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Italian Bread Soup (ribollita)
This story begins with an ordinary bowl of food, ordered in a foreign language, in an unfamiliar place. The ingredients were simple—beans, carrots, onions, bread. But the result was anything but ordinary or simple.
We were in Siena.
Siena, Tuscany, Italy.
In the Autumn of 2006 my husband, daughters, and I travelled to Europe. We spent a day in Venice and several days in Maniago and Aquillia. A short drive north took us through Austria and then to Slovenia where we visited my cousins. But most of our stay was in Italy.
The weather was ideal. Although our trip spanned mid-September to mid-October there was only one brief hour of rain. The days were warm, but not hot, and evenings were a balmy, shirt-sleeve temperature. Absolutely perfect.
Of all the places we visited, my fondest memories are of Siena.
Our introduction to Siena
We stepped off the bus at Siena in mid-afternoon...and stepped into another world. There are no cars in Siena. No traffic. No horns blaring--just the pleasant sound of people laughing and talking and merchants bargaining with townsfolk and tourists.
Surrounded by olive groves and the vineyards of Chianti, Siena is one of the most beautiful cities of Tuscany. Set on three hills, the city is drawn together by winding alleyways and steep steps to the Il Campo—a fan-shaped courtyard consisting of nine segments. Each segment represents a member of the Council of Nine (ruling body from 1287 to 1355) and the fan symbolizes the cloak of the Madonna, which shelters Siena.
Sienna-colored brick buildings surround the Il Campo; the city is filled with fine examples of Gothic architecture and a visit there is like journeying backwards in time. Everything seems to be much as it was in medieval times, when Siena enjoyed its greatest artistic splendor.
Il Campo is also famous for the Palio—a horse race which occurs twice each summer. A tradition since medieval times, this popular event is preceded by a historic cortege and procession in costume. Though the race itself lasts little more than a minute the festivities which surround the event create a memory which will last a lifetime.
Since we had arrived in late afternoon, we had just enough time to visit one tourist site. The obvious choice was the Duomo--one of Italy's best Gothic cathedrals. This white and dark green striped church sits on the top-most point of Siena and is visible for miles. It is believed that construction began in the 9th century.
The current structure dates from 1215 and is filled with sculptures by Bernini and Michelangelo, and so much more! The stained glass, frescoes, and inlaid marble floors depicting both secular and Biblical scenes present an almost overwhelming collection of artistic marvels.
Experience has shown us that the guidebooks of Rick Steves (American author and television personality, host of the American Public Television series Rick Steves Europe) are as reliable as any tour guide, and we followed his recommendation for our evening meal.
Nello la Taverna
Nello la Taverna has been in business for more than 50 years. What lead us to Nello was the promise of vegetarian dishes. What makes us want to return is the wonderful presentation of seasonal foods paired with homemade pasta. We fell in love with first bite.
Until that evening, I had never heard of "bread soup". Really? Soup made with bread? It sounded a bit odd, and beyond pedestrian. But I was so wrong. The flavors and textures were amazing. When I returned home I was committed to replicating this wonderful dish.
- 10 oz. dry cannellini beans
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 3 medium carrots, finely chopped
- 1/3 cup plus 2 tsp. olive oil, divided
- 1 large red tomato, diced
- 7 oz. Tuscan kale, tough rib removed and leaves chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 tsp. fresh thyme
- *8 slices artisanal French of Italian bread, diced (see note below)
- pinch red pepper flakes
- salt and pepper, to taste
1. First sort and wash the navy beans. What do I mean by sorting? Spread them out on a cookie sheet and pick through them looking for rocks, small clumps of dirt, or shriveled beans. Trust me, you don't want to have those things in your soup. Beans are not washed when they are harvested--any moisture would cause them to mold, so please wash your beans to remove field dust.
2. Next, place your washed beans in an 8-quart stockpot. Add enough water to have about 2 inches of water above the beans (about 6 cups of water). Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil 2 minutes and then remove from the heat. Cover and let stand 1 hour. This soaking time will reduce the actually time the beans need to simmer and will help retain nutrients.
3. In the same stock pot, sauté the onion, celery, and carrots in 1/3 cup olive oil until softened--about 5 minutes. Add the chopped tomato and sauté a few minutes more.
4. Add the soaked drained beans and 2 quarts of fresh water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer about 2 hours or until beans are tender.
5. Once cooked, pour the beans into a large mixing bowl. Remove one-half of the beans and broth to a food processor and blend until smooth. Wash the stock pot and return it to the stove. Heat to medium.
6. Add the garlic, thyme, and remaining 2 tsp. olive oil to the stock pot; simmer a few minutes. Stir in the kale and continue to cook a few minutes more, until the kale begins to wilt.
7. Stir in the blended beans and broth. Bring all to a simmer over low heat. Simmer for 30 minutes.
8. Stir the bread into the soup. Continue cooking for another 30 minutes, mixing occasionally. This is a good time to check the salt and pepper too.
9. Add the rest of the beans and broth and a pinch of red hot pepper. Mix in well.
10. Serve warm with a bit of olive oil.
*NOTE: If your bread is not dry you can slice it and bake it in the oven at low heat to dry it quickly.
© 2014 Linda Lum