Under the Tuscan Sun – for a Day

Cortona, the Tuscan hill town made famous by Frances Mayes, tilts ever upward, and its physical high point is the substantial, well-preserved Medici fortress at the top of town. The day we visited, sunshine filled the upper floors of this commanding structure – habitable looking rooms with giant stone fireplaces, and windows for spying on Cortona and the Val di Chiana beyond.

Our food high point came at Restorante la Loggetta, a gracious place on a balcony above the Piazza Republica with dusky-pink tablecloths under giant canvas umbrellas. One bowl of ribollita ordered by one person quickly became another we all shared. Known as Italian “peasant fare,” it’s a warming soup, good in Italian winters but equally good here in this drearily cold Northwest summer. I came home eager to make ribollita.

None of my usual sources offered a recipe, so I trolled the Internet and read several. They all share the basics: bread, beans and “reboiling” (ribollita in Italian).

The recipes (I mostly used one from Heidi Swanson at “101cookbooks.com”) begin by sautéing gently in olive oil, on a low heat, celery, carrots, garlic, and onion – avoiding browning.

Use whatever form of tomatoes you like – I had half a big can of crushed tomatoes and added them to the sauté, along with some red pepper flakes (another recipe suggested crushed fennel seeds also).

After simmering a bit, I added a bunch of Tuscan kale (mid-rib removed and leaves chopped), and three cups of cooked beans (two cups of dry beans cooked the day before easily made the four cups needed). Reduce the heat after boiling and simmer till the greens are tender.

Following Swanson’s advice, I pureed another cup of beans with a “splash” of water (I used bean cooking water).

Ribollita is designed to use up stale bread, so use what you have – sourdough white, wheat – the preference is for unsliced, torn into bite-sized pieces. Add the pureed beans and bread to the soup and simmer for 25 or 30 minutes. After adding one and a half teaspoons of salt (I’d cooked the beans with salt so used less), Swanson incorporates the zest of a whole lemon.

Refrigerate overnight (it’s better the second day), and then serve really hot (it’s meant to be thick – and will be). We served it at a dinner with friends, warmed it up slowly until it boiled for a minute, and ladled it into warm bowls.

The setting might not be warm like Cortona – but ribollita warms the spirits. Pass the olive oil – a couple “glugs” for each bowl – Prego!

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