I do love me some fine dining. I dote over jamón, I fantasize about reuniting with lobster sashimi, and I just drooled a little bit on my keyboard thinking about perfect calamari. And yet, when I think about my true favorite foods, the foods I’d happily eat day after day, they’re not on that decadent, Kosher-defying list up above. They’re good old simple comfort foods. And, quite often, foods that were once considered peasant fare. Not because they’re any less delicious, but because they’re easily accessible and usually cheap. But especially with winter around the corner (or not—thanks, global warming!), I naturally start craving those hearty, nourishing, peasant-y type foods. My favorites?
1. Eggs. Eggs on everything. Pizza, pasta, oatmeal… you name it, I think an egg makes it better.
2. Rice. Always satisfying in that sticky, starchy way. And, as I was saying, add an egg…
3. Bread. Is there anything better than warm crusty bread? I have quite the soft spot for pretty much anything carby, but bread truly takes the cake (mmm cake).
In honor of the inexpensive and the delectable, I give you a recipe that will have you turning down haute cuisine in favor of well-done peasant fare any day. Ribollita (literally, “reboiled”) is a classic Italian countryside soup: simple, fresh, hearty, and cheap. It’s a simple vegetable stock of carrots, onions, and celery, and loaded with tender fresh lacinato kale (the super rippled bumpy kind) and creamy white beans. It has a little kick from red pepper flakes and an unexpected zingy brightness from the lemon zest. But it’s really made distinctive by the day old bread used to thicken it up. The bread simply dissolves, lacing the broth with a silkiness like no other. It’s starchy, creamy, and super filling. I like to use ciabatta bread, and frankly it doesn’t need to be a day old—that’s just tradition dating back to the peasant days of waste not, want not. Nor does the bread really need to be crustless, at least in the case of a soft one like ciabatta.
The best thing about ribollita is that it’s intended to be refrigerated and reheated as needed. The recipe below makes 10 big servings, so you’ll have plenty left over for quick lunches or dinners. It even freezes well, so you can make a couple batches now to save for when winter strips us bare of fresh greens. Believe it or not, it’s actually great with a side of more bread, toasted (hey, it’s texturally different), so make sure you have a good, fresh loaf on hand. Go ahead, embrace your inner peasant and hunker down for winter with a pot of ribollita.
Lacinato kale is very delicate and tender compared to other kales, but don’t worry if you can’t find it. Other varieties will work just fine. For the beans, I recommend cannellini, and the olives should be the super briny, oily, wrinkled type. That bitter, salty bite is a surprisingly lovely accent.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
4 celery stalks, chopped
3 medium cloves garlic, chopped
2 medium carrots or equiv. winter squash, chopped
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 14-ounce / 400 ml can crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 pound / 16 ounces / 450g cavolo nero (lacinato kale, Tuscan kale), stems trimmed off and leaves well chopped
4 cups / 22 oz / 620g cooked white beans
1/2 pound / 8 oz / 225g crustless loaf of bread
1 1/2+ teaspoons fine grain sea salt
zest of one lemon
lots of well-chopped oily black olives
1. In your largest thick-bottomed pot over medium heat combine the olive oil, celery, garlic, carrot, and red onion. Cook for 10 -15 minutes sweating the vegetables, but avoid any browning. Stir in the tomatoes and red pepper flakes, and simmer for another 10 minutes or so, long enough for the tomatoes to thicken up a bit. Stir in the cavolo nero, 3 cups of the beans, and 8 cups / 2 liters water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the greens are tender, about 15 minutes.
2. In the meantime, mash or puree the remaining beans with a generous splash of water – until smooth. Tear the bread into bite-sized chunks. Stir both the beans and bread into the soup. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the bread breaks down and the soup thickens, 20 – 30 minutes. Stir in the salt, taste and add more if needed. Stir in the lemon zest.
Serve immediately, or cool and refrigerate overnight. Serve reheated, or “ribollita” meaning reboiled, the next day ladled into bowls. Finish each serving with a drizzle of olive oil and some chopped olives.
Makes 10 hearty servings
Freya Bellin writes weekly for Mark Bittman’s web site and alternate Wednesdays for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include Thanksgiving, Hold the Turkey, My Purple and Pink Muses, and Totally Worth the Garlic Breath.