word: learning.
Alessandro is a man I’ll never forget though I truly don’t remember the second half of the night we spent with him. A few days into our trip, we stumbled into a wine bar on our way home from dinner on a whim. I couldn’t help but feeling a little unwelcome, as wewere the only Americans in this little neighborhood hole in the wall. We pointed to a random wine from the bar and sat quietly with our glasses,
observing the passionate conversations around us. This Enoteca was small and intimate, a spot for friends of the employees to drink free wine, and definitely not a popular place for tourists. We sparked up a conversation with a tall dark and curly haired creature, Alessandro. He rolled his eyes at us as we engaged him in conversation, and quickly became uninterested, pulling out his tobacco pouch to roll a cigarette. This man was confusing. He drilled us with questions and then scoffed at our responses like we had nothing in common with him. He laughed in my face when I told him I was a chef- “everyone is a chef in Florence,” he said with the cigarette hanging from his lip. After a back and forth argument of why we don’t smoke, I somehow ended up with this man’s soggy smoke in my hand in probably his one gesture of kindness to Americans in quite some time. This was his olive branch, and you better believe I was going to accept it.
We sat outside and puffed on tobacco that turned me dizzy, but I pretended to be unaffected by it, as well as his not so subtle jabs. As we all sipped from the same wine glass he continued to drill us with questions, and judge with every answer. We must have eventually passed his test, because soon enough, with wine stained teeth, we were closing down shop with Alessandro and the few regulars, walking down the dark streets of Florence to their after hours bar. This man, in all his unibrowed, curly haired, trench coat glory, was the incarnation of this stubborn but magical Italian culture. We landed at Monkey Bar, their local watering hole, and coincidentally, a bar owned by a San Diego native. Hello, serendipity, nice of you to show your face on a day where I am questioning every last bit of my once confident self. Long story short, I have a few blurry pictures and videos of the rest of the evening that I do not remember, followed by one of the worst hangovers I’ve experienced in my life. Alessandro, you are intimidating and confusing, strong willed and fascinating. You are Florence. Thank you for your soggy cigarette.
It was probably a combination of the hangover and the sharp slap of reality that Alessandro dealt me, but I spent the next few days recovering and questioning every choice that led me to this career and even once muttering the words, “I’m a chef.” I felt so unworthy. So, I did the only thing I knew I would find comfort and comfortability in- I cooked in my small ill-equipped Italian kitchen. I made chicken soup inspired by the local ingredients I had collected throughout the week, and it absolutely soothed this American soul.
Chicken Soup with Florentine Inspiration
- 1 ea Whole Chicken
- 1 ea Onion
- 3 ea Carrots
- 3 stalks Celery
- .25 bunch Thyme
- .25 bunch Parsley
- 2 heads Garlic
Florence inspired ingredients:
- 1 package Semolina Pasta
- 1 bunch Tuscan Kale
- 1 package Canellini Beans
- 1 loaf Crusty Florentine Bread
Season your chicken with plenty of salt. If you have a large enough stock pot, get it hot, and using a small amount of oil, brown the chicken on all sides. This is optional, but I personally like the deeper flavor it gives to my soup. When you’re done browning, fill the entire pot with water and place on medium heat. This soup is a marathon, not a sprint, and the slower you cook it, the better it will taste.
Clean and prepare all of your veggies- but save all of the scraps. These are going in your stock pot. Chop your onions, peel your carrots, and dice the celery. Save the diced veggies off to the side and throw the trimmings in your pot- carrot peels, the celery butt, even the onion skins. Do the same with your herbs: chop your thyme and parsley and throw the stems in the pot as well. Chop a few cloves of garlic up nice and fine, and cut an entire head of garlic in half to throw into the pot. This is a no waste type of recipe.
Let your chicken and veggie trimmings simmer in the pot for at least an hour. While this is happening you can chop up whatever other veggies you feel like putting in your soup- for me, it was Tuscan kale.
Cook your starches. I used beans and pasta in this soup, and I cooked them both separately. This ensures that each is cooked properly, and also makes leftovers taste so much better- soggy noodle soup is not the business. I cooked both the beans and the pasta al dente.
After about an hour, your chicken is fall off the bone tender. Take it out of the pot and let it cool until you can pull the meat off the bones. Discard the chicken skin and throw the bones back into the pot for about 30 more minutes of flavor development- if you have time. The longer you can let this stock go, the better your soup will be.
Strain your stock and clean your pot. Throw a tab of butter in and lightly sauté your veggies, thyme, garlic, and a good helping of salt. I like my veggies with a little bite, so this is my preferred method. Cook them as long as you prefer, and then add the chicken, stock, and your starches into the pot. I threw in the kale and parsley at the end, and once everything was nice and hot, you’re ready for dinner!
We ate our soup with a big loaf of crusty bread I picked up from the mercato the day before. Traditional Florentine bread is made without salt because in the Middle Ages, there was a heavy tax levied on salt, so bakers decided not to use it. A perfect example of the deep rooted, almost stubborn culture of Florence. I’m not sure why anyone would ever omit salt on purpose, seeing as it is readily available now, but who am I to judge another country’s traditions. Anyway, I smothered the bread in a few tablespoons of butter and a lot of crunchy sea salt. It helped a little.