I learned to make ribollita many years ago from Livio, the gardener of an elegant villa in Florence. At the time it housed a center for advanced Renaissance studies and while my husband attended seminars, I was likely to be in the garden, talking to Livio.
The recipe was actually his sister’s and probably his mother’s before that. I doubt that Livio had ever made this thick bread soup himself, but he had precise ideas on how it should taste.
After he tasted my first batch, I noticed a troubled look on his face. After some pressing, he gave his verdict: a nice enough soup but not the genuine article. How had I cooked the onions, he asked. As it turned out, I had not browned them sufficiently, the essential first step for this full-flavored soup. I tried again, and this time Livio gave his blessing to my ribollita.
The name means “reboiled” but, as this story shows, it’s not a matter of just heating up any vegetable soup. The flavors need to be deeply satisfying. Carefully browned onions are one thing. If you can find it, Tuscan kale–otherwise known as lacinato or, in Tuscany itself, as cavolo nero,”black cabbage”–adds depth.
I think good beans make a difference too. White cannellini are the norm but the bag of Rancho Gordo cranberry beans from my stocking (not last year but two years ago) were staring reproachfully at me from the pantry. They may be unorthodox but they were fabulous.
Stale salt-free Tuscan bread is the classic choice for ribollita, and for good reason. It absorbs moisture and feathers into crumbs without turning gluey. Nothing else works as well but, unless you are making this soup in Tuscany, you’ll likely have to settle for any sturdy loaf that pushes back a little when pressed.
You could eat ribollita just after it’s made, but that’s so wrong. Hold off for a day to let the flavors mingle and the genius of this winter soup to emerge. The last step, once soup and bread are in the bowl together: Drizzle with good Italian olive oil from the latest harvest.
from my cookbook, Piatto Unico
Makes 8 servings
2 large yellow onions or 1 large Spanish onion, chopped (about 3 cups)
2 large stalks celery
3 medium carrots
2 small zucchini, peeled
4 medium boiling potatoes, peeled
1 small bunch Tuscan kale (lacinato) or any variety of kale
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves and stems
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cups cooked cannellini or cranberry beans, plus some of the liquid if cooked from dried beans
8 slices white country-style bread (crusts on), cut in cubes (6 to 8 cups)
Best-quality extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
1. Cut the onion, celery, carrots and zucchini in small (1/4-inch) cubes. Cut two of the potatoes in 1/4-inch cubes; halve the other two. Tear or cut off the kale leaves, discarding the stems. Thinly slice the leaves crosswise.
2. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the onion, cooking and stirring until it softens, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook slowly, stirring often, until the soffritto reaches a deep golden brown color, about about 20 minutes.
3. Stir in the tomato paste and 1 cup cold water. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the mixture is dense.
4. Add the celery, carrots, zucchini, diced and halved potatoes, kale, parsley, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Add enough bean cooking liquid or water, or a mixture, to barely cover the vegetables. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, until the vegetables are very tender, about 2 hours.
5. Cool the soup slightly. Use a food processor or food mill to puree the halved potatoes and 1 cup of the beans; return the pureed mixture to the soup pot with the remaining whole beans. Taste and season with more salt and pepper if needed. Simmer at least half an hour longer until thick. Cool and refrigerate overnight.
6. To serve: Unless the bread is stale, toast it in a slow oven (325°F) until dry to the touch but not browned.
7. Spread the bread cubes on the bottom of the soup bowls. Ladle the soup on top. Pass a cruet of your best olive oil to drizzle over the soup.
Another way to serve ribollita: Layer the bread cubes and soup in a tureen or casserole dish. Cover and reheat in a 350°F oven.