Sunday, July 24, 2011

From Italy With Love: Ribollita Soup

I may be Polish by heritage, but I'm Italian at heart.  I'm loud and outgoing, I give hugs to people I've just met, and when I cook I tend to make quantities enough to feed an army.  And I love everything, and I mean everything, about Italy and Italian food.  Several years ago, I spent two weeks in Tuscany with friends and the trip changed the way I see and experience food.  When I came home, I began an Italian cooking frenzy that's never really stopped.  In that process, I discovered a recipe for a delicious soup that was the perfect vehicle for the bounty of veggies at any Alaskan farmers market- a vegetable soup called Ribollita.  If there is any recipe that I am most defined with, it is probably this.  It is one of my favorite things to make (and to eat), and it is my most-requested recipe.

My friends Mera and Chester recently traveled to Italy with family, and returned with one of the best gifts I have ever received: a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil from the olive grove at their villa in Umbria.  Liquid gold!  Mera only asked in return that I make her this soup, and I was happy to oblige.

Like so many of the best Italian dishes, Ribollita is traditionally a peasant dish.  It's loaded with white beans and hearty vegetables, and Italians used it to utilize day-old bread which gives a beautiful body to this soup.  While there are several steps involved in making this dish, none of them are complicated.  And it's the perfect example of my belief that the simplest food is the best food.  Plus, this is no wimpy soup.  This dish eats like a meal.  I fed it to one of my Laborer colleagues one time, and it took him several bites before he asked: "Is there any meat in here?"  After his second bowl, he asked for the recipe.

First things first, cover a pound of dried cannellini beans with cold water and soak for at least 6 hours or overnight.  If you can't find dried cannellini beans (which I've found at a local Italian market and a small grocery chain in town) you can use dried white beans.  I've made this recipe with canned beans and skipped the soaking step, but I found that this soup (as well as most bean recipes) taste better when you start with dried beans.  Something about sitting in a can makes beans taste like, they've been sitting in a can.

Drain the beans, then add 12 cups of water, 2 T. of good, fruity extra-virgin olive oil, two crushed cloves of garlic, and several sage leaves.  Don't add salt at this point, because I've read that salt slows the cooking time of beans.  I usually use chicken stock to cook the beans, but Mera is a vegetarian and I pleasantly discovered that the soup is just as tasty if you use plain water.  Just don't use vegetable stock- Italians don't cook their beans in anything acidic and most veggie stocks contain tomatoes.  Cover the beans and bring them to a simmer over medium heat.  Once the beans simmer, turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer for 1-2 hours or until the beans are tender.  Once cooked, season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool.  I like cooking them in my big pot, but I transferred them this time to a smaller pot to cool. 

Yup, that's a lot of veggies.
After you've transferred the beans, add 1/4 cup of the olive oil over medium-low heat and toss in the chopped onion.  Once they're soft and translucent, add the chopped celery, carrots, potatoes, Swiss chard, kale, and cabbage.  Season with salt and pepper.

San Marzano tomatoes- perfect for this soup.
And of course, add a good can of Italian tomatoes.  I think whole peeled tomatoes taste best, so my trick is to submerge a pair of kitchen scissors in the can and "chop" the tomatoes that way.
It doesn't look like all the greens are going to fit, but trust me...THEY WILL!  Just keep adding, wait a little bit, and stir until the greens wilt.  Then add more and repeat the process until everything fits under the lid.  Cover and cook for about 20 minutes, or until all the greens have wilted.

While the veggies are cooking, here's where the fun starts.  Reserve one cup of cooked beans from the bean pot and set aside.  Then bust out the stick blender and puree the rest.  (If you don't have a stick blender, use a regular blender but make sure the beans are very cool before you do it!)

Don't throw away the rind!
Add the pureed beans to the pot of veggies.  Now here's a great trick- know that rind you're left with at the end of a grated piece of Parmesan?  I save those and add them to the pot- they add amazing flavor and saltiness to the soup.

Simmer the soup with the lid on for about an hour.  Then add the reserved beans and chopped bread and cook about 10 minutes more.  Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper if it needs it.

Vegetable deliciousness.

At this point, the soup is ready to serve with an extra dose of extra-virgin olive oil on top and some freshly-grated Parmesan cheese.  However, the soup tastes even better the next day, and this is usually how I serve it.  I refrigerate it overnight, then heat the soup in a 375 degree oven for about an hour, stirring occasionally. 

Tuscan Ribollita Soup

1 lb. dried cannellini beans
¼ c., plus 2 T. good extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves crushed garlic
4-5 fresh sage leaves
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 bunch chopped Swiss chard
1 bunch chopped kale
½ chopped small cabbage
15 oz. can of good tomatoes
3 thick slices of hearty day-old rustic bread
Salt and freshly-ground pepper

Leftover Parmesan cheese rind (optional)

1.  Cover beans with cold water and soak overnight, or at least 6 hours.  Drain the beans, return to the pot and add 12 cups of water, 2 T. olive oil, the crushed garlic cloves and sage.  Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 1-2 hours, or until the beans are tender.  Season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool.

2.  Heat ¼ c. olive oil over medium-low heat in a large casserole pot.  Add the onions and cook until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.  Add the celery, carrots, potatoes, chard, kale, cabbage, and tomatoes, and season with salt and freshly-ground pepper.  You may have to add the greens a little at a time, and as they wilt keep adding more until all the greens are in the pot.  Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, or until all the greens have wilted.

3.  Back to the bean pot, reserve one cup of beans and puree the rest with an immersion blender.  Add the pureed beans and leftover Parmesan cheese rind to the pot of veggies.  Simmer, covered, for about an hour.  Add the reserved beans and the bread and cook for another 10 minutes.

4.  For best results, let the soup cool and refrigerate overnight.  The next day, heat the soup in the casserole pot at 375 degrees for about an hour, stirring occasionally.  Before serving, top each bowl with a bit more olive oil and a generous dose of grated Parmesan cheese.

Enjoy!  xo H


Meagan said...

When I come home I request this and crack blondies. Please.

Rebecca said...

Can't wait to make this. But what is a casserole pot, and can I use a plain old pot?

Heidi said...

I probably should have been more clear on what that meant, Rebecca. By casserole pot, I just mean a pot that can go from the stove top to the oven. My big cast iron Le Creuset pot is perfect for it. If you're not sure that your pot can handle the oven, you can always transfer the soup the next day into a deep baking dish and use that. Or, skip the next day baking entirely, although I do think this is the best way to really enjoy the dish. It is AMAZING out of the oven with a little olive oil drizzled on top! You and Michal will love this, and right now almost all the veggies you need will be at the farmers market for the next week or two.

Rebecca said...

Sounds good re: the pot. We have our own potatoes, carrots, and chard, so I'm excited to make use of them! Will let you know how it turns out!