Monday, January 20, 2014

Soupe au pistou au Midwest a la Mesdames Child and David




We may balk at the idea of hot soup in summer. We would be wrong.

Julia Child tells us, in The French Chef Cookbook, that early summer in the Mediterranean is the time for eating soupe au pistou, a light vegetable soup finished off au pistou, with a cupful of thick garlic and basil paste stirred right in. (Think pesto, the Italian fresh mashed basil garnish.) This is the season when the soup's prime ingredients, not only basil but the first young beans plus zucchini and maybe peas and sweet peppers, come in fresh from the gardens. Elizabeth David, quoted in the compilation South Wind Through the Kitchen: the Best of Elizabeth David, does not mention Mediterranean summers but largely agrees with Julia's roster of ingredients for this easily made, delectable, and potently garlicky soup.

What follows is a Midwestern amalgamation of both divas' recipes. I felt free to amalgamate because it's summer here too, and la soupe, it seems, though made in all kinds of ways, still always contains ingredients easily to hand here. Potatoes, pasta, carrots, and beans are required -- young green beans certainly, but also white beans of the sort (Navy or Great Northern) that we are used to seeing only dried or canned; what Julia Child means, I presume, when she mentions fresh "horticultural" beans. I reached for a can of Great Northern, because there they were and anyway, another French authority, Madeleine Kamman, assures us "the American bean canning industry is excellent." The liquid needed is plain water, not a heavy wintry beef or veal stock. The pistou will always contain garlic, basil, and olive oil, but may also boast grated cheese, tomato paste, and in Elizabeth David's case, pine nuts. I admit I skipped those.

By the way, in her instructions Julia goes all out and recommends 2 Tbsp salt to 3 quarts of water. Perhaps when she wrote this she had already met and heeded James Beard, who said in one of his books that most people's biggest cooking problem is timidity with the salt shaker. Still, the proportion given makes a pretty salty soup. Feel free to cut it a bit.

The accompanying wine? -- would you believe, a cool, bright, strongly citrusy sauvignon blanc from Kim Crawford? It was clean, cleansing, refreshing, and just right.

You will need:

  • 2-3 Tbsp olive oil, plus 1/2 cup more for the pistou
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1-2 potatoes, diced (I opted for 8 or 9 peeled "fingerling" potatoes, kept whole)
  • 1 leek, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp salt, or to taste
  • 3 quarts water
  • 1 zucchini, diced
  • 1 can white beans, drained
  • About 1/4 to 1/2 pound fresh green beans, as small and tender as possible, "Frenched" -- strings removed -- and chopped
  • a handful of broken spaghetti or other pasta (not too much)


For the pistou:

  • 1/2 cup good olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup packed basil leaves (a la Child), or the leaves of 10 sprigs of basil (a la David), or the contents of 2 packages of fresh basil leaves (a la me) -- snipped fairly small
  • 4 Tbsp tomato paste


To begin, heat the 2 to 3 Tbsp olive oil in a large soup pot. Add in succession the onion, carrot, potatoes, and leeks, and saute all until the onions and leeks are limp and fragrant. (Elizabeth David adds a fresh tomato here, and then eliminates tomato paste from her pistou.) Pour in the water and add the salt. Bring to a boil and simmer, uncovered, for about 40 minutes. This is the soup base.

About half an hour before serving, add the zucchini and both kinds of beans, and any other fresh vegetables you are using. Julia Child suggests peas and either green or red sweet peppers. Return the soup to a simmer while you make the pistou. It's traditional to add a handful of pasta at this point, but if you want the soup gluten free, you will skip that step.

In a small bowl, or using a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic, basil, cheese, and tomato paste into a thick paste. Slowly dribble in the olive oil, beating with an electric beater, until the oil forms an emulsion and the mixture is thick and lightens somewhat in color.

Before serving, stir the pistou into the soup by spoonfuls. Combine thoroughly and reheat completely. Serve hot with a good bread, more grated cheese -- and the summery wine of your choice.



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