Pesto Is the Classic Garnish for this French Provençal Vegetable Soup
Pistou is the French version of Pesto sauce. It is most often associated with the Provençal dish, Soupe au Pistou.
Although you can serve Soupe au Pistou almost anytime, it’s best from late spring through early fall (which is basil-growing weather). So it’s in season right now. And it’s versatile — the best versions contain whatever vegetables are in season and fresh.
So all that zucchini and summer squash that’s coming online in your garden, or overflowing the bins at your farmers’ market? This soup is their fate.
Recipe: Soupe au Pistou
Unlike Italian Pesto, French Pistou usually does not contain nuts of any kind. It may contain tomato (I omit tomato from the sauce, and instead add it to the soup itself, so I still have its flavor). Traditionally, it didn’t include cheese, although these days the inclusion of Parmesan or sometimes Swiss cheese is common. If you’re making your own Pistou (or Pesto), it’s easy to omit the pine nuts — though you can certainly include them if you wish. I often do (particularly when I’m using frozen Pesto). Although this dish tastes better with your own homemade Pistou (use the instructions for making Pesto in my Pesto Pasta post, omitting the nuts), supermarket Pesto works well too (you’re unlikely to find supermarket Pistou!)
Exact measurements aren’t necessary for this recipe, nor do you need to use the exact mix of ingredients I specify. We’ll talk about substitutions in the Notes. If you look at cookbooks, you’ll see that no two recipes are exactly the same (though there’s a strong family resemblance among them).
About the only rule for this soup is that it should contain white or kidney beans (or both, though I prefer white beans). Either canned or dried work well. I like Cannellini or Great Northern beans in this dish. Green beans (string beans) are also traditional, but not mandatory.
My recipe calls for chicken stock, but you can easily omit it and turn this into a vegetarian soup. If you make your Pistou without cheese this becomes a vegan recipe (in this case you'd want to include the nuts to help give body to the sauce).
My two favorite recipes for Soupe au Pistou come from volume 1 of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Richard Olney’s Simple French Food. Although my recipe differs from theirs, they taught me how to make this soup.
Preparation time is 15 minutes or so, cooking time about 45 minutes. This recipe yields 3+ quarts of soup. Leftovers freeze well (but don’t add Pistou to soup that you’re going to freeze; see Notes).
- 1 cup of Pistou or Pesto from my Pesto Pasta post (omit the nuts to make Pistou)
- 1 large onion, peeled and diced (about a cup; yellow, white, or red onions all work)
- 2 carrots, peeled and diced
- 1 rib celery, peeled and diced
- 3 - 5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (optional but wonderful)
- 1 - 2 tablespoons pure olive oil (the cheap stuff)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme (or to taste)
- ½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (optional; not traditional, but tasty)
- 8 cups chicken stock (or you may substitute water)
- 1 15-ounce can diced tomato
- 1½ pounds zucchini or yellow squash (or a mix of the two)
- 2 cans white beans, rinsed (Canellini or Great Northern are my favorites; see Notes for instructions on substituting fresh or dried beans)
- 6 - 8 ounces green beans, ends removed and cut into 1-inch pieces (you may substitute frozen)
- 4 - 6 ounces of a small pasta like Ditaliani or broken spaghetti pieces (by weight — volume varies depending on which shape you’re using; see Notes)
- I usually make the Pistou a day ahead. But you can make it while the soup is cooking, during Step 5.
- Peel and dice the onion, carrots, and celery into dice of ¼- to ½-inch. Peel the garlic and mince fine.
- Heat olive oil in a stock pot or Dutch oven that holds at least 4 quarts. When the oil is hot (it will shimmer), add the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sauté on medium to medium-low heat until the onion is translucent (approximately 5 - 8 minutes).
- Add dried thyme and dried red pepper flakes (if using) to the mix, stir, and sauté for another minute (you want the flavors of the thyme and pepper to flavor the oil). Then add 8 cups of chicken stock (or water), the canned tomato, bring to a simmer, and simmer for about half an hour. Taste and adjust seasoning about 5 minutes into the simmer.
