Feverishly good lentils in a Tuscan classic: ribollita.
The first time I made the ribollita from Gourmet Traveller: The Italian Cookbook, I was amazed at how well such simple flavours could come together to totally wow the senses. Ribollita is a soup traditionally made with leftover vegetables, but this version is much thicker (more like a stew, which intensifies the flavours), uses fresh vegetables, and has flavours that go bang! It’s so rich and hearty and downright delicious, I seek out cavolo nero with this in mind. What is most surprising is how amazing potatoes taste in this – they aren’t really a dominant ingredient, but every little cube of potato is a real treat, and I have a sneaking suspicion that they somehow alter the flavour from good to amazing. The reason it has taken so long for me to post about this is that, the first time I made it with dried cannellini beans (white beans), they stayed a little too al dente for me, despite following the recipe to the letter. I have realised that all the advice about not cooking beans in salty or acidic water isn’t frivolous fluff. So, I have edited the recipe slightly, and it’s no more of a pain really, whether you’re using dried or canned beans or lentils.
Taste wise, this is rich and earthy with a tang from the tomatoes that is difficult to describe with words (I can drool all over you though…). Every bite is a real delight, and the flavour combination is just superb – I never thought I would rant on so much about a pretty basic tomato, stock and bean combo. It’s the other little additions which make this something to be relished. The ribollita pictured is made with puy (/French, or green) lentils rather than the specified cannellini beans since I had them on hand, and as a result the stew is much more brown, whereas if you use cannellini beans the result is much more pleasing for guests, because you get a beautiful ensemble of red, green and white, a testament to Italy. It’s also a lot more sensible for summer, where you want bright colours in your food. For a low fuss meal at home though, I prefer using lentils as they take less time to cook (you can just cook the lentils while prepping the rest of the ingredients), and due to their size they soak up more flavour. If you’re serving people with an aversion to beans, then lentils are also a good substitute, as they sort of disappear into the stew, adding thickness. The original recipe also includes diced pancetta (Italian cured pork) but I think it’s totally unnecessary, and without it, you have a totally satisfying vegan dinner. You could always sneak in half a teaspoon of smoked paprika if you really want that smoky flavour and want to keep it meat free.
A note about ingredients and potential substitutions. Cavolo nero (also known as black cabbage, Tuscan Cabbage, Tuscan Kale Lutes, Lacinato and dinosaur Kale Lutes) can be bought at most farmer’s markets, and are a type of kale that can be used wherever kale is called for (ie. drowned in lightly fried garlic and a little chilli). It’s a substantial leaf that needs a relatively long cooking time like cabbage. If you are going to use something tender like spinach or silverbeet, add it in the last minute of cooking (literally the last minute). I really do recommend using cavolo nero though – the texture isn’t as slimy as spinach and it means you can enjoy it the next day, which is what you traditionally do (it does taste as amazing the next day, especially the potatoes). Instead of cannellini beans, you can use pretty much any beans or lentils. Instead of using carrot and celery, you can use one or the other, as long as you have a good vegetable stock (not from a cube either, unless it’s home made bouillon). However, onions and garlic, as always, are truly crucial. For bread, something chewy and crusty is best, otherwise toast the bread first before pouring the stew over.
Speaking of delicious looking lentils, check out Tony Tahhan’s post on Mujaddara, a super simple lentil and rice dish topped with crispy fried onions . Those onions are soooo droolworthy, and they would go so superbly with lentils and rice. /want.
Ribollita, multiple ways
serves 3 for dinner on its own, or 6 as a starter
If using dried beans or lentils:
- about 3/4c dried beans or lentils, soaked overnight (this is important for reducing flatulence, and especially for reducing cooking time for beans)
- enough water to substantially cover
- 1/2 onion, peeled but not chopped further
- 2 bay leaves
Cover beans with water (at least 5cm, or 2″ of water covering the beans/lentils) and place onion and bay leaves in. Place on medium high heat, cover, and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer. Beans will require an hour, maybe an hour an a half. Lentils will require 5-10 minutes if soaked. Either way check done-ness by trying one out of the pan. They should still have a little bite and have kept their shape, as you’ll be cooking them even more. Once cookied, remove from heat and let sit in the water until needed.
Meanwhile, prep the following ingredients:
- about 55ml cooking oil, preferably olive oil
- 1 1/2 onion, finely diced
- 1 carrot, diced
- stalk of celery, finely diced
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- about 2c stock (you can use water from cooking beans/lentils if using home made bouillon)
- 400g crushed tomatoes (I used whole and smushed them in the pan)
- 1 medium sized potato, 1cm dice (desiree is best)
- 1 bay leaf
- 2-4 handfuls coarsely chopped cavolo nero
- beans/lentils, as above, or 1 can cooked stuff, drained and rinsed
- 3 thick slices crusty bread, torn into bite sized pieces
- extra virgin olive oil and parmesan to serve (optional)
Heat cooking oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook onion, carrot, celery, and garlic until onion is softened and translucent (about 10 minutes) on an even layer, stirring every now and then. Add stock, tomato, beans (if using home cooked), potato and leaf, and turn heat up to medium high to bring to a boil. Let simmer until liquid has reduced by about a half (about 20-30 minutes), stirring every now and then. Stir through cavolo nero and if using canned beans, add them now also. Taste, and season further with salt if required. Reduce heat to medium again and let cook another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until cavolo nero is very tender.
Place bread in bowls and ladle over the hot soup. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and freshly shaved parmesan (real Italian stuff – don’t bother with any other kinds for this) if you want.
To reheat, place bread in bowls, spoon over soup (it should be pretty thick though, not like a soup per se), add a drizzle of water and heat for about 2-3mins on high. If reheating in the pan, add a little more water to prevent sticking to the bottom of the pan.