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.
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.
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!