My first experience of soupe au pistou, that vegetable soup from the South of France, was in a freezing cold Paris garret. From a can, in the middle of winter. It remains one of my warmest and most nourishing memories.A shivering winter tableau, however, is not at all what usually comes to mind when one thinks of soupe au pistou. Sunlight, the blue Mediterranean, aromatic basil and garlic in a stone mortar, and a chilled bottle of rosé: That’s a more likely image.American Francophile cooks in the last century learned this soup, along with dozens of other French classics, from one food authority after another, from Julia Child to Richard Olney to Paula Wolfert. The common wisdom is that the Provençale soupe au pistou and the Genovese minestrone al pesto are, in essence, twins separated at birth.To be sure, much of the cooking in Nice resembles the food just across the Italian border. Pesto in Italy is a pounded mixture of basil, garlic, cheese and pine nuts. On the French side they leave the pine nuts out, and sometimes a small tomato is added instead. But given the size of Provence, pistou, as the soup is called, has at least as many regional variations as there are villages.A friend of mine who lives in Cannes makes a spectacular version. “It has to have a lot of vegetables,” he says.In his view, fresh summer shelling beans (or dried cannellini or other white beans), green beans, onions, leeks and zucchini are always included. Chopped tomatoes, only sometimes. Diced carrots and potatoes, usually, but not always. Cubes of pumpkin or other large squash, frequently. And as for adding small pasta or rice, his mother did, but he doesn’t.
To me, soupe au pistou is the epitome of summertime bounty. When ripe summer vegetables are at their peak, they are so flavorful I find no need to use a meat-based broth. To keep the soup green and fresh looking, I cook some of the vegetables separately and add them to the pot just before serving.Die-hard traditionalists with tell you that a stone mortar and pestle are the only tools to use for pistou, insisting that hand-pounded basil is superior to machine-blitzed. Even if I agree in principle, occasionally my mini food processor does the job just fine.However you do it, make the soup, stir in the green garlicky elixir and enjoy its bright sunny character. In the garden, under a shady fig tree.But should you find yourself in Paris on a cold December evening, know that there are options.Provençal Vegetable Soup With BasilTime: 1 hourYield: 4 to 6 servingsIngredientsFor the beans:1 1/2 cups fresh shelling beans, such as cranberry or cannellini, from about 1 pound in the pod1 small onion, peeled and stuck with clove1 thyme sprig1 bay leaf1 large garlic clove, halved1 teaspoon salt2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oilFor the soup:2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil1 medium onion, diced, about 1 cupSalt and pepper1/2 pound yellow-fleshed potato, peeled and diced, or use baby potatoes, skin on, halved or quartered1/4 pound romano beans, in 1-inch pieces1/4 pound yellow wax beans1/2 pound zucchini or summer squash, chopped, about 2 cupsFor the pistou:2 cups basil leaves4 small garlic cloves1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil2 ounces grated Parmigiano, plus extra for servingSalt and pepperPreparation1. Prepare the beans: Put the beans and 5 cups water in a saucepan over high heat. Add onion stuck with clove, thyme, bay leaf, garlic, salt and olive oil. Reduce heat and cook at a gentle simmer until tender, about 25 to 30 minutes. Leave beans to cool in their own broth. (May be cooked several hours or up to 1 day in advance.)2. Make the soup: Put olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat. Add diced onion, season generously with salt and pepper and stir to coat. Turn heat to medium and cook, stirring until softened and barely browned, about 10 minutes.3. Add potato and 2 cups water to soup pot. Cover and cook until potatoes are soft, about 10 minutes. Add cooked shell beans and bean broth and bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning. Keep warm.4. Meanwhile, working in batches in a separate pot, blanch Romano beans, wax beans and zucchini in salted water for 1 minute. Spread out to cool on a baking sheet.5. Make the pistou: Put basil, garlic and olive oil in a food processor and pulse to a rough paste. (Alternatively, pound basil and garlic in a stone mortar and stir in oil and cheese.) Stir in about 1/2 cup grated cheese and season with salt and pepper. (Makes about 3/4 cup.)6. To serve, add blanched vegetables to soup pot and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Ladle into bowls and add about 2 tablespoons pistou to the center of each bowl. Pass extra grated cheese at the table.© 2015 New York Times News Service
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