It was a cold, damp day when we joined the masses for lunch in Florence’s San Lorenzo Market. The line was long at Nerbone, one of the market’s prized eateries, and almost everyone -- old Italian men, workers, tourists and students alike-- was getting the ribollita. We dutifully filed in place, warming with each step that brought us towards food and away from the door.
As we moved in closer, inch by inch, the clamor of competing voices that filled the market became a cacophonic soundtrack. Rich aromas of traditional Tuscan fare enveloped our senses, justifying the disorder. With trays in hand, we waded through the sea of people, trying not to spill as we sought a place to sit. When we finally slipped into highly-coveted seats, I took an elbow to the ribs from a fellow patron trying to escape the madness.
With a sense of haggard victory, I smiled at my studying-abroad boyfriend, the one I had just flown thousands of miles to visit. I looked down at the bowls of soup for which we had so courageously fought. This was the amazing ribollita, and he promised I would love it. We had bought a small carafe of wine to share, and in that moment I felt adult and worldly -- there was no wine with lunch at UC San Diego.
Despite my weariness that soup would not satiate my hunger, I had to admit that the bowl before me was promising. The ribollita was reflective of the chaos in which it was being served. Competing for space in the bowl was a thick intermingling of cannellini beans, hearty chunks of vegetables and strips of dark leafy greens. Hunks of Tuscan saltless bread, once staled by yesterday’s air, were now softened by the herbed broth and stuck out like boulders in the overcrowded bowl. Delicate curls of parmesan graced the top of the soup, a stark contrast floating atop this heavy, peasant dish.
Aesthetically, this thick stew is no beauty, but with just one bite its popularity made sense. The beans and vegetables were soft and comforting, the amalgamation of flavors perfectly salted. But something else took effect around bite three. Maybe it was the soup, maybe it was the wine, maybe it was a little bit of both, but the world slowed down, and my heart began to swell. My uncle once told me about a meal that had brought tears to his eyes, and I had been dumbfounded by such a preposterous concept. But there I was, suddenly verklempt over soup. The noise of the market, an assault on my ears but five minutes ago, faded to a happy, melodic buzz. My muscles relaxed. I looked around and my preconceived labels, grumpy old men vs. tourists, dissolved. Instead, I saw locals sitting at their usual tables with their usual friends, ordering their usual meals. I saw fellow explorers, from faraway lands different from mine. I was sitting amongst strangers, yet feeling a new level of connectedness with the scene around me.
My eyes fell back to my distant future husband, and I thanked him for bringing me to this place. I slowed down my eating, not wanting my soup, this feeling, this experience, to end. Each bite, each slurp, reinforced that this was exactly where I was supposed to be - in this deliciously beautiful, unplanned, moment in time.
As I mentioned, when it comes to appearances, ribollita is not exactly a showstopper. It definitely falls under the brutti ma buoni (ugly but beautiful) category. This shouldn't stop you from making it for a crowd, though. Hearty and delicious, it's perfect for a cozy night in or winter dinner party (serve with an awesome Italian red).
Serves 6; Prep time: 1 hour, plus overnight rest
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for seasoning
- 2 carrots, peeled & coarsely chopped
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 2 yellow onions, coarsely chopped
- 2 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
- 2 zucchini coarsely chopped
- 1 cup canned plum Roma tomatoes, chopped
- 1 bunch of kale, stalks removed, cut into thick strips
- 1/2 head savoy cabbage, coarsely chopped
- 1 bunch spinach, stemmed and coarsely chopped
- 3 cups cooked cannelini beans
- Several slices of day-old country bread, preferably unsalted, toasted
- In a soup pot over medium heat, warm the 1/2 cup olive oil. Add teh carrots, celery, onions, potatoes, and zucchini, sautee until the vegetables are softened. Stir in the tomatoes and 4 cups of water, then add the kale, savoy cabbage and spinach. Raise the heat to high, bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, and let cook until the greens are tender, about 45 minutes.
- Stir in the beans and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes longer. Add the thyme leaves and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from teh heat and let cool, then cover and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, preheat the oven to 350F. Line a 2-quart baking dish with the toasted bread slices and lade the soup over the top. Bake, stirring occasionaly with a wooden spoon so that the bread slices break apart and blend with the soup, 20-25 minutes. Continue baking without stirring until a lightly browned cturst forms on top of the soup, 5- 10 minutes longer.
- When serving, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.
Recipe courtesy of Nick Mangini