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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