- Meanwhile, prepare Pistou (or Pesto) if you haven’t already done so.
- Wash, dry, and cut your zucchini and/or yellow squash into dice of ½-inch. If you’re using fresh green beans, wash and remove the ends, and cut into pieces of about an inch. Drain the canned beans in a strainer or colander, and rinse with water to remove the canning gunk.
- At the 30 minute mark, taste the simmering mixture to make sure the carrots and celery are tender. If they’re not, cook another 5 minutes.
- Add the zucchini and/or yellow squash, white beans, green beans, and pasta to the pot. Increase heat so the soup boils, then reduce to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir so the pasta doesn’t settle on the bottom and stick, and simmer for 10 minutes.
- To serve, ladle soup into serving bowls, and top with a dollop of Pistou.
- There is also an Italian (minestrone) version of this soup found in Liguria.
- If you want to include tomato in your Pistou sauce, peel and seed a medium-sized tomato, then chop it into pieces. Add it to the Pistou bit by bit when you add the cheese (if you’re using cheese).
- We don’t see fresh white beans in our markets too often, but if you’re lucky enough to find some, use them instead of canned or dried beans. Shell the beans and add them to the chicken stock in Step 4 to cook them.
- If you want to use dried beans, prepare them ahead of time according to their package directions. (Basically, soak them, then cook for about an hour. If you don’t soak, they’ll take an extra 30 to 60 minutes to cook.)
- Although I prefer white beans in this soup, try kidney beans if you like (or if that’s all you have on hand). Many traditional versions of this soup specify kidney beans.
- Many recipes also specify leeks in addition to (or instead of) onions. I generally use them only when making a fall or winter version of this soup.
- Same deal with winter squash: Some recipes call for a bit of pumpkin or a similar squash, but I prefer to use that only in cool-weather versions.
- Potatoes are commonly used in Soupe au Pistou. I omit them in my version — there’s enough starch with the beans and pasta. But they’re awfully good. If you’d like to include them, use about 1 pound of waxy potatoes (peeled or not, your choice). Wash the potatoes and cut them into ½ inch cubes, then add them to the soup at Step 8.
- You can omit the pasta if you want, but it’s traditional — and it’s a great addition. Use small pasta (or break up pieces of a larger pasta like spaghetti so they’ll fit on a spoon). I like Ditalini, but any small shape works well. You can also use elbow macaroni.
- You add the Pistou sauce as a garnish when serving this dish, and let each diner swirl the Pistou into his soup so he can appreciate the rich aroma of the Pistou. For this, when freezing this soup, don’t freeze it with the Pistou already added – when you reheat it, you’ll lose some of that rich aroma.
Thank You, France
This week, I’m featuring two recipes with a French theme. Why France, and why this week?
Well, in the US we just celebrated the 4th of July — commemorating the day the original 13 US colonies declared independence from the British Empire. But the US might have lost the war that followed that declaration had it not been for assistance from France. French aid at first was covert — they provided munitions and other goods to the colonies through the neutral Dutch West Indies. But in 1778, the French government officially recognized the United States as a nation, and soon thereafter the British declared war on France.
The war between Britain and France had some major benefits for America: It kept lots of British troops occupied across the Atlantic, so they couldn’t be sent to the colonies to fight. It also gave France a reason to aid the US directly (to harass their enemy, Britain). Moreover, because France posed a serious threat to Britain’s security, going to war with France gave the British an incentive to end their struggle with the American colonies so they could focus their efforts closer to home (the colonies were nice for trade, but they also were a distraction).
So this Soupe au Pistou recipe is my culinary shout-out to France, thanking her for the help she gave us in founding our nation. Merci beaucoup!
Later this week, we’ll honor France again with a recipe for the Champs-Elysées cocktail. It’s perfect for celebrating France’s own independence day — July 14th, a/k/a Bastille Day.
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French pesto? All I can think is classy classy classy :D
And then when I read the ingredients list of this soup - delicious delicious delicious :D
Choc Chip Uru
Well it sounds to me like this soup was more of a blueprint you went off of and recreated your own version which is the best part of cooking - wouldn't you agree? It appears you may want to give it a different name now!
