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Italian Bread Soup (Ribollita): Recipe and Tuscan Memories

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Ribollita is a rustic soup of beans, vegetables, and bread

Ribollita is a rustic soup of beans, vegetables, and bread

"A special position and meaning had been given to the three so-called feasts of the Lord, that is Christmas, Easter, and Whitsunday."

—Feast and Daily Life in the Middle Ages, Lecture at Novosibirsk State Univ, Christian Rohr, 22 October 2002

The Humble Beginnings of Ribollita

According to legend, the hearts of nobility softened at the time of the holy feasts. After gorging on roasted meats, served on flatbreads, the elite would benevolently bestow the leftover bread to their servants.

Those scraps of bread, soaked with meat juices would be added to a kettle of vegetables and boiled to create a (somewhat more) flavorful and filling pottage. Food historians believe this humble pot of leftover vegetables and scraps of bread was the genesis of what we know today as ribollita. In Italian, ribollita means "reboiled."

No Ordinary Bowl of Soup

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. Yet the result was anything but ordinary or simple.

We were in Siena.

Siena, Tuscany, Italy.

We stepped off the bus at Siena in midafternoon . . . and stepped into another world.

This is a map of Italy; the red portion is Tuscany

This is a map of Italy; the red portion is Tuscany

Our Introduction to Siena

In 2006, our family of four traveled to Europe. 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.

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 in 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 that shelters Siena.

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo

Sepia-toned 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.

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Il Campo is also famous for the Palio—a horse race that 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 that surround the event create a memory that will last a lifetime.

The Duomo, Siena, Italy

The Duomo, Siena, Italy

Visiting the Duomo

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.

An example of the beautiful mosaic floor in the Siena Duomo

An example of the beautiful mosaic floor in the Siena Duomo

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.

After all the excitement of sightseeing, we were ready for dinner and whipped out our guidebook. 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. With Rick's guidance, we found Nello la Taverna.

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, but I was so wrong. The flavors and textures were amazing. When I returned home I was committed to replicating this wonderful dish. Here's what I did.

Cook Time

Prep timeCook timeReady inYields

1 hour 15 min

3 hours 15 min

4 hours 30 min

6 to 8 servings

Diced onions, carrots, and celery

Diced onions, carrots, and celery

Ingredients

  • 10 ounces 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 ounces Tuscan kale, the tough rib removed, and leaves chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
  • 8 slices dry artisanal Italian bread, diced (see note below)
  • Pinch red pepper flakes
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Note: If your bread is not dry you can slice it and bake it in the oven at low heat to dry it quickly.

Instructions

  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 actual time the beans need to simmer and will help retain nutrients.
  3. In the same stockpot, 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 stockpot and return it to the stove. Heat to medium.
  6. Add the garlic, thyme, and remaining 2 tsp. olive oil to the stockpot; 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. Add 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 drizzle of olive oil.

Sources

© 2014 Linda Lum

Comments

peachy from Home Sweet Home on February 17, 2014:

interesting bread soup article.

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