I am so very excited, because this soup is one of my absolute favorite foods in the entire world. I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for over two years and I haven’t written about it yet. Now, finally, I will.
Oh, ribollita. It’s an Italian soup whose name means “reboiled”, or cooked twice. I had it for the first time while I was studying abroad in Italy and we took a day trip to Tuscany that included a farmhouse lunch. The first course was some bruschetta that I’ve written about before, and the second course was this. It was a very thick vegetable soup, almost more like a porridge in texture, and it tasted completely amazing. I had no idea what was in it, but to give you an idea of how madly in love I was, I had a second portion even though I knew we still had several courses of food to go. Somebody (probably not me) asked what it was called, and so we found out that the magical concoction was ribollita, a soup of vegetables, greens and white beans to which stale bread is added at the end of cooking.
I didn’t attempt my own ribollita until a few months later, when I was back in the States and living with my parents during winter break. I turned to the Food Network website, my primary source for recipes at the time, and found this one. Today there are a whole bunch of ribollita recipes on that site, but when I went looking around 6 years ago there was only this one. My first time trying it, I followed the recipe exactly, even though there was one thing in it that made me nervous– red cabbage. The version I’d tried in Italy was shades of green and brown, natural colors, and it certainly didn’t have red cabbage in it. In the end, my anxiety was justified– the powerful pigments in the red cabbage turned the entire soup a sickly grayish-purple. It was awful. I apologized profusely to my family. It still tasted fine, but the color was so unappetizing that even I barely wanted to eat it. Red cabbage? Terrible idea. Don’t do it.
But I used that recipe as a jumping-off point and formulated my own. Ribollita is one of those rustic foods that can be made in many, many different ways. Every Italian nonna probably has her own version. But this is how I make it.
First you need some crusty white bread. This is one loaf of ciabatta. I’m not sure how much it weighed.
If your bread is a few days old and stale, that’s great. It’s supposed to be a little dry. If you’re like me and buy the bread on the same day because you’re bad at planning ahead, slice or tear the bread into chunks, spread them on a baking sheet, and stick them into a low-temperature oven to dry out a bit.
This is the other stuff you need.
Onion and garlic (chopped), olive oil, carrot (chopped), tomato paste, potato (sliced thin), cabbage (cut into strips, very thick white parts removed), frozen spinach, white beans. Not everything is actually chopped yet because I wasn’t patient enough to do it all before I started cooking.
Heat a few spoonfuls of olive oil in a large pot. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft. Mmm… sauteing garlic and onion is one of the best smells in the world. Once they’re soft, add two tablespoons of tomato paste diluted in a cup of warm water (the exact amount of water isn’t important; just use a normal-sized drinking glass). After that, toss in the carrots and sliced potatoes. Let them be for a few minutes, then add the cabbage as well. If you’re lucky enough to have fresh spinach instead of frozen, throw that in too.
At this point the pot will be pretty crowded, but don’t worry. The cabbage starts to cook down quickly. You can put a lid on the pot to help the process, but it isn’t even necessary. Just keep it over medium heat for about an hour. Oh, add some salt and pepper too. This soup needs salt, so be generous.
Open your cans of beans. Using a fork, mash up the beans in one can without draining the liquid. Add the bean mash to the pot about halfway through cooking. Also, if you have frozen spinach, thaw a handful of that in the microwave, drain some of the liquid, and add it to the pot.
After the hour is almost up, add the other can of beans, which have been drained and left whole. At this point you should try a slice of potato or a thicker piece of cabbage to see if it’s cooked through. It may need a bit more time. I also fill one of the empty bean cans with water and add some of it to the pot, just to keep enough moisture in there. The veggies don’t need to become total mush. This soup is one of those things that’s even more amazing as leftovers, so if your veggies are a tad al dente today, it’s not a big deal– they soften up more through subsequent reheatings. Just use your judgement.
Once the veggies are sufficiently cooked, it’s time to add the bread. Here it is after being dried out a bit in the oven.
Keeping the soup pot over low heat, toss the bread chunks in and stir to incorporate them. This is why it helps for the bread to be dry– fresh, moist bread isn’t as good at absorbing the surrounding vegetable broth. You can toss some water in too, if it seems to need it. Let it sit for at least five minutes, then take it off the heat and serve. It’s excellent with a drizzle of olive oil and/or a sprinkling of a hard Italian cheese, such as Parmiggiano-Reggiano.
It may not look like much, but from those humble ingredients rises something that is so, so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s hard to believe that this soup requires no herbs, no stock, just salt and pepper. The flavor is rich, almost sweet, and those little pockets of bread are chewy and so satisfying. The olive oil drizzled over the top adds a bit of tang and another layer of complexity. It’s simple “peasant food”, made from the simplest and cheapest components, but it doesn’t taste simple at all. It’s wonderfully hearty and also quite healthy. I just love it.
Just writing all of that out made me tired, so you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for me to post a more formally written recipe. I hope you can wait till then to make this yourself :-). The recipe is here!