Soups & Stews

Ribollita

Ribollita

 

With autumn’s arrival thoughts of what to cook naturally veer towards warming heartier fare with richer earthier flavors that lift the spirit and warm the cockles as temperatures wane. Soup, soup, and more soups is what fall cooking is all about. Fortunately locally grown late summer and fall vegetables are available until the first deep frost. So, as the old saying goes, best to make hay while the sun shines. Cook up plenty of beautiful healthy and hearty fall soups to serve as main courses throughout fall and make more to freeze that will surely brightening up meals when the winter months drag on.

Over centuries frugal rural Italian cooks relied entirely on  locally grown produce as the main staple in their diets. Cooking methods for making deeply flavored foods out of readily available local ingredients evolved into what contemporary Italians now call cucina povre. Rustic vegetable based soups like minestrone and ribollita, as well as vegetable stews have became Italian classics.

In fact Minestrone dates back to the Romans although the popularized canned variety we are all familiar with worldwide has little semblance to what you will find coming out of rural Italian kitchens even today. Minestrone is a vegetable soup that includes a variety of seasonal vegetables and usually includes pasta or rice and sometimes meats.

Much less well known is Ribollita, a thick, rustic, infinity healthy, and abundantly flavorsome Tuscan vegetable soup that is much more to my liking. Ribolitta begins with a sofritto (battuto) of finely diced onions, celery, carrots, garlic, and chopped parsley that is slowly braised in olive oil until the vegetables are very soft and deeply flavorful. Tomatoes and cooked beans are then added, along with liquid to cover, and cooked for another half hour or so. Then, traditionally, cavolo nero (black kale) is added along with herbs and seasonings and simmered. Finally torn day old bread is added to the soup and cooked until softened. Serving ribollita Tuscan style with a flourish of fruity extra virgin olive oil is pure perfection.

Cavolo nero may be hard to find, but not to worry. A deep green kale or a combination of kale and spinach will do just fine. 

Cavolo Nero

Cavolo Nero

Ribollita     serves 6 to 8

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups finely diced onions
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 1 ¾ cups finely diced celery
  • 1 ½ cups finely diced carrots
  • 1 cup loosely packed chopped Italian parsley leaves
  • 8 canned whole imported Italian tomatoes , juice drained and reserved for another use
  • 1 can/240g imported Italian cannelini or borlotti beans with their liquid
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ½ teaspoon dried marjoram leaves
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 4 big bunches cavolo nero or kale, center ribs and stems removed, leaves chopped
  • spinach leaves, chopped (optional)
  • 1 1/2 cup diced zucchini (optional)
  • 4 thick slices day old country bread, torn into bits
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon of pure ground red chile powder (optional)
  • extra virgin olive oil to finish

 

Equipment: A Dutch oven with a lid or a deep wide pan with lid.

Prepare all your vegetables before you begin cooking.

Place the pan on the stove top over medium low flame. Add the olive oil to the pan and when hot add the onions and stir to coat them with the oil. Cook for several minutes until the onions are translucent. Then stir in the garlic, celery, carrots, and parsley. Stir to evenly coat the ingredients with oil and reduce the heat to low. Partially cover the pan with the lid and braise for 25 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to very low if the ingredients are browning to much. They can be lightly colored but you want to avoid any scorched flavor.

Once the vegetables are softened add the drained tomatoes to the pan, breaking them up with a wooden spoon while stirring them into the vegetable mixture. Then stir in the beans and their liquid. Add enough water to the pan to just cover all the ingredients. Stir in the bay leaves, marjoram, and thyme. Partially cover the pan and cook for 30 minutes, Stirring every 10 minutes.

Remove the lid from the pan and add the chopped cavolo nero leaves, kale leaves, or a combination of kale and spinach leaves, as well as the zucchini if using. Fold into the mixture evenly and then tuck the torn bread down into the broth. Season with salt, pepper, and red chile (it using) to taste. Add enough water to just cover the mixture. Partially cover the pan and cook for another 20 to 25 minutes or until the leaves are very tender.

