Zuppa alla canavesana (Piedmontese Bread and Cabbage Soup)

FrankPiemonte, primi piatti, Soups, Winter34 Comments

Zuppa alla canavesana

When the weather starts to turn really cold, as it’s beginning to do around these parts, we naturally turn to warming dishes like the one we’re offering up this week: Zuppa alla canavesana, a hearty cabbage and bread soup from the Canavese area near Torino in the region of Piemonte in northwestern Italy.

Made from humble ingredients, zuppa alla canavesana is very much in the frugal cucina povera tradition. You braise cabbage in broth with cured pork, then layer it with stale bread and cheese in a casserole and bake it all in the oven until bubbly and golden brown on top. Not much to look at perhaps, but it’s tasty, filling, warming, comforting, unpretentious eating.

Like many other zuppe, zuppa alla canavesana is rather thicker than a proper soup, more like a hearty casserole. Just the ticket for our increasingly frigid nights and sure to delight cabbage lovers. And with its savory mix of flavors and gooey cheese topping, zuppa alla canavesana might even win over some of you who don’t ordinarily care for the vegetable.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 1 head of Savoy cabbage, about 500g (1 lb) quartered, cored and cut into strips
  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) pancetta, cut into strips
  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) lardo or salt pork fat, or lard
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic
  • Half a loaf of stale bread, or as much as you need, cut into slices (see Notes)
  • 1 liter (1 quart) homemade broth, more if needed
  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
  • 150g (5 oz) fontina cheese, or another meltable Alpine cheese, shredded or thinly sliced (optional)
  • Nutmeg, freshly grated (optional)

Directions

If using lardo or pork fat, mince it finely together with garlic on a cutting board. Sauté the resulting mince very gently in a large saucepan until the lardo/pork fat has rendered and the garlic has very lightly browned. If using lard, melt it in the saucepan and add the garlic, sautéing very gently until it had very lightly browned. Then add the pancetta and let it sauté gently as well for a few minutes.

Add the cabbage and turn it to mix well with the fat and pancetta. Let the cabbage sweat for a good 5 minutes or so, or until well wilted. It should have reduced in volume by about half.

Add enough broth to barely cover the cabbage. Cover and let everything simmer gently until the cabbage is fully tender, about 20-30 minutes.

In a gratin or baking dish with deep sides, lay out bread slices to cover the bottom. Ladle over some of the cabbage and its broth to cover the slices entirely. Sprinkle generously with grated parmigiano-reggiano and, if using, some of the fontina and a scrape of nutmeg. Repeat until all the ingredients have been used up, ending with with a final generous layer of cheese.

NB: Add more broth or water if things look a bit dry; the liquid should still be visible and come up about 2/3 of the way up the casserole. And don’t fill the baking dish to the brim since the zuppa will puff up in the oven a bit like a souffle.

Bake in a hot (200C/400F) oven until the soup is bubbly hot and the cheese topping has melted to form a golden crust. The bread should have absorbed most but not all of the broth during cooking.

Serve piping hot.

Zuppa alla canavesana

Notes

As you will have seen, zuppa alla canavesana is a simple, homey dish. Nothing fancy about it. Like so many such dishes, the measurements (as indicated above) are really just guidelines. For most ingredients, it’s really just a matter of using as much as you need. For instance, enough broth to cover the cabbage for braising, more if you need to top up the casserole. Or enough bread to cover the bottom of the baking dish. Or as much cheese as you feel like adding. You get the picture.

The main challenge in making zuppa alla canavesana is sourcing some of its ingredients, which can be hard to find depending on where you live. But there are some viable alternatives and substitutes in you run into trouble.

Savoy cabbage

You may not have expected to see an Italian recipe for cabbage. It’s certainly not the most common ingredient in the cooking of central and southern Italy, but it does appear in the cookery of northern Italy, especially of course in cold weather dishes like this one.

Italians favor Savoy cabbage, called verza, over “regular” green cabbage. Savoy cabbage is especially apt for this dish and other Piedmontese dishes since Savoy, where this varietal originated, is right next door to Piemonte and, indeed, the two regions (along with Sardinia) were once part of the same kingdom. And the Piedmontese have their own prized variety of Savoy cabbage, which they style cavolo verza di Montalto Dora.

For those unfamiliar with Savoy cabbage, it is distinguished by its more “leaf-like” leaves: wrinkled, thinner, more tender and less tightly packed around the head than those of a regular cabbage. The leaves are usually a darker green as well, though not the specimen I picked up this week. Here’s a picture of both kinds, Savoy on the left and regular green cabbage on the right, so you can see the difference:

Savoy cabbage has a milder, sweeter taste than regular cabbage. I think it’s superior in just about every way (with the sole exception that it’s more perishable than regular cabbage) and well worth seeking out. That said, if you can’t find Savoy cabbage, you can make your zuppa alla canavesana using regular green cabbage. In fact, some recipes call for it specifically, even if they’re in the minority.

