I love many things about Provence, but my favorite is (surprise, surprise) the food. Many writers have made their fortunes describing the sun-drenched region and its bounty, so I’ll skip the lavish praise. (For the record, however, my current favorite Provencal cookbook is Patricia Wells: At Home in Provence.) But during a recent few days there, I became inspired by the local produce and a traditional dish of the region, soupe au pistou.
What is it? Really just an ordinary vegetable soup, made with summery ingredients like young garlic, zucchini, tomatoes, and beans. At the last minute, you swirl in a fragrant scoop of pistou, a pesto-like compound of basil, garlic and olive oil, and add a sprinkle of grated Gruyère.
My favorite part about the soup is the fresh beans: both white and speckled red, which I think are cranberry (see photo above). Now, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had so much of a, er, country lifestyle… and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I didn’t know beans came in pods… well, let’s just say I had never encountered the idea of shelling beans before I met these lovely creatures. By the way, they are known as coco blanc (white beans) and coco rouge (cranberry beans) in French.
Preparing the soup is quite time consuming. But it is so fragrant and delicious, not to mention healthy and full of vegetables, that I think it’s time well spent. I imagine it would freeze well, too, but it’s never hung around my kitchen long enough for me to find out.
Soupe au Pistou
For the beans:
1 lb fresh cocos blancs, shelled (or 1/2 lb dried, sorted and soaked)
1 lb fresh cocos rouges, shelled (or 1/2 lb dried, sorted and soaked)
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 garlic clove, smashed and peeled
For the soup:
2 leeks, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 onions, thinly sliced
2-3 small-ish potatoes, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1/4 lb green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
2-3 tomatoes, chopped
2 zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced
Prepare the beans. Heat 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan and add the garlic and thyme. Stir until soft and fragrant, add the beans, stir to coat with the oil. Add water to cover by 2-3 inches, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer until par-cooked, 10-15 minutes for fresh beans, 30 minutes (or longer) for dried beans. Add more water if necessary. In a large stockpot, heat 1/3 cup olive oil over medium heat. Add the leeks, garlic, onions, potatoes and carrots and saute, stirring occasionally, until soft, golden and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining vegetables, the beans and their cooking liquid, an additional 4 cups cold water, and salt. Simmer uncovered for 1 hour, or longer, until beans are soft, adding more water, if necessary. Serve with a dollop of pistou (recipe follows) and freshly grated Gruyère cheese.
1 large bunch basil (about 2 cups), washed and dried (very important)
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup olive oil
In a food-processor (I recommend the mini-prep) blend the basil and garlic, then add the olive slowly until a paste is formed (you may not need all the olive oil). Add salt to taste.