Ribollita – Tuscan bean, bread, and vegetable stew

Howdy, foodie fans. Several of you asked for the recipe and a review of the homemade ribollita, so I am complying with your wishes. It turned out really, really good, but I must admit, not as good as what I had in the restaurant. I think mine needed more salt. I made it from the same recipe 3 years ago and I loved it. I will definitely make it again, but I will make a few adjustments – more about that later.

Ribollita is a traditional, hearty Tuscan bread stew, usually made during the winter months. It’s name literally means “reboiled”. It was made by reheating the minestrone from the day before, and adding stale bread to the mix to make it heartier and thicker.  It is part of the cucina povera (poor kitchen) style of cooking; peasant dishes that have rustic, rural roots.

When I had this stew in the restaurant, they assured me that it was vegetarian. The recipe in my cookbook, however, calls for “guanciale” (gwan cha lay) or pig’s cheek. If you can find pig’s cheek and you don’t mind having it in your stew, by all means, throw it in. You can use any type of meat or vegetable stock that you have on hand.

Ingredients, as listed in the cookbook I found here in the apartment

  • 10 oz (300 g) dried cannelini beans
  • 3 onions, thinly sliced
  • 3 zucchini
  • 3 carrots, rough chopped
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • a few sprigs parsley
  • 1 bunch kale, cut into strips (See Note 2)
  • 10 oz. (300 g) potatoes
  • 8 oz. peas
  • meat or vegetable stock
  • stale Tuscan bread, sliced (See Note 3)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt & pepper

Note 1: If you don’t know how to cook beans, you really should learn because it is very easy and very cheap. However, it is time consuming so if you don’t have the time to cook beans, you can substitute canned beans. I would guess that 10 oz. dried beans translates to about 4 cups cooked. Somebody help me out here. Is that about right?

Note 2: The recipe actually says “black cabbage.” When I went to the market and asked for cavolo nero (black cabbage) the guy handed me a bunch of kale. I thought maybe I said it wrong, but the little sign next to the kale did indeed say “cavolo nero”. This makes sense because when I had ribollita in the restaurant I thought it had spinach in it and the recipe didn’t call for any kind of greens, so kale must be the correct thing.

Note 3: After making this with sliced bread, I would use cubed bread next time. It was a little difficult cutting the slices of bread after the whole thing was cooked.

Note 4: Since this is a stew, you can customize according to your own tastes or what you happen to have on hand. I couldn’t find peas, so I just left them out. I’m also a little suspicious of a recipe for a traditional winter stew that calls for zucchini and tomatoes since they aren’t in season until summer, but I put them in anyway. I bet Italian peasants didn’t use out of season vegetables.

Ok, back to the recipe. Here’s what you do:

Rinse the beans, soak overnight, and then cook them in the same water over a very low heat. Meanwhile, chop the zucchini, carrots, celery potatoes, tomatoes, and half the onions, (also put in whatever pig parts you might be using) and fry them in olive oil in a large pan until softened. Add the peas, kale, and parsley. Moisten with the bean cooking water and some stock.

Small rant at this point. What the heck does moisten mean? How much cooking water? How much stock? If this is a soup/stew, shouldn’t it be more than just moistened? I put in about 3 small ladle-fulls of bean cooking water and 1 cup of stock. I admit that I didn’t have stock on hand, there wasn’t any in the store, and I didn’t have time to make it, all of which led me to do something I never do – use bouillon. I won’t do it again. When we had ribollita leftovers a couple days later, I did actually make the stock from scratch.

Ok, so after some experience I would recommend adding about 6 cups of liquid. Maybe more. You want it to be soupy because you’re going to add bread later.

Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 1 hour. Puree some of the beans in a vegetable mill (or a food processor, if you don’t live in the middle ages) add to the soup with the whole beans. Apparently I do live in the middle ages since I had neither a vegetable mill or a food processor and I had to mash my beans with the back of a spoon and add a little water to make a sort of paste.

Arrange the bread (slices or cubes) in the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Pour the soup over the bread and leave to cool. (I skipped the cooling step and I can’t figure out why they want you to let it cool. Maybe it’s just that if you’re cooking this early in the day and you want to have it for dinner, you just get it to this point and leave it until you’re ready to stick it in the oven for dinner.) Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C for you, Heather, and anyone cooking in Europe).

Finely slice the remaining onion and add it to the soup with more oil. Bake in the oven until the oil simmers and the onion forms a golden crust. This was a little vague for me. Since the soup was already on top of the bread, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to try to mix it in a little or make it a topping. I opted for making it a topping. I drizzled the whole thing with olive oil and that worked out pretty well. The onions don’t ever make a golden crust, but they were an extraordinary addition to the stew. I found some fabulous red onions in the local street market (I think they were torpedo onions) and they were really sweet. Next time I make this, I think I will toss the onions in a little semolina flour, fry them, and add a little salt. That would be great on top of the baked stew.

I cooked about half of this in the oven and put the rest of the vegetable stew in the freezer for later. We ate about half of what I cooked the first time. It was a little dry, but still yummy.  On the day we had the leftovers, I made vegetable stock from scratch. The extra is in the freezer with the extra stew. When I reheated the leftovers, I put a little extra stale bread in the bottom of two oven-proof bowls, topped it with the leftover stew, poured in the veggie broth, and topped it with aged pecorino from the farmer’s market. I cooked it in the oven, as before, and the texture was perfect. The addition of the cheese was fantastico!

This is one of those dishes that could have endless variations. It’s a great one to remember when you have leftover soup and leftover bread. Since I have more in the freezer, I’d love to hear your ideas for additions that might spice it up a little.

Buon appetito!