I have lots of fond memories from our Tuscan honeymoon. One of the most memorable though is from our first night in Siena. Once we arrived at our B&B, we asked our hosts for a recommendation for a good restaurant. We told them we were looking for a place where the locals like to eat; the less touristy, the better. They hesitantly told us of one of their favorite places, warning us that they most likely did not speak English and there was no printed menu.
An hour later we walked into a restaurant which was roughly the size of our Brooklyn apartment living room. We sat at one of the 5 tables and the owner/chef/waiter walked up to us and recited that days menu in Italian. We understood just enough to order our meal. Andrew was to start with a platter of prosciutto and melon and then have their pasta bolognese and I was going to start with the ribolitta soup and then the fresh tagliatelle with mushrooms. At this point we were feeling pretty proud of ourselves for understanding their offerings and effectively ordering in Italian (neither of us speak Italian outside of basic food items and key phrases). But apparently we were not as good as we thought. A few minutes later the owner brought over the prosciutto e melon. Two plates of it. Big plates. And these were not delicate, thin slices of meat. These were thick, hearty slices. Rustic, if you will. I was already scared. Andrew and I were under the understanding that just HE was starting with the prosciutto. But, it was clearly our fault; we were the ones trying to order in badly broken Italian, so we both dug in. I got two thirds through and couldn't go any further. I was already full. Yikes. The owner came over and disappointingly looked at my plate so I tried explaining that I wanted to save room for the rest of the meal. He grunted and put my unfinished plate in front of Andrew. Oh boy. We realized that we were basically in this guys living room and not finishing our food would be seen as disrespectful. Andrew put down the rest of my prosciutto e melon in a hurry.
Next came the ribollita. We must have ordered this more clearly because the owner just brought one bowl over, placed it in front of me and topped it off with a drizzle of local olive oil. Ribollita, a traditional Tuscan soup, was one of my favorite soups to make at home, so naturally I was very excited to have it in Tuscany at an authentic restaurant. And, boy, this did not disappoint. At first I was taken aback by the density of the soup. There was no broth to speak of; it was more like a bowl of glop, but an absolutely wonderful glop. It was so different from what I had been making at home, and so much better. I was able to eat half of it and then passed the remainder over to Andrew. "Molto Buona", we enthusiastically told the owner when he cleared the empty bowl. He looked pleased, and we felt somewhat relieved.
But next came the pastas. I'm sure they were delicious, but at that point we were so full we could barely taste anything. I had two bites, could absolutely go no further and then (poor Andrew) passed the rest over to my new husband. He couldn't get through both of them, but did get close. After our pastas were cleared the owner approached our table again. We both told him how much we enjoyed the meal. He thanked us and then promptly started telling us about beef and wild boar dishes they were serving that night (I kid you not).
Needless to say, we did not have any "carne" that night. And, although we both ate more than we would have thought physically possible, we did have a delicious meal and I left with a new understanding of ribolitta.
When we got back to the states, I started modifying my recipe, or rather the technique, to make it taste more like what I had that night in Siena. Traditionally, ribolitta consists of leftover vegetables (usually Tuscan kale, chard, cabbage, carrots and onions), canellini beans and day old Tuscan bread. But keep in mind that this soup's purpose is to use up any leftover ingredients, so don't go out to buy chard if you have spinach in the fridge. The last time I made this I literally threw in all of that weeks leftover vegetables that otherwise may have been thrown out. No matter the variation, it's good every time.
And it's a meal, on its own.
When you're finished with a chunk of Parmesan cheese, put the rind in a resealable plastic bag in the freezer. Use the rinds in recipes like this to add flavor and depth. If you don't have any leftover rinds on hand, grate extra cheese into the soup once it has finished simmering.
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 onion, diced
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
3 carrots, diced
1 zucchini, diced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, minced
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, minced
2 fresh bay leaves
1 bunch kale, coarse stems removed & roughly chopped
1 bunch chard or spinach, coarse stems removed & roughly chopped
1 can canellini or Great Northern beans, drained & rinsed
1 can whole tomatoes
1 quart vegetable or chicken stock
2 or 3 leftover Parmesan cheese rinds
a few slices of day-old white bread, sliced very thinly
fresh grated Parmesan, for garnishing
Heat the olive oil in a large pot heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Saute the onion until translucent then add the garlic and crushed red pepper and cook another minute or until garlic is fragrant. Add the carrots, zucchini and fresh herbs and continue cooking until vegetables are tender. Wilt in the kale and chard. Once the greens have cooked down a little, stir in the canned tomatoes (with their juices) and the beans.
Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer. Add the Parmesan cheese rinds and the bread to the soup and continue to simmer for at least an hour (you can let it cook for a couple of hours if you have the time, it just gets better), adding more stock or water if necessary. The bread should completely dissolve into the soup and help it get really thick.
Remove the Parmesan cheese rinds and bay leaves. Season to taste with salt and pepper. When serving, top with a little freshly grated Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of good olive oil.