Soupe Au Pistou

June 13, 2009

So, how do you grant shrift to spellbinding Provence? Note to Will: brevity is not always the soul of wit (whit).

Simply identify it as Provençal: Provença in classical norm or Prouvènço in Mistralian norm, a region of southeastern France? In a droning museum voice name it as a host to Paleolithic sites dating to 900,000 B.C? Call it home to a permanent Greek settlement called Massalia, established at modern day Marseilles in about 600 B.C. by colonists coming from Phocaea (now Foça, on the Aegean coast in modern Turkey)? Christen it the first Roman province outside of Italy? Baptize it as the “annex” of the formerly Italian Roman Catholic papacy which moved to Avignon in the 14th Century? Title it an abode to the souls of Cézanne, van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, Chagall, and Picasso? Or just not so blandly classify it as a region that comprises the départements of Var, Vaucluse, and Bouches-du-Rhône and parts of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Alpes-Maritimes?

So many missteps, so much left out. Such is the construct of a blog. But, beyond cavil or retort, Provence and Italy are viscerally intermingled. Consider something as simple as pizzas or the subtle difference between pesto vs. pistou. Sans pine nuts, they are still divinely intertwined.

Soupe au pistou is a more than memorable Provençal soup that is brimming with summer garden bounty…gifts from friends at the market. Thanks, John, et al.

see I am Sam, Sam I am, infra for pesto.


1/2 C dried lima or white beans
Bouquet garni I: bay leaves, fresh sprigs of parsley, thyme, and basil twined together
3 T extra virgin olive oil
3 plump, fresh garlics, peeled and minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
Pinch of sea salt
3 C fresh basil leaves, washed
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

1/3 C extra virgin olive oil
3 medium leeks, white part only, cut lengthwise, then into thin half rings
2 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
8 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and very thinly sliced (almost shaven)

2 medium carrots, trimmed, peeled and cut into half discs
1/2 fennel bulb, finely chopped
4 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
Bouquet garni II: bay leaves, fresh sprigs of parsley, thyme, and basil twined together

2 medium zucchini, trimmed and chopped
2 tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 C diminutive pasta such as ditalini, conchigliette or acini di pepe

1 C freshly grated parmiggiano reggiano
1 C freshly grated gruyère

Rinse beans and remove any imperfections. Place the beans in a large bowl and add boiling water to cover. Set aside for 1 hour. Drain the beans.

In a large, heavy saucepan, stir together the olive oil, garlic and bouquet garni. Cook over medium heat until garlic is soft, about 2 minutes. Add the beans and stir to coat with oil and garlic. Cook an additional minute, then add 1 quart of water. Stir, then cover, bring to a simmer and cook approximately 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove and discard bouquet garni I. Set beans aside.

Meanwhile, combine garlic, salt and basil in a food processor or blender or a mortar and process in bursts to a paste. Drizzle in olive oil in a thin, continuous stream while processing. Stir to blend well. Set the pistou aside.

In a large heavy stockpot or Dutch oven, combine the leeks, onions, and garlic over low heat and cook until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally. Do not brown or burn. Add the carrots, fennel, potatoes, and bouquet garni II to the pot, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Remove and discard bouquet garni II. Now, add the beans and their cooking liquid, the zucchini and tomatoes, along with 2 quarts of water to the pot. Simmer gently, uncovered, about 20 minutes.

Add the pasta and simmer, uncovered, until the pasta is cooked, about 10 minutes. Remove and discard bouquet garni II. Stir in half of the pistou and half of the cheese.

Serve soup, passing remaining pistou and cheeses at the table.

My youngest son just arrived in southern France (Languedoc-Roussillon) for a mystical summer sojourn in the country. The ancient regional language, Occitan, is still heard in parts of Languedoc. Occitan first began to appear in writing during the 10th century and was used particularly to write the poetry of the troubadours. When France became a unified country in the 15th century, the language of the Parisian court, langue d’oïl, was favored over Occitan and other regional languages, which fell into decline…langue d’oil slowly morphed into modern French.

During the 19th century, Occitan experienced a revival, largely thanks to the efforts of a Provençal literary group called the Félibre which included the Nobel laureate poet and wordsmith, Frédéric Mistral, who worked to standardize written Occitan. Their efforts have been rewarded as today there is one weekly newspaper La Setmana and magazines written entirely in Occitan and some regional newspapers, such as La Dépêche du Midi occasionally publishing columns in Occitan.

