When we find ourselves with a garden overrun, a Pandora’s CSA box, a disconnect of loose odds and ends at the back of the crisper (or when we just want a nourishing bowl of vegetables), one fulfilling answer can be found in soupe au pistou.
As the late food writer Richard Olney describes in Simple French Food, “A soupe au pistou is a minestrone into which, at the moment of serving, a pistou [a descendant of the Genovese pesto] is incorporated. Beyond that point of definition, no two are alike and despite Italian antecedents, all are jealously Provençal.”
Although no two recipes are the same, at a minimum, most I’ve seen follow a certain pattern: Chop a haul of vegetables, then sauté and soften at least the most aromatic ones if not all of them in stages. Some call in a flavorful stock. Others add stock accessories, like the bundled herbs known in French as bouquet garni. Virtually all swirl in a garlicky pistou at the end.
This recipe slashes or streamlines all but one of these steps.
Jody Williams, the chef and owner of beloved New York City restaurant Buvette and co-owner of Via Carota with her partner Rita Sodi, makes her soupe au pistou with unusual—and very effective—restraint. There’s no sautéeing. Just water, no stock. Not even garlic in the pistou.1
You pile every last vegetable2 into a pot with water and then leave it alone to simmer for a good while. Yet what you get is still a bowl of rich, spoonable vegetables, not suffering from skirting the crowd.3
The soup alone is very simple, almost ritualistically so. You get the mellow sweetness of summer vegetables, creamy beans, and tomato-tinted broth—all reduced to whatever thickness you like (Jody loves hers slow-cooked until it’s porridge-like; mine has always been brothier for lack of time and tidy knifework). With the right attention to salt, this is a perfectly good lunch or dinner, especially with some buttered toast on the side.
But it gets better still. Any richness that was lost by skipping sautéeing and full-bodied stocks returns in an instant, when you swirl in your pistou, a bit more olive oil, and a flurry of Parmesan cheese. The warmth of the soup unlocks the scents of basil and Parmesan, greedibly drinks up the oils, and all sense of austerity is gone.
Serves 6 to 8
• 2 cups dried cranberry or cannellini beans (or a mix), soaked overnight and drained
• 2 celery stalks, diced
• 2 large carrots, peeled and diced
• 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
• 1 fennel bulb, including the light green stems, diced
• one 15-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, seeded if you like and chopped
• 6 large outer escarole leaves, torn into pieces (or another hardy green, like kale)
• 1 large handful green beans, trimmed and cut in half crosswise
• 1 leek, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
• 2 small zucchini, diced
• Pinch red chili flakes, plus more as needed
• Coarse salt
• 2 cups fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
• 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
• 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
1 Making the pistou can be as simple as stuffing fresh basil, Parmesan, and a pinch of salt into a mini-food processor, then drizzling in olive oil as you blend (which can even be done one-handed, as you can see in the video above)—although some swear by the beautiful results of pounding a pistou in a mortar.
2 The vegetable list you see in the recipe is a suggestion—Jody makes this soup throughout spring and summer, using whatever vegetables are abundant at the time.
3 While I’m itching to use this Genius technique to streamline more soups like cream of broccoli or other vegetables whose flavor can be coaxed slowly into something sweet and complex, I wouldn’t recommend leapfrogging over steps with just any recipe. I once tried a beef stew that took the same cavalier approach and found the result oddly sour and flat, lonely without the flavor that rubs off a good, deep sear.
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