As the temperatures – and colored leaves! – begin to drop in Italy and the scent of burning firewood fills the air, it’s time for a big batch of ribollita, a hearty Tuscan vegetable and bread soup.
Part of what they call in Italian the cucina povera, or simple cooking repertoire of poorer past days, this classic soup makes use of leftovers and stale bread in an ingenious mix. The origins of the dish go back to medieval times when the wealthy nobles, after indulging in their meals, would toss their leftover bread to the poor servants who would then boil it together with what vegetables were at hand to ward off their hunger. Ribollita means “reboiled” – a simple trick that adds flavor and depth to create a satisfying meal.
Still today this recipe plays an essential role in home cooking across Tuscany, with diverse variations of it popping up across the region based on local and family traditions. As with any leftover dish, part of the fun is using the scraps you have at hand to create a savory meal…that said, cavolo nero or Tuscan kale is an essential ingredient if you can find it.
Here is a classic Tuscan version of the recipe, with cannellini beans and three types of hearty greens added for a stick-to-your-ribs winter flavor combo.
For the beans:
350 g / 14 oz dry cannellini beans
1 clove garlic
2 liters / 70 oz water
Black pepper to taste
Salt to taste
20 g / 1 oz extra virgin olive oil
1 sprig rosemary
For the soup:
250 grams verza / 9 oz Savoy cabbage
300 grams cavolo nero / 11 oz Tuscan kale
300 grams bietole / 11 oz Swiss chard
220 grams / 8 oz stale crusty bread (dense Tuscan or French style)
25 grams / 1 oz extra virgin olive oil
180 grams / 6.5 oz canned San Marzano tomatoes
80 grams / 3 oz onions
80 grams / 3 oz carrots
100 grams / 3.5 oz celery
Black pepper to taste
Salt to taste
Chili pepper to taste (optional)
Sprig of fresh thyme
First prepare the cannellini beans: leave the dry beans to soak in abundant water overnight (ideally 24 hours in advance). After the beans are soaked, heat about an ounce of olive oil in a large pot together with the garlic clove (kept whole, skin removed) and rosemary sprig. Strain the cannellini beans and add them to the pot, cover with water and cook over low-medium heat for an hour with the lid on.
After cooking, add salt and pepper to taste, remove the rosemary sprig and separate about half of the beans into a separate container where they will be added at the end. Blend the portion still in the pot with a hand immersion mixer to obtain a broth for the soup.
In a separate pot, prepare the soffritto: dice the celery, carrots and onions, add them to the new pot with about an ounce of olive oil and saute’ over medium heat. While this is cooking, peel and dice the potato (the size should be between a dice and a chop) then add it to the soffritto. Stir every so often. While this cooks put the canned tomatoes into a bowl, crush them with a fork and add to the cooking vegetables.
While this cooks, prepare the greens. Slice the cabbage in half and take out the hard heart in the center. Slice the rest into julienne strips. Chop the Swiss chard into pieces (circa 1-2 inch diameter), cutting perpendicular to the long stems. Chop the Tuscan kale after removing the hard middle vein (it pulls out easily with your hand). Add all the greens to the pot of vegetables, add the bean broth previously prepared, mix and cover with lid. Bring to a boil.
Once boiling, take off lid and cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. When cooked add salt and pepper to taste, add the whole beans that you put aside earlier, stir and turn off the heat.
Prepare the bread. In Tuscany they use their local pane toscano, a dense bread with no salt that hardens quickly. If you can’t access Tuscan bread, try for a dense crusty bread (not an airy texture, for example not ciabatta which is not dense enough). If the bread is not already stale, you can toast it in the over for a few minutes to harden it up, in this case cut it first.
Cut the stale bread into strips / cubes; add a few strips to the bottom of a large serving bowl then add a few ladles of soup on top. Repeat, adding layers of bread and soup until all the ingredients are used. Let the soup cool at room temperature, cover with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
After it “rests” as they say in Italian (dopo si riposa) the bread will have absorbed the soup and the ribollita will have a semi-solid consistency. Take out of the refrigerator, pour into a pot and bring to a boil once again – this is how the soup gets its name – ribollita means reboiled. Add chili pepper and thyme to taste (if desired) and serve as they do in Tuscany into a terracotta bowl with a generous “C” shaped dab of fresh extra virgin olive oil on top. Tuscans don’t put Parmigiano cheese on this dish – just their delicious olive oil!
Serve with a glass of Chianti Classico wine for the ultimate Tuscan experience.