I've never had this soup although I make vegetable soup often and when I've got fresh made pesto on hand I toss a little in. So maybe I have had something similar. Thanks for sharing this. I'll have to try your version sometime. Since its chilly here in the mountains it may be sooner than later.
This soup just screams comfort food. I also love to take advantage of basil when it's in season so refreshing and so versatile in so many recipes.
I have never thought of putting pesto in soup but it's a great idea and would add all those wonderful flavours. I must admit I love the pine nuts in pesto and would probably keep them.
I love soup in the winter and all my ancestors as far back as I can trace are all French. I've never celebrated Bastille Day but maybe I should crank up a few old family recipes and do just that this year. :)
The French know how to live, don't they? Mmm, anything to add more pesto to my life is a good thing.
Hi Choc Chip Uru, it's good stuff. And perfect for your weather right now! Thanks for your comment.
Hi Vicki, agree that doing one's own thing is the best part about cooking. Really this soup is just minestrone with Pistou or Pesto Sauce - and we all know how varied minestrone recipes are! Hope you enjoy it. Thanks for your comment.
I mayihavethatrecipe, if you make and freeze your own pesto, this soup is doable year round! But I do make it most often when the basil is going rampant in my garden. Thanks for your comment.
This looks amazing! And so flexible as to what is fresh. And I never put nuts (or cheese) in pesto - but add depending on how I'm using it. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Suzanne, it's a great addition. And you can actually eat this soup chilled, rather than hot, although I think it tastes better warm. I the nuts in traditional pesto a lot, too, and often make it with them. Thanks for commenting.
Hi Maureen, your weather should be perfect for this soup! I hope you do post a few of your family recipes for Bastille Day - how cool! Thank for your comment.
Hi Carolyn, when it comes to food, the French - and Italians - have us beat by miles. I'm with you - the more pesto the better. Thanks for your comment.
Hi Denise, I usually don't add cheese to my pesto when I'm freezing it (which I often do), but find it easier to make when I add the nuts up front. Good idea on your part, though - max flexibility. Thanks for your comment.
This looks delicious. Very colourful and great flavours used together. I would most likely use the tomato in mine, since Italian roots run deep in my veins, and its like second nature to do so. Great recipe, I shall have to try this very soon. Thanks for sharing.
This looks so good. I could go for a giant bowl right now.
What a great bowl of summer soup! With all of the color you know it's full of vitamins. oh No - you mean this is a healthy soup!?! :)
Merci beaucoup, John! I love reading your posts, they are always very informative and interesting to read. And your photos are ... well, you know they are amazing! Great soup, so much flavor! I've been making pesto like crazy: my basil decided to bloom all at the same time, and I had to cut it all of to promote further crop. So I have frozen pesto, pesto soups, pesto for pasta, and bouquets of basil all over the dining area...:)
Hi MJ, sometimes I can't help myself and post about something totally healthy. ;-) It really is a nice soup. Thanks for commenting.
Hi Marina, aw, you're so kind! With all that basil, it sounds to me like you need to put some of it to work n this soup! Thanks for commenting.
Hi Alessandra, it really is a nice recipe - I think you'd enjoy it. And tomatoes do make for an interesting flavored sauce, although the color of the finished sauce is a bit more muted. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Kim, it's wonderful! Make a big batch and freeze some so the next time you get a craving, you can indulge! Thanks for your comment.
I really like the traditional Italian pesto but this is my first time learning about the french pistou. I like the flexibility of chooseing and picking the ingredients with preferred quantity. After I finish the pesto I made from my home grown basil I'll give this recipe a try. Thanks for the great recipe!
Hi Yi, most of my cooking is all about flexibility and substituting ingredients (which is why you don't see that many baking posts - you have to follow the rules for those!). This is a really nice recipe to showcase either Pistou or Pesto - it's the basil that's the star of the show here. Thanks for commenting.
