Once we got past the holidays, with their copious quantities of wine and cheese, we decided that some simple eating was in order— and that the Tuscan bread soup ribollita was the perfect match for our good intentions and the frigid weather.
We tasted ribollita for the first time a few years ago, in Tuscany. Our inn was a couple of miles from a delicatessen that seemed to exist primarily to serve the many tour buses that came rolling down the nearby highway. The deli's crude wooden benches and rustic tables contrasted with an enormous case of cheeses, sausages, breads, salads, and roasted vegetables. We ate there a few times, and although everything was great, the ribollita made a particular impression.
On the surface, it's a blah-looking mush of bread, beans, and whatever leftover vegetables the thrifty cook happened to throw in. But the flavor is astonishing, a mix of smoky pancetta, sweet tomatoes, rich broth, and garlic.
A quick Web search shows that versions vary considerably: some are little more than bread, pancetta, and tomatoes, while others resemble vegetable-packed minestrone. Here's the version we made on New Year's Day, which borrowed from several recipes, including Rachael Ray's (yeah, she's obnoxious, but she's often good on Italian dishes, and she possesses an endearingly awful Upstate New York accent that's even worse than Ruth's):
4 T. olive oil
4 ounces bacon (we used veggie bacon, which worked fine)
1 large onion, chopped
4 minced garlic cloves
2 carrots, chopped
1/2 cup red wine
6 cups stock (meat, chicken, or vegetable—we used veggie stock made in large part from the caramelized skins of roasted garlic, and it was great)
1 Parmesan cheese rind
15 ounce can tomatoes, with juice
28 ounce can white beans
4 cups chopped kale
4 cups bread, cut into 2-inch chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat the oil in a good-size pot, and fry the bacon for about five minutes.
2. Add onion, garlic, and carrots, and fry until soft.
3. Deglaze with red wine.
4. Add broth, Parmesan rind, tomatoes, and beans, and bring to a boil.
5. Add kale and reduce to a simmer. When kale is cooked through—about 15 minutes, depending on how finely you chopped it—add the bread, and continue simmering for an additional ten minutes.
6. Serve hot with grated Parmesan.
By the time you serve leftovers, the bread in the ribollita will have absorbed all the stock. This nearly solid substance—which barely qualifies as "soup"—is very similar in consistency to what we ate in Tuscany.