We've been blessed on the westcoast this past week with stellar warm temperatures and a generous amount of sun. The fluffy pink cherry blossoms are being pushed aside out by tender, green leaves and the streets are blanketed with pink. The arrival of days without need of a jacket seem imminent, if not already here, and the air smells of spring in its purest sense. Yes, summer seems to be be peaking around the corner, teasingly, and I'm craving getting my hands dirty in my little patio garden, eating al fresco and dusting off my sandals. Yes, I know, even in the West, summer is truly a full 2 months away, but its good to dream of lazy days ahead. When I dream, its no surprise its takes form in a food.
After a double bill of dinner parties this past weekend, we had indulged in Boeuf Bourgignon and Halibut Beurre Blanc, Crepes Suzette and Profiteroles, and beautiful wines from Burgundy and Vacqueyras to close to home, Naramata. By Sunday night a simple and healthy dinner was what we craved. A cleanse if you will. Going local on produce is a tough one by this time of the year and I happened to have some bright green beans in the fridge. Thank you California! To round out my locavore karma, tender frozen peas from Canada and a handful of some local potatoes and carrots provided a nice variety of flavours for an impromptu soup. A peak in the freezer made more possible: one last jar of frozen pesto, made many moons ago at the height of basil season, sealed the deal and I knew what were were having for dinner that night...
Soupe au Pistou is a classic vegetable soup from Provence. Comparisons can be made to it's Italian cousin, Minestrone, but there are distinct differences here. It's a simple broth packed with the abundant vegetables of the region and topped with a dollop of Pistou - a provencal version of Pesto but made without the pine nuts and parmesan. The result is a bowlful of your daily serving of vegetables, bright with the flavours of each, and a lightness from no frying, butter, meat or even stock, with water being the cooking liquid. The day after cooking this soup the bright colours retreat and the flavours gain more depth. I've had more hearty longer cooked versions in restaurants, but when made fresh at home, its flavour and look is lighter and brighter and what one craves as the thermometer creeps. With all the components cooked just so, this is simple one pot cooking and perfect for capturing the feeling of summer, or wait until bright tender beans and zucchini are overflowing at the market and make a batch in the height of the season.
Soupe au Pistou
adapted with inspiration from The Country Cooking of France, by Anne Willan and MtAoFC by Julia Child
1 small can cannellini beans (or use 1 1/2 cups cooked from scratch dried beans)*
3 litres water
2 cups of diced onions
2 cups diced carrots
2 cups diced waxy potatoes, unpeeled
1 stalk celery, diced small
1/2 tsp herb de provence, or substitute dried thyme or several sprigs fresh thyme
1 handful parsley stems, optional but recommended**
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes, canned or fresh
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 large pinch saffron
1 - 3 inch strip of lemon zest, peeled from lemon with potato peeler
2 cups green beans, trimmed and cut into three
1/2 cup tiny soup pasta, or broken up pieces of spaghetti
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
2 large handfuls fresh baby spinach
1 Tbsp lemon juice
Pistou, for serving
Parmesan cheese, for serving
1. In a dutch oven or large pot, place water, onions, carrots, potatoes, celery, and herbs. If using dried beans to start, replace 2 cups of water with bean broth. Bring to a boil, add 1 tsp salt and a few grindings of pepper and cook at a steady but gentle boil, covered, until potatoes are just tender.
2. Add tomatoes, garlic, saffron, lemon zest, drained cannellini beans, green beans and pasta continue cooking for until pasta is just cooked. Taste broth and adjust salt if necessary.
3. Remove from heat, add peas and spinach and lemon juice and leave lid on for a a couple minutes.
4. Ladle into large soup bowls and dollop with pistou and a grating of parmesan cheese.
2 packed cups, basil leaves
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1/3 cup olive oil
1. wash and dry basil leaves.
2. Combine all ingredients in a food processor. Process until pureed but still leave some texture. Add additional oil if necessary to come together. Will keep in fridge for a week or so, but freezes well too.
* If you want to use dried beans for this soup, a step that rewards a flavourful bean broth that can be added to the soup, follow these instructions:
The night before, soak your beans in plenty of cold water. Leave overnight. Once plumped, drain, rinse and place in a large pot and cover with about 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil slowly, over medium heat, stirring gently a couple times in the beginning. Adjust heat to keep a gentle boil and do so for about 1 hour, depending on age of beans. When they begin to become tender, but still are a little firm in the middle, add 1 1/2 tsp salt and keep cooking for another 15 minutes. Once soft all the way through but not falling apart, remove from the heat and put aside to cool. Once cool, store them in their liquid in the fridge for 3 days or they can freeze well. Reserve some of the broth for soup.
** I chop off the stems from my parsley and throw them in a bag in the freezer where they are a welcome addition to any soup or stock.