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Virgin Territory - Pistou
Pistou. Excerpted from VIRGIN TERRITORY, © 2015 by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

This classic basil-fragrant spring soup from the South of France is one of the two most famous Provençal soups. Think of it as bouillabaisse for vegetables and you’ll understand that the two soups are very much alike. Everything fresh and seasonal from great local markets, such as the magnificent Cours Saleya in Nice, is added to this, and then the whole delicious freshness is exalted when a big dollop of basil-rich, garlic-rich, oil-rich sauce is stirred in, with more being served at the table.

To be super-authentic, use a fine Provençal oil, such as Castelas, a controlled appellation (AOC) from the Vallée des Baux. Or try it with a Taggiasca from neigh- boring Liguria or a Catalan Arbequina oil.

Don’t feel restricted by the vegetables listed here. If fresh peas, fava beans, or other greens are available, by all means dice or sliver or chop or shuck, and add them in too. Omit the carrots and tomatoes and you will have a very pretty green and white soup that simply sings of spring.

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For the “pesto”:

  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
  • 1/3 cup olive oil, preferably Provençal or Ligurian

For the soup:

  • ½ cup dried cannellini or borlotti beans, soaked overnight
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves
  • 6 cups chicken stock, vegetable broth, or plain water
  • ¼ cup finely minced pancetta (optional)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • ¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • ¼ cup chopped white or yellow onion
  • ¼ cup olive oil, preferably Provençal or Ligurian
  • 2 leeks, diced
  • 2 medium carrots, diced
  • 2 small zucchini, diced
  • 1 large russet potato, peeled and diced
  • ½ pound fresh green beans, sliced about 1 inch long
  • ½ pound ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 6 canned whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup pasta, either small shapes or vermicelli broken into 1-inch lengths; or ½ cup long-grain rice
  • ¼ small green or savoy cabbage, slivered
  • 3 or 4 large leaves chard (red or green), slivered

TO MAKE THE “PESTO”: (Note that this is a little different from the Genovese pesto that is made on the other side of the nonexistent border between Provence and Liguria.) Pound in a mortar the garlic, basil leaves, and a pinch of salt. When the mixture is a paste, stir in the grated cheese and the oil. Or combine all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until well blended. Set aside until the soup is done.

TO MAKE THE SOUP: Drain the soaked beans and add them to a saucepan with the bay leaves and 2 cups of the stock. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat until the beans are tender but not falling apart, 40 minutes to 1 hour. When done, set aside in their liquid. (If fresh cranberry or other shucking beans are available, use them instead of dried beans—they will require only 15 to 20 minutes of cooking.)

IN the bottom of a heavy stockpot, combine the pancetta, garlic, parsley, and onion with the oil. (If you are not using pancetta, you may wish to add another tablespoon or two of oil to the mixture.) Set over medium- low heat and cook gently, stirring, until the vegetables are tender, but do not let them brown.

ONCE the vegetables in the kettle are soft, add the leeks, carrots, zucchini, potato, green beans, and tomatoes. Stir in the remaining 4 cups stock and bring to a simmer. Cook gently, covered, for about 20 minutes, or until the carrots and potatoes are tender. Stir in the beans with their cooking liquid, and add salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Let the soup simmer for another 5 minutes, then stir in the pasta or rice and continue cooking just until the pasta is al dente or the rice is tender. Add the slivered cabbage and chard, mix well, and remove from the heat. The greens will cook in the residual heat of the soup.

STIR in a big spoonful of the basil sauce right before serving, tasting once more and adjusting the seasoning. Serve more of the sauce and more grated cheese at the table.

Note: Leave out the pancetta, adding another spoonful or so of oil to take its place, and use vegetable stock or water to make this vegetarian. Omitting the cheese as well will turn it into a delicious vegan dish.

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