Le virtù, literally meaning “the virtues”, is the signature Spring dish from the town of Teramo in the Abruzzo region of Italy. This thick soup takes it name from the Seven Virtues of Catholic catechism. Custom has it that you need 7 different legumes and 7 different vegetables to make it, plus, for the really hard-core traditionalist, 7 different meats, 7 different herbs and 7 different types of pasta, both dry and fresh. Some recipes take the metaphor even further, calling for 7 hours of cooking by—I kid you not— 7 virgins.
Well, if all of this sounds too elaborate for you, no worries. I may get myself into trouble with my friends from Abruzzo, but for today’s recipe, I’ve taken some liberties to come up with a recipe that should be manageable for most home cooks. The truth is, this dish started out as a culinary Spring cleaning, prepared once a year on May 1st, using all dried beans and other odds and ends that accumulated over the course of the winter, freshened with the first offerings of spring. So let me go out on a limb and say that the precise number of ingredients doesn’t really make that much difference—as long as there’s plenty of variety.
In its classic form le virtù is a hearty one-dish meal with all the basic food groups (including fruit, if you count the tomato). For this recipe, I’ve drastically cut the number and amounts of meat, so the dish can serve as a first course, and slightly simplified the technique. And, most heretical of all, I’ve skipped the pasta altogether, though feel free to add any short pasta, or mixed pastas, if you want a more substantial dish. One bit of esoterica I’ve kept is the pig’s foot, which provides meat, skin and a rich broth, all of which give the soup its characteristic taste and texture. But let’s call this optional. Pig’s foot isn’t common any more and not all that many people care for it. So if you want, skip the pig’s foot and use some extra pancetta instead.
Makes enough for a crowd, 8 persons or more
To cook the pig’s foot (optional):
- 1 pig’s foot
- 1 small onion
- 1 carrot
- 1 stalk of celery
For the beans:
- 500g (1 lb) mixed dried beans (see Notes)
- 1-2 cloves of garlic
For the flavor base (soffritto):
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 2 stalks of celery, chopped
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
- Parsley, plus other fresh herbs if you like (see Notes), minced
- 125g (4 oz) pancetta (plus pig’s skin if using), cut into small cubes
- Salt and pepper
- A few cloves, plus a pinch of nutmeg if you like
- Olive oil
For the soup:
- 2-3 tomatoes, cut into chunks (or more if you like)
- 500g (1 lb) fresh legumes (see Notes)
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) or more fresh vegetables (see Notes), cut into dice
- If not using the pig’s foot: Water or meat broth, preferably homemade
To finish off:
- A handful of basil, mint or other fresh herbs, roughly chopped or torn
- Grated pecorino cheese
You should start the dish the day before. (Actually, two days before is better, as the soup is better the day after it’s made.) Soak the dried beans overnight.
If using the pig’s foot, simmer it with the aromatics and pinch of salt until it’s falling off the bone. Let the pig’s foot cool off and place in the fridge overnight.
The next day, take the pig’s foot out of the fridge and skim off the considerable excess fat that will have risen to the top. Remove the pig’s foot and careful peel off the skin with a boning knife and cut it into very small cubes and set aside. Cut off any meat as well and cut that, too, into small pieces and reserve separately. Normally, there is very little meat on a pig’s foot, but I found this foot with a good section of the shin at our local Chinese supermarket:
Heat up the pork broth, pour it through a sieve, and set aside.
Simmer the dried beans with the garlic until they are about 3/4 of the way done, still a bit crunchy. Drain the beans.
Now, cut the fresh vegetables up and set out everything you’ll need for the soup like so:
Begin the final cooking pouring a generous amount of olive oil in the bottom of a pot large enough to hold all the ingredients. Ideally, the pot will be made of terra-cotta, but a large enameled cast iron pot, or simply a stock pot, will do fine. Sauté the flavor base ingredients together until they soften. Add the tomatoes and continue cooking until the tomatoes have melted.
Add the parboiled dried legumes and give them a turn with the flavor base so everything is well coated. Now do the same with the fresh legumes and fresh vegetables. Add the degreased pork broth and, if you need it, enough water to cover. (If you’re not using the pig’s foot, just use water or broth.) Simmer until everything is nice and tender, about 45 minutes to an hour.
Towards the end of cooking add the chopped pork meat (if using) and, if you like, a handful of basil, mint and/or other fresh herbs to brighten the dish. If you have time, let the soup rest overnight and reheat the next day.
If using pasta, cook it separately until quite al dente, and add it to the pot a few minutes before you are ready to serve.
Serve with grated pecorino on the side for those who like it.
For the dried legumes, cannellini beans, borlotti, chickpeas and lentils are all canonical choices. Dried favas are also excellent. In the US, red beans add a nice (if unconventional) touch. For the fresh legumes, peas are a sine qua non, to which you can add fresh fava beans, deshelled and peeled, if you can find them. If not, edamame, fresh or frozen, are a fine if slightly heretical choice. For the fresh vegetables, anything goes, really, but zucchini, artichoke, green, leafy vegetables like Swiss chard, escarole, green endive or spinach, Savoy cabbage, fennel and potatoes are all excellent choices.
The true recipe calls for more meats than you’ll find listed above. Besides the pig’s foot, it calls for a prosciutto bone, which is practically impossible to find Stateside (unless you spend a small fortune to buy an entire prosciutto) but I suppose a good old post-Easter ham bone would do fine. Other odds bits of the pig, like the ears or snout or the skin, can go into the pot as well. To this, many recipes call for adding tiny little meatballs to simmer along with the fresh vegetables and the rest.
The pastas are classically a mix of dried and fresh, short and long, cutting or breaking the long types into short lengths you can eat with a spoon. Some recipes will even call for stuffed pastas like agnolotti.