I was going to save this week for one of my months that I planned to go vegetarian just for fun and exploration purposes, but that’s going to be a whiles away and we seriously have a buttload of basil leaves in our herb pot that just keep growing and needs use! Seriously, by this time I’ve scraped most of them off for this recipe or to dehydrate and the bastard is still going… it’s an herby monster… the mint isn’t much different.
Today we’re talking about Pistou, a name which we often use to signify two things: a pounded paste of basil, garlic, and olive oil (and sometimes other things); and the white bean-vegetable soup that is then flavored with this paste at the very end. And yes, as one can probably figure out even by now, there is much relation between pistou and pesto; the name itself comes from the Provencal dialect meaning ‘pounded,’ much like how pesto got its own name in Italy. The history of pistou can also be found in its Italian origins, the first mentioning of the condiment supposedly being by a Roman Poet named Virgil describing the pounding of certain ingredients into a green paste. In the 1800’s, the Provence people started making it themselves, and that’s about as much history as I was able to find online with a casual search.
The soup itself has been likened to the French version of Minestrone, its two staples being the ever-constant white beans and then a collection of vegetables; whatever kind one wants, though there are some classics which I’ll be looking to focus on. And of course there is also the tradition of including pasta, because why let beans and potatoes (did I mention there’s usually potaoes or some other root veg?) be the only starch? Well I guess that’s what all that garlicy-herb pungency is for, cutting through all that one-note goodness.
A Word On…
Beans: actually, my very classic recipe from Larousse Gastronomique used a combination of white and kidney beans, but really one should never imagine making this soup with anything other than white beans, preferably dry that you’ve soaked overnight. I know canned beans are good, sometimes supposedly even better, but I just can’t shake the preference for doing it all myself; plus it’s probably cheaper anyways.
My last adventure with beans found me using Flageleot, which weren’t the CLASSIC white beans used in Cassoulet but they’re tender and delicious. Here, I actually found a link that did specifically mention them for this soup, which makes sense as it’s a lighter, vegetable-based thing where one would want a more delicate bean that won’t be covered up by tons of heavy meat and fatty flavors.
Pasta: probably the biggest reason to compare with minestrone, despite all those beans and starchy turnips or potatoes, most pistou soups still add pasta in there. There doesn’t seem to be a TRADITIONAL style, in effect many recipes state the option to use any small dried pasta good for soups (then again some even say to use basic noodles), heck the Buzzfeed linked one calls for those little ‘stars.’ That said, I think I’ve found the most perfectly classic style for this dish: it’s called ‘trofie,’ a hand-rolled pasta typically made in Liguria and shaped into small, elongated corkscrews. The region itself is in the Northwest region of Italy, hugging Piedmont and as such very close to the area of France known for pistou; the small shape itself makes it great for soup, much like shells and elbow macaroni. But even more convincing is what dish it’s typically used for: Pesto Pasta of course! And tossed with green beans and potatoes along with it, now where does that sound familiar?
Though, as things are, trofie is practically impossible to find in any typical store; most likely if one wants it they either need to have an Italian friend or make it by hand themselves, and I’m not yet ready to re-visit my painfully horrible pasta-making skills. Fusilli would make a good substitute, though I might break each one in half or something. I myself decided to go with the next-most-suitable pasta for soups, Orzo; I have enough going on as is with the beans, pistou, and vegetables, I would actually like my pasta element to not stand out as well, and the small ‘grains’ that make up orzo pasta are perfect for this.
Pistou: so, what’s the difference between ‘pistou’ and ‘pesto?’ Often some tv shows and other recipes feature the French recipe that seems rather indistinguishable, but there are various versions that show stark personality traits. Firstly, this can be said for all things, there are never any Pine Nuts ground into pistou. Following that, the cheese itself CAN also be Parmesan, but different regions will switch this out for Pecorino or, most notably, a French Gruyere (Nice in particular); for the sake of fun, I’ll be trying out the latter. It is important when doing so, however, one REALLY try to find a good Comte Gruyere or something similar, as hard and dry as possible, close in texture to parmesan so it will hopefully melt and distribute into the paste ‘properly.’ Finally, the French pistou often will grind Tomatoes in as well; it’s not universal, but it seems to be utilized quite frequently, so of course I’m doing that too, just to see the results.
Now, we need to discuss the MAKING of the paste; classically, this is done with a typical Mortar and Pestle, pounded down into a paste like an old medieval alchemist or doctor making their spice mixes. I’ve used these for making curry, and there certainly is an aspect to using these that brings the ingredients together in a wondrous way; but the fact is not everyone has one, or the time/patience to utilize it, so many recipes just throw all the ingredients into a food processor. I myself have both… and they both sort of suck balls. My MnP, a gift, is of a style that… makes no sense, ingredients just fly off the edge so it’s such a bitch trying to pound anything into a paste or powder. And my tiny food processor is great for certain things, but one thing it can’t do is get herbs or garlic or anything down to anything besides a rough mince; after that things just spin around. I tried a couple things to fix this, but nonetheless my following pics of pistou will not look that impressive… it tasted great mind you, just not so perfect.
Oh, forgot to even get to the point I wanted to make. I actually ended up starting with all the ingredients, minus oil, and trying to pound/blend them together; I would actually suggest, like good curry, one attacks this in stages. First, grind the basil and garlic, which are still gonna have that thicker paste result; THEN add the difficult moist and sticky tomato+cheese, which will paste up easily on their own but I think acted as a hindering lubricant to my herb and garlic. Don’t repeat my mistakes.
