I have a confession, so I’ll just come out and say it: I like Olive Garden. Some might believe a self-proclaimed amateur foodie can’t appreciate a chain restaurant, and probably considers it an unforgivable faux pas. But I say there’s nothing wrong with it, and credit my Midwestern upbringing. Back home in Cleveland, Ohio, chain restaurants reign supreme, unless you really know some legit local spots. Don’t get me wrong, those local places exist (Panini’s Bar & Grille, anyone?), but not in such vast variety or supply as in New York City. Needless to say, there are parts of my roots that I haven’t completely given up on yet, chain restaurants embarrassingly included. And Olive Garden, for all its being complicit in the assault on America’s waistline, has some pretty good* food if you’re craving Italian-esque fare.
Way back in 2007, after having graduated from college and securing work in a low-wage position to pay bills during my real job search (whatever that means), I went to lunch almost daily with a good friend and colleague. Sure, it wasn’t the healthiest time in my life, but it certainly was enjoyable. I helped him, a native Ohioan White Male, discover Popeye’s, and he indulged me whenever I wanted to try the Olive Garden lunch specials for $9.95. Keep in mind that in New York City, every chain restaurant offers its same menus for almost triple the price as it would in a flyover state, and the lunch specials don’t even exist here – just look at the bottom of the screen next time you see a commercial; they tell you that NYC and Hawaii are excluded. (Who in their right mind would eat at a chain when visiting New York City or Hawaii? Don’t answer that.) For soup, salad, and unlimited breadsticks, lunch was a damn steal. On one particularly memorable visit, I tried their “Zuppa Toscana,” roughly translating to Tuscan Soup. When it arrived piping hot to my table, the slightly creamy broth was deeply flavored with onion and garlic, delicate potatoes that were falling apart and disintegrating into buttery nothingness, escarole (they now use kale, as do I), and tiny little nibs of Italian sausage. Were these real fennel seeds in this sausage? Was there a hint of spice from real red pepper flakes? It was absolutely delicious.
Having visited several different Olive Gardens since that time and being sorely disappointed when ordering this same soup, I had to figure out a way to make it at home. Thank goodness for the Internet and restaurant copycat recipes floating around therein. Not too long after my initial search, I found a recipe that came close to the flavor, and having made it for years with my own touches, I don’t even consider ever going back to the Olive Garden to try it again. I don’t want to ruin the memory for myself. If you’ve never tried this soup at the restaurant, it’s the easiest thing in the world to make, and you can pack it full of fresh green leaves of kale to make it pseudo-healthy. If you don’t like or can’t have pork, turkey Italian sausage is a great alternative without sacrificing the flavor. I love making this hearty soup because it can become an entire meal when paired with a simple salad and some fresh, crusty garlic bread. Don’t take my word for it, though. Just give it a try. I promise it will be the one of the most flavorful soups you’ve ever made.
*pretty good – subjective and definitely based on whether or not you can afford dinner at an authentic Italian restaurant, whether an authentic Italian restaurant exists in your general locale, and if you live in New York City, whether or not you pine for the nostalgia of gouging yourself on grossly exaggerated Italian American dishes loaded with salt and sugar.
1lb Italian sausage (pork or turkey; if in casings, remove from casings)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped finely
3 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced
¼-½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes (the more you add, the spicier your soup will be)
2 chicken bouillon cubes
4 cups water
2 medium yellow potatoes, scrubbed, peeled, and cut into ½ inch cubes
1 cup fat free or regular half & half, light cream, or heavy cream (richness and fat content is up to you depending on what dairy you choose; when you make the soup for the first time though, I suggest you treat yoself)
1 bunch of your favorite variety of kale, washed, thick stems removed, and torn or cut into inch strips
Parmesan flakes for garnish (optional)
In a large, deep pot, brown the Italian sausage on medium heat. If using turkey, brown the sausage in two tablespoons of olive oil. Remove the sausage from the pan once brown, and reserve. Sauté the onion in the pot until it becomes translucent, about six to eight minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes until they become fragrant, about one minute. Add the bouillon, crushing it in the pot. Add the water and potatoes and bring to a boil. Once the pot is boiling, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork-tender. Turn off the heat and add the kale and half & half or cream. Top with Parmesan flakes and serve immediately.