- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

I have never met a Mediterranean home cook who did not impress me with her soups. When I lived in France, I spent a fair amount of time at Domaine Tempier, a winery in Bandol that is famous for its wines but also renowned in food circles for the cooking of its proprietress, Lulu Peyraud. I spent the harvest there in 1981, helping Miss Peyraud prepare lunches for the grape pickers every day and learning everything I could about Provencal food and Bandol wine.

Lunches were hearty meals that would sustain the workers through the long, hot afternoons. (I, on the other hand, required a postprandial siesta.) In the evenings, Miss Peyraud always made a soup. Sometimes, it was a very light garlic soup or tomato soup with pasta. Other times, it was a more robust soupe au pistou, the Provencal vegetable and bean soup that is embellished before serving with a basil pesto, called “pistou” in Provencal.

Soupe au pistou is a signature soup of Provence, particularly along the Riviera, where basil is abundant. As you move east into Italy, the name changes to minestrone, which is just an emphatic word for minestra, the Italian word for soup. Cooks make minestrone in the morning, let it steep and serve it at midday or for supper.

There are many minestrones: winter versions and summer versions, minestrones based on something simple such as cabbage or lentils or beans, or more elaborate combinations of beans and vegetables. The one thing all minestrones have in common is the fact that they are always a thick and filling mixture of vegetables, beans and pasta or rice. And they taste better with time.

Meat stock can be used for a more robust-tasting soup, but it is not a requirement. When the vegetables are sweet and fresh, I prefer using water to get a broth that is the essence of vegetables. I have never met a French or Italian home cook who did it any other way.

The one item that is essential to a richly flavored broth — and it is used in soups on both sides of the French-Italian border — is a rind or two of Parmesan cheese, which is included in the bouquet garni.

When I was researching Provencal soupe au pistou in France, all the people with whom I spoke and all the cookbook authors I read were sure their versions of the dish were the true, authentic soup. Many cooks insisted that the real soup could be made only in spring and summer, when fresh cranberry beans (also known as shell or borlotti beans), green beans and tomatoes were available; they would never use dried beans. Still others used dried beans for the soup.

I find that dried beans are an important ingredient because their savory broth contributes much to the flavor of soupe au pistou. If I can find fresh beans, I am delighted for the addition, but their lack of availability does not mean I’m not going to make the soup.

Italian minestrones invariably begin with a long, gentle simmer of aromatic vegetables: onion, carrot, celery and garlic in olive oil. Sometimes, a small amount of pancetta or butter is added. The amount of olive oil varies widely, from a couple of tablespoons (which is what I use) to half a cup.

Once the aromatics have cooked down, the remaining vegetables and water or broth are added, the mixture is brought to a boil, the heat is reduced, and the soup simmers for an hour or more. Cooked dried beans are added toward the end of cooking, along with the pasta or rice that will enrich the soup.

In Provence, I found that most cooks simply throw all of the ingredients into a pot; let the mixture simmer for an hour or two; add pasta; and serve the soup when the pasta is cooked, adding the enrichment at the end in the form of the heady pesto.

This is a very relaxing way to make a soup. You can prepare the vegetables one at a time, adding them to the pot of water as they are ready. I do one thing differently from the traditional cooks: To have a more colorful soup, I hold back half of the green vegetables — the green beans, peas and zucchini — and blanch or steam them separately, adding them just before I serve the soup so that they can heat through but still retain their bright green hue.

Not all great soups require as much time and effort as a minestrone or soupe au pistou. The easiest soup on Earth, for example, is garlic soup. Cold days may be prime soup season, but just because the days are beginning to lengthen, don’t forget about soup.

Spring markets offer up a gold mine for light soups and robust minestrones, sparkling with produce, their broths the sweet outcome of a long, slow simmer of many aromatic vegetables.

Minestrone

There are many versions of minestrone. Some call for meat stock. Some, like this, rely on plain old water. Like all robust soups, this one will taste even better the day after you make it.

