Last year I posted a recipe for my go-to Italian soup of choice: Minestrone. I love that stuff. It’s what I make every time I need to reset and get my body back to functioning like a normal, healthy human. It’s filling, flavorful and chock full of so many good things. But after a while my minestrone started to feel tired and played out, so I started searching for a new alternative. Coincidentally, this was right around the time we visited Italy last fall and became acquainted with a Tuscan soup called ribollita.
Ribollita literally translates to “reboiled” in Italian, because like many soups, it tastes better the next day. It’s a hearty, peasant style soup that has as many variations as there are little picturesque towns in Tuscany. While it can contain a variety of different ingredients, ribollita is mainly characterized as being a thick potage with a base of beans, greens and bread. The rest is up to interpretation by the cook, and more often than not, is determined by whatever happens to be lying around that day. For me, that was a slab of pancetta and a bag of dried cranberry beans, or fagioli borlotti as they’re called in Italy.
If you’ve never had cranberry beans, they’re a bit like pinto beans only slightly larger and with thicker skins. I often find them available fresh at our local produce market. They have bright pinkish red speckled pods and are usually too pretty for me to pass up, but boy are they a pain to shuck. Cooked from their fresh state, they’re creamy and delicious, but I never have the time to make more than a measly amount for the two of us. A few months ago I found a bag of dried cranberry beans, which happen to be just as pretty in their dried state as they are fresh. But they just sat in my pantry for a while until I decided to soak them and cook them up into something warm and comforting. And that’s exactly what this is.
Of course, you don’t have to use cranberry beans if you can’t find them. You can use just about any bean you fancy. That’s what makes recipes like this one so much fun – theres tons of wiggle room. Tradition would prefer you use cannellini beans or another white bean, but really any bean will work just fine. My recipe calls for dried beans, but you can substitute canned in a pinch. Just be sure to drain and rinse them of their liquid, then cut the chicken stock in half.
So what makes this different from minestrone, you might be wondering? There’s a lot of overlap between the two, and it really all depends on the cook’s interpretation. I can only speak for my specific recipes, so here goes. My minestrone uses American bacon (GASP! I know), lots of tomatoes, cannellini beans and a slew of different vegetables including zucchini, swiss chard and green beans. It also uses water as the main liquid because there are so many other flavors going on, I find stock just muddies it up.
My ribollita on the other hand is a bit simpler. It uses just a little bit of tomato, traditional Italian pancetta (optional, of course), chicken stock as the liquid, lots of cranberry beans and black Tuscan kale. I don’t use bread to thicken it as many recipes do – I think the beans do a fine enough job at that. Instead, I toast the bread, rub it all over with raw garlic and drizzle it liberally with olive oil. Perfect for dipping and soaking up all that robust flavor.
I served this soup to my dad the last time he came over and he seemed to like it very much. Which isn’t saying a whole lot – my dad loves all things soup and especially if there’s beans involved. This past weekend was his 60th birthday, and I think he’d actually prefer us to put candles in a big pot of bean soup than in a cake, which would probably be a big ol’ mess at best. This post is dedicated to you, Dad. Happy birthday!
I, for the record, do not share the same desire as my father. Please don’t ever stop bringing me cake on my birthday or for any other occasion, for that matter. Unless it’s a pie. There’s always room for pie.
One Year Ago: Irish Potato Candies
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 4 ounces (1/4 lb) pancetta, diced (optional)
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 1 cup finely diced celery
- 1 cup finely diced carrots
- salt and pepper to taste
- 3 garlic cloves, minced, plus 1 whole clove
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red chile flakes (optional)
- 1 cup whole peeled tomatoes with juice (canned)
- 2 quarts chicken stock, homemade if possible (substitute vegetable stock for a vegetarian version)
- 1 lb dried cranberry (borlotti) beans, cannelini beans or other white beans, soaked overnight*
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 1 parmesan cheese rind (optional)
- 1 large bunch Tuscan kale, ribs removed and roughly copped
- 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
- Slices of crusty Italian bread, for serving
- grated pecorino Romano cheese, for serving
- Pour the olive oil in a large heavy bottomed pot and set it over medium heat. Add the pancetta and saute until it starts to give up its fat, about 6 minutes. Add the onions, celery and carrots with a generous pinch of salt and cook, while stirring, until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the minced garlic and crushed red chile flakes and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and chicken stock, then use the back of a wooden spoon to break up the tomatoes a bit. Drain the beans and add to the pot along with the bay leaf and rosemary sprig. Bring up to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans have softened, about 2 hours, supplementing with water if it starts to become too thick. Taste, then adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Add in the chopped kale, stir, then simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the kale is cooked through. Stir in the parsley and set aside.
- Toast the sliced bread in the oven or toaster until golden brown, then immediately rub on all sides with the remaining whole garlic clove and drizzle generously with olive oil.
- Ladle the soup into bowls, drizzle with olive oil and top with grated pecorino Romano. Serve with garlic toasts for dipping.
- *Substitute 4 15-ounce cans of beans for dried if desired. If using canned, be sure to drain and rinse them of their liquid, and reduce the chicken stock by half.
- This soup is even better the next day, but the beans will continue to absorb liquid as it sits. Add water when reheating and adjust the seasoning to keep it at a soupy consistency.