One August in Provence, I went to a midnight village Fête. The town was perched high on a hillside and most of the streets were narrow, steep, and curving. The only flat place was a tiny square in front of a church, and it was here that the long tables for the Fête were set. From a tiny restaurant off the square, huge bowls of summer vegetable soup were brought steaming hot to the tables, along with smaller bowls of fragrant pistou— a sauce of garlic, basil, and olive oil. The grated cheese was already on the tables, along with baguettes from the local boulangerie and bottles of the local rosé and red wine. Under the cover of spreading Mulberry trees strung with colored lights, we sat out talking and eating, while the cicadas sang in the background. Soupe au Pistou is ideal to serve to a large crowd, as the soup is easy to make in good-sized quantities and can be prepared a day ahead. Because the dish uses fresh shell beans, available only during the summer, it brings to the table the cachet of a special moment captured in time. Do not be tempted to make the pistou ahead of time, however. Freshly made, it has an intense, sharp flavor that enhances all the other ingredients in the soup. Left to stand, it can become dull and even bitter and, if stirred directly into a soup that will be reheated later, will give the soup an entirely different flavor.
For the soup:
4 pounds very ripe tomatoes (about 12 medium-sized)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 yellow onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic chopped
8 medium-sized boiling or new potatoes;
such as Yukon Cold or White or Red Rose
(about 3 pounds), peeled, if desired,
and cut into 1-inch dice
1/2 pound Blue Lake or other
slender green snap beans; trimmed
and cut into 1-inch lengths
2 cups fresh shell beans;
such as fava, cranberry, flageolet,
or lima (about 1 pound)
3 quarts Basic Vegetable Broth (see the book),
or other vegetable broth
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon minced fresh marjoram
1 piece Parmesan or other hard cheese rind,
2 to 4 inches square, chopped (optional)
1 cup finely broken spaghetti or other thin pasta
For the pistou:
10 garlic cloves
4 cups fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, if needed
To make the soup, chop the tomatoes, reserving the seeds and juices. Set aside. In a soup pot large enough to hold all the ingredients eventually, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and the garlic and sauté until translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the potatoes, snap beans, and shell beans, and cook over medium heat, stirring almost constantly with a wooden spoon, until well-coated and slightly softened, 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and their juices and seeds. Add the broth, salt, pepper, thyme, marjoram, and the cheese rind if using. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes and beans are soft, about 40 minutes. Add the pasta and cook until it is tender 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the pistou. Place the garlic cloves in a large bowl and mash them with the back of a wooden spoon or with a pestle. Add the basil leaves, 1 cup at a time, mashing them into the garlic paste. When all the basil has been incorporated, add the olive oil, a drizzle at a time, incorporating it into the paste along with the salt. If you have not added the cheese rind to the soup, mix the grated Parmesan into the pistou.
To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and stir about 1 tablespoon pistou into each bowl. Serve the remaining pistou in a bowl alongside.
The Vegetarian Table: France
By Georgeanne Brennan
Chronicle Books, 1995
Color photographs throughout
Recipe reprinted by permission.
This page created September 2000
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