Ribollita is a traditional centuries-old Tuscan soup that is made with vegetables and beans and thickened with bread. It is said that the dish originated in the Middle Ages when servants were given leftover scraps of bread. To make a substantial meal from it, they would boil it in water with whatever inexpensive ingredients they had, such as vegetables and dried beans. And so ribollita was born.
The word “ribollita” actually means “reboiled” and it comes from the fact that traditionally, the soup is made from reboiling leftover vegetable soup the next day with the addition of bread. The process of reboiling the soup thickens it and makes it heartier. It also concentrates the flavors, so it is commonly said that ribollita is even better the next day.
Although every Italian cook probably has their own version of ribollita, almost all of them contain a mixture of inexpensive vegetables, cannellini beans and bread. While many versions contain cabbage and potatoes, the hallmark of the dish is cavolo negro or “black cabbage” also known as Tuscan kale. Tuscan kale, with its deeply wrinkled dark green leaves, has a mild flavor and sturdy texture which stands up well in this soup. To read all about the nutritional benefits of kale, see my last post from 12/2/11.
Because most of us don’t have two days to make dinner, I’ve taken a couple of liberties with this recipe so that you’ll be able to get it on the table in under an hour. I use canned beans instead of dried- if you have time, you can boil dried beans and then use some of the cooking water in the soup. Also, I add cubes of firm bread right at the end of the cooking process- this thickens the soup and the bites of bread are delicious as they soak up the flavors of the soup like a sponge.
This vegetarian soup is a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs dish that’s filling and perfect for a cold winter’s night. It's low in calories and fat and it gets a nice boost of protein and fiber from the beans and vegetables. Just one word of advice- you may want to double the recipe to make enough for leftovers because it tastes even better the next day!
Makes 4 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for drizzling on top
1 large onion, chopped (1 ½ cups)
2 carrots, peeled and chopped (3/4 cup)
2 celery stalks, chopped (3/4 cup)
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/8-1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes (depending on how spicy you like it)
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bunch (about 10 oz) Tuscan kale, chopped (stems and ribs removed)
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes
4 cups low sodium vegetable or chicken stock or water
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 parmesan rind*
1 can (15.5 oz) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups cubed, firm bread such as ciabatta, whole wheat or multigrain loaf
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
Heat the olive oil in a wide based pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic and chili flakes and cook 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until partially softened. Season the vegetables with salt and pepper. Add the tomato paste and cook another 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Stir in the kale and cook until it starts to wilt, 3-4 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes, stock (or water), thyme, bay leaf and parmesan rind and raise the heat to bring to a simmer.
Meanwhile, pour about ¼ of the cannellini beans into a small bowl with a couple of tablespoons of the cooking liquid and mash them together with a fork to form a paste. Pour the paste along with the remaining whole beans into the soup and stir to combine. The mashed beans will help to thicken the soup as it cooks. Simmer the soup with the lid slightly ajar, about 25 minutes until the vegetables are softened but still al dente. Add the bread and simmer another 5-7 minutes, partially covered. The bread will start to dissolve into the soup and thicken it further.
Before serving, remove the thyme sprigs, bay leaf and parmesan rind. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Spoon the ribollita into bowls and top with parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil, if desired.
Note: The soup thickens as it sits and should not be very liquidy. If you prefer more liquid, feel free to add more water at the end.
*Adding the rind of a block of parmesan cheese is a traditional Italian method of adding flavor to soups. The next time you buy fresh parmesan cheese, you can reserve the rind which is normally discarded. Wrap it in plastic wrap and store in the freezer to use in dishes like this. If you don’t have one, just add some extra grated parmesan cheese as a topping at the end.