Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

How I Learned Zuppa di Cavolo Nero Is Not "Horse Soup," and Is Insanely Delicious

by 
Daniela Savone
February 18, 2022

The first time I had zuppa di cavolo nero I was a little girl and we were spending the holidays in Italy. It was right around the time between Christmas and New Year’s when everyone has the sniffles and feels under the weather.

To keep our spirits (and immune systems) up, my aunt made a big pot of this hearty savory soup with velvety green Tuscan kale and white cannellini beans. It’s packed with vitamins and nutrients– a perfect meal to cure a winter cold.

In Italian the word cavallo means horse. It’s very close to the word cavolo, which loosely translates to cabbage or kale in English, so you can imagine the reaction my six-year-old self had when I thought my aunt was feeding me a pot of “zuppa di horse.” I sat at the dinner table that night and watched in horror as my family devoured their bowls of “horse soup.” My aunt and uncle had a large farm where they raised chicken, rabbits, sheep, cows, and donkeys, and at least twice if not more a week some type of livestock greeted us at the kitchen table so it wasn’t too far stretched for me to assume we were eating a soup made of My Little Pony. I had just witnessed my Nonna killing a chicken a few days prior, and every time I walked down to the barn to see the cute furry rabbits there was always one less than before.

Now, in an Italian household, you are expected to eat whatever is put on your plate,  otherwise you’re forbidden to leave the table, but I still couldn’t make myself take a bite. Santa had already come and brought me lots of presents so my mom couldn’t threaten me with that in order to make me eat.

No items found.

But in Italy, on the night of January 5th, known as the Epiphany in the Roman Catholic church, it’s tradition for children to put their socks out by the windowsill for la Befana, who goes house to house leaving treats for all the good little boys and girls. If I didn’t pick up my spoon soon, I knew I might miss out, and I couldn’t bear the thought.

I watched in rage as my older sister licked her bowl clean and everyone at the table praised her for finishing up all her “horse soup,” but I wasn’t going to let her be the only one to get a sock full of treats. As she stood across the table rubbing her proud grin in my face, I tightly closed my eyes, slowly shoved a spoonful of “horse soup” in my mouth, and forced myself to swallow. As the soup made its way down I carefully opened one eye and realized with utter disbelief that it was, in fact, absolutely delicious! Who knew horse and beans soup in a vegetable and tomato broth could taste so good?

Of course, I later learned that zuppa di cavolo, not cavallo is a rustic hearty soup traditionally made with Tuscan kale and cannellini beans – a twist of the classic Ribollita soup, which is a staple in the Tuscan kitchen. And I’ll have you know it's one of the most savory, comforting, and  satisfying soups there is. Later I also learned, as legend has it, that la Bafana is an old lady who flies around on a broomstick, so basically an Italian Christmas witch. If I would have known that then, I would have left her a bowl of “horse soup” on the windowsill that night! 

Tuscan Kale and Bean Soup with Sausage

Prep Time: 15 minutes
 | 
Cook Time: 45 minutes
 | 
4

Ingredients

4 tbsp olive oil

4 links sweet Italian sausage with casings removed

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

6 garlic cloves, minced

3 large carrot, roughly chopped

4 stalks celery, roughly chopped

1/2 cup freshly chopped Italian flat leaf parsley 

2 fresh bay leaves

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 28 oz can San Marzano whole plum peeled tomatoes, drained

2 bunches of kale with stems removed and leaves torn into bite-sized pieces

6 cups chicken stock

1 chicken bouillon cube 

1 14 oz can cannellini beans

1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper

Crusty Italian bread, toasted

Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated

Prep Time: 15 minutes
 | 
Cook Time: 45 minutes
 | 
4

Ingredients

4 tbsp olive oil

4 links sweet Italian sausage with casings removed

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

6 garlic cloves, minced

3 large carrot, roughly chopped

4 stalks celery, roughly chopped

1/2 cup freshly chopped Italian flat leaf parsley 

2 fresh bay leaves

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 28 oz can San Marzano whole plum peeled tomatoes, drained

2 bunches of kale with stems removed and leaves torn into bite-sized pieces

6 cups chicken stock

1 chicken bouillon cube 

1 14 oz can cannellini beans

1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper

Crusty Italian bread, toasted

Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated

Ingredients

4 tbsp olive oil

4 links sweet Italian sausage with casings removed

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

6 garlic cloves, minced

3 large carrot, roughly chopped

4 stalks celery, roughly chopped

1/2 cup freshly chopped Italian flat leaf parsley 

2 fresh bay leaves

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 28 oz can San Marzano whole plum peeled tomatoes, drained

2 bunches of kale with stems removed and leaves torn into bite-sized pieces

6 cups chicken stock

1 chicken bouillon cube 

1 14 oz can cannellini beans

1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper

Crusty Italian bread, toasted

Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated

Directions

1. Coat a large Dutch oven pot with olive oil. Heat the olive oil over medium-high. 

2. Brown the ground sausage meat.

3. Sauté the onions, garlic, carrots, and celery until soft and fragrant, about 8-10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add in the parsley, crushed red pepper flakes, rosemary sprigs, and bay leaves. Stir in well to combine and cook for another minute. Deglaze the pan with white wine. Scrape the bottom brown bits of the pan with a wooden spoon.

4. Add the kale, stir in well until well combined and it begins to shrink down.

5. Add the crushed whole plum tomatoes, stir and cook for 4-5 minutes until the tomatoes start to release their juices.

6. Pour in the chicken stock and add the chicken bouillon cube. Stir and bring to a boil.

7. Add in the beans. Smush some of the beans with a wooden spoon against the pot to thicken the soup. Stir well and lower the heat to medium. Allow the soup to simmer for another 25-30 minutes. 

8. Once the soup has simmered and a thick broth consistency is reached, season once more with salt and pepper to taste. 

9. Traditionally the soup is meant to be served with toasted crusty Italian bread. Or, you could add a thick slice of toasted crusty Italian bread to the bottom of the bowl, pour the soup over the bread, and sprinkle a generous handful of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over the top and serve nice and hot.

About the Author

Daniela Savone

Browse Additional Recipes

Lunch Hack: A Truly Quick Tortilla Espanola

by 
Fifth Season
Read More

I Screwed up my Strawberry Patch, but the Silver Lining Is This Spinach Strawberry Salad

by 
Julie Laing
Read More

What To Do If You Binged “Emily in Paris” and You’re Now Binging Leeks

by 
Daniela Savone
Read More