As much as I love to cook, I am firmly of the mind that food cooked by others always tastes better, especially when it’s a home-cooked meal. Such was the case last Thursday night, which found me at my friend Shelly’s house for book club. When it comes to entertaining, Shelly is golden. She’s dry-cleaned tablecloths to my folded paper napkins; well-spaced chargers to my chipped Crate & Barrel everyday plates; artfully arranged flowers to my…well, you get the point.
She’s also my partner in crime when it comes to cooking and thinks nothing of attending yet another cooking class with me or taking one more spin through Sur La Table before heading off for a lovely glass of wine to discuss, what else? Cooking. Love this girl.
And really really loved the magical pot of soup she made for our cozy group of five (we lost one to an escaped dog escapade; luckily, the dog found his way home). We arrived at Shelly’s to be greeted by the seductive scent of onion, bacon and something sweet that I later discovered to be heavy cream. Also floating about in her gorgeous oval Le Creuset pot of soup were kale, mild Italian sausage and bits of red pepper flakes.
Taken on its own, the mere ingredient list would send the Gonzo Gourmet into hiding. Sausage and kale I’d profess to not liking, while heavy cream would make me tie on my running shoes and race in the opposite direction. But part of the reason for having this blog in the first place is to encourage myself to think outside the pasta box. Which brings me back to my original point: someone else’s cooking is almost always better than one’s own, if only because that someone else is generous enough to introduce one to something so divine, one can’t help but beg for the recipe.
Here’s where Shelly had her Phoebe Buffet Nestlé Toulouse moment. Remember that episode of Friends when Chef Monica asks how Phoebe makes her chocolate cookies so divine? Turns out they were Nestle Toll House. And while Shelly’s Tuscan Soup didn’t come from Nestle, she did admit with more than a hint of a laugh that the recipe is her mother’s. Which her mother got from…The Olive Garden. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
I didn’t have time to copy Shelly’s version of the recipe, so I cobbled one together using online sources here and here. There’s definitely room for improvement, so this is a development-stage recipe only. My mother and I found the following issues with the soup:
1. Not enough seasoning (I used low-sodium chicken broth).
2. Too much broth (I used 8 cups; next time I may do 4 cups regular chicken broth plus 2 cups water).
3. Not enough meat (more bacon, more sausage).
4. A wee bit too much kale (I used an entire head).
5. Needs more potatoes. (Possibly.)
But fear not, even this less-than-perfect version is divine. I’m going to try freezing it, and I will confess that the bites I stole this morning were even better than the ones I slurped down last night. If you want to get in on the development, Google “Olive Garden Toscana Soup Recipe”, pull out your soup pot, then add your two cents here.
Shelly’s Mother’s Olive Garden® Toscana Soup
This recipe is in its developmental stage, so I’ve noted what I used on round one, and what I plan to do on the next round. Glorious as this version is, a few tweaks here and there will elevate to superlative. I love that this is a one-pot dish.
Extra virgin olive oil
2 links mild Italian-style pork sausage, removed from casing (try four next time; I bought mine at Henry’s per Shelly’s expertise)
1 teaspoon crushed red peppers
2 slices good-quality bacon (not nearly enough, considering I used it as a snack while cooking; try 6 next time)
1 medium California sweet onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups low-sodium chicken broth (too much, not salty enough; go for 4 cups regular chicken broth plus 2 cups water next round)
1 pound red-skinned potatoes, skin on, sliced (may use more next time, we’ll see)
1 head chopped kale (on the fence here, but will most likely use less)
1 cup heavy cream
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste
1. Warm a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat; add 2-3 tablespoons olive oil. Once the olive oil is heated, add the sausage, crumbling it into the pot. Add the crushed red peppers. Brown until the meat is cooked through, crumbling the meat as you go.
2. Remove the sausage and set aside; drain any fat from the pot.
3. In the same pot, brown the bacon over medium-high heat until done. Remove the bacon and set aside; drain the bacon fat from the pot.
4. In the same pot, warm 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and the onions and cook until they begin to soften, about 5-8 minutes.
5. Add the chicken broth to the pot, increase heat to just about high, and bring to a low boil. Once the broth boils, add the potatoes and reduce heat to medium. Simmer the potatoes until just tender, about 10-15 minutes (test for doneness with a fork).
6. Add the sausage, bacon, kale and heavy cream to the pot and simmer until the kale is tender, about 10 minutes. (I think the kale could also be steamed to save time.)
7. Adjust seasoning and serve with a fresh green salad and a crunchy baguette.