Some older recipes also call for rape tenere, which (I assume—Italian readers can correct me here) refers to very young, tender shoots of broccoli rabe. In fact, one of my cookbooks lists it first, with verza as an alternative/substitute. Most modern recipes, however, call for verza. Anyway, it’s not something you’re likely to find in these parts, but if you have access to them, I’m sure it also makes for a lovely dish.

Bread

As for the bread, use a baguette, pagnotta, a good homemade loaf or any crusty, well structured bread. Sandwich or other soft breads won’t work. They will turn to mush as they cook with the broth. And anyway, most are made with preservatives so they never go stale.

As mentioned above, the amount of bread is hard to specify, given all the potential variables involved, including the shape of the bread and the shape and depth of the casserole. For this dish, I used a half of a baguette that had gone stale. And since this dish probably got started as a way to recycle stale bread, feel free to basically used as much as you have on hand.

Cheese

Recipes for zuppa alla canavesana call for one or more of three kinds of cheese: bitto, fontina and parmigiano-reggiano. Bitto, an ancient Alpine cheese from neighboring Lombardy that we’ve mentioned before in our post on another wintery dish, pizzoccheri alla valentinese. It’s basically impossible to find outside Italy, so I won’t dwell on it too much. Most modern recipes call for the ubiquitous parmigiano-reggiano. If you like a creamier, richer dish (and I sure do) add in some fontina, either sliced or shredded. If fontina is a bit too dear for your pocket (real fontina imported from Italy is not cheap) then, although probably anathema to the piemontesi, I could also see using another meltable Alpine cheese like Emmenthal or gruyère.

Lardo and its substitutes

The traditional recipe for zuppa alla canavesana calls for lardo. The word is something of a false friend. Lardo isn’t what we call lard in English but rather a kind of salumi made from pork fatback cured with herbs and spices. It makes for a surprisingly delicate and refined antipasto sliced paper-thin and served on toasted bread. For this dish, you mince it together with garlic to make what Italians call a battuto. But lardo is not very easy to find and very expensive indeed when you do. Probably too expensive to use for cooking for most people.

For today’s dish, instead of lardo I used a particularly fatty bit of guanciale, which worked very well indeed, even if guanciale is taken from the cheek while lardo is taken from the fatback on the top of the pig. Similarly, you could substitute the fat from salt pork. Again, salt pork is taken from a different part of the animal, the belly. Nor is it cured with herbs and spices. But you’ll still be in the same proverbial ballpark. Or you could omit the pork fat altogether. Just sauté your garlic in lard which, after all, is simply rendered pork fat. You will also find some recipes that eschew the lardo in favor of butter.

Variations

Some recipes for zuppa alla canavesana call for crumbled sausage meat instead of pancetta.

In some versions, the bread slices are fried in butter. A bit more work (and calories!) but nice if you’re in the mood for especially hearty dish.

In another interesting variation, you layer leaves of raw cabbage with the bread and cheese, cover with broth and then bake in the oven in a moderate (180C/350F) oven for an hour, or until the cabbage has fully cooked. You top up the broth if need be along the way and hold back the cheese topping until the last 15-20 minutes. (Disclaimer: I haven’t tried this variation myself, but it seems to me that it should work.)

Although not traditional, there are vegetarian versions of zuppa alla canavesena. In these versions, you omit the pork products altogether and sweat the cabbage in butter, then braise it in vegetable broth. And if you use a meltable vegan cheese, you could even veganize it.

Making Ahead

Zuppa alla canavesana is best served freshly made, piping hot from the oven. But you can braise the cabbage ahead of time, then assemble the dish for baking before serving. Indeed, like most braises the taste only improves after an overnight rest.

Zuppa alla canavesana

Piedmontese Bread and Cabbage Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 head Savoy cabbage quartered, cored and cut into strips
  • 100g 3-1/2 oz pancetta cut into strips
  • 100g 3-1/2 oz lardo  or salt pork fat, or lard
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 load stale bread, or as much as you need, cut into slices
  • 1 liter 1 quart homemade broth more if needed
  • 100g 3-1/2 oz freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano or more if you like
  • 150g fontina cheese, or another meltable Alpine cheese shredded or thinly sliced (optional)

Instructions

  • If using lardo or pork fat, mince it finely together with garlic on a cutting board. Sauté the resulting mince very gently in a large saucepan until the lardo/pork fat has rendered and the garlic has very lightly browned. If using lard, melt it in the saucepan and add the garlic, sautéing very gently until it had very lightly browned. Then add the pancetta and let it sauté gently as well for a few minutes. 
  • Add the cabbage and turn it to mix well with the fat and pancetta. Let the cabbage sweat for a good 5 minutes or so, or until well wilted. It should have reduced in volume by about half. 
  • Add enough broth to barely cover the cabbage. Cover and let everything simmer gently until the cabbage is fully tender, about 20-30 minutes. 
  • In a gratin or baking dish with deep sides, lay out bread slices to cover the bottom. Ladle over some of the cabbage and its broth to cover the slices entirely. Sprinkle generously with grated parmigiano-reggiano and, if using, some of the fontina and a scrape of nutmeg. Repeat until all the ingredients have been used up, ending with with a final generous layer of cheese. 
    NB: Add more broth or water if things look a bit dry; the liquid should still be visible and come up about 2/3 of the way up the casserole. And don't fill the baking dish to the brim since the zuppa will puff up in the oven a bit like a souffle.
  • Bake in a hot (200C/400F) oven until the soup is bubbly hot and the cheese topping has melted to form a golden crust. The bread should have absorbed most but not all of the broth during cooking. 
  • Serve piping hot. 

