The Search for Ribollita
While writing the post on leftovers over Christmas weekend, I had an overwhelming craving for Ribollita – the ultimate Tuscan winter vegetable and bean soup – so much so that Monday morning, the day after boxing day, I headed out to my local deli to get some of the fresh ribollita they usually always have at this time of year to take to work for lunch. But no. Not today. Obviously, December 26 is a day where nothing goes on, shops and markets are closed and certainly no one makes ribollita. I continued my search, heading to all the usual places: the girls at I Buongustai on Via dei Cerchi normally have it on their daily menu in the winter; the two ladies from the Chianti in Cernacchino on Via della Condotta have it chalked in on their menu board (but it was replaced with a chickpea soup); even the deli in the supermarket normally has it. Not today, they all told me. Fine. I’ll have to make it myself.
Ribollita itself means “reboiled” and for me is the epitome of Florentine ingenuity in the leftovers department. Using stale bread, essential seasonal vegetables and of course beans, this is also a super cheap dish to make. I spent a total of five euro on my ingredients (there was already plenty of stale bread at home) and made a potful to feed an army.
Pellegrino Artusi, the godfather of Italian cooking, calls it Zuppa Toscana di Magro alla Contadina, a “lean peasant’s soup from Tuscany,” and like most things that come from a peasant tradition, everyone’s grandmother knows this recipe by heart and probably does some variation on this. Artusi’s recipe is, more than 100 years later, still the way to do it:
- 400 grams of stale bread, cut into pieces
- 300 grams of dried white cannellini beans, soaked overnight in a large pot of water and boiled.
- 1 onion, 2 cloves of garlic, half a stalk of celery, parsley
- Tomato paste (a couple of tablespoons)
- 150 grams olive oil
- 2 litres of water
- Half a head of cabbage, chopped
- Half a bunch (or more, Artusi advises) of cavolo nero, black kale, chopped
- 1 bunch of silverbeet, chopped
- 1 medium sized potato, diced
- Some strips of ham, bacon or pancetta or to be more specific, the leftover scraps of dried skin from a leg of prosciutto, for flavour (the rind of some quality parmesan cheese also works)
Finely chop the onion, garlic, celery and parsley and sauté gently in olive oil. When they begin to turn golden, add the chopped greens and potato. Season with salt and pepper and add tomato paste to your taste, then add some of the water you used to boil the beans (don’t waste anything!) to obtain a soup consistency. Puree half of the beans, and add these with the other half whole to the soup, along with the prosciutto scraps. Allow to boil further until vegetables are cooked, then, taking it off the heat, add the bread, cover and allow to sit for 20 minutes for the bread to soak before serving. It should be quite thick once you have the bread in there. You can add a bit of water when reheating or to your liking.
It is the bare essentials for a hearty, healthy, filling and comforting winter meal to feed a family of six. And of course if there are less in your household, save the rest for freezing or reheating tomorrow. After all, it wouldn’t be ribollita if it weren’t re-boiled.
Artusi’s La Scienza in Cucina e L’arte di Mangiare Bene, the great-grandfather of all Italian cookbooks and bible of Italian cuisine was written in 1891 and was the first book that included a collection of dishes from regions all over the newly founded nation of Italy. Anyone interested in Italian cooking should have this on the bookshelf or, even better, on the kitchen table top!