In March of 1998, DPaul and I traveled to Italy for the first time, embarking on the typical American’s Grand Tour of the country through Rome, Siena, Florence and Venice. En route from Rome to Siena, my family ran us through a few of the charming hill towns that pepper the Tuscan countryside: Pienza, Montepulciano and San Quirico d’Orcia. Spring was just awakening, and I remember so clearly driving through fields of almost blindingly bright green grass. I was smitten.
When we returned the next year, it was in October, an entirely different experience. We spent a week in Umbria, basing ourselves in Assisi and taking day trips to surrounding towns. Through the chill autumn air thick with the smoke of burning grapevines, we crossed back over into Tuscany one day to visit Cortona, the quintessential hill town made famous by Frances Mayes in Under the Tuscan Sun. Ignoring the slavish American tourists clutching their copies of the book alternately as their guidebook and bible, we ascended the narrow streets of the town to go see the mummified body of Santa Margherita. As we huffed past a doe-eyed girl clutching a puppy who looked up at us and said ciao, we asked a local gentleman how to find the church. His response was, “sù, sempre sù.” Up. Keep going up. And so up we went, finally reaching the pinnacle of town so we could breathlessly admire Santa Margherita in her wizened glory.
Thanks to Ms. Mayes, Tuscany became the penultimate romantic destination for Americans well into this decade, and marketers latched on to this phenomenon. Suddenly, “Tuscan” was appended to anything Italian (or Italian-American) to make it appear more refined and highfalutin, and to raise the profit margin by a few percentage points.
In point of fact, most Tuscan food is far from fancy; it’s downright rustic. Grilled meats, brothy soups and, famously, beans feature prominently. Case in point is the deliciously simple ribollita. While this is now a staple in restaurants in Tuscany and beyond, its roots are clearly in the home — or the farmhouse.
Classic ribollita is actually not one dish, but three. It starts out as a minestra, a simple vegetable soup with greens and white beans (which, incidentally, is very easy to make in the pressure cooker). The next day, leftovers of of the minestra are extended with pieces of stale bread to make minestra di pane. On the third day, the soup is reheated (ribollita means “reboiled”). As is typical with most soups, the flavors meld and improve with time. No matter which phase of its life you are consuming, be sure to serve it with a drizzle of very good, fresh, fruity olive oil.
But ribollita’s life needn’t end there. Around the time we first sojourned to Italy, a new restaurant called Delfina opened around the corner from our (now former) apartment. Chef Craig Stoll’s debut menu offered a new twist: Pan-fried ribollita. I can’t claim to have exactly reproduced Chef Stoll’s creation, but my approximation is adequate.
Cavolo nero (“black cabbage”) is a form of kale with deeply wrinkled, almost bluish dark-green leaves. It has a mild, mustardy aroma and pleasantly sturdy texture, and is the core ingredient of the dish. If you absolutely cannot find it, you can substitute with other kale or bump up the amount of chard.
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 onion, diced
several cloves garlic, minced
2 small zucchini, diced
good handful of fresh sage, chopped
several large stalks of cavolo nero, chopped
several stalks of chard, chopped
6-8 oz cooked cannellini beans
2 Tbsp tomato puree
salt and pepper
pinch of red pepper flake
Sauté the onions in the cooing pot of the pressure cooker until translucent. Add the garlic and sage and cook a minute or two longer. Add the remaining vegetables, tomato puree, pepper, red pepper flake, several good pinches salt and about 6 cups water or stock. Pop on the top and cook on high pressure for 3 minutes. Quick-release the pressure. Add beans. Season to taste; I found a little vinegar helped wake it up.
Minestra di pane
The next day, extend the soup by adding cubes of stale bread. Soak until the bread has absorbed liquid and softened.
I used a ciabatta from Acme. This is one ingredient we cannot adequately reproduce here; true Tuscan bread is dense and made without salt. This makes it extremely unpalatable on its own, but is ideal alongside highly seasoned cured meats, and as a thickener for minestra di pane.
Add 1-2 Tbsp olive oil to a 6″ nonstick pan, and put over medium-high heat. Scoop 2 c. of the ribollita with a slotted spoon into the hot oil. Boil the ribollita down until the liquid is fully evaporated; add more bread if desired, or just wait until the liquid has boiled out. Swirl the ribollita in the pan frequently to avoid sticking. When the liquid has all boiled out, the ribollita should be less loose and move as one mass. Flip the fried ribollita in the pan to fry the other side; if you are not comfortable flipping, place an upside-down dish over the pan, then grab both with hot pad-covered hands and flip them together, then place the pan back over the flame and transfer the flipped ribollita with the crust side up back into the pan.
I never achieved the full crustiness of Chef Stoll’s dish, but I think that’s because I grew impatient over the wafting aroma of the fried soup. Patience pays off, but even half-fried ribollita is better than no ribollita at all.
Erin gets a craving for hearty ribollita as the weather turns cold in New York.
You say ribollita, Cookiecrumb says whatev.
And Ilva lives in (and gorgeously photographs) Tuscany, so I’ll be very curious how she reacts to this post. 😉