There’s a certain Italian restaurant chain (you may be familiar with Olive Garden…) that made Zuppa Toscana soup famous. This used to be my husband’s favorite when we would go to Olive Garden (I always opted for the Pasta e Fagioli soup myself). We haven’t been there for years now. Its an emotional thing for me. We often used to go with my mom, but when she became ill several years ago with a heartbreaking progressive illness and could no longer dine out, I just couldn’t go back anymore. There were just too many memories.
Mom passed away 3 months ago, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back again. It would just be too painful. But I so miss the wonderful food. And the wonderful times.
Now I make this soup at home for my husband. Zuppa Toscana usually calls for heavy cream, but I’ve modified the recipe to get all of the thickness and richness without the fat, calories, and weight gain that cream provides. We really watch what and how we eat and we’ve learned a lot about eating clean and making amazing food in a “healthified” way. I also often subsitute farmers sausage or learn ground beef or pork for the Italian sausage, since it tends to be leaner, and its more likely to be what I have on hand, but of course, if you’re going for an authentic Italian experience, Italian sausage is the way to go and it does add that little bit of extra flavor (but also a lot of fat!), but trust me the soup’s got a lot of flavor regardless. I always prefer to use kale in this soup, but some cooks do make Zuppa Toscana with spinach. Olive Garden uses kale, and it is a superfood – it has the highest level of nutrition of any of the greens, so I try to include it as often as I can into my cooking and I usually grow it in the summer. Nonetheless, spinach is a perfectly valid substitute. Either way, you only want to par-cook it before adding it to the soup – meaning, just cook it so it ever so slightly softens; if you cook it all the way, it’ll wilt too much and get far too soggy when you add it to the soup. It will continue to soften when its in the hot soup. But I wouldn’t add it to the soup raw as some recipes have suggested, or it tends not to soften enough, and for your eating pleasure, you also want to ensure it is heated through when you place it in the soup.
1 pound bulk mild Italian sausage (or substitute farmers sausage or even ground beef)
1 1/4 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
4 slices bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 large onion, diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
5 (13.75 ounce) cans chicken broth
4-6 potatoes( medium to large),preferably russet, diced (or thinly sliced and then cut into quarters)
1 cup mashed potatoes
2 bunch fresh kale or substitute spinach cut into 1/2 inch pieces, par-cooked and tough stems removed
1.5 tsp fennel seed, chopped – optional
Shaved parmesan cheese for sprinkling on top soup for garnish
- Cook the sausage and red pepper flakes in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat until crumbly, browned, and no longer pink, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- Cook the bacon in the same Dutch oven over medium heat until crisp, about 10 minutes. Drain, leaving a few tablespoons of drippings with the bacon in the bottom of the Dutch oven. Stir in the onions and garlic; cook until onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Pour the chicken broth into the Dutch oven with the bacon and onion mixture; bring to a boil over high heat. Add the sliced potatoes, and boil until fork tender, about 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and stir in the mashed potatoes and the cooked sausage; heat through. Mix the kale or spinach into the soup just before serving.