I realise that writing about soup in the dead-heat of summer might be a controversial choice. Very few of us think about craddling a big, hot bowl of anything when the cicadas are screaching outside and we’re still daydreaming about popsciles and swimming pools and cool, tile floors. But there is one soup that deserves our attention right now and not a moment later – and that, dear friends, is soupe au pistou.
Pistou soup is really a blank canvas for whatever is seasonably available. In the summer months, when market produce is abundant, you can more or less throw in whatever looks most attractive to you – zucchini, beans, chard, fresh peas. This is a handy back-pocket dish for people like me, who often browse the market without a list and end up adopting too many vegetables (because they all looked good and they all needed a home). Like ripe tomato salads and fragrant berry pies, this soup is an honest expression of summer, whose crowning glory (the pistou) is made with what might arguably one of the best endowments of June, July and August – sweet basil.
As you’ll see in the recipe below, French pistou is nearly identical to Italian pesto, the only difference being that the French variation doesn’t contain pine nuts. You can think of them as fraternal twins – both use generous amounts of fresh, leafy basil and parmesan cheese, pounded into a fragrant paste with a little olive oil and salt; both are delicious tossed into pasta, slathered onto fish, or swirled into vegetable soups like this one, which, I think, is one of the best ways to tip your hat to summer.
Go forth and harness the bounty.
Pistou Soup – lightly adapted from David Lebovitz
Makes about 5 quarts of soup
Note: In a perfect world, you’re making this soup with dried beans that have been soaked overnight and cooked. But if you haven’t done this step, just use canned and don’t mention it to the purists.
- 1 cup (200g) dried canelli beans (or canned)
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 medium onions, peeled and diced (or: 3 leeks, cleaned and sliced)
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
- 2 medium carrots carrots, peeled and diced
- 1 medium zucchini, diced
- 1/4 pound green beans, tips removed and cut crosswise into quarters
- 2 leaves swiss chard, chopped (optional*)
- a few leaves of raddichio, chopped (optional*)
- a couple of green cabbage leaves, chopped (optional*)
- 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 tablespoon sea salt, and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 1 cup fresh, shelled fava beans (or: fresh or frozen peas)
- 1 cup dried pasta (any small variety will do, such as orzo, tubetti, or shells)
*optional because I tossed these only because I had them on hand.
For the pistou – makes 1 cup
- 1 large clove of garlic, peeled
- pinch of salt
- 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 1/2 ounces parmesan, grated
If using dried beans:
- Rinse and sort the beans. Soak the beans overnight covered in cold water.
- The next day, drain the beans and put them in a large saucepan with the bay leaves and enough water to cover the beans with about 1 1/2 quarts (1.5l) of water. Cook the beans for about an hour, or until tender, adding more water if necessary to keep them immersed. Once cooked, remove the beans from the heat and set aside.
1) In a Dutch oven or large stockpot, heat the olive oil. Add the onions (or leeks) and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent.
2) Add the thyme, diced carrots, zucchini, green beans, cabbage (if using) garlic, and salt. Season with pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are cooked and fragrant (about 10 minutes). Add the cooked beans and their cooking liquid and bay leaves, then the peas and pasta, plus 2 quarts (2l) water. (if using canned beans, you’ll need to add about a 1/2 litre of water to make up for the cooking liquid). Bring the soup to a boil, and simmer a few minutes until the pasta is cooked. (if using the swiss chard and raddichio, you can toss them in a couple of minutes before the pasta is cooked.)
Note: If the soup is too thick, you can thin it with additional water, but make sure to adjust the seasoning too.
3) While the soup is cooking, make the pistou: pound the garlic to a paste in a mortar and pestle (or use a food processor) with a generous pinch of salt. Coarsely chop the basil leaves and pound them into the garlic until the mixture is relatively smooth. Drizzle in the olive oil slowly, while pounding, then pound in the cheese. Taste, and season with more salt if desired.
To serve: Remove the bay leaves. Ladle hot soup into bowls and add a generous spoonful of pistou to the centre. Serve with extra pistou on the side.