Friday, 26 October 2012

Ribollita Is Flavours Favourite Way Of Preventing Autumn Chills

Today I sat listening to the rain beating against the glass in the kitchen. Light levels were low and my pot of Basil was looking a little sorry for itself. I was certain I heard it shiver in the slight draught from an open window, but perhaps that’s just my vivid imagination. One’s fantasy world has to be quite rich to survive the next few months in the UK and I console myself with a store of colourful memories gleaned from the Flavours holiday I managed to squeeze in during the last week of August. I can still smell the heat on the banks of thyme, remember the intense aroma of tomato leaves and stalks as I stripped the fruits to prepare a tomato sauce. Sigh…. how I wish I was still there, but all good things and all that……

So, looking along the shelves in my pantry I can see there are some wonderful Italian goodies to help me enjoy the autumn and put some of the skills I practised to good use. I am never without dried porcini, pine kernels, truffle oil and nutmeg for example and we had a wonderful crop of garlic from the allotment this year, so it’s a start.

What I really fancied, to chase the cold and damp away was a pot of hearty Tuscan soup, the kind of thing that sticks to the sides and makes you feel as if you have had a passionate embrace but from the inside out. Ribollita must be the soup of choice for a rainy day in London. Bread and vegetables are what gives this traditional dish its flavour, a handful of cannellini beans will exert that silky smooth thickening which makes a soup like this just what the doctor ordered. Ribollita actually means ‘re-boiled’, in English and demonstrates just how thrifty the Tuscans were in times gone by. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of their book; preferably a Cavolo Nero to be precise. Funny how Ribollita sounds so much more romantic though!

Carrots, cabbage, potatoes, celery, leek, tomatoes, beans and the usual ingredients go to make this comforting soup. The surprise ingredient and thickener, however, is bread. The addition of which apparently has its origins back in the medieval period where the well to do would have their food served on ’bread’ plates. At the end of the meal servants would collect these and add the meat soaked edible ‘china’ to vegetables to eke out meagre rations.

La Ribollita really needs to be prepared 24 hours before you wish to consume it; so much Italian food is slow cooked and things do take time to mature (I’m banking on it anyway!) It’s the usual sweating of olive oil and vegetables, salt, pepper and a stir. When the vegetables are soft, add tomatoes and any juice, some chicken stock and toss in cooked cannellini beans. Add a bouquet garni, orange peel and peppercorns in a muslin bag and then simmer gently for around an hour. Cool and refrigerate.

After 24 hours, bring to the boil and add some peasant-style bread until the soup thickens dramatically and then set it aside off the heat. At this point the soup will be like some kind of stuffing in consistency. If you find this a little too much to cope with, by all means ensure you have sufficient liquid to deal with the bread. So, it’s at this point you heat some extra virgin oil then add the soup, brown it on both sides and serve, if you are going for the sticky version that is.

For me, the peppercorns, thyme and orange really lift this soup and somehow remind me of the festive season’s approach. Should I be saying this? Still it’s plenty of time to discover the very best Italian cookery books and then drop hints about them in a casual and subtle manner. What about The Beaneaters and Bread Soup: Portraits and Recipes from Tuscany by Lori De Mori published by Quadrille? This would be my tip for serious students of Tuscan food. First off you will discover Tuscans are known as ‘Mangiafagioli’, the ‘beaneaters’ of the title. This is a beautiful book which outlines the Tuscan skill of making do; where simple ingredients and leftovers are represented as the tasty peasant fare we all love so much. Illustrated by Jason Lowe, a highly respected and celebrated culinary photographer this is a beautiful book. It features the producers who have done so much to promote Tuscan cuisine and is well researched and a loving set of portraits, complete with the author’s own recipes. If you want an evocative glimpse of a reminder of a Tuscan Flavours holiday this book will put you in mind of what you experienced or what you might wish to try next year.

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