This soup, minestra dei morti ("soup of the dead") is traditionally eaten for Day of the Dead (All Souls' Day), November 2, in Milan and surrounding areas. It has ancient roots though, perhaps dating back all the way to Ancient Rome.
In the world of the ancients, beans and seeds were connected to the afterworld and were often part of funeral rites and used as offerings for the dead. Fava beans and chickpeas in particular, were the traditional foods for Day of the Dead, a day dedicated to honoring the memory of deceased loved ones and ancestors. In a soup called cisrà monferrina, rare black chickpeas were used.
It was believed that on this day, the souls of the deceased came back among the living to share a meal. Some villagers in Italy would even set a place at the table for these special visitors.
This soup was traditionally made by boiling an entire pig's head, and while that's gruesome enough to make it appropriate for Halloween, it's not practical for most home cooks these days, so we'll use bone-in pork instead. And traditionally, dried chickpeas are used, requiring at least an overnight soak plus 2-3 hours of cooking. This is a more modern version designed for practicality and time savings, but still rich and satisfying.
Traditionally, the pork is cooked in large pieces together with the other ingredients, then removed. The vegetable soup in pork broth is served as a primo, or starter course, topped generously with grated Parmesan cheese, while the pork was served as a secondo, or main course, together with small, cornichon-like pickles (cetriolini), pickled peperoncini peppers and small pickled onions (cipolline sottaceto). Piquant salsa verde would also be a great condiment to use as an accompaniment, if you wish to serve the meat this way.
If, however, you want to leave the meat in the soup and serve it all together, the heartier soup can be a one-dish meal in itself, perhaps accompanied by a salad and some crusty Italian bread or garlic bread.
It's also traditionally made in a large terracotta pot, but you can use any Dutch oven or any large, heavy-walled saucepan.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 pounds pork (bone-in)
- 2 medium onions (peeled and thinly sliced)
- 1 large carrot (peeled, trimmed, and chopped)
- 2 stalks celery (trimmed and chopped)
- 2 tablespoons sage (chopped fresh leaves)
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 6 cups water
- 2 teaspoons sea salt (fine)
- 1 can chickpeas (garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed)
- Optional: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (freshly grated for serving)
In a large pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the pork (in large, whole pieces if serving separately as a main course, chopped into large chunks if serving in the soup) and stir with a wooden spoon until browned, 1-2 minutes.
Add the sliced onions and chopped celery and carrots. Saute over medium heat until translucent, about 5-8 minutes.
Add the herbs, stir for 1 more minute, then add the water and salt.
Bring to a boil, cover, lower heat to low and simmer for about 20 minutes.
Add the drained and rinsed chickpeas and continue to simmer, covered for another 15-20 minutes.
- For a heartier, one-course meal, add 1/2 cup of long-grain rice at the same time as the chickpeas (you will need to add more water, at least 1 cup, because the rice will absorb liquid). Alternatively, add some short, small pasta such as macaroni, ditalini, or orzo, or short, dried egg noodles.
- Add a dash of soy sauce, tamari, or Maggi to the broth for deeper, richer flavor.