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Soup Au Pistou

It is the last-minute addition of the wonderfully pungent basil paste known as pistou that both gives this dish its name and moves an otherwise simple vegetable soup into the realm of the sublime. Named for the pestle with which it is traditionally ground into a paste, pistou is a specialty of Nice, with obvious links to the Italian pesto that originated in nearby Genoa.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dried cannellini beans, picked over and
      soaked overnight
  • 4 quarts water
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, sliced
  • 1⁄2 lb. green beans, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 2 large zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced
      crosswise
  • 3 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

For the pistou:

  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 40 fresh basil leaves
  • 1 small tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
      (optional)
  • 3 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1⁄2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

  • 3 oz. vermicelli, broken into 3-inch pieces
  • 2 Tbs. tomato paste

Directions:

Drain the beans and place in a soup pot. Add the water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 30 minutes. Add the onion, celery, green beans, zucchini, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook until the cannellini beans are nearly tender, about 30 minutes more.

Meanwhile, make the pistou: In the bowl of a food processor, combine the garlic and basil. Process until finely chopped. Add the tomato and process until incorporated. With the motor running, slowly add the olive oil and process until smooth. Add the cheese, salt and pepper and process until incorporated. Set aside.

Add the pasta to the soup and cook until the pasta and cannellini beans are tender, about 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper. Stir in the tomato paste. Stir 2 Tbs. of the pistou into the soup and ladle into warmed bowls. Serve the remaining pistou alongside.
Serves 10.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Savoring Series, Savoring Provence, by Diane Holuigue (Time-Life Books, 2002).