Taste and adjust salt and pepper to taste. The soup should be very thick with just enough liquid to engulf the vegetables without drowning them in liquid when serving.

Serving:

Ribollita may be served at once or ideally cooled and then refrigerated until the next day. This allows the flavors of the soup to fully develop.

Reheat the ribollita slowly along with a little added water if needed. Ladle the soup into individual serving bowls and drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil around the edges of the ribollita and serve!

Chilled Lemony White Bean Soup

Chilled Lemony White Bean Soup

 

Once again summer has officially arrived and what always comes to mind this time of year are lemons for recipe after recipe after recipe. Be it for chicken, seafood, salads or soups, it is lemons and their juice that really bring so many dishes to life in the summertime.

This is my third recipe for a lemon soup, all inspired by Greece’s Avgolemono in one way or another.
For Greek Lemon Soup with Minted Lamb Keftedes (click here) and Lemon Soup with White Beans and Celeric (click here)

The recipe that follows is for a very simple and quick chilled lemon white bean soup that is perfect as an opener for summer meals. To save time I’ve used canned white beans and eliminated the somewhat tricky Greek custom of whisking eggs into the soup to thicken it which can be a little challenging. This soup can be pulled together with very little fuss in about 30 minutes.

Choose your lemon carefully. A thin skinned unwaxed organic lemon, such as Meyer, is ideal if available. I have used a local Chiangdao lemon here in Chiang Mai.

 

Chilled Lemony White Bean Soup

Chilled Lemony White Bean Soup

 

Chilled Lemony White Bean Soup    makes 2 quarts

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, peeled and diced (about 1 cup)
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 5 cups chicken or fish stock
  • 2 cans (400g each) white beans
  • ½ teaspoon dried marjoram or lemon thyme
  • sea salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon

For garnish

  • sliced ciabatta or focaccio
  • feta cheese (goat feta if available)
  • lemon zest

Before you begin cooking zest your lemon into long strips using a vegetable peeler. Slice the zest strips very thinly lengthwise. Set aside about a quarter of the thin strips to use as garnish later. Slice the remaining strips into half inch batons and set aside. Then squeeze the lemon and set the juice aside.

Select a heavy bottomed soup pot and place it over medium heat on the stove top. Add the olive oil and when hot add the onions and saute for a minute. Reduce the heat to medium low and continue to cook the onions for about 8 minutes or until soft, stirring from time to time. Then add the garlic and cook another 2 minutes. Add the stock, the beans including their brine, and the marjoram or lemon thyme. Add a little salt and pepper and cook at a simmer for 25 minutes, stirring from time to time.

Remove the pan from the heat and puree the contents in the pot with a hand held immersion blender  ( or transfer to a blender) and blend until smooth.

Return the pot to the heat and add the lemon zest batons and bring to a simmer. Adjust seasonings adding salt and pepper as needed. Then turn off the heat. Let sit for 10 minutes and then stir in lemon juice to suit your taste; about 6 to 8 tablespoons.

Transfer the soup to containers and cool to room temperature. Then cover and refrigerate.

Preheat the broiler

Before serving, Lightly toast the bread slices and top with thin slices of feta. Place under the broiler until the feta has melted a bit and lightly browned in spots. Remove from the oven and cut bread into bite size cubes.

Serving

Give the chilled soup a good stir and ladle into individual soup plates. Place 3 or 4 bread squares
in the center of the soup and garnish with lemon zest strips.

Braised Zucchini with Pasta

Braised Zucchini with Pasta

 

There are many ways to cook zucchini, but for me simply braising is by far the best way to bring zucchini’s delicate flavor to full bloom. Once braised there are so many quick and easy applications awaiting.

Zucchini, in the squash family, is native to the Americas. However the zucchini we are now familiar with is a hybrid that was developed in Italy in the 19th century and named zucchini, the diminutive of zucca. Colors range from pale to deep green as well as light yellow to a deep orange. Zucchini is usually harvested while still young, about 6 to eight inches in length, with seeds that are still soft and tender. Left to grow zucchini can reach up to a meter in length.

