Friday, January 3, 2014

Ribollita (Italian Bread and Vegetable Soup)

Apologies for the terrible picture - by the time I realized how good this was going to come out, it was gone !

Italians - gotta love them. I'm a quarter Italian, myself, though as I always say I think the only Italianate qualities I've inherited are the talking with my hands thing and my deep, deep love of food. (Though the food part could be from any and all of my ancestors :) )

One of the things I love about Italians is that not only do they love food, they waste nothing. A loaf of stale bread isn't something to be thrown out, to an Italian - it's a springboard, a gateway drug to all sorts of culinary delights. Not that the Italians have dibs on delicious things to do with stale bread, of course...this very blog is loaded with recipes for bread puddings, both savory and sweet; there are also references to French toast, croutons etc....but we're sticking with an Italian theme here.

We've already explored the glories of panzanella (Italian bread salad) in this space; but it's winter - lovely tomatoes are hard to come by, and our bodies and bellies crave something much more comforting, Ribollita - a hearty, warming soup - answers that craving perfectly, and I'm so glad I took the plunge and decided to learn how to make it. Think of the best minestrone you've ever had, but with bread instead of pasta (not like you don't dip bread in minestrone anyway ! ) - super flavorful broth, loaded with vegetables and creamy white beans, stick-to-your-ribs Italian nonna (grandma) goodness. And not only does this one use stale time you come to the end of a wedge of Parmesan, throw the rind in the freezer. It adds a wonderful depth of flavor to this or any other soup that that tastes good with cheese on top (don't most of them ? :) )

The only trick to this soup is to use a bread with some heft - something nice and dense that isn't going to dissolve in your soup. (Most French breads, although wonderfully useful when stale, would probably be a bit too airy for this - though use 'em if you got 'em, I say.). For this batch, I used a loaf of Italian Pugliese; sourdough, a dense ciabatta, or any peasant-type bread would work. Leftover rolls would be perfect - lots of nice crust to go around. If you want to make this and don't have stale bread on hand, just find the "day-old" rack in your supermarket and select a worthy candidate. Even a flavored bread would work, as this is one of those happy soups that take to all sorts of variation. Any kind of bean would probably be at home here, as would any sort of leftover vegetable. Spinach or Swiss chard could very easily stand in for the kale, if you're adverse to kale (though you should try it in this - it's wonderful). The recipe can easily be made kosher (yet still delicious) by omitting the pancetta and using vegetable stock or could even become vegan via the use of a vegan cheese alternative.  Go forth and experiment...there's no wrong here !

Serves 6 - 8

1/4 cup olive oil
4 oz pancetta, chopped
2 medium onions, chopped (leeks or shallots would also work well - about 2 cups worth)
3 good-sized carrots, chopped
3 good-sized celery stalks, chopped
2 cloves minced garlic
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon tomato paste*
2 14.5 oz cans diced tomatoes, drained (fire-roasted are great in this)
8 cups kale, large stems removed and coarsely chopped  
2 15.5 oz cans cannellini beans, drained
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil (or 1 tablespoon dried)
1 bay leaf
1 piece of Parmesan rind (optional)
6 - 8 cups chicken stock
4 cups stale bread cubes, about 1 inch

Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onion and pancetta and cook for 5-10 minutes, or until the onions become translucent. Stir in the tomato paste, and add the carrots, celery, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste and cook for another 10 minutes or so, or until the vegetables just start getting tender (add a ladle or so of stock if it seems to be getting too dry.). Add the tomatoes, kale, beans, basil, bay leaf, and Parmesan rind if using along with the 6 cups of stock and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Add the bread cubes, along with some additional stock if the soup seems too thick (though you do want it thick) and simmer for 10 more minutes.

Serve with plenty of fresh Parmesan. and a nice glass of wine, if you're of the wine persuasion. (The Parmesan rind in the soup should have mostly dissolved...if yours is old and stubbornly still in one piece, you can fish it out before serving lest it traumatize somebody. Though if you're traumatized by Parmesan, you may have issues...)

*I buy tomato paste in tubes that resemble toothpaste tubes; these are awesome when you just need to add a little bit to something as you can store the rest in the fridge. If you only have cans, I suggest freezing the rest in tablespoon-sized scoops; stick them on a paper plate until frozen, then store them in a baggie once frozen. Way useful ! 

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