Last week at a popular Italian restaurant in our small New England town, I ordered as a first course "pasta in brodo," which translates to "pasta in broth." The soup, made with chicken stock, had cheese-filled tortellini floating in it and a melange of vegetables including diced zucchini and carrots. Light yet satisfying, the delectable broth made a perfect opener for my meal. Several days later, I decided to make a spring version of this dish in my own kitchen.
This classic Italian soup is based on homemade broth, but since I didn't have several hours to prepare stock, I opted for a shortcut. After purchasing reduced-sodium stock at my local market, I simmered it with sliced onions, carrots, celery and sprigs of fresh parsley and thyme for 30 minutes. I strained the mixture and discarded the vegetables. The resulting stock was a deep golden hue and bursting with flavor.
I cooked penne until almost done in this simmering broth and then added sliced asparagus, peas and green onions. The entire cooking time for the pasta and the vegetables was under 15 minutes. I topped each serving of soup with julienned strips of prosciutto that had been sauteed until crispy. I also added a sprinkling of grated Pecorino Romano cheese.
The pasta soup needs very little last-minute work. The broth can be made two days in advance, and the prosciutto strips sauteed a couple of hours ahead.
This soup was delicious when I recently tried it on two friends who help me test recipes, but now I am planning to use it as an opener for a dinner party. The dish could be followed by grilled lamb chops, roasted chicken or sauteed veal scallops along with side dishes of braised carrots and fennel. Scoops of sorbet and crunchy biscotti could complete the menu.
Springtime Pasta Soup With Asparagus, Peas and Onions
Makes 6 servings
2 quarts reduced-sodium chicken stock plus a little extra if needed
2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 medium onions, cut into 1-inch slices
2 sprigs parsley
2 sprigs fresh thyme
4 thin slices (about 2 ounces) prosciutto
1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil
2 cups (about 5 ounces) penne
1 pound medium asparagus, tough ends broken off and discarded and spears cut into 1-inch pieces
1 bunch green onions, 2 inches of green stems trimmed and discarded, and onions cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup fresh or frozen green peas, thawed
salt, freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese (see Note)
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
To prepare Stock, place 2 quarts of the chicken stock, celery, carrots, onions, parsley and thyme in large heavy pot with lid and set over medium heat. Bring mixture to a simmer. Reduce heat and cook, covered, 30 minutes. Strain and reserve stock, discarding vegetables and herbs. You should have about 8 cups stock. If not, add extra stock or water. (Stock can be prepared 2 days ahead. Cool, cover and refrigerate.)
To prepare Soup, stack prosciutto slices, roll tightly into a cylinder and cut into 1 / 4 -inch-wide strips. Cut strips in half. Heat olive oil in medium heavy skillet over medium heat until hot. Add prosciutto and cook, stirring, until crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Set aside. (Prosciutto can be sauteed 2 hours ahead and left at cool room temperature.)
When ready to cook and serve soup, place stock in large pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Add penne and cook about 9 minutes (or 3 minutes less than package directions). Add asparagus and cook 2 minutes. Add onions and peas and cook 1 minute more. Taste soup and season with salt and pepper.
Ladle soup into 6 shallow soup bowls. Garnish each serving with some crispy prosciutto, grated Pecorino cheese and chopped parsley. Serve immediately.
Note: Pecorino Romano is an Italian sheep cheese with a yellow-white interior and a sharp, strong flavor. Try to buy a good-quality imported brand from a market or specialty food store. If you can't find Pecorino Romano, you can substitute Parmigiano-Reggiano.