Anyone who has grown zucchini knows full well it is the garden’s star over achiever. The harvest can be continuous and down right overwhelming, as are the challenges for the cook who is faced with “oh no, not zucchini again.”

More often than not zucchini is cooked into other dishes like a Provencal ratatouille which is splendid, but the zucchini’s real personality is somewhat lost in translation. Be that as it may, zucchini can really shine on its very own if cooked properly.

Using this simple braising method requires only a few ingredients and a well tended low heat braising on the stove top that slowly coaxes out a nuanced flavor of summer that could only come from zucchini.

Ounce braised the zucchini can then be used as a side dish, pureed for a soup that can be served chilled in the summer or warm as fall approaches, or as a sauce for pasta along with braised zucchini and poached chicken. This is a pasta sauce that has become one of my very favorites when cooking up a summery meal .

 

Braised Zucchini

  • 2 ½ pounds 6 to 8 inch zucchini, trimmed
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 ½ cups finely diced onions
  • 3 plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • ½ teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 4 ½ cups chicken stock (or water), hot
  • ½ cup cream
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano
  • flaked sea salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

Cut the trimmed zucchini into quarters lengthwise. Slice the quarters into ½ inch slices. Place in a bowl and set aside.

Place a wide heavy bottomed pan on the stove over medium low heat. Add the olive oil and when the oil slides easily in the pan add the onions and saute for 5 minutes, stirring from time to time.

Add the garlic and cook another 2 minutes while stirring.

Then add the sliced zucchini and fold them into the onion mixture. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 25 to 30 minutes. Stir frequently and be sure to lift the onions off the bottom of the pan so they do not burn.

Stir in the marjoram after about 15 minutes of cooking time and season sparingly with salt and pepper.

Braised Zucchini

Braised Zucchini

After about 20 minutes you will have to stir more frequently, being sure to continuously lift the onions off the bottom of the pan. Once the zucchini is very soft, just barely colored, and looking slightly glazed remove the pan from the heat.

At this point, if you are intending to use the braised zucchini for a pasta remove about ¼ of the braised zucchini and set aside to use for the pasta later.

If you are intending to serve the braised zucchini as a side dish, add a little cream and a little hot stock and to the pan and stir to combine. Then add some grated Parmigiano, season with salt and pepper, and serve.

Braised Zucchini as a side dish.

Braised Zucchini as a side dish.

Otherwise set the pan with the braised zucchini back onto the stove over medium heat. Add about two thirds of the hot stock (or water) and bring to a boil. Then lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about 20 to 30 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by half and the zucchini is very soft.

Remove from the heat, cool a few minutes. Then blend with an immersion blender (or transfer to a blender) and blend until smooth. If the puree seems very thick add a little more hot stock and blend.

Return the mixture to the heat and bring back up to a low simmer. Slowly stir in the cream until incorporated and then stir in the Parmigiano. Continue to stir 1 minute and then taste. Add additional salt and pepper if needed. Stir well and set aside.

Braised Zucchini Soup or Pasta Sauce

Braised Zucchini Soup or Pasta Sauce

Cool the puree to room temperature if you are intending to use as a soup. Then cover and refrigerate. Serve chilled or warmed slightly.

If you are intending to use the puree as a pasta sauce you may want to reduce the sauce a little bit more.

Meanwhile divide the poached chicken into bite size strips and reheat with a little chicken stock or water.

Boil your pasta until cooked al dente and drain.

Add the reserved braised zucchini and the warmed chicken to the hot reduced sauce and stir. Then fold in the cooked pasta.

Transfer the pasta  to individual pasta bowls, spooning any remaining sauce over the pasta. Grate Parmigiano over the pasta and serve.

Chilled Roasted Tomato Soup

Chilled Roasted Tomato Soup

 

As the midday temperatures soar here in Thailand more ideas for refreshing chilled soups are the order of the day. Practically speaking, it just makes sense to have meal preparations out of the way in the morning, avoiding the heat of the day, and having the evening meal nearly ready for serving as night falls and the temperature wanes enough for comfortable suppers al fresco.

