I live in one of those rare regions of the United States that isn't big on chain restaurants, other than Dunkin' Donuts. To explain how drastic it is, I'm pretty sure there isn't a single McDonalds located in the city I live in (population > 50,000)! I don't really mind that much, but it means that going to restaurants like Olive Garden are actually a special occurrence to me, especially when I find myself in a town like Morgantown, West Virginia on a business trip and have no clue where to eat (true story).
I am easily satisfied with their endless soup, salad, and breadsticks and always get the Zuppa Toscana. I have no idea if it's an authentic soup to Tuscany, but I don't care. It's frickin' amazing. Now that I'm back home, I looked for copycat recipes on-line, and there are like hundreds of them, even vegetarian and vegan ones! I ended up just following the first hit that came up except I used vegan Italian "sausage" and whole milk instead of the heavy cream. It's a bit healthier, but definitely not as rich as what you'd get with the cream. I also added more kale and potatoes since I had a bunch of kale to use up from my Boston Organics box, and I love me my potatoes. Since the chicken or vegetable broth you use will be one of the main flavor components in the soup, make sure you use a really good one. Better yet, make your own!
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 lb. Italian sausage or vegan sausage, sliced or crumbled into small pieces
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups good quality chicken or vegetable broth
4 cups water
3 large Russet potatoes
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
Red pepper flakes, to taste
2-4 cups kale, ribs removed and torn into pieces
1 cup whole milk, half & half, or heavy cream
Heat the olive oil over medium in a large pot and add the sausage and chopped onions. Stir occasionally until the sausage is browned (but not the onions). Add the minced garlic and cook for another minute. Add the broth and water and bring the pot to a boil.
Halve the potatoes lengthwise and then slice into 1/4" pieces. Add to the soup. Lower the heat so that the soup is simmering and cook until the potatoes are done. Salt and pepper to taste, and add a pinch of red pepper flakes. Adjust the seasonings as needed. (Potatoes absorb a lot of salt, so you may need more than you think.)
Add the torn kale leaves and milk and stir. Cook for another 5 minutes until the kale has wilted. If you like, smoosh some of the potatoes into the soup to make it creamier and slightly thicker. Serve hot.
Note: Because of the addition of dairy and potatoes in this soup, it does not freeze well. It does, however, taste better the next day after sitting in the fridge!