Brrrr, it’s cold outside. The perfect time to make a big pot of Ribollita, the iconic Florentine soup that appears on every restaurant menu in Tuscany and beyond each winter. In fact, it’s so popular that the entire Tuscan region has adopted it as its own. Ribollita is the queen of la cucina povera Toscana—Tuscan peasant cooking—and much more than a simple soup. By transforming leftover vegetable soup and 2-day old bread into a culinary masterpiece, ribollita has earned a highly revered place in contemporary Italian cuisine. That says a lot for a dish born out of extreme poverty during ancient times when every scrap of bread and vegetable was thrown into the pot out of sheer desperation for sustenance and nourishment. The result is a dense, flavorful vegetable soup reinforced with white beans and bread—a filling, stick-to-your-ribs dish that’s essentially a thick stew. In fact, the true test of a good ribollita is when a spoon inserted into it stands straight up!
The name ribollita means “reboiled” and comes from the act of cooking a rich vegetable soup then layering it with hardened day-old bread before recooking it again the next day. This way, the bread absorbs any excess broth and puffs up into soft, fluffy clouds of goodness that turn this dish into a more of a porridge or bread pudding than an actual soup. Historically, ribollita was a versatile, homemade miracle pot created by savvy cooks to be consumed over a 3-day period and keep the family fed for multiple meals. The soup was eaten as-is on the first day then allungata or “stretched” with hardened, day-old bread and reboiled on the second day with any remaining ribollita reheated again on the third day. If necessity is the mother of invention, ribollita takes the grand prize for the most ingenious way to repurpose leftover bread and feed a family on a shoestring.
Ribollita is timely now because its star ingredient, lacinato kale, is readily available during fall and winter months. Also known as Tuscan kale or black cabbage, lacinato is an ancient variety of Italian winter greens from the brassica family whose rugged, heavily crinkled leaves of blue-green to almost black color (hence the Italian name cavolo nero) inspired its common name of Dinosaur or Dino kale. By any name, lacinato kale is a true superfood and powerhouse of vitamins (especially A, C, K), minerals, fiber with excellent health benefits. Its peppery flavor is the perfect foil for creamy cannellini beans that are the other key ingredient (beside bread) in this hearty, nourishing dish. Other winter vegetables like cabbage, red onions, carrots, celery, Swiss chard, and potatoes do their part to create a colorful, tasty base to enhance with kale, beans, and bread. The soup gets its luxurious creaminess from white cannellini beans pureed in their cooking water that create the “broth” in this soup. These dried beans are soaked in water overnight then cooked every-so-slowly so the skins don’t toughen. In a pinch, good quality canned or jarred cannellini can be substituted, but do not compare to freshly cooked beans in their garlic and sage infused cooking water that adds incredible taste and consistency to the soup.
The bread traditionally used in ribollita is a Tuscan saltless loaf that’s hard to find outside Tuscany. I use homemade natural leaven sourdough bread, but an artisan rustic Italian loaf like Pugliese or ciabatta will do. It’s worthwhile to plan ahead and slice the bread then let it dry out on a baking sheet for a couple of days in advance, but if that’s not an option then drying it in a moderate oven works fine. Once the vegetable soup is made (it can be done a day or two prior), ribollita comes together quickly and easily. The soup is layered with bread slices in a tall casserole, Dutch oven or pot and let rest before popping into the oven to reheat. While you can “reboil” ribollita in a pot on the stove, I like the soft, souffle-like consistency that baking produces. Once hot and bubbly, ribollita is served heaped into soup bowls and drizzled lavishly with fruity extra virgin olive oil.
As my ribollita cooks, the house is filled with a familiar, homey fragrance that takes me back to winters in Tuscany, sitting in front of the blazing stone fireplace waiting for supper to be ready. Aside from being suddenly famished, I feel a flush of abundance in anticipation of eating a big bowl of delicious, nutritious ribollita that deftly defies its poor peasant origins.
>>Watch me make Ribollita step-by-step on this TV appearance below: