Saturday, April 28, 2012


Let me start out by saying that I was the little girl that you would probably have hated when you were a kid, and also that my husband and I talk about this all the time.  We agree that we would probably not have been friends as children, but may have had secret crushes on one another in High School.  My family did not live in a big house or drive expensive cars, but we were what most people would politely call “comfortable” in that we had disposable income.  I was the little girl from Southern California with a white pony named Pearl, who went on family vacations to Club Med and had a rabbit skin coat that I wore when we went out to dinner at fancy restaurants or when my father took me to the ballet.

Yes.  That was me.  And that was my family.  But that’s not the whole picture.  It never is.

We spent most of our weekends hiking and climbing in the mountains at Idylwild or in the dessert at Joshua Tree to get away from the real “Orange County.”  My father used to encourage my sister and brother and I to feed the coyotes scraps of food out the window so that they would become more aggressive and attack large buses of tourists that used to come through Joshua Tree National Park and whom we felt were far too noisy to actually appreciate the beauty of the spaces.  We had a lot of guns in our house, which made us an endangered species in Southern California.  But my Mom came from a goose hunting family in South Dakota, and my Dad grew up on a ranch in the San Bernadino Valley, so guns and hunting were just part and parcel with our background.  When I became a vegetarian in High School I wasn’t embraced with the “yay love our earth” mentality that most Californians find.  I was regarded with suspicion and lots of eye rolling by my family, immediate and extended.  Especially since we had grown up appreciating where food, especially meat, came from.

We were exposed to a lot of different foods at a very early age, something which I hope to be able to do with my daughter.  Our favorite places to go out to dinner and celebrate were the local sushi restaurant and two Italian restaurants that we had been going to for so long that we knew everyone there.  But my brother, sister and I didn’t resign ourselves to plates of noodles or meatballs.  My brothers favorite dish was either rabbit wrapped in bacon or these enormous prawns called gamberoni.  My favorite thing to order was Cornish game hen stuffed with radicchio.  My only thoughts as to why I would order such a thing when I was 10 years old was that it most closely resembled roast chicken, and was a foreshadowing of the many years I have now spent perfecting various roast chicken recipes.  Although I have never stuffed one with radicchio… brother was eight years old when this was his go to dinner.

But by far my greatest childhood food memory is of what is, in my opinion, the most perfect soup ever made.  Stracciatella.  If you are familiar with Italian cuisine you may be confused, as this is also a flavor of gelato.  But once you delve into the name all becomes clear.  Stracciatella means “rags” and comes from the Italian stracciato, meaning "torn apart."  In the gelato these rags come in the form of chocolate swirled throughout the creamy base.  In the soup, these rags come from a combination of egg and parmesan whisked into a hot chicken stock base to form ragged, cheesy eggy delicious swirls.  Our two favorite places always added sautéed spinach as well, which always adds a nice earthy feel and texture.  It is the soup that I have been dreaming of since leaving California twelve years ago.  Every time it rains, every time I am sick…stracciatella.  Every cold winter day I have ever endured under the permacloud of northern Indiana or the perma-raincloud of Tacoma, Washington or the frigid, nose stabbing winds of Minnesota…stracciatella. 

So…why the hell has it taken me twelve years to try and make this recipe my own?  Simple answer here folks.  Fear.  When a smell and taste memory has taken such complete hold of your life, the thought of trying to reproduce it and failing is scary.  Worse is the thought of trying to reproduce it, succeeding, and finding out that it really is not as good as you thought it was.  Yeah, that tastes exactly how I remember it…but now I don’t ever want to take another bite!  Those were happy times for the Prentice clan, crowded around a table slurping soup and scooping up mounds of olive tapenade butter with crunchy bread sticks.  (Note: we used to call this butter pate de gatto, because while it was delicious, and is still the only food in the world involving olives that I will willingly eat, it looks like hell.)

I didn’t want to get the soup wrong, and I didn’t want my memories to be wrong either.

Finally, one day last week, Minnesota embraced its true nature of spring and got cold and rainy.  Lucy was taking her nap, I was hungry, and there was nothing in the house that looked good.  Which is ridiculous because I always have a disgusting amount of food in the house in case I ever need to entertain at a moments notice, which has never actually happened, but the fear remains with me always.  In any case, as I trolled the fridge and cupboards for the umpteeth time, an idea started to form.  I had spinach.  I had fresh eggs brought to us from our friends chickens.  I had a wedge of parmesan.  I ran to the freezer hoping against hope that the universe had smiled on me and the planets had aligned and YES there is was!  A large Tupperware of homemade chicken stock.  The stock that Don always makes fun of me for, because I can’t make chicken without making stock afterward, which usually ends up in me staying up until 2am.  But the joke was on him, because I had homemade chicken stock to make the best soup ever.  I was having an Ina Garten moment.  How great is that?

Lucy woke up while I was getting everything prepared, and was delighted to come down, take up her usual seat on the kitchen counter, and help in the process.  The only problem we encountered was that she couldn’t see the soup well enough while I was pouring the egg and cheese mixture while stirring the stock, and ended up standing up to peer into the pot.  But I have been practicing my “Mommy is unhappy with that behavior” eyes, and it only took one glace and a “Lucy, do you feel safe standing on the counter like that?” before she sat back down lickety split.

Literally thirty minutes after the idea crossed my mind, I was pouring out the first ladle into a mug for testing, while Lucy looked on.  The egg rags and bits of spinach were very intriguing to her.  I took the first spoonful…and immediately started crying. 

It tasted exactly how I remembered it.  And it was just as good as I remembered it.  Better, even, because it was real and consumable, and reproducible even!  I could make it every day!  I could have it whenever I wanted!  Whenever I was sick or cold or homesick and cold, which is pretty much most of the time, lets be honest.  It.  Was.  Awesome.

And here it is, for you.  Stracciatella.  Thanks to Lynne Rossetto Kasper of The Splendid Table for the basic bones and proportions.

  • 1 pound fresh spinach
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 cups chicken stock or low-sodium canned (if you have your own that is awesome.  If you can buy the expensive kind, that is great too.  Try to use good stock though, because there is not a lot that goes into this soup, so the quality of the stock does make a difference)
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

In a large stock pot, bring 8 cups of vegetable broth to a boil.
Clean, de-stem, and chop two bunches of spinach. Peel and smash all the garlic.
Add two tablespoons of olive oil to a large skillet, place the whole garlic cloves in the pan, and heat for several minutes to infuse the oil. Add the spinach to the skillet, stir to combine it with the oil, and heat, covered, for 3 minutes.  Remove the garlic at this point, or right before serving the soup.
When the broth has come to a boil, add the wilted spinach and cook for two minutes at a steady simmer.
In a liquid measuring cup or small bowl, beat the eggs with a fork. Grate 1/2 cup of Parmesan or Pecorino cheese and add to the beaten eggs. Temper the eggs by drizzling a small amount of the hot broth into the eggs while beating the eggs, about half a cup will do it.
With a spoon, rapidly mix the soup broth to create a "whirlpool" and slowly pour the egg mixture into the soup (don’t stop stirring). The eggs should immediately form into "rags".  Make sure that that broth is at a steady simmer before you add the eggs; if the broth is not hot enough, the eggs may incorporate into the broth instead of forming rags, which would be….weird.  Or good.  I don’t know.  But it wouldn’t be stracciatella.
Season with salt (to taste) and lots of fresh ground pepper. Serve immediately.

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