The Big Guy has been worrying about our plants. More specifically, he has been fretting over a rather leggy basil plant, that really was on its last legs. After the third day of him agonising, I decided that we should use up the whole plant. Whilst mulling over winter uses of basil, I kept coming back to the thought of soupe au pistou; the Provençal summer soup.
Try as I might, I kept returning to the pistou, which is like pesto, but without the pine nuts. In fact, I couldn’t really think of anything else, so I gave in. Instead of courgettes and peas, it had to be about what I had knocking about. Between the fridge and the garden, I knew that I could come up with the goods.
Despite the name, the original recipe is more like a summer vegetable stew; thick with beans, squash, tomatoes and alliums, as well as vermicelli. I could easily substitute most of these for suitable winter vegetables, so I went on a domestic forage. As well as the basil, I grew thyme, garlic, carrots and cavalo nero (amongst other things), so these were definitely going in. The fridge yielded half a butternut squash, some aging tomatoes and a leek. If I didn’t have fresh tomatoes, I would have substituted these for half a tin of chopped tomatoes. That’s the brilliant thing about store cupboard soups – you use what you have.
I was also excited to experiment with cooking dried beans in my new pressure cooker. I’m dying to test the assertion that you can cook dried beans without a pre-soak, which will be amazing for someone who can forget to do the little things, like me. However, when I went to look, the cupboard was bare of dried beans, apart from some kidney beans I have, which wouldn’t have tasted right in this soup. I am still reluctant to forego the pre-soak for these beans, due to the toxins they contain. With a sigh, I added dried beans to my shopping list and went for tinned instead. I generally prefer dried beans for taste and texture, but I always have a tin or two on stand-by, because I am also a realist about my lack of foresight. Since this was a root-around, use-up, make-d0 type of soup, I wasn’t going to go shopping for beans, so I made use of what I had.
The classic soupe au pistou always contains starch. I used vermicelli, because I had some. Other pasta shapes (especially the small ones, such as ditolini, risoni, or stellini) are fine – or you could break up spaghetti into small bits and use those. You could add rice to this soup, in case you don’t have any pasta, or you can’t eat wheat. If you use rice you’ll need to add it much earlier than I suggest adding the pasta, or use pre-cooked rice.
This soup may be a winter version of a summer classic, but the intense smell as you mash the pistou is like a shot of glorious summer in a winter kitchen.
Since this is a winter warmer, and definitely comforting, I’m entering it into this month’s Cheese Please, over at Fromage Homage. There are some really great recipes there this month, so do come over and have a look.
Recipe: Soupe au Pistou du Placard
For the Pistou:
1 fat garlic clove
A good pinch of salt
30 g basil leaves
About 60 ml extra virgin olive oil
About 40 g parmesan cheese, finely grated (or mature vegetarian cheddar, since parmesan is not vegetarian)
1 tomato, peeled and de-seeded (optional)
For the soup:
1 leek, washed and sliced
2 carrots, diced
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, or ½ tsp dried thyme
1.5 l vegetable stock
400 g butternut squash, or pumpkin, diced
100 g cavalo nero
400 g can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 medium tomatoes, diced; or half a tin of chopped tomatoes
100 g vermicelli noodles, rice or any other small pasta shape
Make the pistou. I like to use a pestle and mortar, but you can also use a small food processor. If you are using the food processor, either mince the garlic first with a chef’s knife and the salt, or grate it on a microplaner before adding it to the processor.
Whichever method you are using to make the pistou, add and blend the ingredients in this order: garlic and salt, basil, some of the oil and cheese. Be sparing with the both the oil and the cheese. You must taste as you add these, because all basil will vary. You want fairly thick pesto, but it still needs to be flavoursome. Once the pistou is to your liking, stop adding things.
Make a concasse of the tomato and stir it through the pistou. Traditionally soupe au pistou has tomato flesh gently crushed into the pistou with a pestle and mortar, which you can also do if you prefer. If you are using tinned tomatoes, omit the tomato from the pistou, or you risk diluting it too much.
Prepare all of the vegetables for the soup. I decided to cook the cavalo nero stalks separate to the leafy greens. So, I stripped the greens from the stalks, and sliced both. Slice the stalks into 1cm chunks, like the rest of the vegetables. Slice the greens thinly, and keep them separate.
Sweat the leek, carrot and the bay leaf in the olive oil in a deep pan, until the leek turns a vibrant green. Add the garlic and thyme and sweat off for another minute or so.
Add the stock, and simmer for a few minutes, or none at all, if you prefer your carrots crunchy. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as necessary.
Add the pumpkin and cook until you can just pierce it with the point of your knife. The time required will depend on the size of your dice. It took me about 5 minutes, based on 1cm dice.
Chuck in the beans, chopped tomatoes, and cavalo nero stalks, and allow them to simmer for five minutes, before adding the vermicelli and the greens.
Allow the soupe to cook until the pasta is al dente. Check for seasoning, and serve in deep bowls, topped with a large dollop of the pistou.