This hearty peasant soup “ combining lots of fresh vegetables in a flavoursome broth “ is truly delicious. There is some dispute over its origin, with both the French and Italians claiming it as their own. The pistou of Provence (a paste of garlic and basil), the foundation of this most renowned French soup, is similar to the Italian pesto. Pistou is probably derived from the old French word pesto, meaning pestle, to grind lail and le basilic! And lets not forget that Lombardy has been a kingdom of France many times throughout history.
The pesto can be prepared up to a week in advance and stored in a sealed jar in the fridge, with a thin film of olive oil over the surface to keep it fresh. The soup can be prepared a few hours in advance and finished at the last moment with pistou.
Preparation: 30 mins Cooking: 10 mins
Special equipment: blender
For the pistou:
Handful of basil leaves and stalks (30g)
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
100ml extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of sea salt
2 pinches of freshly ground white pepper
For the soup
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½ medium onion, peeled and cut into 1cm dice
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into 1cm dice
½ celery stick, cut into 1cm dice
½ small fennel bulb, cut into 1cm dice
1 small courgette, cut into 1cm cubes
5 pinches of sea salt pinch of freshly ground white pepper
700ml boiling water
50g freshly podded peas (optional)
60g freshly podded broad beans (optional)
60g French beans (optional)
1 medium tomato (skin on), diced
50g pistou (see above)
40g vegetarian hard cheese for grating such as Twineham Grange
20 thin croÃ»tes, rubbed with a cut garlic clove, or a large handful of croutons.
To make the pistou:
Plunge the basil into a pan of boiling water and blanch for 3 seconds only, then remove and refresh in cold water1; drain well. PurÃ©e all the pistou ingredients in a blender. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Keep in a sealed container in the fridge until required, unless using straight away. (Youll need 50g for the soup.)
To make the soup:
Heat the olive oil2 in a large saucepan over a medium-low heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, fennel and courgette and sweat gently for 3“4 minutes3, seasoning with salt and pepper. Pour the boiling water4 into the pan, then add the peas, broad beans and French beans, if using, and boil rapidly for 3“4 minutes. During the last minute of cooking, add the tomato, 50g pistou sauce and a generous handful of grated cheese. Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary.
Pour the soup into a warmed tureen and grate over some more of the cheese. Place the croÃ»tes or croÃ»tons, a large block of your vegetarian cheese and grater on the table so guests may help themselves.
Vary the ingredients as you wish, perhaps replacing one or more of the vegetables with coco beans, spinach, Swiss chard etc. Any pasta or pulse would also be a great addition to this soup, transforming it into a main course. Youll need more garlic, of course.
1 Blanching the basil leaves for a few seconds and dipping them in cold water to stop the cooking will fix the chlorophyll, preventing discolouration, thereby ensuring the vivid green colour is retained. You will lose some of the perfume of the basil, but as there is so much of it you will still have a wonderful flavour. (You can prepare this sauce without blanching the basil, but it will oxidise and discolour within an hour.)
2 When cooking with olive oil, I generally use a good-quality refined oil, which can withstand a higher heat than extra virgin olive oil. However, for the cooking of this soup, I use an extra virgin oil as it imparts a wonderful flavour and it will only be heated gently.
3 By sweating the vegetables you are converting the starches into sugars, greatly enhancing the flavour of the soup.
4 I use boiling water to shorten the cooking time, which preserves the vivid colours, fresh taste and textures, and retains maximum nutrients. There is plenty of flavour from the vegetables and herbs so it is fine to use water rather than stock.
Photograph © Jean Cazals 2011