This is it…the spectacular, seasonal window when summer intersects with fall, tomatoes are still tasty, fresh basil is still abundant, and the evenings have turned cool enough to want a hot soup for supper.
Soupe au pistou, that is. This South of France specialty is a basic, tomato-based, bean-and-vegetable soup made sublime by a swirl of pistou, the French version of pesto that’s made without pine nuts or Parmesan. The pistou is passed at the table for diners to stir into the soup themselves and the result is magical. The heat of the soup helps the basil and garlic release all of their aromatic wonders while the olive oil spreads in tiny pearls and transfers the pistou’s flavors to the broth
I refrain from calling the soup “Provençal” (as many do) because I learned this recipe from Luce, a friend from Grenoble (in the French Alps). The first time I tasted Luce’s soupe au pistou I simply couldn’t stop eating it—I must have had three servings, maybe four—nor could I stop sneaking extra spoonfuls of the pistou to kick up the garlicky, basil-y goodness.
That was more years ago than I care to count. I was young and carefree and didn’t think to actually, say, write down the recipe. So, with a vague outline of that first soupe au pistou experience in mind, I have been making Luce’s version every year when the stars and seasons align and I can find all the ingredients at their peak. I have always strictly adhered to her instructions to use an odd number of types of beans (ideally 5 or 7), but guesstimated just about everything else about the recipe.
Till now. This year, I was determined to take note, scrupulously measure amounts, and write everything down. For one, I have this blog. For two, without actual measurements, it’s all too easy to find yourself with enough soup for an army when you start adding types of beans. The result is a master recipe that serves 8 generously (see above about third and fourth servings) or 10 reasonably.
Since Luce is from Grenoble, she served her soupe au pistou with grated Gruyère cheese from the Alps, so that is naturally how I think it should be served. Cheese is not entirely necessary, though; the pistou provides plenty of flavor. The soup is better a day after it’s made—if you can wait that long to eat it.
This is peasant food at its very best, so delicious and so copious that I usually make a special occasion of making it and serve it at a dinner party, just the way Luce did that very first time.
Luce’s Soupe au Pistou
1 cup dried beans, such as white beans, cranberry beans, kidney beans, black-eye peas, etc.
¾ lb. (300 g.) each green beans, wax (yellow) beans, and Italian flat beans
¾ lb. (300 g. 1½ cups) shell beans, such as fresh cranberry, lima, navy, or chickpeas (if you can’t find these, use a second variety of dried beans)
2 Tbs. olive oil
5 small or 2 large onions, coarsely chopped (4 cups)
5 large tomatoes, peeled and diced (or 1 28-oz. can of whole tomatoes, diced, liquid reserved)
12½ cups water
3 large sprigs fresh or dried thyme
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
5 to 6 oz. small or medium-size pasta
2 large carrots, diced, optional (1 cup)
1 medium zucchini, diced, optional (1 cup)
2 large bunches fresh basil (5 cups leaves)
5 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
10 Tbs. olive oil
To prepare the Beans: Cook the dried beans according to package directions. Drain, and set aside 1 ½ cups for the soup. Trim and cut the fresh green beans, wax beans, and flat beans into 1-inch lengths.
To make the Soup: Heat the oil in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add the onions, and sauté 5 to 7 minutes, or until translucent. Stir in the tomatoes, water, and herbs, and season generously with salt and pepper. Cover, and simmer 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling salted water 2 minutes less than the recommended cooking time. Drain, and set aside.
Add the shell beans to the soup after 20 minutes, cover, and simmer 10 minutes. Add the cooked dried beans, cover, and simmer 10 minutes. Finally, add the green beans, wax beans, flat beans, and optional carrots and zucchini. Cover, and simmer 10 minutes. Stir in the cooked pasta, and simmer the soup 2 to 3 minutes, or until piping hot. (Note: If you want to freeze the soup, do so without the pasta. Add the pasta just before serving…whenever.)
While the soup is cooking, you can also prepare the Pistou: Pulse the basil and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped. Add the olive oil, and pulse until you have a thick, bright green paste. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve: Ladle the soup into large bowls. Pass the Pistou and grated cheese (if desired) at the table, along with thick slices of bread and a salad. Serves 8 to 10
So…you wanna play around with your own soupe au pistou? You wanna make more (or less), add more (or less), mix things up, etc.? Well, here are the proportions to use, then follow the recipe above.
For every ¾ lb. (300 g.) of fresh or cooked beans, count:
1 overflowing tsp. olive oil
1 small onion
1 large tomato
2 ½ cups (700 ml.) water
1 sprig fresh thyme (and a bay leaf)
1 to 2 oz. pasta
1 cup (200 ml) fresh basil leaves
1 clove garlic
1 Tbs. olive oil