Soupe au Pistou- French Country Vegetable Soup
Perhaps it 's human nature, but I have far crisper memories of cooking failures than I do of triumphs. The time¬†my omelets¬†for six all stuck to the pan, the raw roast beef, and the curdled hollandaise all come rushing to mind every time I get near a stove to try something adventurous.
- It's with a similar wave of angst and embarrassment that I remember my first¬†vegetable soup, boiled up for a group of friends in my one-room Mont- Martre flat-the one with the radiator that never got hot and the horsehair blanket with "1939" embroidered on one corner.
- In my own defense, the soup's failure was partly due to poverty, but with a little of an old-fashioned French housewife's cunning frugality I might have been able to pull it off. Had I known how to make a soupe au pistou, one of the glories of Proven√ßal cooking, my soup would surely have been a long-forgotten triumph.
- In soupe au pistou, as in other mixed-vegetable soups, the vegetables are simmered until done in water or broth and are added in stages appropriate to their cooking times. What turns a¬†vegetable soup¬†into a soupe au pistou is pistou-a paste of garlic, Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese, and basil either swirled into the soup immediately before serving orpassed at the table for guests to help themselves.
- The basil and garlic release their pungent perfumes and the cheese gives the soup a nutty richness right under the diner's nose.
- To make a successful soupe au pistou, you must first make a vegetable soup, to which you then add some noodles, at least if you're concerned about authenticity. Most of us almost reflexively use broth when making soup, but a soupe au pistou is more often than not made without it, forcing us to derive its flavor and aroma from vegetables alone.
- This is one of the soup's advantages, since most of us find¬†making broth¬†a nuisance and canned broth rarely worth bothering with. But even if you're stuck with supermarket vegetables and the soup itself ends up a little insipid, the pistou will enliven it into something heady and satisfying.
- The pistou, the Proven√ßal relative of neighboring Liguria's pesto, is a cause of much bickering, mostly about whether the pistou can be made in a blender or food processor or must be made by hand with a mortar and pestle. True, it is better if you make it in a mortar, but how many of us have mortars large enough to make the process anything other than agonizing?
- The mortars and pestles sold at cooking supply stores work fine for crushing a pinch or two of herbs, but making a cup or two of pistou would take most of a day. So I must be honest and admit that I make pistou and pesto in a blender. It takes about a minute.
- But now to the soup itself. The vegetables will vary according to the cooks you talk with, the cookbooks you read, and the time of year. Winter or summer squash are almost always available, as are fresh beans, either shell beans or string beans and sometimes both. Tomatoes are commonly but not universally used.
- They are often added to the pistou, but because they turn it a rather dull hue, I prefer to add them directly to the soup. Potatoes, zucchini, the root vegetables turnips, carrots, and celeriac, and onions or leeks are also commonly used.
- Some recipes call for sweating the root vegetables in olive oil before adding liquid, but usually the vegetables are combined all at once in a pot with water and simmered until done.
- More careful recipes¬†use a bit more common sense and call for adding the vegetables in stages according to their cooking times. My own versions are almost entirely seasonal and depend more on what I stumble into at the farmers' market or supermarket than on any preconceived idea.
- My summer soupe au pistou invariably contains zucchini or summer squash, tomatoes, fresh cranberry or lima beans (if I can find them), and string beans. Winter versions contain winter squash (common in many traditional versions), potatoes, and turnips.
- Every version, regardless of season, contains leeks or onions and carrots. In traditional recipes, thick vermicelli noodles, called m√©janels, are simmered in the soup just long enough to cook through.
- Most modern recipes call for vermicelli, but I use little macaroni instead I make soupe au pistou for a crowd because it's hard to make a small batch, since there's such a large variety of vegetables.
- Combined with bread, sprinkled with olive oil and cheese, and baked, leftover soupe au pistou becomes a gratin or panade.
- Served at room temperature, it's similar to the Tuscan ribollita. I often serve soupe au pistou as a main course, especially in the summer, but it also makes a good first course.
- The pistou can be made earlier in the day or while the¬†soup is cooking.