Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ribolitta: A Classic Peasant-Style Soup

An icon of Tuscan cuisine, Ribolitta is a classic peasant style soup that looks more like a stew than a soup. A thick porridge of beans, winter vegetables and day-old bread, the soup used to be made from the leftovers of other dishes, which is how it got it’s name — 'Ribolitta' means 'reboiled'. There are many variations of the dish, but the main ingredients always include leftover bread, cannellini beans and inexpensive vegetables such as carrot, cabbage, beans, onion and cavolo nero - a Tuscan back leaf kale essential for an authentic Ribollita. However other robust greens such as swiss chard, savoy cabbage or kale work just as well.

Like most Tuscan dishes, the soup has peasant origins. It was originally created to stretch leftover Minestrone, but the soup was so delicious and satisfying, Ribollita eventually morphed into a dish in its own right. Sources date it back to the Middle Ages, when legend has it that servants gathered up food-soaked bread bowls from feudal lords' banquets and boiled them for their own dinners. Although Ribolitta doesn't take long to cook, adding ingredients in stages helps the soup to develop a fuller, more complex flavour. A perfect cold weather meal, Ribolitta is great to make in large batches — it freezes well and it's character will become even better over time. Served with a heaping bowl of grated pecorino, this soup is one of my winter favourites.

Ribollita Soup
Serves 8

1/2 pound dried or canned cannellini or barlotti beans
Kosher salt
1/4 cup good olive oil, plus extra for serving
1/4 pound large diced pancetta or smoked bacon
2 cups chopped leeks
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup zucchini, chopped
3 tbsp minced garlic
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes in purée, chopped
4 cups coarsely chopped savoy cabbage
4 cups coarsely chopped kale or swiss chard
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
4 cups stale sourdough bread cubes, crusts removed
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino, for serving

In a large bowl, cover the dried beans with cold water by several inches, cover with cling film and refrigerate overnight. For canned beans, rinse and drain before using.

Drain the beans and place them in a large pot with 8 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of salt and continue to simmer for about 15 minutes, until the beans are tender. Set the beans aside to cool in their liquid.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large stockpot. Add the pancetta and onions and cook over medium-low heat for 7 to 10 minutes, until the onions are translucent. Add the carrots, celery, garlic, 1 tablespoon of salt, the pepper, and red pepper flakes. Cook over medium-low heat for 7 to 10 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Add the tomatoes with their purée, the cabbage, kale and basil and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for another 7 to 10 minutes.

Drain the beans, reserving their cooking liquid. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, purée half of the beans with a little of their liquid. Add to the stockpot, along with the remaining whole beans. Pour the bean cooking liquid into a large measuring cup and add enough chicken stock to make 8 cups. Add to the soup and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.

Add the bread to the soup and simmer for 10 more minutes. Taste for seasoning and serve hot in large bowls sprinkled with Pecorino and drizzled with olive oil.

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