by Cynthia Graber
I've got an understatement for you here: Italy's got some fantastic food. And I've been missing it since I flew back to the U.S. So when I stumbled upon Heidi Swanson's recipe for ribollita on her great blog, 101 Cookbooks, I knew I had to try to recreate that bowl of warmth that I ate after a cold, winter day in Florence.
Luckily, I had almost everything I needed, and almost all from local sources. Black kale, aka dinosaur kale, aka lacinto kale? Check. White beans? I made those a few weeks earlier, and had frozen a couple of containers. I had chopped up celery and carrots in the freezer for just such a soup. I had hearty wheat bread, also frozen in slices, so all I had to do was chop slivers off the crusts and then cut the rest into bite-size squares. I even had a huge batch of red onions from a previous CSA drop.
Ribollita is a northern Italian soup that turns into a sort of stew, by the time the flavors meld the next day, and the bread expands, and the beans turn all creamy. I made a few changes to Heidi's recipe to ensure that it'd be more reminiscent of what I'd recently eaten: I added a parmesan rind when I poured in the cooking water for that hit of rich umami. And I left off the lemon peel and olives, because I just wanted to recreate what I'd eaten in Florence, and neither were a part of that dish.
Here are a few tips. One: if you have time, make the beans from scratch. You'll avoid the pesky question of BPA in cans, and I've found that the texture is greatly improved.
Two: Feel free to eat it the first day, but make sure you have enough to leave it overnight (and this recipe makes enough for an army, so unless you're feeding 12, you'll have plenty for the next day). It thickens beautifully.
Three: This is key, and I beg you not to avoid it for any mistaken fear of fat. After you've ladled the servings into individual bowls, you absolutely must finish each bowl with a drizzle of olive oil. A generous one. One that will allow the pungent olive oil flavor to be the first hit on your tongue. You should taste it. And so this also means you should ideally use flavorful oil, the kind you save for salads and for finishing dishes, the kind you might spend a little more on. In Tuscany, they press bright green, unfiltered oil. That's tough to find here, though I noticed that Savenor's sells an unfiltered bottle of Italian. Still, there's plenty of good olive oil around. Pour some on each bowl before you serve it.
That's it! It's simple. The chopping does, admittedly, take a little time, as does the simmering. And if you don't have already cooked frozen beans, that step might take some advance preparation (or you can just use canned). But once you've made ribollita, you'll enjoy it for a while. And you'll enjoy every bowl.
(The nice thing about this recipe is that it's very forgiving. You can use a little more or less oil, more or fewer carrots, etc. Don't worry if you're not super exact. And bread is best when it's a couple of days stale, but I used whole grain bread that I'd sliced and frozen, and it also worked beautifully.)
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil, plus more for drizzling (I use two different oils, a cheaper one for cooking, and a nicer one for drizzling)
- 4 celery stalks, chopped
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 5 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1 medium red onion (or 3 small ones), chopped
- 1 14-oz can of crushed tomatoes (or a can of whole tomatoes, that you crush yourself)
- 1 parmesan rind
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 pound black/dinosaur/lacinto kale, leaves removed from the stems and then chopped into thin strips
- 4 cups cooked white beans
- 1/2 pound crustless bread
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
You want to use a really big pot for this soup. First, turn the heat on medium, and add the oil, carrots, celery, and red onion. Cook together until everything softens, about 15 minutes, but before any vegetables start to turn brown. Add the tomatoes and red pepper flakes. Simmer that for another 10 minutes or so.
Stir in the chopped kale, 3 cups of the beans, the parmesan rind, and 8 cups of water. Bring the whole pot to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer and let it go until the kale is nice and soft. That should take about another 15 minutes.
Now, take the last cup of beans, add a little water, and mash them until they're almost smooth. Either tear the bread into bite-sizes pieces, or, if you use frozen bread, cut off the crusts and chop it into squares of about an inch or so. Add the beans and the bread to the soup. Continue to simmer the whole thing until the bread breaks down into the soup (though not entirely, you'll still see bread chunks). This will take another 20-30 minutes.
Feel free to have a bowl right away, but save the rest for the next day, and the day after. Don't forget the most important step: the final drizzle of olive oil on each bowl!