Thursday, April 23, 2009

Soup au Pistou / Minestra con Insaporitore

With April's fickle weather, one minute brilliantly bright and warm, the next cold and rainy, I couldn't resist this hearty soup that combines some of the last of the winter's standbys with a basil tomato paste mixture that lifts ones spirits in the belief that summer is just around the corner. I found a few Brussel sprouts in the market not long ago and already had some fresh basil in my basket when I remembered this flavorful soup. The origins of this recipe hails from our cousins over the border in France in the Provence area. There are as many variations on this predominately vegetable soup as there are cooks, with the highlight of the soup the last minute addition of a tomato based basil bread crumb topping that elevated this everyday soup to sublime. I rounded up the usual suspects, carrot, celery, onion and a few other familiar veggies, along with a small chunk of pancetta, rounded out with cannellini beans and barley and I was on my way to a yummy soup to accompany my crusty bread. It takes a little extra effort to assemble all the different elements of this soup, but worth the effort. A can of beans makes the soup come together a bit quicker without sacrificing the flavor, although I made a batch of beans and had enough leftover for another meal. In a pinch, I have used some of my home made pesto that I keep in the freezer for just such an occasion. It made an easy replacement for the fresh basil when fresh basil is still a far off dream in the winter. You just need to adjustment the mixture to make it more of a crumble topping and not too oily.
I think you'll find this a welcome addition to your repertoire of soups and not too late to make before it's all about asparagus and spring peas.

Soup Ingredients

100 g pancetta, bacon or prosciutto crudo, diced
1 onion, large, diced
2 leeks, small to medium, white part only, quartered and sliced
3 ribs of celery, diced
1/4 pound mushrooms, quartered
2 garlic cloves
8 Brussel sprouts, halved, or quartered, depending on their size

30 g tomato paste (1 oz)
200 g diced tomatoes (6 oz)
200 g crushed tomatoes (6 oz)
or 1/2 kg ( about 1 lb) fresh tomaotes
900 ml chicken stock /vegetable stock will work as well (1 gallon)
Heat the stock before adding at the end.

100 g barley, (1/2 c) dry measure, cooked separately
100 g cannellini beans, (1/2 c )dry measure, cooked separately
Salt and pepper to taste


Ingredients for the Pistou

2-4 garlic cloves, minced (2 tsp)
large handful fresh basil leaves, torn or chopped fine (5 T )
45 g tomato paste (3 T)
90 g Parmesan, grated (1/2 c)
5 g olive oil (1 1/2 tsp) more or less
a few bread crumbs to bring to a crumbly consistency
Fresh bread crumbs work best, but finely ground dry, will work as well

Method for the soup

Cover the barley and beans in separate pots as they will cook ad different times and cover with water and cook till soft. The barley should take around 20 minutes, the bean If using dry beans, they will need to have been soaked before cooking or soaked for an hour in hot water before draining and cooking in a fresh pot of water.
A pressure cooker works well for the beans also.

While the beans and barley are cooking prepare the pistou and set aside.

Method for the pistou

For the pistou you can toss the garlic, basil, and oil in a small food proceesor and pulse to chop and emulsify, but not too smooth.
Tip out into a bowl add the tomato paste and mix.
Add the parmesan and a few finely chopped bread crumbs just to give it a bit of body that will make it somewhat crumbly.
If you don't have a small food processor, mix the prepared ingredients, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
Adjust any additions to reach the crumbly topping consistency and set aside.

Finishing the soup

Prepare your vegetables.
Sauté the pancetta till soft and starting to get color.
If your pancetta or bacon is extremely fatty, you might want to tip some of it out otherwise you do want some to give it some flavor.
Add all the vegetables except the Brussel sprouts, and cook a few minutes more.
Add the tomato products and add the hot stock.
Cook about 20 minutes till vegetables are about done.
Add the beans and barley.
Add the quartered Brussel sprout and cook till they are barely done.
Season with salt and pepper.

When serving the soup, either garnish each bowl with some of the pistou on top or pass the bowl pistou and let everyone garnish their soup to their own taste, usually a tablespoon or two.

This soup lends itself for many vegetable additions or substitutions, so don't be shy to make it your version of zuppa.

Serve with crusty bread, robust cheese and salad, for a satisfying lunch or dinner.
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