Blu Aubergine Blog

RECIPE: Ribollita (Tuscan minestrone bread soup)

There are few things better on a bitter cold day, or evening, than a bowl of ribollita, the cool weather Tuscan bread soup. It's made with a Tuscan minestrone base, to which stale bread is added -- preferably the tasteless, salt-free crusty bread that became a staple in Tuscany when an overwhelming majority of citizens refused to pay a steep salt tax. It's even been used to clean precious frescoes in Tuscan churches, as its texture is similar to a sponge (its stand-alone taste is fairly similar, too). 

How is a Tuscan minestrone different from your average minestrone, you may ask? It shares all of the basic vegetables, like celery, carrots, and onions, of course. But Tuscans, like their mangiafagioli (bean-eaters) moniker suggests, often add cannellini beans to dishes, for added heft, starch, and protein.
Their minestrone is no exception, so they use beans to replace the tiny pasta tubes that the rest of the Italian peninsula uses. They also add Tuscan kale (or lacinato), what in Italian is called cavolo nero (black kale) or cavolo laciniato (fringed kale). This is sliced or hand-torn into strips that get thrown into the minestrone, adding color and great nutrients and fiber to the soup. 
The thing that turns Tuscan minestrone into ribollita (which literally means "re-boiled") is the addition of bread. The Tuscans are a thrifty bunch, not ones to let bread go to waste simply because it's stale. So they have a series of bread-thickened soups in their culinary repertoire to make the most of it. Ribollita is the wintry version, and it's one of my all-time favorites. It freezes well, so you can make a huge pot of it during, say, a February snowstorm. You can eat it until (and if) you get sick of it, and freeze the rest for another blustery night.

RIBOLLITA
(Serves 4-8)
6 TBS. Olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 onion, chopped into medium dice
1 carrot, chopped into medium dice
2 stalks celery, chopped into medium dice
3 cloves garlic
2 cups cooked or canned cannellini beans, drained
4 whole peeled tomatoes or 1 15-oz. can peeled tomatoes
8 cups vegetable stock or chicken stock
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bunches chopped cavolo nero (black kale)
1 small loaf Tuscan (unsalted) or crusty peasant bread, preferably a day old
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese
Salt & pepper to taste

- Warm 6 TBS. of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it's hot, toss in the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic. Sprinkle with a dash of salt and pepper and cook, stirring so the vegetables don't stick, until they're softened, about 5 minutes.

- Add the tomatoes and beans, stir and cook for 2 minutes. Add the broth and the rosemary and thyme, and cook for 15-20 minutes, so the flavors meld.

- Add the kale (and remove the herbs if you'd like), and stir to blend. Add salt and pepper to taste.

- Tearing the bread with your hands into bite-sized chunks, slowly add the bread to the broth, mixing to absorb the bread every 10 pieces or so. You may not use the whole loaf, but you may. The consistency should be a thick porridge. Let the soup cook another 15 minutes or so, simmering on low, so the bread breaks down and becomes integrated into the soup a bit. Taste to adjust for seasoning.

- To serve, ladle into bowls, drizzle generously with the highest-quality extra-virgin olive oil you can find (Tuscan is most relevant here), and sprinkle with grated parmigiano cheese.

Note: Like most soups, this one is even better the next day, or even the day after that. Since it's ribollita (re-boiled) anyway, it keeps very well for several days in the fridge, or for 2 months in the freezer.