Cucina Povera Cousins
Tuscan and Neapolitan cuisine are natural cousins. Both hark back to days of poverty in their use humble, oft-discarded ingredients. Both feature beans prominently. Both do weird things with offal, although that is true for nearly every Italian region. Nowhere is the cucina povera link more apparent then with the peasant dish of ribollita. Literally meaning, re-boiled, ribollita utilizes a mish-mash of ingredients that may have found their fates in rubbish bins were in not for the ingenuity of Tuscan home cooks in leaner times.
The most compelling use of an otherwise discarded food would of course be stale bread. Every region in Italy has its own take on stale bread usage. This Tuscan version is among the most famous abroad. Strangely a bastard cousin of ribollita is often called Tuscan White Bean Soup on generic restaurant menus in the United States The resulting dish is a flaccid and less nutritious version of the original and oddly includes entirely too much pancetta. Ribollita it is not.
In fact as a Senesi friend pointed out to me the other day, it is rather incorrect to say “I am going to make ribollita today.” You don’t simply set out to make ribollita in one day. It is the organic result of a week’s left overs-namely simmered beans and bread. The fact that it is vegetarian means that it was traditionally eaten on Fridays or giorni di magro- lean days of religious fasting.
Whereas fasting in other religion means actually abstaining from consumption of food, the term is more poetically interpreted here in Italy. Usually fasting simply means eating no meat. But fish and vegetables? Well, we have found ourselves in an ecclesiastical loophole and if God gave us food, then in might as well taste good. Besides, the biggest sin of all is to throw away bread-lest you be cast into the far reaches of hell with no a carbohydrate in sight. And on further reflection, I would tend to think that hell is place with not a morsel of bread.
With ribollita, it is the stale bread, gently fried in olive oil that gives the dish its contrasting texture. The cannellini beans, slowly simmered, are tender- but continue to hold their form. Finally, the true king of the ribollita is the Cavolo Nero or Dinosaur Kale. It is nearly impossible to find outside of Tuscany—even in Napoli we tend to eschew it in favor of other chicories and escarole. But to be ribollita- it must have this king of kales.
The comfort of the ribollita comes not just from eating it- but from simmering it slowly on a blustery morning, all the while knowing that with a scant heap of humble winter ingredients, one can feed a crowd with the ruddy panache of a Tuscan poet. It is easy to understand now why we call Tuscans the ‘mangia-fagioli’ or bean eaters of Italy. After eating a good ribollita it is plain to see they ought to where that as a badge of honor. That is until they eat nonna's pasta fagioli down in Napoli.
Serves 8 as a primo, 6 as a main dish
· 1lb dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight
· 1 celery rib
· 1 whole carrot + 2 diced carrots
· 1 whole white onion, peeled and sliced in two + 1 white onion finely minced
· 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
· 1lb dinosaur kale sliced into strips
· ½ lb Savoy cabbage sliced into strips
· ½ lb chard sliced into strips
· Three medium potatoes peeled and cut into ½” cubes
· Sliced stale bread
Drain and rinse beans
Place beans in large Dutch oven and cover generously with water (if you add cold water throughout cooking time, the beans will never properly cook)
Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and add whole carrot and halved onion
Simmer for 90 minutes until beans are fork tender but still hold their shape
Off heat and place beans in bowl to reserve
Wipe clean Dutch oven
Heat 1tablespoon olive in Dutch oven over medium heat
Sauté onions and carrots in oil until onions are translucent and softened
Add kale, cabbage and chard and sauté to coat with olive oil and slightly soften
Add potatoes, beans and there cooking liquid to kale mixture
Generously salt, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 1 hour
While ribollita is simmering, heat remaining olive oil in a sauté pan over medium and gently sauté bread to a crisp golden hue
Place bread in the bottom of a wide bowl, ladle with ribollita and serve immediately
Ribollita gets better as it rests and makes excellent left overs.
Enjoy with a class of Castellina Chianti on a cold Sunday afternoon.