This is the next entry in my Regions of Italy project, based on the book La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). Today we’re in Campania.
When I was going through the recipes from Campania, trying to decide which ones to do, as soon as I spotted one called “St. Lucy’s Soup,” I knew it would be on my list. St. Lucy, or Santa Lucia as she is known in Italian, has always been a part of my life.
Although her year of birth is recorded as 283 A.D. in Syracuse, Italy, not much is known about St. Lucy or the actual details of her death. Legend has it that she devoted herself to God and vowed chastity. Her mother had betrothed her to a young man, who, after being rejected, turned her in to the governor, Paschasius (Christianity was outlawed at this time, and paganism was the accepted religion).
As punishment, Paschasius sentenced her to work in a brothel, but guards couldn’t physically move her, even after tying her to a team of oxen. The guards then tried to create a pyre around her, but the wood wouldn’t burn. They finally succeeded in killing her with their swords.
One cloudy aspect of her story—and this is important part—was what happened with her eyes. There are conflicting stories about that. Some said that just before she died, she warned Paschasius that he would be punished for his actions, and for that, he had her eyes gouged out. Others said that Lucy plucked her own eyes out to discourage a suitor who admired them greatly. (That sounds a bit drastic to me.) Word of her faith and piety spread and she was venerated as a saint. When her body was being prepared for burial, they discovered her eyes had been miraculously restored.
What’s interesting is that “Lucia” is related to the Latin word lux, which means light. So, who knows where reality ended and legend exploded. She is the patron saint of vision and is often depicted holding a plate with eyes on them.
When I was about 6 years old, I almost lost my sight. I was in the hospital for 9 days, during which time, doctors hovered around me, put me through countless tests, and poked and prodded me. The only information I have about that event is that I had a rare virus in my cornea. My parents didn’t speak much English, so the actual medical language was lost on them.
Knowing the kind of person my mother is, and my father was, the prospect of their child going blind must have been an unbearable torment for them. Especially for my mother. She prayed to Santa Lucia to restore my vision.
Whether it was St. Lucy’s intervention, medical knowledge, or natural self-healing, my vision was indeed restored, if a little shaky. But my mother, an Old World Italian woman who believes in the saints and in prayer, believed that she had Santa Lucia to thank, and from that time on, my room always had statues of St. Lucy, placed there by my mother. Kind of creepy as a child to look a statue of a woman holding a plate of eyeballs. But whatever.
And here’s something else. You probably don’t even know it, but one of the most popular Italian tunes that can be heard throughout the decades in the movies or TV shows is “Santa Lucia.” See if you recognize it. (Here’s Elvis performing it!)
Anyway, on to the actual recipe.
This was another frustrating recipe from this book (I love this book—it’s a tremendous resource for Italian cuisine—but it has its editorial problems!). In the first place, one of the ingredients in the original recipe was 1¼ cups dried beans (not the chickpeas). Well, what kind of beans? Pinto? Roman? Black? Navy? Lima? Cannellini? Adzuki?
I happened to have baby lima beans in my pantry, so I decided to use that, but that’s an ingredient that should be specified. Or, they should’ve said “any kind” or “any bean of your choice.” Even that is vague for many home cooks, though, but at least it signals that the “beans” required are interchangeable.
The other, and much bigger issue, is that it doesn’t say whether you need to soak the beans overnight. In most other recipes where this is required, it says so. But here it didn’t. Now, I’ve heard of recipes that start with dried beans that go right into a pot and just cook over a long period of time, so I didn’t want to assume that they should be presoaked. So, I followed the recipe as written.
The beans, both kinds, definitely needed to be presoaked. I had to cook this soup for a very long time, and I had to keep adding more and more water. The chickpeas eventually softened and cooked through, but the lima beans never quite got there. They remained, in the end, a bit on the crisp side.
Another problem is that they don’t give cooking times or desired results. Flour, cornmeal, and two types of beans are all supposed to be cooked in separate pans with the same exact amount of water. But for how long? What are we looking for? Is the flour just supposed to dissolve, or are we looking for a roux? Is the cornmeal supposed to absorb the water, or it is supposed to become thick and polenta-like? Are the beans going to cook long enough to make up for the lack of presoaking? This was a recipe of trial and error. I’ve revamped this recipe to ensure that you get a better result than I did.
Having said all that, this dish was actually a very good one. It was thick, flavorful, hearty, and unique and makes a fabulous autumn/winter meal. The problem was just getting it there.
Keep two things in mind. One of the ingredients is pickled cherry peppers. If you choose the hot variety, be very cautious about how much you use because one of two of those will make the entire soup quite hot (great, if that’s what you like). If you can’t get sweet pickled cherry peppers, then just use pickled roasted red bell peppers (and if you can’t find those, used roasted red peppers and add a splash of red wine vinegar to the dish).
Also, because this soup contains cornmeal, it will thicken as it cools. If you have leftovers, when you pull it out of the fridge the next day, you will basically have polenta. To have it after the first day, put it in a pot, add water or broth to thin it out, and cook until it’s heated through. You can also add rice or noodles to it.
I hope you give this a try. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Zuppa di Santa Lucia
St. Lucy’s Soup
1¼ cups dried chickpeas
1¼ cups dried beans (cannellini, roman, or baby lima)
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup cornmeal
2/3 cup olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, peeled, whole
1 sprig rosemary
6 papaccelle (pickled peppers), seeded and minced
¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Place the chickpeas and beans in two medium bowls. Cover with about 4 cups water. Cover the bowls and refrigerate at least 12 hours or overnight. When you’re ready to use them, drain and rinse them.Place the beans into two separate medium pots and cover with water by about 3 inches. Add a pinch of salt to each. Bring the pots to a boil; lower the heat, and cook, partially covered, until they’re tender. The chickpeas will take about 30 minutes. Time for the other beans will vary, depending on the type.Drain most of the liquid from the chickpeas (retain about ½ cup) and drain the other beans. Combine them in a bowl.
While the beans are cooking, bring two medium pots with 3 cups water each to a boil. In one, whisk in the flour, and cook, stirring often, until thickened. Add this to the beans in the bowl.
In the other pot, slowly whisk in the cornmeal. Keep whisking to work out any lumps. Cook for 5 minutes, until thickened but still pourable. Add it to the beans and flour mixture.Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the garlic, rosemary, and pickled pepper, and cook until the garlic starts to brown. Remove the garlic and rosemary. Carefully pour in the bean mixture, along with a teaspoon of salt, and stir until well combined.Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring often. Taste for salt and adjust if needed.
Stir in the parsley and serve hot.
Makes about 6 servings.