White beans, greens, olive oil – my ribollita
I spent a good few years of my life cooking Italian food, and I am still in the midst of what I know will be a lifelong love. This is one of the dishes that made me love it so. It is a diva of a dish and it demands you use the very best of everything for it to perform. A ribollita made from the best oil, tomatoes, cavolo nero and bread takes a lot of beating.
I remember every note of my first taste of this in the kitchen of Fifteen London, at the hands of a wonderful chef, Ben Arthur, a Londoner who cooks like an Italian. Dishes like this changed how I looked at food, how I understood it – why the oil needed to be the very best, why there needed to be a lot of it, why traditions were followed and techniques respected. A life-changing bowl of soup, you could say.
This is an autumn version. In summer I use chard or spinach in place of the cavolo and squashed fresh tomatoes instead of tinned ones. I use tinned beans here for ease, but you could cook your own too.
A good veg stock is useful here, as it adds depth of flavour and back bone that it’s hard to get with stock cubes. Good textured bread is a must too – I use a good sourdough or country-style loaf from my local bakery. Spongy white bread won’t work in the same way.
Cavolo nero, or black cabbage, as it translates, is a deep black green that shows up in late summer and hangs around for a couple of months. I love its deep mineral flavour and its robust nature – the leaves lend themselves very well to cooking in stews. It seems to team with olive oil in some kind of divine partnership. If you can’t get cavolo, then kale will stand in just as well.
2 red onions, peeled and chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
6 sticks of celery, trimmed and chopped, yellow leaves reserved
a small bunch of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
1 × 400g tin of plum tomatoes
1 medium potato, peeled and chopped
1 × 400g tin of white beans (keep the liquid)
3 big handfuls of cavolo nero or kale (about 400g), stalks removed, leaves roughly chopped
2 litres vegetable stock
4 slices of good-quality bread (best if it’s a little stale)
very good extra virgin olive oil, to finish
Heat a little oil in a large saucepan and fry the onions, garlic, carrots and celery over a medium heat for about 30 minutes, until they are soft and sweet and slightly caramelised. Add most of the parsley and cook for another few minutes.
Next, add the tomatoes and the potato. Squash the tomatoes with a wooden spoon and cook on a low heat for a further 15 minutes, stirring from time to time. The tomato liquid should be almost completely absorbed by now and the veg should be looking quite dry.
Add the beans and the juice they come in, along with the cavolo or kale and the stock. Bring to a gentle simmer, then cook for 30 minutes.
Turn the heat off and lay the slices of bread on top of the soup like a lid. Generously drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and leave to sit for 10 minutes or so.
Then stir to combine everything – the ribollita should be thick, almost stewy and deeply delicious. Season with salt and pepper and more parsley, the yellow celery leaves and more good olive oil, and ladle into big bowls.
If you have leftovers, reheat in a pan with more hot stock or water, as the soup will thicken once cool.