Monday, March 3, 2014

To say, "this is soup weather".... would be an understatement.

After a beautiful weekend, celebrating a family wedding in balmy South Carolina,  it is difficult to be back in Missouri - where the the temperature today is peaking at 10 degrees.  This weather calls for soup.  And, since we're coming off of a weekend full of rich food in the southern tradition,  a vegetable soup is just what we need.
photo courtesy of House Beautiful
I stumbled across this recipe for Soup au Pistou in House Beautiful several years ago, and it has become one of our favorites.  We've all had versions of this soup as kids, but I never enjoyed it nearly as much, until I learned about the "Pistou".  Pistou is essentially pesto, pure and simple, without nuts or cheese. The spicy bite of raw garlic, and brightness of fresh basil are a perfect compliment to the gentle taste of vegetables that have been cooking for hours in a rich stock.
photo courtesy of David Lebovitz
There are different variations of this soup, and you can play with the ingredients a bit. David Liebovitz, famous author and food blogger, knows a thing ( or 200) about french cooking, and includes a beautiful version of this soup his own blog.
photo courtesy of 101 Cookbooks
Another contribution, from the ever stellar 101 Cookbooks, by Heidi Swanson demonstrates the versatility of this soup, without losing its true essence. Heidi's recipes are some of my favorites due to the purity of her approach, and her dedication to quality and authenticity. 

I want you to have this recipe RIGHT NOW,  so I'm bringing it to you directly from the House Beautiful website, or feel free to play around a little bit, and tell me what makes your Soup au Pistou special.

Soup au Pistou- taken directly from the pages of House Beautiful

This recipe is a staple of Provençal cuisine. Purists will tell you that aged Gouda is imperative. The reason, according to one story, is that this soup was invented by Italian workers building the railway in the hills above Nice, who used the Dutch cheese because there was a lot of it in transit at the port.

Serves 4 to 6

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 small fennel bulb, quartered, cored, and chopped
2 zucchini, chopped
8 oz. new potatoes, chopped
2 tomatoes, skinned, seeded, and chopped
2 quarts vegetable or chicken stock
1 sprig of thyme
2 cups canned cannellini beans, drained
2 cups canned kidney beans, drained
6 oz. green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 oz. spaghetti, broken into pieces
1 2/3 cups finely grated cheese (aged Gouda or Parmesan)
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pistou Ingredients
6 garlic cloves
Leaves from a small bunch of basil
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan or casserole dish. Add the onion, fennel, and zucchini and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until browned. Add the potatoes, tomatoes, stock, and thyme. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer gently for 15 minutes.
2. Add the cannellini and kidney beans and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes more. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Add the green beans and the spaghetti and cook for about 10 minutes more, until the pasta is tender. Cover and let stand. Ideally, the soup should rest for at least a few hours before serving, or make one day in advance and refrigerate. (Do not make the pistou until you are ready to serve; it is best fresh, and the basil and garlic should not be cooked.)
3. To make the pistou, put the garlic, basil, and oil in a small food processor and blend until well chopped. You can also make it using a mortar and pestle, starting with the garlic and finishing with the oil, added gradually. It is more authentic, but I've never been very good at this method.
4. To serve, heat the soup and pass round the pistou and cheese, to be stirred in to taste. The soup can also be served at room temperature.

Editor's Review and Tips for Preparation:
Being obedient to Laura Washburn's instructions, I tasted my soup after I simmered the beans. Oh dear. So...ordinary. Okay, toss in some sea salt, grind the pepper. Not much help. Still just your average vegetable soup — or, to be more precise, your average Provençal version of minestrone. Stir in the pistou and the cheese. Ah, oui, oui, voilà, c'est magnifique! Astonishing how this simple condiment (a pared-down French version of pesto, but more garlicky) can lift mundane ingredients to stellar heights. I was cautious with the first bowl — a little dollop will do — but downright profligate with the second. Combined with the nutty richness of the cheese, it gave the broth a heady fragrance and a full-bodied flavor that I couldn't get enough of. Washburn's soupe au pistou is a savory, wholesome, satisfying, one-pot revelation. —Barbara King


  1. I've been making a version of this wonderful soup ever since I first read the recipe in Julia Child - Volume One. It's one of my very favorites, and her version is entirely vegetarian. But everyone loves it, so it's perfect for a mixed group or carnivores/herbivores.

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    2. you're absolutely right! i think that a lot of our recipes trace their roots to Julia Child's recipes!