The word Languedoc means, literally, the language that uses “oc” which means “yes.” In contrast, “langue d’oïl,” means the language that uses “oïl”—an early form of “oui“—for the affirmative.

My son is particularly pumped, because tomorrow is lunch at his favorite pizza venue where he gets to feast al fresco on some just straightout awesome pie. No doubt some fine jambon et fromage will be visiting the yeasty, crisp dough on his plate. Most pizzerias in France feature a bottle of fiery oil known as pili pili, which is a combination of herbs, hot chili peppers, and oil that has its roots in central Africa. Just wondering whether his table sports a bottle which he can drizzle on a slice…but look forward to finding out soon enough.

Bon appetit ou Bon apetís, mon fils!


1 fresh, plump garlic clove, peeled and minced finely
3 red chili peppers, stemmed, seeded and minced finely
1 T oregano
2 t crushed red pepper flakes
1 t fennel seeds
4 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 bay leaves

1-2 C olive oil

Place the first 8 ingredients in a freshly cleansed bottle, then cover with oil. Close securely and let rest for several days. Not only reserved for pizzas, pili pili is delicious on grilled meats and vegetables.

Aïoli epitomizes the heat, the power, and the joy of the Provençal sun, but it has another virtue—it drives away flies.
~Frédéric Mistral


Globe artichokes (Cynara cardunculus) are perennial thistles with origins in the Mediterranean, probably North Africa or Sicily. After the plant travelled throughout Europe, Spanish settlers brought artichokes to what is now California in the 1600’s—but they were not widely grown there until the first quarter of the 20th century. Castroville, California, became artichoke famous on a national scale when Marilyn Monroe was crowned Artichoke Queen in 1948.

The edible portions of the plant are fleshy lower portions of the leaves (bracts) and the base or receptacle, known as the heart. The mass of florets in the center of the bud is called the choke.

Artichokes contain a compound called cynarin, which stimulates taste bud receptors enhancing even the simplest of flavors. They are deceptively healthy—a fertile source of silymarin, an antioxidant traditionally used in many cultures to treat liver, gallbladder and digestive disorders. They also provide other nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, folic acid as well as carotenoids, such as lutein and zeaxanthin. Artichokes are virtually fat free.

Choose globes that are dark green, heavy, and have tightly knit leaves. Dry looking globes that appear to be turning brown and are too open are past their prime.


1 artichoke
1 fresh lemon, quartered and seeded
12 black peppercorns
2 t salt
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

Lay the artichoke on its side on a cutting board; using a large chef’s knife, cut away the entire top quarter in one slice. Cut off the stem at the bottom, so the artichoke will stand upright in the serving dish. Cut off the very bottom of the stem, peel it and and retain. Pull off the tough bottom leaves. Then, using scissors, cut away the thorny end of each remaining leaf. I actually prefer leaving the leaf ends intact as it seems more visually pleasing. You just need to care to avoid being pricked throughout your dining experience.

Fill pasta pot halfway with water, and and add lemon, peppercorns, salt, bay leaves, thyme and garlic. Bring to a boil and then place the artichoke directly in water. Reduce the heat to a lively simmer and cook until a large leaf easily pulls away, about 35 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain through a colander.

(You may also steam the artichoke in a basket with 2 inches or so of water in the pot.)

Serve hot, at room temperature or cold with drawn peppered butter, aïolis, or mayonnaise. Use your teeth to scrape the flesh from the bottom of each leaf. Either use a specially desiged artichoke plate or have a bowl on the side for the discarded leaves. Do not forget that the leaves closest to the heart of the choke are very tender. Once you reach the last flimsy leaves that cover the choke and heart in the middle, cut them away with a circular motion with a spoon or knife. Discard both the leaves and the fuzzy choke underneath, then slice up that succulent heart and stem.


Prepare aïoli (see Aïoli, Aïoli, Aïoli post)


Basic aïoli recipe
1 small can of chipotle chilies in adobo, partially drained and finely minced
1/2 fresh lime
Pinch of dried cumin
Handful of fresh cilantro, finely chopped

To the basic aïoli recipe, add finely minced chipotles and some of the adobe to taste; add the cumin, a squeeze of fresh lime and cilantro. Mix well.