Every Saturday morning there’s a very good farmers’ market in Twickenham (in fact, I keep meaning to write a post about it, but it was raining heavily this morning so I wasn’t going to hang around and the post will have to wait for a sunnier or at least drier Saturday). There were gorgeous big bundles of cavolo nero – black cabbage – at one of the stalls and I just love this vegetable.
It’s hard to buy elsewhere; I’ve rarely seen it in supermarkets, so I like to make the most of it being available in the market at this time of year. It’s delicious simply cooked in a little water and half-steamed (a method described in my fishcake recipe), and then you just need to drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over the top and a squeeze of lemon juice. However, on this cold, wet day soup came to mind and what soup other than ribollita could one think of with cavolo nero to hand. Ribollita – meaning ‘re-boiled’ – is a hearty Tuscan soup that can be a meal in itself. It’s very much a peasant food, embracing all that is best about that term: it’s cheap, tasty and full of goodness.
One of my favourite ribollitas is the one served at my favourite A Cena Italian restaurant in Twickenham. In fact, I think that’s where I first tried it and chef Nicola makes a really brilliant one. However, without her to hand to ask advice of, I searched through some of my books and looked on the internet: Carluccio, Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater, Katie Caldesi … Inevitably, seeking advice from many sources can bring confusion: more or less tomato? Should the bread go in while cooking the soup or into the bowl with soup spooned on top at the end? Finally, I just closed the books and computer and went ahead with my own interpretation. As it’s an ‘interpretation’ I haven’t called the recipe ‘ribollita‘ – but that’s the kind of thing I was aiming for!
First of all, chop 1 medium onion, 1 stick of celery, and 1 medium carrot into quite small chunks. Put it all into a large saucepan with a good glug of olive oil, crush in 1 clove of garlic, and then gently cook the soffrito for 10-15 minutes until the vegetables are tender but not brown. This stage of cooking is important for the overall flavour so don’t skip cooking your soffrito properly. Meanwhile, chop 1 medium potato into small pieces and when the soffrito is ready, add the potato with 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes and a spring of fresh thyme. Season with salt and pepper, give it all a good stir and then loosen the mixture with a little water and allow it to gently bubble away, with a lid on, for about 10 minutes.
Now add half a 400g tin of beans. Ribollita traditonally has cannellini beans in it but as I didn’t have any, I used pinto beans. Blend the other half of the tin with a little water and keep aside for later.
Prepare the cavolo nero. Pull the leafy part away from the woody stems and then finely slice, discarding the stems. Add to the soup and put the lid on. Allow the soup to simmer away for at least 30 minutes, maybe a little more, till the cabbage is nice soft and all the flavours have rounded out. Now add the blended beans to thicken but also to add flavour. Check your seasoning and if necessary loosen the mixture with a little hot water, but it should be quite thick, almost like a stew.
I had a lovely two-day old sourdough loaf and I lightly toasted a thick slice. You really need a good bread for this; supermarket sliced bread won’t do. Put the toast into the bottom of a serving dish. Then spoon the soup over the top and leave for a couple of minutes before eating – if you can wait that long! – so the soup soaks into the bread.
Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over the top and then it’s ready to eat. It smelled fantastic: so warm, rich and inviting. It tasted pretty fantastic too. This is a soup packed with flavour: deep, fruity, earthy and full of goodness. You just know it’s good for you too. It’s a soup that not only can, but almost should, be made in advance: remember its name, ribollita meaning re-boiled. So it may taste even better tomorrow! And this is also why I chose to add the bread at the end (as Carluccio does), because I thought re-boiled bread in soup wasn’t going to be as good as freshly toasted bread for each serving.
We’re so used to being able to source most foods at any time of the year, but I like the fact that cavolo nero is only available in autumn/winter months. It’s something to look forward to and its flavour entirely appropriate to this time of year. If you can’t find it in your supermarket, get down to your nearest farmers’ market and there’s a good chance you’ll find it there.