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34 Comments on “Zuppa alla canavesana (Piedmontese Bread and Cabbage Soup)”

  1. Buon anno Frank! I made the zuppa just the other day. It was the first time I’d made a zuppa with stale bread and it was so good! Although I used salt pork fat next time I’d opt for some fatty guanciale just to compare. Luckily we’ve no problem finding savoy cabbage…what would we do without local farmer’s markets? I did use the cheeses you suggested but as I had a lovely piece of Der Scharfe Le Maxx on hand I substituted it for the Italian Fontina. The cheese seems to be something new to our market and I wonder if you’ve heard of it…darned worth sourcing! https://www.cheesyplace.com/products/der-scharfe-maxx Wishing you all the best for 2023…whew…can’t believe I actually wrote that!

    1. So glad to hear it, Phyllis! As for the cheese, I haven’t heard of Der Scharfe but it does sound delicious. I’ll be on the lookout for it.

  2. Well I adore soup, any kind, but this one would be the top of my list. It’s so flavourful and filling, perfect for the chilly temperatures we have had to endure of late.

  3. That cheese on top made this really appetizing, not a fan of cabbage but this one may be an expemption. Looks stunning Frank!

  4. My kind of dish, especially with the very cold weather we’re having. Savoy cabbage is readily available here and our local butcher carries lardo and I have smoked pancetta in the fridge, so I have no reason not to dive into this dish. Thanks for sharing this one.

  5. Savoy cabbage has always been my cabbage of choice. 🙂 This looks so delicious. And I’m sure it’s incredibly warming and yes, perfect for winter! ~Valentina

  6. Well this sounds fantastic, Frank. It certainly reminds me of French onion soup, but with cabbage in place of the onions. I have to think the 2 were somehow related back in the day. I do enjoy cabbage, although I need to source Savoy cabbage now. Somewhere in Asheville must have it, right?? And the fontina on top sounds like the way to go here!! Perfect for chilly evenings for sure.

    1. There’s certainly a family resemblance. As for finding Savoy cabbage, best of luck. Around here anyway it’s hit or miss. If you do try, I hope you guys like it. I’m pretty sure you will!

  7. Hello Frank, I too have never heard of this soup but it sounds amazing! My husband is from Piedmont but his family have never made anything like this. I’d imagine, as with most Italian recipes, it’s very regional. But we love cheese and savoy cabbage so I’ll be trying this one out!

    1. Interesting! The dish is specific to the Canavese but I understand it’s fairly well known. Anyway, I do hope you like it. Actually I’m pretty sure you will, it’s delicious.

    1. I do think you’d like Savoy cabbage! That said as mentioned don’t hesitate to try this dish with green cabbage, it’s also quite good!

  8. This is fabulous. I love cabbage so I know I’d love the soup. Some sausages would be good too, but of course the pancetta is in there. Love it!

    1. Indeed. As mentioned in the notes, there is a variation on this dish that replaces the pancetta with crumbled and sautéed sausage. I haven’t tried it myself but it does sound nice as well.

  9. this sounds incredibly comforting and warming. we are having a heatwave here so it may have to wait till winter to try it out :=)

    1. Hehe! Yes, I heard from another reader from Australia that you’re getting 34C days. Not exactly the kind of weather that calls for a soup like this one… 😉 Always a challenge when you’re living in different hemispheres!

  10. *smile* Since we have been promised a 34 C temperature here this afternoon methinks your ever-so-inviting cabbage soup recipe will march straight into the kitchen to ‘wait’ ! Love the sound of it !!! Methinks variations on the theme may form ‘home cooking’ in many parts of N and NE Europe where cabbage and bread are everyday staples . . . Italians just manage such in a more elegant way 🙂 !

    1. Ha! That’s the challenge when you get into these seasonal dishes and many of your readers are from another hemisphere! I feel the same way when I read Australia bloggers posting summer recipes in December, lol! Anyway, yes, I’m sure there are any number of recipes along these lines wherever people eat cabbage and bread. Do give it a try when the weather suits…

  11. Fantastic – I love recipes like this! I can get lardo and the cabbage is everywhere his time of year. This reminds me slightly of the Portuguese sopa seca, a dry bread soup where stale bread absorbes a broth.

  12. Never heard of this soup, but two of my very favorite things: cabbage and cheese! What’s not to love?! My family (Lazio) uses cabbage a lot, so I wasn’t surprised to see a cabbage recipe, and yes, Savoy or bust! 🙂

  13. Frank — I have been making this soup for decades (my aunt taught me) and I had no idea it actually had a name. It is truly one of our favorite winter recipes. I’m so glad to learn more about it. And thanks for the inspiration — I think I will make it this week!

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