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 onions, chopped

2 large or 3 medium leeks, white and light-green parts only, cleaned and sliced

2 carrots, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

Salt

1/2; small head green or savoy cabbage, shredded (about 4 cups)

6 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed

2 boiling potatoes, diced

2 turnips, peeled and diced

1 14-ounce can tomatoes, with liquid, seeded and chopped

1/2; pound green beans, cut into 1-inch lengths (about 2 cups), divided

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano, or ½ teaspoon dried

1 (2-1/2;-by-1-1/2;-inch) piece Parmesan cheese rind

1 bay leaf

Few sprigs thyme and parsley

1 pound fresh fava beans, shelled

1 cup fresh or frozen peas, thawed

1 15-ounce can cannellini or borlotti beans, drained and rinsed

1/4; pound turnip greens or Swiss chard, stemmed, washed well and chopped (about 2 cups)

1/2; cup pasta, such as elbow macaroni, small shells or broken spaghetti

Freshly ground pepper

1/4; cup chopped parsley

1/3; cup freshly grated Parmesan

Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven, and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it begins to soften, and add the leeks. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are tender and translucent but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the carrots and celery and a generous pinch of salt; continue to cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are tender and fragrant, 5 to 10 minutes.

Stir in the cabbage and the garlic, add a little more salt, and cook until the cabbage has wilted, about 5 minutes. Add 2 quarts water, potatoes, turnips, canned tomatoes with liquid, half the green beans and oregano; bring to a boil.

Tie the Parmesan rind, bay leaf and thyme and parsley sprigs together with kitchen string, or tie in cheesecloth, and add to the pot. Add salt to taste (at least 2 teaspoons), reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 45 minutes.

While soup is simmering, blanch the remaining green vegetables. Bring a pot of water to a boil, drop in the shelled favas, and boil 1 minute. Remove from the water using a slotted spoon or skimmer, and transfer to a bowl of cold water. Drain and pop the skins off the favas. Set aside. Bring the water in the pot back to a boil, and add a teaspoon of salt and the peas and remaining green beans.

Boil until just tender but still bright green, 5 minutes. Remove from the water using a slotted spoon, then refresh with cold water and set aside. Retain the cooking water in case you want to thin out the soup later.

Stir the canned beans into the soup, then add the greens and the pasta, and simmer until the pasta is cooked al dente, 10 minutes. Stir the cooked peas, favas and green beans into the soup. Grind in some pepper and taste. Does the soup taste vivid? Does it need more salt? (Probably.) Or garlic? It should be savory and rich-tasting. Adjust seasonings as necessary. If it seems too thick, thin out with a little cooking water from the green vegetables.

Remove the Parmesan rind bundle, stir in the chopped parsley, and remove from the heat. Serve in wide soup bowls with a tablespoon of Parmesan sprinkled over the top.

Note: If making the soup ahead, make through the step when you add the peas and green beans. On the day you are serving the soup, bring back to a simmer and proceed with next steps, adding the greens and the pasta. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Garlic soup.

3 to 6 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed, or 1/2; cup chopped fresh spring garlic, plus 1 clove garlic cut in half

1-1/2; to 2 teaspoons salt

1 bay leaf

1/4; to 1/2; teaspoon dried thyme, or a few sprigs fresh, or 2 or 3 fresh sage leaves

4 thick slices country-style bread or French bread

2 eggs, beaten

2 teaspoons olive oil, optional

Freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 to 4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese

Bring 6 cups water to a boil in a 3- or 4-quart saucepan or soup pot. Add the minced or pressed garlic, salt, bay leaf and thyme or sage. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes if using regular garlic, 30 minutes if using spring garlic. Taste; adjust salt. Add more garlic, if desired.

Toast the bread. As soon as it’s done, rub both sides with the cut clove of garlic and set aside. Beat together the eggs and olive oil. Spoon a ladleful of the hot soup into the eggs, and stir together. Then turn off the heat under the soup and stir in the egg mixture. The eggs should cloud the soup, but they shouldn’t scramble if the soup isn’t boiling. Stir in the pepper and parsley. Place toasted garlic bread in the soup. Ladle in the soup, sprinkle Parmesan or Gruyere over the top, and serve. Makes 4 servings.

