Recipe: Provençal Vegetable Soup with Pistou

This recipe is adapted very slightly from a recipe in The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen, a book that I highly recommend if you want to cook authentic mediterranean dishes that just happen to be vegan.  Most of these dishes come into one of two categories: recipes from regions with very few resources and very little food and recipes intended for Lent.  This one certainly fits into my Lenten plans, but feels rather luxurious for a fasting season.  The vegetables taste very fresh and very much of themselves, and the pistou sets them off beautifully.  Be warned, though – there is a fair bit of preparation involved in making this.  I think it’s worth it, and if you have a food processor to do your chopping, it probably goes very fast, but I go by hand and chopping all those vegetables took ages…

I eat this soup with bread.  It doesn’t really need anything else.  It serves around 5-6 people, depending how hungry they are.

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olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped, plus 2 for the Pistou
2 onions
3 carrots
2 smallish zucchini (no marrows, but no midgets either)
250g green beans (or purple, or yellow, but you want the nice long ones, not the roundish ones)
1 celery stick
500 g roma tomatoes
6 cups + 4 tablespoons vegetable stock
salt, pepper, herbs of your choice, but don’t go overboard.  I used some mediterranean herbed salt.
1 big bunch basil
1 slice of real bread – pasta dura or wholegrain, but not cotton wool
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
500 g potatoes
2 tins cannelini beans, drained

Now what will you do with it?

Start by making stock.  Yes, you could use the bought stuff, but I really, really wouldn’t for this – the flavours are fairly delicate, and bought stock tends to be pretty heavy-handed.  It will drown your soup in salty fakeness.  Don’t do it.   In fact, if you really can’t face making stock or have none on hand, I’d suggest just throwing some saffron and a few herbs and salt and pepper into a couple of litres of water and letting that simmer while you are preparing the rest.  While the stock is going, prepare your vegetables.

The nuisance value of chopping all these vegetables cannot be overstated, but you’d better get onto it.  Basically, you want your onions, carrots (peeled!), zucchini and celery in dice of approximately 1 cm, and your beans should be topped and tailed and cut into length of about an inch.

At least they look pretty…

And while you are chopping everything, skin the tomatoes, which just involves putting them into a bowl, cutting a cross in the base of each tomato and pouring boiling water over them.  Leave them for a few minutes (chopping time!), then pour out the hot water and replace with cold water.  The skins should slip off fairly easily.  After which – you guessed it! – you chop the tomatoes.  I quartered them lengthways and then sliced each quarter into thirds or quarters, depending on size.

Start by getting out a big oven-proof skillet, or a big stove-top proof roasting dish and pre-heating the oven to 220°C.  If you don’t have either of these, don’t worry, just start with a big skillet  and put everything into a roasting tin later.  More washing up, but that is the job of the person you are cooking for, don’t you think?

Heat a generous amount of olive oil in the pan and stir the garlic around until it is golden, then add the carrots, onions, zucchini, celery and beans.  Sauté the whole lot for a couple of minutes until getting a bit golden around the edge, then remove from the heat and add the tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste.  Toss everything around a bit, then bung it in the oven for about half an hour, turning things halfway through, until the veggies are nicely roasted.

While your veggies are cooking, make the pistou.  Soak the bread in 4 tablespoons of the stock (or you can do what I did yesterday and just dip it into the stock which is still cooking, like Thetis dunking Achilles into the Styx, but without the unfortunate implications regarding vulnerable body parts.  And with a much higher chance of scalding your fingers.  So maybe that isn’t such a good idea after all…), and put it in a food processor with the basil leaves, salt and extra virgin olive oil.  Blitz the whole lot until it is a fairly good purée.

Now peel the potatoes and – you know what’s coming here, don’t you? – dice them.  Sorry.  Bring 6 cups of stock to the boil in a large saucepan, and simmer the potatoes in the stock for about 5 minutes.  Add the roasted veg back in for another five, then the beans for a final 5 minutes.  By this stage, the potatoes should be done, and you can serve the soup with a big dollop of pistou in each bowl.

Yum.

Variations

Woo-hoo, we’re already vegan, nut-free and fairly low-GI, and gluten-free is just a matter of replacing the bread with a handful of pine-nuts, or indeed, a gluten-free bread!  Way to go!  The main things I’d fiddle around with here are the pistou and the vegetables.  Frankly, you can switch a lot of the vegetables out for things you like more, though this is a really nice combination.

For the pistou, which is basically pesto by any other name, you could have a lot of fun substituting other herbs for the basil, so long as you stick to the ‘soft’ herbs – mint, parsley, rocket, coriander or anything else you’d add at the end, not the start of cooking (oregano, rosemary and thyme, for example, are all a bit too pungent to be used in those quantities).  This particular soup tastes like summer, due to the summery vegetables and basil, but a winter version with rocket or parsley might be good.  If you are trying to avoid nuts and gluten as well as animal products, I suspect you could get quite a good effect from blending the basil, oil and garlic together without any other additives, to make more of a drizzling oil for this soup.

Really, this is a soup to try on the kind of cold days Melbourne sometimes gives us in summer – it’s warming but still sunshiney, and eating it will make you  feel happy.

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