The pairing of vine ripe tomatoes and Italian basil, both readily available at the moment, inspires looking towards the Mediterranean for ideas for chilled soups that that are both light and summery fresh.

Roasting the tomatoes and peppers sweetens their flesh and infuses this chilled soup with a light smokiness accented with the peppery and sweet aromatic spiciness of fresh basil. Add to that a swirl of freshly made pesto and a few dollops of Greek yogurt and you have a stellar beginning for a light summer meal.

 

Chilled Roasted Tomato Soup   makes 2 1/2  quarts

  • 4 pounds/2 kilo vine ripe tomatoes, roasted
  • 2 large red bell peppers, roasted
  • 1 or 2 small dried red chilies
  • 2 heads garlic
  • 2 onions, peeled and diced
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 quarts chicken broth (or water), hot
  • ½ cup toasted bread crumbs
  • 1 tablespoon flaked sea salt
  • 20 fresh Italian basil leaves, thinly sliced
  • sweet Italian basil pesto (see recipe here)
  • Greek yogurt or sour cream
  • whole Italian basil leaves for garnishing

Remove the stems from the tomatoes and the red bell peppers and flame roast, grill, or broil them until well charred. Set aside to cool. Once cool enough to handle remove the charred skin and discard it. You need not be too meticulous about removing every last bit of charred skin as bits left behind will add flavor to the soup.

roasted Tomatoes and red bell peppers

roasted Tomatoes and red bell peppers

Slice the tomatoes into quarters and remove any hard core bits and discard them. Transfer the tomatoes to a food mill or Velox Universal tomato press (see note below) and pass them through to remove the seeds and crush the tomatoes into pulp in the process. Set the pulp aside to use later.

Likewise remove the charred skin from the bell peppers and discard. Quarter the bell peppers and remove the veins and seeds. Cut the quarters into strips. Dice the strips and set aside.

Lightly toast the chilies in a dry pan. Then add a little water to the pan, bring to a simmer, and cook until the chilies are soft. Remove the chilies and cool. Then slit the chilies lengthwise, open them up, and remove the seeds and discard them. Finely chop the chilies and set aside.

Separate the garlic cloves from the head and put them in a dry skillet set over medium flame. Toast the cloves on all sides until evenly colored. Remove from the pan and set aside to cool. Then peel off the skin and discard. Mince the cloves and set aside.

Place a soup pot on the stove over medium low heat and add the olive oil. When nearly smoking add the onions and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and continue cooking for another couple of minutes. Make a well in the center of the pot and add the tomato paste and press it against the bottom of the pan to caramelize the tomato paste.

Add the tomato pulp, bell peppers, and chilies and cook another couple of minutes while stirring everything together. Then stir in the hot stock (or water) and stir. Raise the heat and bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer and cook 25 minutes. Skim off any foam that forms on the surface of the soup while simmering and discard. Then stir in the bread crumbs and salt and cook another 5 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool a couple of minutes. Then blend the soup with an immersion blender (or transfer to a blender) and blend until smooth.

Return the pot of blended soup to the heat and bring back up to a low simmer. Add the sliced basil leaves and continue to cook for a couple of minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

Transfer the hot soup to a cooling rack and cool to room temperature. Then transfer the soup to containers with lids and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

Serving:

Ladle the soup into individual soup bowls. Add a few dollops of pesto in the center, a few dollops of Greek yogurt or sour cream, and garnish with fresh basil leaves.

Velox tomato press

Velox tomato press

Note: The Velox tomato press is a must have tool if you are regularly processing fresh tomatoes. Passing the fresh tomatoes through the press removes the skin and seeds leaving you with a fresh tomato pulp that is ready for making red tomato sauces, soups, or fresh salsas. I’ve had my Velox tomato press for over 30 years which is a testament to its timeless design and durability. Readily available on line and well worth the small investment.

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