Serious Bread: Acme's Pain au Levain

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If you are what you eat, I'm a loaf of Acme pain au levain (French for sourdough), made with natural sourdough starter and a blend of white and whole wheat. Even if you've never bought a loaf, you may have encountered it on the table at Zuni Cafe, downstairs at Chez Panisse (where founder-owner Steve Sullivan first plied his craft), or at one of the many other local restaurants that serve it.

This is the ideal crusty loaf for sponging up soup or pasta sauce, and for making bruschetta or open-faced grilled sandwiches.. Toasted, it's the perfect crunchy vehicle for rich, spreadable charcuterie such as pâtés, rilettes, ciccoli, and pork butter.

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This is also the best bread for making Marcella Hazan's zuppa dei poveri (poor people's soup) of stale bread, potatoes, and rocket. This great recipe was one of the best of the many unaccountably left out of the unfortunate Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which purported to be a single-volume reissue of her first two books, The Classic Italian Cookbook and More Classic Italian Cooking. Here's my version, slightly revised to reflect things I've learned about the recipe over the years:

Bread, Potato, and Rocket Soup

2 cups diced peeled potatoes (can leave unpeeled if potatoes are clean)
3 cups water
1 tbsp. salt
1 bunch / 1/2 lb. rocket (arugula), preferably the sharper "wild" variety, washed and coarsely chopped
2 cups stale Acme pain au levain, crusts removed and cut in cubes
1/4 cup Trader Joe's Kalamata olive oil or other flavorful, dark green extra-virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper

Put potatoes, water, and salt in a big pot, bring to a boil, and cook for 15 minutes. Add rocket, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for another 15 minutes or until potatoes are done. Remove pot from heat, add bread, cover, and let sit for ten minutes. Add olive oil and pepper, correct salt, and serve.

As I discussed last week, you can find Acme's bread at many supermarkets around the Bay Area. I prefer to get it as fresh as possible by buying direct from one of the retail bakeries (1 Ferry Building in SF and 1601 San Pablo in Berkeley).

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