Ribollita, a vegetable soup made with beans and thickened with stale bread, is classic Italian peasant food, nourishing, practical, and delicious. I discovered it years ago, during a semester that I was lucky enough to spend studying in Florence. My student housing was a hotel, the Hotel Globus, which provided a light breakfast (thinly sliced cheese and prosciutto on a roll) but left us on our own for all other meals. So as soon as I discovered ribollita at a trattoria around the corner from my hotel, I had it for lunch at least twice a week. Because this nourishing soup was inexpensive, delicious food that sustained me, body and soul.
Despite my love, for some reason I’ve never made this deliciousness at home before today. Indeed, until last week, I don’t think I’ve eaten ribollita even once since I left the Hotel Globus. So last week, when I ate lunch at Publican Quality Meats (http://publicanqualitymeats.com/), there wasn’t much trouble deciding what to order. Full of gigantic runner beans, hearty greens, thick slices of meat, and cubes of toasty bread, my first non-Italian ribollita was soul-satisfying good.
Even so, a couple of days after that lunch, thinking about the soup, I found myself craving the taste of my memory. Because while the rich, meaty ribollita at Publican’s deli was absolutely delicious, it wasn’t the simple peasant fare I remembered from Italy. I was somehow left wanting more. And therefore decided it was finally time to make my own.
I started, as I always do, by looking for and reading recipes, all of which were pretty similar. In the end, I made a version inspired by two recipes: the brilliant Skye Gyngell’s recipe in My Favorite Ingredients (http://www.amazon.com/My-Favorite-Ingredients-Skye-Gyngell/dp/1580080502), and a recipe from Food52 (http://food52.com/recipes/14464-ribollita). The result maybe didn’t match my memory, because, well, that would have been impossible. But it was really good. Here’s what I did.
2 c. dried cranberry beans, soaked overnight
1 thumb-sized piece of kombu (for digestion)
3 quarts cold water
3 T. olive oil
2 onions, peeled and diced
2 dried red chili peppers
2 ribs celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 t. dried sage
1 potato, peeled and diced
1 28-oz can plum tomatoes, chopped
1 bunch of lacinato kale, stemmed and chopped
4-6 slices of Tuscan bread, torn into pieces
Salt and pepper
1. Drain the beans. Place them in a deep, heavy pot with the kombu and one of the chili peppers, crumbled, then add water to cover by one inch. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 1-1/2 hours or until tender. Add 1 t. salt and allow to cool in cooking liquid.
2. In a separate pot, heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the onions, the other chili pepper, and about 1 t. salt. Cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring on occasion. Add the garlic. Cook for another minute then add the carrot and celery and cook for another 10 minutes. Finally, add the potato and tomatoes, turn the heat to medium low, cover, and cook for 20 minutes longer.
2. Drain the cooked beans, remove the kombu, and add them to the vegetables along with the kale and one quart of cold water. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook for an hour or so, until the vegetables are very tender. Remove from the heat and allow the soup to stand for a couple of hours in order for the flavors to meld. Reheat before serving and taste for seasoning. Add salt if necessary
To serve, divide the bread among the serving bowls. Ladle the soup over the bread, drizzle with olive oil, and top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and black pepper. This will still be pretty good without the cheese if you want to make it vegan. If you’re gluten-free, try substituting a grain. Gyngell’s recipe calls for farro, which does contain gluten, but buckwheat might be nice. As a side note, here is an interesting discussion about gluten-free grains. (http://eatingfriendly.blogspot.com/2011/07/going-gluten-free-know-your-grains.html)