Ha, I didn't know Pistou is French Pesto! I've seen this name on someone's blog and it didn't click me (doh! lack of European language...). What a lovely soup and it's actually a new way for me to eat soup like this. I definitely love this recipe!
Can I have a serving of that healthy bowl of soup :)
I can't wait to try this wonderful soup! What a great way to use all that summer produce.
Hi Nami, it's a great soup! I think you'll enjoy it - have fun making it! Thanks for your comment.
Hi Raymund, one serving coming right up! (I just happen to have several in the freezer!). Thanks for your comment.
You have just taught me a new word! Pistou sounds quite nice. :) I was just thinking about making a batch but since it's winter right now, my basil plant is not looking too happy which means I'll have to buy my basil...
The soup looks lovely as well, so refreshing and tasty looking. :) Love your photos!
Hi Beth, it's a great summer dish. And because you can use all sorts of produce in this, you never have to make it exactly the same twice. Thanks for your comment.
Hi Jenny, yes, fresh basil isn't easy to come by where you live at this time of the year! But as you say, you can buy it - or I've found some store-bought Pesto that isn't too bad (though it's better to buy the basil and make your own). Thanks for the kind words, and the comment.
This looks SO good! I have never tried anything like this before. I love all the notes you gave, definitely very helpful!
very nice preparation...looks yumm
this vegetable soup looks so hearty and vibrant! but, i never thought of pairing veggie soup with pesto... i am curious to try out this combo :)
Hi Cathleen, it's a great soup - well worth trying, IMO. Thanks for the kind words, and for taking time to comment.
Hi Jay, thanks so much!
Hi cakewhiz, the color are one of the things I really like about this soup. Adding the pesto is quite nice - hope you enjoy the combo! Thanks for your comment.
What a healthy looking soup. I love adding beans to my soups too:)
Hi Tania, it is pretty healthy. And I agree that beans are great in soup - they add such depth of flavor. Thanks for commenting.
A scrumptious soup! Pistou tastes just heavenly. Great summer food.
Hi Rosa, doesn't Pistou have such a great flavor? And it's brilliant in this soup. Thanks for your comment.
I've never had this soup before. It looks delicious and wonderful for a hot day!
Hi Jen, if you have basil (or prepared pesto) on hand, it's definitely worth trying. A great use for all those summer veggies! Thanks for commenting.
What a gorgeous soup that celebrates the seasonal produce! I've actually never made pistou before but now I really must. Yours looks so good!
Hi Katherine, it's a good soup - you'll enjoy it. Thanks for your comment.
Pistou!! That just sounds fantastic. What a gorgeous bowl of soup! Love the flavors! :)
Hi Baker Street, with all those different veggies it really is rather pretty. And as you point out, great flavor. Thanks for commenting.
This looks and sounds fantastic! Would love to try this out for sure.
Hi Asmita, it's a really nice soup. One of the best things about it is you really can use almost any vegetables that are fresh and look good. Thanks for your comment.
I love adding a dollop of fresh pesto to soups! It adds such good flavor and looks impressive, too.
Hi Kristy, good point - pesto tastes great in more soups then this. And it looks so pretty! Thanks for commenting.
I think pesto is one of those sides that is beautiful in anything! I love the idea of adding pesto to soup, so much more healthy than adding loads of cheese......not that I do that, LOL! Thank you for sharing about Bastille Day! I know I could have looked it up, but instead got to enjoy a lovely post too:-) Take care, Terra
Hi Terra, I agree - the color of pesto is so tremendous that it graces anything it touches. And I'm with you on the cheese! ;-) Thanks for your comment.
I love how colorful this vegetable soup is. The pesto really makes a difference, doesn't it?
Hi Mother Rimmy, I agree this is really an attractive soup. The pesto is so great in it! Wonderful flavor, aroma, and of course color. Thanks for your comment.
Awesome recipe :)
Looks absolutely delicious! Here is a chicken soup you might like to try.
Chicken & Vegetable Soup Recipe
Thanks for sharing,
Hi Jane, glad you like the post! And thanks for commenting.
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