Thursday, January 13, 2011

Soupe Au Pistou

Sorry the sorrisome state of blog posts lately. The holidays came and went, which were spent in San Jose with Adam's family. Here are a few pictures they sent, including some of Adam, who played Santa this year.

As it's the new year and all, I've been trying some healthy recipes and making lots of soup. I love making soup because you don't need exact recipes, as you do in baking, and can make a pretty satisfying meal without spending a lot. This year we made big pots of potato leek , potato and ham, and multiple batches of tomato basil (a favorite for both of us.)

I was trying to dream up a recipe to use some leftover vegetables and remembered a soup called "Soupe Au Pistou." Here a long, somewhat self-indulgent version of the story of Soupe Au Pistou. Years ago, I was fortunate to spend a couple of summers with a French host family. I had a strange fascination with French language and culture in high school and was ecstatic to be afforded the opportunity to visit there. Since that time, my host sister, Florence, and I have visited each other multiple times - most recently last summer when she flew over to take in San Francisco. She lives a life I consider somewhat idyllic. Her family owns a vineyard in a picturesque French village about 45 minutes outside of Bordeaux. This vineyard has been in the family for generations, and produces excellent wine which is exported internationally. It's the type of place where fresh baguettes are delivered each morning by bicycle, where mass is held at the centuries-old church in the town square, and and all families know each other intimately. The bedrooms of Florence's home have French doors which open up onto their patio and pool, and overlook the nearby vineyards and lavender fields. They vacation, on a whim, to Spain, the Swiss Alps, and sometimes take casual weekend drives through the Pays-Basque to visit extended family. They also own a small apartment at the beach, where we stayed about the half the time I visited.

Obviously, it's hard conjure generalities about a nation of people given the inherent diversity of socioeconomic class, race, religion, etc. But there are some real stereotypes about French people that I believe are true, at least most of the time. For example, they never, ever wear shorts (except maybe for "football.") They walk everywhere, and feel very strongly about their exceptional universal health care and generous vacation pay. And they do make fantastic food. I think when a lot of Americans conjure up images of French food, complex meals like duck confit and creme brulee come to mind. (There are certainly fancy items served for special occasions, such as when I was presented with foie gras made on the family farm at a birthday party. I had no choice but to dig in, but can honestly say the smell and taste was reminiscent of canned cat food.) Most of the time, French people eat home-cooked, good quality foods that are often dictated by season or region. At every single meal (yes, even a late breakfast) you will find bread and table wine. Lunch is the main meal of the day, during which working professionals often return to the family home to spend two or more hours eating and drinking in leisure. They tend to eat "real foods" - chicken, pork, vegetables, salads, fruit, pasta, bread, and lots of cheese. The entire two summers I spent there, I never once saw my French family or friends eating anything like processed macaroni and cheese from a box. In a pinch, they'd rather pick up some cured meats from the charcuterie, and grab some cheese and a baguette and maybe some fruit and call it a quick bite. For dinners, they often roasted a chicken, served with roast tomatoes and salad with "les lardons," little pieces of bacon in a vinaigrette.

My host mother, Marie-France, was a really warm, kind woman who was also an exceptional cook. She made this soup on a rare rainy day and let us help her in the kitchen. Making it reminds me of her. There are many versions of this soup. Julia Child has a recipe with lots and lots of ingredients, which I'm sure is great. I was happy to find one in my Joy of Cooking book, as well. It's a very basic but delicious vegetable soup served with a pistou, or type of petso, spooned in at the end, which is the most important part. It's also essential that it be served with bread and your favorite cheese. (Unlike me, Marie-France kept her neighbors' goat cheese on hand...But just for her, I bought some.) Here is my recipe for Soupe Au Pistou - great anytime of year, hot or cold.

Soupe Au Pistou

Ingredients for soup
- Olive oil
- 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
- 1 or 2 leeks, cleaned and chopped
- 1 or 2 carrots, chopped
- 2 large, ripe tomatoes
- 2 waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, diced into bite-size chunks
- 8 cups of water
- 1 can of cannellini or white beans, or 2 cups cooked beans
- 1 zucchini
- Large handful of green beans, washed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- Optional: pinch saffron, 2 tablespoons Bragg's Liquid Aminos All-Purpose Seasoning

1. Saute the onion, leeks, and carrots on medium heat for 5-10 minutes, until tender but not browned.
2. Add in the potatoes and tomatoes, along with optional seasonings (if using) and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until tomatoes are tender.
3. Add in the zucchini, green beans and white beans at the end. Serve each bowl with a large spoonful or two of Pistou.
(To make pistou: Either in a food processor, blender or mortar & pestle, combine 2 cups basil leaves, 3 smashed garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons parmesan, 2 tablespoons tomato paste, and 1/2 cup of olive oil and pinch of black pepper. Store for up to two weeks.)

Adapted somewhat from the Joy of Cooking:

(I cooked up my own beans, since I had a bag of dried white beans laying around.)

Stir in big spoonfuls of pistou, or store-bought pesto, and enjoy!