Tuscan bread soup is a classic comfort food It's hard to think of any dish that's more intimately associated with Florence than ribollita, a classic cabbage-and-bean soup that gains body and substance from a healthy infusion of day-old Tuscan bread. Perhaps the classic bistecca alla fiorentina, a thick porterhouse cut from Chianina beef done rare over the coals, but the Fiorentina was, until recently, something that only the wealthy could afford. Not so with ribollita, which was and is within the reach of anyone's purse, and is so good that even those who carefully avoided "plebian dishes" back when foods had social connotations eagerly sought it out. Only they didn't call it ribollita: It appears as "Lenten Farmer's Soup" in Pellegrino Artusi's La Scienza in Cucina e L'Arte di Mangiar Bene, the first really popular Italian cookbook (written in 1891).
The word ribollita literally translates as reboiled, and for a ribollita to be authentic it must contain black-leaf kale, a long-leafed winter cabbage whose leaves are a purplish green, and which has distinctive bitter overtones. You'll need:
- 1 pound dried white beans, washed and soaked for three hours
- A small onion, a small carrot, a six inch stick of celery, and a small bunch of parsley, minced together
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 pound black-leaf kale, shredded
- 1 pound beet greens, ribbed and shredded
- 1/2 pound potatoes, peeled and diced
- Salt, pepper, and a sprig of thyme
- Thinly sliced day old Italian or French white bread
- Olive oil (to be used at the table)
Boil the beans in lightly salted water. When they're almost cooked, sauté the onion mixture in the oil, in a heavy bottomed pot. When the onion has become translucent, add the tomato paste and the liquid from the beans. Add the cabbage, beet greens, and potatoes. Stir in the beans and season to taste with salt, pepper, and a sprig of thyme. Simmer until the potatoes are cooked (taste a piece for doneness), and remove the thyme. Take an oven-proof serving dish and fill it with alternating layers of thinly sliced bread and soup, making sure the bread is damp, until the soup is used up. If you serve this dish immediately, you are serving minestra di pane, or bread soup, which is good. However, if you let it rest in the refrigerator for a few hours, or better yet a day, and then reheat it in the oven, you are serving ribollita, which is much better. Serve with extra virgin olive oil, which your diners will be able to sprinkle over it according to their taste. Serves four to six (expect people to ask for more).