Provencal Vegetable Soup au Pistou is my idea of a perfect spring soup – it accommodates virtually any vegetables you find at the store or in your CSA and combines them into an amazingly flavorful first course or main dish. A soup of peasant origins from the Provence region in southeast France, it’s my contribution to the May Progressive Eats theme of “Flavors of France.”
The classic components are simple: a water base, beans, vegetables, pasta or noodles, and pistou, a condiment comprised of basil, garlic and olive oil, sometimes with tomatoes and/or parmesan cheese.
Of course, if you look far and wide enough, you’ll find that the preparation and ingredient variations are almost endless. For example, you can substitute broth for water, cook beans from dried or use canned, and change up the vegetables to your heart’s content.
You can even vary the central ingredient, the pistou condiment. Sounds like pesto (both linguistically and in its ingredients), no? Hardly surprising – the region shares a border with Italy and the bible of French cuisine, Larousse Gastronomique, traces the word “pistou” to the Italian “pestare,” which means to pound. Some recipes for Provencal Vegetable Soup au Pistou actually call for homemade or store-bought pesto (with nuts) instead of nutless pistou, while others combine basil and tomatoes, with or without cheese. And the pistou can be stirred into the soup, added as a dollop on the top, or served on the side. Or as my husband described it, “minestrone soup with something like pesto on the side.”
When I decided to make soup au pistou, I checked out an array of recipes, from the Larousse Gastronomique “gold standard” with dried beans and hand-pounded basil, to David Lebovitz’s straightforward version, to a super-simple one from SeriousEats. I wasn’t too enamored of Julia Child’s throw-all-the-vegetables-in-the-pot-and-boil-them-to-death (just kidding, but 40 minutes is a long time) variety from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, except for her pistou, a mixture of tomato paste and basil without nuts. Of all the soups, I liked Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table version best, but not her use-pesto-as-pistou ending.
And so, I adapted Dorie Greenpan’s soup and Julia Child’s pistou. The result received the household seal of approval – my husband ate it two nights in a row, smiling all the while. I purposely used proportions that hearken back to the peasant roots for this soup – imagining the generations of cooks who added a pinch of this and a dash of that to get their own version of Provencal vegetable soup au pistou just the way they liked it. In a few cases, I have provided a measured amount, but feel free to improvise on quantities of those too if you’re so inclined.
Provencal Vegetable Soup au Pistou
Servings – 4 generous Cost – $5-6
- 5 tablespoons olive oil (2 for soup, 3 for pistou)
- 1 medium onion
- 1 leek (white and light green parts only)
- 1 stalk celery
- 4 cloves garlic (2 for soup, 2 for pistou)
- 1-2 zucchini
- 1-2 carrots
- 1-2 potatoes, preferably yellow or Yukon gold
- 2-3 sprigs parsley
- 1 handful of fresh thyme and rosemary – about 1 teaspoon dried or 2-3 fresh
- 1 bay leaf
- 6 cups hot water
- 1 large handful of fresh green beans
- ½ of a 15-ounce can of beans or a mixture of 2 or more kinds (cannellini, kidney, navy)
- 2 large handfuls of small pasta or noodles (orzo, ditalini, broken up vermicelli, etc) – ¼ – ½ cup
- Kosher or sea salt and pepper
- 2 large handfuls of frozen corn
- 1 large handful of fresh basil
- 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- Cutting board
- Large bowl
- Small bowl or ramekin (for herbs)
- Large pot
- Large spoon
- Mini food processor or mortar and pestle
- Wash and chop all the vegetables (onion, leek, celery, carrot, zucchini, potato, and green beans) into pieces roughly the same size, between ½ and 1 inch. Mince the garlic. Pull the thyme and rosemary (if using fresh) and parsley off their stems, mince the parsley and crush the rest into the small bowl or ramekin. Rinse the beans and set aside.
- Heat the oil in the pot. Add the chopped onion, leek, celery and ½ the minced garlic (2 cloves), cooking them for about 10 minutes until the vegetables soften. Add the carrots, potato and herbs, continuing to cook the vegetables for about 2-3 minutes until they are thoroughly mixed and the newly added ones begin to shine.
- Add the bay leaf and the hot water. (I heated the water in the microwave until quite hot but not boiling.). Simmer the soup for 8-10 minutes until the carrots and potatoes are soft.
- While the soup is simmering, make the pistou by either pounding or processing the remaining 2 cloves of minced garlic, the fresh basil (torn into pieces), the grated parmesan, and the tomato paste. Then dribble in the 3 tablespoons of olive oil mixing until you get a paste and set aside.
- Now back to the soup au pistou. Add salt (about ½ teaspoon), freshly ground pepper and the pasta/noodles and simmer the soup for another 5 minutes if the pasta/noodles would normally take 8 – 10 minutes to fully cook or slightly less time if they would normally fully cook in less than 8 minutes. Add the canned and green beans and simmer the soup another 4-5 minutes. Finally, add the frozen corn and stir for a minute or so to mix everything and warm the corn.
Serve immediately with the pistou and bread, preferably a baguette or a boule with a nice crust. If you refrigerate the soup and serve it later, the pasta and beans will absorb much of the liquid. In that case, add more hot water or broth when you reheat it, or enjoy it as a vegetable stew.
The Progressive Eats Flavors of France Feast
- Tarte á l’Oignon – French Onion Tart from Spice Roots
- Gougeres filled with Bechamel aux Champignons from Pastry Chef Online
- Provencal Vegetable Soup au Pistou from Mother Would Know (you’re here!)
- Duck Breasts a l’Orange from The Heritage Cook
- Fig and Anise Bread from The Wimpy Vegetarian
Vegetables and Sides
- Zucchini Summer Squash Tomato Gratin from Jeannette’s Healthy Living
- Kir Royale from Miss in the Kitchen
- Madeleines from Barbara Bakes
- Triple-Layer Chocolate Macaroon Cake from François Payard from Creative Culinary
Progressive Eats is our virtual version of a Progressive Dinner Party. As I’ve already mentioned, this month’s theme is Flavors of France. We are hosted by Jane Bonacci who blogs at the Heritage Cook. We hope you’ll join us and make something unique and delicious that is French or French-inspired!
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a progressive dinner involves going from house to house, enjoying a different course at each location. With Progressive Eats, a theme is chosen each month, members share recipes suitable for a delicious meal or party, and you can hop from blog to blog to check them out.
We have a core group of 12 bloggers, but we will always need substitutes and if there is enough interest would consider additional groups. To see our upcoming themes and how you can participate, please check out the schedule at Creative Culinary or contact Barb for more information.