VARIATIONS:

Garlic soup with broccoli or beans or peas: Add ½ pound broccoli florets; green beans or sugar snap peas; or 1 cup shelled favas; or fresh or thawed frozen peas to the soup at the end of step 1 — after the garlic and seasonings are boiled. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. They should remain bright. Meanwhile, make the croutons. Proceed with rest of directions.

Garlic soup with potatoes: Add 1/2 pound waxy or moderately waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, fingerlings or white creamers, scrubbed and sliced about 1/4 inch thick, to the soup at the beginning of step 1. By the end of the 15 minutes, they should be tender. If they are not, continue to simmer until they are tender and proceed with the recipe.

Garlic soup with pasta: Add pasta such as small shells or elbow macaroni, or large pasta such as fusilli, to the soup at the end of step 1. Cook the pasta al dente, then check again for salt and proceed with the recipe.

Note: You can add green vegetables to the potato or pasta version. Add them at the end of step 1 as directed.

Provencal soupe au pistou

This big vegetable soup from Provence is much like an Italian minestrone, but the enrichment comes at the end, rather than at the beginning.

The difference between pistou and pesto is the consistency. There are no pine nuts in pistou.

PISTOU:

2 to 4 large cloves garlic

2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves

Salt

1/3; to 1/2; cup extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

1 small tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped, optional

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan, or a mixture of Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses

To make the pistou in a food processor, turn on the processor and drop in the garlic. Scrape down the sides of the work bowl, add the basil and salt to taste (1/4; to 1/2; teaspoon), and process until finely chopped.

Scrape down the sides once more, and turn on the machine. Drizzle in the oil with the machine running, then drop in the tomato, if using. Process to a paste. Taste and add more salt, if necessary. Stir in the Parmesan or Gruyere-Parmesan mixture.

To make the pistou in a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic with the salt to a paste. Add the basil, a handful at a time, and pound and grind the basil to a paste. Add the optional tomato, and work to a paste with the basil. Drop by drop, work in the olive oil. Stir in the cheese.

SOUP:

1 cup white beans, soaked 6 hours or overnight in 1 quart water, then drained

1 large onion, chopped

6 to 8 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed, divided

Bouquet garni made with a few sprigs each thyme and parsley, a Parmesan rind and a bay leaf, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with string

1/2; pound green beans or 1/4; pound green beans and 1/4; pound yellow wax beans, trimmed and broken into 1-inch pieces (about 2 cups), divided

2 zucchini (about 1/2; pound), diced, divided

1 pound fresh cranberry beans, shelled

2 large carrots, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

2 leeks, white and light-green parts only, cleaned and sliced

2 turnips, peeled and diced

1 pound boiling potatoes, diced

1 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or a 14-ounce can, with liquid

Salt

1/2; cup pasta, such as macaroni or small shells

Freshly ground pepper

1/2; cup grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese, for sprinkling

Combine drained white beans with 2 quarts water; bring to a boil. Skim off any foam, then add the onion, 2 garlic cloves and the bouquet garni. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 1 hour.

Add 2 more quarts water, remaining garlic, half the green or green and yellow beans, half the zucchini, the cranberry beans, carrots, celery, leeks, turnips, potatoes and tomatoes and their liquid to the pot, and bring to a boil. Add salt to taste (be generous), reduce the heat, cover and simmer 1 hour. Taste, and adjust the seasonings.

While the soup is simmering, blanch or steam the remaining green or green and yellow beans and zucchini until tender but bright, about 5 to 8 minutes, and set aside. Add the pasta to the soup about 10 minutes before serving, and simmer until cooked al dente. Add pepper and taste, and adjust the salt. Stir the blanched or steamed green vegetables into the soup, and heat through.

To serve, either stir the pistou into the pot, place a dollop on each bowl and stir in, or pass the pistou in a bowl and let people stir in their own. Pass additional Parmesan or Gruyere for sprinkling.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Note: If making the soup ahead, make through the point when you have simmered the vegetables for an hour. On the day you are serving, bring the soup to a simmer and proceed with preparing, then adding the remaining green beans and zucchini.

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