Friends who are vegetarians are arriving next week to help with the olive harvest and I’ve been trying to come up with hearty, filling, main-course vegetarian dishes that will not mean a diet of beans-beans-beans. Here in Tuscany, even though most people don’t eat a lot of meat (despite the fame of porchetta and T-bone bistecca chianina), most people do eat some meat at every meal.
It might be just a hundred grams of sausage or ground beef to add flavor to a pasta sauce but nonetheless, it hardly qualifies as vegetarian. Even renowned ribollita, a cold-weather bean soup with lots of vegetables, usually starts with a soffritto of chopped onion, garlic, parsley, and . . . some kind of preserved pork, usually pancetta or unsmoked bacon.
Actually, I’ve found you can leave the meat out of ribollita and it doesn’t change the good nature of this satisfying fare. Add a little more extra-virgin olive oil to make up for the loss of the pancetta fat and maybe a few more beans to add bulk and you’ve got it. A perfectly acceptable bean soup—no, a bean soup that your guest workers will demand, over and over again. The name, ribollita, by the way, means “re-boiled” and that’s how this soup started, as a way of heating up leftovers and making them more palatable. But it’s even better if you start afresh each time. Just remember to soak the beans overnight or for several hours before you start cooking.
1 large carrot, chopped fine
1 yellow onion, chopped fine
1 thick celery rib, chopped fine
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
About 8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ cups dried cannellini or borlotti beans, soaked overnight
1 cup canned plum tomatoes, with juice
1 small dried red chili pepper, if desired
1 leek, carefully rinsed and slivered
2 medium yellow potatoes, peeled and cubed small
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium or 2 small zucchini, diced small
1 bunch cavolo nero (aka lacinato or Tuscan kale)
1 bunch green chard
Slices of stale country-style bread, preferably whole-wheat
1 medium red onion, very thinly sliced
Combine the carrot, onion, celery, and garlic with ¼ cup of the olive oil in a large heavy soup kettle. Set the kettle over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened a little and giving off a pleasant aroma. Stir in the parsley and the drained beans and add about 6 cups of boiling water. Bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or so, then stir in the canned tomatoes, breaking them up with the side of a wooden spoon. Add a dried chili if you wish—if you don’t want it to be too hot, shake out the seeds and discard them. Bring back to a simmer and continue cooking until the beans are tender—the time will vary depending on the age of the beans but should take 45 minutes to 1 hour in all.
While the beans are cooking, prepare the rest of the vegetables, slivering the leek, cubing the potatoes, and dicing the zucchini. To prepare the cavolo nero, strip away the central rib and discard it. Sliver the leaves. If the chard leaves are very large, you should also strip them away from the central rib but don’t discard the ribs—simply chop them coarsely and sliver the green leaves. The bread should be quite firm—if it isn’t, toast the slices under the broiler for a few minutes just to dry them out.
When the beans are tender, add the leek and potatoes along with plenty of salt and pepper. Continue simmering until the potatoes are slightly softened, then add the zucchini, cavolo nero, and chard. Add more boiling water from time to time if necessary.
Turn the oven on to 400º.
In another heavy kettle, one that can go in the oven, smear 2 tablespoons of oil over the bottom and arrange several slices of bread, overlapping slightly if necessary. When all the vegetables in the soup are tender, spoon about 1/3 of the soup over the bread slices. Top with more bread and another 1/3 of the soup. Then more bread and the remainder of the soup. Arrange the slices of red onion all over the top and sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Transfer the soup to the preheated oven and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the onion slices on the top are starting to sizzle and brown. The bread will have absorbed quite a lot of the liquid in the soup so that you could almost eat it with a fork. But best to use a spoon. Serve immediately while it’s still hot and dribble more olive oil, new oil if available, over the top. If you don’t eat it all at once, it gets better with time. Just be sure to reheat it in the oven until it’s hot all the way through and have plenty of new olive oil on hand to garnish it.