Acquacotta: Rachel Roddy’s recipe for vegetable broth with poached eggs

Meera Sodha’s vegan recipe for oyster mushroom tacos

Mary Eaton was from Bungay in Suffolk. It is her 1823 recipe for Vegetable Water Soup that Florence White included in her practical cookery book, Good Things in England. Half a cabbage, four carrots, two parsnips, two onions, three turnips, celery and parsley root, white beet, chervil and half a pint of peas are tied up in linen, then boiled, before being chopped up and served in the broth. The recipe doesn’t mention eggs or bread, but there is a good chance they were added. Meanwhile, in Maremma, a geographical area that straddles south-west Tuscany and parts of northern Lazio, similar soups are called acquacotta, or cooked water.

There are as many versions of acquacotta as there are cooks who make it. Around Saturnia, a town in the Tuscan bit of Maremma famous for warm water in the form of shooting sulphurous hot springs, recipes often start by cooking onion and tomatoes in olive oil. I have written about this before. In his book about Tuscan food, Alvaro Maccioni has a particularly good version that also includes red peppers. (As well as a rustic anecdote about an old man called Melito, who, just after the war, would stop his wooden cart to allow his horse to drink from a bucket and later use the same bucket to make soup.) Other recipes, such as those from the town of Pitigliano, often include wild greens, while variations from Arezzo typically include dried or fresh mushrooms.

Versions from around Viterbo in Lazio are closer to Mary’s and more of a plunge: water prepared, vegetables tipped in and boiled until done, additions at the end. Which feels like making soup backwards. I like this second method, because, for a minute or so, when the pan is on the heat with just two things in it (water and salt), you really are cooking water.

Today’s recipe is not only a plunge, it is adaptable according to what you have – another good reminder that the word “recipe” comes from the Latin recipio; I take (from here, from there, what I need) and I make something.

Vegetable broth with poached eggs (acquacotta)

Prep 20 min
Cook 1 hr 10min
Serves 4

200g green beans
, topped, tailed and cut in half
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled, 1 gently crushed, 1 left whole for rubbing the bread
1 stick of celery, strings pulled away and diced
1 large tomato, peeled and roughly chopped
1 courgette, diced
3 potatoes, peeled and diced
200g swiss chard or spinach, washed and chopped into thick ribbons
1 small red chilli, chopped
A parmesan rind
, still with 1cm or so of cheese
Olive oil
4 large eggs
4 slices of bread
, toasted if you wish
Pecorino or parmesan, grated, to serve

Pour 1.3 litres water into a terracotta or heavy pan with a pinch of salt and set it over a medium heat. Add all the vegetables, chilli, parmesan rind and three tablespoons of olive oil, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for an hour.

In the final moments of this gentle simmering, poach four eggs in the pan. The best way to do this is by pressing a ladle into the soup, so it makes an indent and fills with broth. Now, break the eggs, one by one, into the ladle filled with broth, and wait about 30 seconds, or until the white starts to firm, then tilt the ladle so the egg tips out into the hollow. Leave to finish poaching for about five minutes.

Rub the slices of bread or toast with garlic and zigzag with olive oil. Put a slice at the bottom of each of four bowls. Ladle the soup over the bread, making sure each bowl has an egg, and finish with grated pecorino or parmesan and a bit more olive oil.