It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of soup. (Well, if it was, it’s not anymore.) I just feel odd ordering it in a restaurant, since I’m paying for a bowl of glorified liquid. And I rarely eat it at home, since when I want to eat, I want something more substantial as a meal. And if I eat it as a first course, then it takes up valuable real estate in my stomach for something more interesting.
(Confused? Imagine how I feel.)
However since moving to France, I’ve seen the value of soup—on occasion. Such as in the dead of winter when it’s so cold that only a bowl of very hot liquid will stoke my fire. Yet in the summer, the idea of hot soup isn’t exactly appealing. But I’ve been trying to eat more vegetables lately, and less meat, and the Soupe au Pistou, vegetable soup from Provence, somehow seems okay.
I don’t vary too much from the classic, which uses only water, not stock, and can have whatever vegetables you want in it. I had these little teensy rice beans from Rancho Gordo that I thought would be nice in this summertime soup. And although the bible that gets the last word on Provençal cuisine, Cuisine Niçoise, says you can use rice instead of noodles, I used whole wheat vermicelli.
Versions of Soupe au pistou abound elsewhere with everything, including turnips, potatoes, pumpkin, Swiss chard leaves, and herbs, tossed in the pot. I didn’t use any tomatoes since I didn’t want to, but you can add 3/4 pound (300g) of fresh diced tomatoes, or the contents of a similar sized can of chopped tomatoes. And if you do use tomatoes, it’s traditional to pound a small one into the pistou.
I do love homemade pesto, but it’s difficult to come across those enormous leafy bunches of fresh basil at my market in Paris, even in the height of summer, and usually a few spindly branches go for €2*, so it’s a pricey proposition to make pesto. I think the folks in Provence are hoarding all the giant bouquets of fresh basil and if anyone out there has any connections, please tell them to release the leaves and send more northward.
Also my apartment reached 103ºF (40ºC) during the last wave of summertime heat, and I wasn’t exactly anxious to stand over a mortar and pestle and get a workout. So I swirled some of the jarred stuff into the soup, and it wasn’t bad. Then the July temperature suddenly plummeted (as they say, “If you don’t like the weather in Paris, wait fifteen minutes…”) and a few days later, thunderclouds rolled up and temperatures plunged, making us all scramble in the back of our closets for jackets and scarves. So I worked up the energy to lug my mortar and pestle up to my kitchen counter.
True Provençal folks will stir the pistou—which is similar to pesto, but lighter, made without nuts—into the soup until it’s completely dispersed. But I like to add a dollop to the middle and gently let it spread so I can still taste the pistou, which makes a nice contrast to the vegetables and broth. And I have to tell you, I like a lot of pistou in my soup, and can’t resist adding more as I spoon it up. So if you invite me over for soupe, which is a colloquial French term for ‘dinner’ (which the word ‘supper’ probably derived from), be sure to have a lot on hand. I mean it.
This recipe was inspired by Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, by Joan Nathan, which I just received a preview copy of. I’d never given much thought to Jewish cooking in France, aside from the copious fallafels on the rue de Rosiers. But this isn’t just a rote compilation of recipes, but includes historical and personal stories behind behind everything from French Pain d’azyme (matzoh) to Foie Haché (chopped liver), and another soup that uses those outer leaves of lettuce that are too tough to eat. I love that idea because I hate throwing anything away.
In the end, I did happen across a nice bunch of fresh basil at the market last week (see? good things happen, if you just ask nicely…), which people were snapping up as fast as the vendor could wrap them in brown paper and hand them over. And I ended up making a batch of homemade pistou, which really is worth the effort. In fact, this weekend I’m heading back to the Sunday market early (well, not too early…) in hopes of getting more, since I’ve got a big pot of soup on hand.
Soupe au Pistou
Makes about 5 quarts (5l)
Inspired by Quiches, Kugels, and Cousous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (Knopf) by Joan Nathan
Try to have all the vegetables diced and sliced about the same size, which makes for a nice presentation. Of course, you can vary the vegetables according to what’s available. Feel free to add any other herbs when sautéing the vegetables. If you wish to use canned beans, use 2 cups (300g, drained) or for a real treat, use the same quantity of fresh cooked shelling beans.
Some people will cook the beans in one large pot with 3 quarts (3l) of water, as Ms. Nathan does, then just adds the vegetables once the beans are tender. I like to cook or “sweat” vegetables, which encourages flavor out of them. But it does add a step (and another pot to wash), so you can follow her example if you wish.
For the soup
- 1 cup (200g) dried beans
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 medium onions, peeled and diced, or 4 leeks, cleaned and sliced
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
- 2 medium carrots (6 ounces, 170g) carrots, peeled and diced
- 2 medium zucchini (1 pound, 450g) diced
- 1/2 pound (260g) green beans, tips removed and cut crosswise into quarters
- 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced or thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon sea salt, and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 1 cup (250g) fresh or frozen peas
- 1 cup (100g) dried pasta; any small variety will do, such as orzo, vermicelli, elbows, or shells
For the pistou
(Makes 1 cup; can be increased proportionally)
1 large clove of garlic, peeled
pinch of salt
2 cups (40g) packed fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil
1 small tomato; peeled, seeded, and diced
1 1/2 ounces (45g) Parmesan cheese, grated
1. Rinse and sort the beans. Soak the beans overnight covered in cold water.
2. 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.
3. In a Dutch oven or large stockpot, heat the olive oil.
4. Add the onions or leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent.
5. Add the thyme, diced carrots, zucchini, green beans, garlic, and salt. Season with pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are completely cooked. Add the cooked beans and their liquid, then the peas and pasta, plus 2 quarts (2l) water. Bring the soup to a boil, and simmer a few minutes until the pasta is cooked.
6. While the soup is cooking, make the pistou.
7. Pound the garlic to a paste in a mortar and pestle (or use a food processor) with a generous pinch of salt.
8. Coarsely chop the basil leaves and pound them into the garlic until the mixture is relatively smooth.
9. Drizzle in the olive oil slowly, while pounding, then pound in the tomato and cheese. Taste, and season with more salt if desired.
To serve: Ladle hot soup into bowls and add a generous spoonful of pistou to the center and swirl gently. Keep extra pistou within reach because you’ll likely want to add more to the soup as you go.
Note: If the soup is too thick, thin it with additional water.
Soupe au Pistou (101Cookbooks)
Soup au Pistou (Tea & Cookies)
Soupe au Pistou (Culinate)
Red Pistou Pasta (Serious Eats)
*I should probably note that I don’t mind paying higher prices for things that warrant it: free-range eggs, artisan cheeses, and heirloom dried beans, for example, are always worth the higher cost. But most of the vendors at the market are merely middlemen who buy produce at a larger industrial market, and resell it. So I don’t feel as much compunction to pay the same prices that I would for something grown by a small farm or produced in a way that was sustainable or labor-intensive, which to me, justifies a higher price.
I was interviewed by the cool kids at RedVisitor about some of my favorite places in Paris. There’s a great wine bar, which features natural wines, as well as a great steak-frites restaurant owned by a former butcher that I’m due for a return trip back to. I also managed to get in a few tips and quips about life in Paris, too. -dl