Acquacotta means, literally, “cooked water,” but as cookbook author Emiko Davies would tell you, it’s so much more. It’s a soup simmering with all the nostalgia of comfort food. It’s a recipe that stretches to feed an army. It’s a symbol of a region, the Maremma, a strip of land bordering the Tyrrhenian sea, a place so beautiful and magical it completely captured Emiko when she moved there with her family in the warm months of 2016. Last but not not least, Acquacotta is a cookbook, a collection of photographs, memories, and recipes lovingly gathered by Emiko during the six months she spent in this secret silver coast of Tuscany.
Emiko and her family now live in Florence, Italy, and I was lucky to meet her there a few weeks ago. We shared an impeccable lunch at Sostanza (butter chicken, artichoke omelette, Tuscan beans, and a bitter leafed salad) and could have talked for hours about food, writing, and our shared experiences as expats in Beijing, and diplomatic family life. Of course we also talked about her new book, and the Maremma region, which I had never heard of. But later that day, after a long walk, and visit to a palazzo perched on the banks of the Arno (as you do, when in Firenze), we parted ways – and I suddenly began to see references everywhere to the region. There it was on the wine list, a remarkable, lush white, full of stone fruits. There it was on the street, a sign proclaiming “Acquacotta,” the name of a little restaurant. There it was in the Sant’Ambrogio food market, labelling a pile of plump ricotta-stuffed pasta called tortelli maremmanni.
I wish I could have visited the Maremma. Instead, I had the next best thing – a copy of Emiko’s beautiful cookbook. Back in Paris, I spent a long time leafing through its pages, absorbing Emiko’s location photography, reading the stories and recipes she had gathered so carefully. On a cold, grey spring day nothing seemed more appealing than the acquacotta itself, a simple tomato soup stretched nourishing with stale bread and a poached egg – a poor man’s feast. I carefully simmered the ingredients “piano piano” – softly, softly – as Emiko instructed, and while they gently bubbled, it occurred to me for the thousandth time how recipes are the best souvenirs. Recipes – and friends, too. On this trip, I feel like I made a new one.
I halved Emiko’s original recipe, but somehow it still made enough for four portions. You can use peeled, fresh tomatoes instead of canned, and stock instead of water. The bread should be stale, not toasted – toasting alters the flavor, as Emiko points out – and so I dried my slices in a low oven.
1.5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, peeled and finely sliced
1/4 stalk celery, finely chopped
1/4 dry white wine
1 14.5-ounce can (4o0 grams), peeled tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon chile flakes (or more to taste)
4 slices Tuscan bread (or crusty white loaf), preferably stale
Warm the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over low heat. Add the onions, celery, and a pinch of salt. Cook gently until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Raise the heat to medium and add the wine, simmering until it has reduced, about 3-4 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon. Add the water, chile, another pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer gently, uncovered, until the tomatoes and vegetables have started to fall apart, about an hour, adding dashes of water, if the soup becomes too thick.
While the soup cooks, prepare the bread by baking it in a 325ºF oven until it stales (about 15 minutes), flipping the slices midway.
When the soup is finished, give it a stir, and add a dash of water if necessary – though it should be thick, you will need enough liquid to poach the eggs. Taste and adjust seasonings. Bring the soup to a boil and add the eggs, one at a time, poaching them directly in the soup until the whites are set and the yolk still runny, about 90 seconds.
To serve, place a slice of stale bread at the bottom of a soup bowl. Carefully place the poached egg on top of the bread, add another ladle of soup to the bowl so that it soaks into the bread.