Soupe au Pistou for a Cold January Day

When I woke up this morning, it was 32 degrees outside. The wind chill factor made it feel like 26 degrees. Temperatures like that are practically unheard of in my neck of the woods. I peeked out from under the covers, trying to muster up the courage to get out of bed and scurry over to turn up the heat. I failed. Luckily, my husband is braver than I am. As I waited for the thermostat to rise a little, I took a mental inventory of what I had to do today. Since the schools are still on Winter Break, I've tried to keep my schedule light this week, so that I could be available for chauffeuring kids to the mall, movies, skating rink and various other assorted teen scenes. On this frigid January morning though, there was one thing I decided that I definitely must do - make some soup!
I know that my Canadian friends are probably reading this while groaning and rolling their eyes at me. Yes, a few days of 30+ degree weather here and there can't compare with what you guys live with for several months of the year. But, give me a break here. I've lived in Florida for thirty-four years! I'm not used to this! My blood is thinner than yours! However, I'm sure that we all can agree that there is nothing that beats a steaming hot bowl of soup on a freezing cold and blustery Winter day - wherever you are.

Since I had just been shopping and had a fridge full of fresh vegetables, I chose to make one of my favorite recipes - Soupe au Pistou. Soupe au Pistou is the fancy French version of good old vegetable soup. What sets this soup apart and puts it on a whole other level is that it is served topped with shredded Gruyere cheese and a dollop of basil pesto. Pistou is the French word for pesto. So, Soupe au Pistou = Soup with Pesto. (Don't I just dazzle you all with my brilliant powers of deduction?) The only difference between French pistou and Italian pesto is that the Italian version traditionally includes pine nuts, whereas the French version does not. .
This recipe was borrowed from Patricia Wells. I came across it years ago while watching her on an episode of Martha Stewart's old cooking show. For those who don't know (or those who have been living on Mars for several years), Patricia Wells is a very well-known journalist, food expert and cookbook author who has lived in France since 1980. She is the author of several terrific books, including the Foodie's travel bible, The Food Lover's Guide to Paris. She regularly conducts cooking classes at both her Paris studio and her farmhouse in Provence. She is the real deal!
The recipe itself is not very difficult. The most tedious part is the slicing, dicing and chopping all of the vegetables. These days, you can buy all of the vegetables necessary for this dish already pre-sliced, diced and chopped at your local supermarket. You can also use frozen cut green beans. I did that today and you cannot tell in the end product.
If you're like me, and can't ever find fresh or dried cranberry beans, you can use canned beans. I can almost always find those in the supermarket. They are sometimes called Roman beans. I just drain and rinse them well, then add them to the pot about fifteen minutes before the soup is ready. Actually, I have made this soup using all canned beans before and it was great. If you don't have a lot of time, this is also a good shortcut. Just make sure you rinse off all of the goopy stuff.
Pre-made pesto sauce can be used instead of the homemade pistou. If you do use it, get the kind in the refrigerator section of the market, where the fresh pasta is. Mix it with a little freshly grated Parmesan and a drizzle of the best extra virgin olive oil you have. This will really freshen up the flavors and no one will know that it came from a plastic container!
As always, I substituted chicken broth for water to make this soup. You could also use vegetable broth. I just think that doing this adds a lot more flavor.
Soupe au Pistou is a really thick and hearty main dish. Add a fresh tossed salad (with a French vinaigrette, of course) and a crusty baguette and you're halfway to Provence. Wearing a black beret and listening to Edith Piaf Cd's are optional!
Soupe au Pistou
Adapted from Patricia Wells


Small handful bay leaves
Small handful thyme sprigs
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and halved lengthwise and 10 cloves, peeled and quartered lengthwise
Sea salt, to taste
1 pound fresh small white (navy) beans in the pod, shelled, or 8 ounces dried small white beans, soaked in boiling water for 1 hour
1 pound fresh cranberry beans in the pod, shelled, or 8 ounces dried cranberry beans, soaked in boiling water for 1 hour
3 medium leeks, white and tender green parts only, scrubbed, quartered, and finely sliced
8 medium carrots, scrubbed, quartered lengthwise, and sliced
2 medium onions, halved and cut into thin rings
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cubed
12 ounces zucchini, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced
12 ounces tomatoes, cored, peeled, seeded, and chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 pound green beans, trimmed at both ends and quartered
3 quarts cold water
1 cup very fine pasta, such as angel hair or orzo
Patricia's Pistou (recipe follows)
1 cup (4 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 cup (4 ounces) freshly grated imported Gruyere cheese


  • Prepare a bouquet garni: Place bay and thyme leaves in a square of cheesecloth, and tie securely with cotton twine.
  • ..
  • In a large, heavy-bottomed 10-quart stockpot, combine the olive oil, 3 halved garlic cloves, bouquet garni, and salt. Stir to coat with the oil and cook over moderate heat until the garlic is fragrant and soft, about 2 minutes. Add the navy and cranberry beans, and stir to coat. Cook for 1 minute more.
  • ...
  • Add leeks, carrots, onions, potatoes, and quartered garlic cloves, and cook until softened over moderate heat, stirring regularly, for about 10 minutes. This will give a lovely color and rich flavor to the soup.
  • ...
  • Add zucchini, tomatoes, tomato paste, green beans, 3 quarts cold water, and salt to taste. Simmer gently, uncovered, until the navy and cranberry beans are tender, about 30 minutes (cooking time will vary according to the freshness of the beans). Add additional water if the soup becomes too thick.
  • ...
  • Add pasta, and stir frequently to keep the pasta from sticking to the bottom of the pot, simmering until the pasta is cooked, about 5 minutes more. Taste for seasoning. Remove and discard the bouquet garni.
  • ...
  • Serve the soup very hot, passing the pistou and cheese to swirl into the soup.

Patricia's Pistou (Makes about 1 cup)

4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

Fine sea salt, to taste

2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil


By hand:

Place garlic and salt in a mortar, and mash with a pestle to form a paste. Add basil, little by little, pounding and turning the pestle with a grinding motion to form a paste. Slowly add oil, drop by drop, until all the oil has been used and the paste is homogenous. Add salt to taste. Stir again before serving.

In a food processor:

Place garlic, salt, and basil in the bowl of a food processor, and process to a paste. Add oil, and process again. Add salt to taste. Stir again before serving. Transfer to a small bowl. Serve immediately.

The sauce can be stored, covered and refrigerated, for 1 day, or frozen for up to 6 months. Bring to room temperature, and stir again before serving.



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