Vegetables: I’d like to TRY and keep the vegetable additions rather held back, so I’m only using the ones that seem to be rather vital or otherwise almost constantly used and distinct. Initially this means Green Beans and Zucchini, seems to be harder to find a recipe without them! Now, my first time seeing Leeks in a recipe, I figured it was a simple random regional preference, since it wasn’t in my Larousse book. But after seeing at least 75-80% of recipes using them, I figured I should get one to use as the base sauté instead of onions. The final requirement is an actual starch: many recipes use potatoes in here, sometimes with or without the pasta addition, though a scant couple I noticed include Turnip, including the Larousse. After much debating, my goal turned to actually utilize the turnip; with my recent experience seeing it used in the SE dish of Navarin d’Agneau, it’s likely the one that would be most classically used in France. Besides, with the pasta and beans, I’d rather go for the less starchy option, and turnip has that unique texture of veg+toober crossed, figured it’d offer a nice element.
And of course what’s my luck, they were all out of turnips when I went to the store to buy them! Oh well. In that case, I did a combo of a carrot and potato in hopes of getting a similar effect; and they’re both also commonly used in this veggie stuffed soup.
Soupe au Pistou
¾ cup Flageleot or other tender White Bean, Dried
1 Tb Olive Oil
5-6 cups Veggie Stock or Water
4oz Green Beans/Haricots Vert, de-stemmed
1 White or Golden Potato
Tomato Leftovers from Pistou
3oz Orzo Pasta
Salt and Pepper
Pistou for service (recipe follows)
- Soak Beans in at least 3X the amount of water for at least 6 hours or overnight
- Clean and slice white and light green parts of Leek, tossing it in dutch oven or other soup pot with oil on medium heat, sautéing until softer
- Drain beans and add to pot along with Stock/Water, bring to a boil and leave for 5 minutes
- Turn heat down to simmer and let cook at least an hour
- Cut Green Beans in small chunks and dice remaining vegetables into consistent size
- After an hour, add green beans and Carrot, leave to simmer 10-15 minutes
- Toss in Zucchini, Potato, and Tomato dice, simmer for another 15 minutes
- Finally mix in Orzo, season with Salt and Pepper, and continue simmering for a final 10 minutes
- Ladle soup into bowls and dollop in 1-3 spoonfuls of Pistou, as desired, for service while still piping hot
- Stir, let briefly cool, and enjoy
- Place Basil and Garlic in Mortar and Pestle or Food Processer, pound/grind/process until they turn into a paste
- Add Gruyere and about half of the Tomato, continuing until it comes together in a wet paste
- Slowly add in Olive Oil, mixing between tablespoons, until fully incorporated. Reserve and use as needed/desired
If considering this in the idea of it being the ‘French version of Minestrone,’ then this particular rendition of Pistou is spot on perfect. All the vegetables and beans were tender, soft, the orzo had this delightfully slippery effect, and the combo of beans and gruyere-mixed-pistou created this interesting addition of rich and creamy that I adored, especially with the tomato influence. And of course there’s that noted garlic-basil flavor that just permeates everything and stays subtly clinging to the roof of one’s mouth for a while even after eating. So in that sense, it was great.
But it wasn’t the version I myself wanted. I was hoping the pistou would end up a lot more like a classic, green-basil-heavy pesto but with a twist (see pistou picture at top of post), however the amount of cheese and tomatoes in this recipe were really significant. And the soup I was hoping would be lighter and simpler, creating a version that would highlight mainly the beans and pistou, ended up a full bowl of what I previously described. If I made this again, I know what I’m changing to get my preferred stylistic results: first, less tomato and cheese in the pistou, to which I’ll probably also use parmesan instead. Second, less beans and more liquid; I clearly needed much more water to actually thin this out from a chunky stew into an ingredient-filled broth, and have adjusted my recipe above as such. Speaking of which, I’ll also just use WATER instead of veggie stock, so the individual flavors/elements stand out even more (it’s actually a trick I learned when making curry). Out of personal interest, I think my next version will ditch the green beans and, hopefully, I’ll be able to use turnip this time instead of carrot+potato. With luck I’ll have derived a simple soup of beans, zucchini, and pasta, overflowing with the pungently herbal flavors of pestou that we love so much. Maybe I’ll try out some fussili or other pasta too.
Okay, I’ll admit this one isn’t really a regional pairing, apples don’t even GROW that far south in France. Though one could make the argument that they have Cider in the Basque region of Spain, far north and close to SW France, but that’s still a completely different area than here, and I don’t think it justifies. At the end of the day though, it’s been quite a while since I’ve opened a bottle of cider for one of these pairings, and I just ended up craving one here. A good, chilled glass of only lightly effervescent, medium bodied fermented stone fruit, with a bit of that musky edge as it swishes around the mouth. It certainly capitalizes on the rustic nature of this dish without offering any stand-out disjunction aspects. No overpowering acidity, if there’s any sweetness it’s just slight and might help to offset any saltiness from the cheese, and they’re never too heavy for a dish like this. Since we’re not bound by region, I enjoy the idea of doing an English style cider of some sort, which always has that great focus on rich texture with less carbonation/effervescence, my preferred traits at the moment.
I had some debate over whether I should get this version or the Dry, the latter being about 2% lower in alcohol content, and worried if my choice might have too much body to it for a cider. I can say with certainty now that I didn’t need to worry, its 8.5% alcohol being perfectly medium in alcoholic body, higher for a cider but with a result even alongside typical whites and light red wines, and luckily without any of the added thick body that certain typically viscous English draft ciders can have via accompanying sugar content.
Speaking of which, very glad that it didn’t have any sweetness to it either, as expected of a fully-fermented Imperial beer/cider, as no noted salt character from the cheese made itself presence as I personally wondered if it would. What it did bring was this delightfully farmhouse, light earthy, almost bitter herby aroma (hard to tell what it was exactly, a bit unique but subtle and not in-your-face) quality that ended up mixing brilliantly with the light but lasting flavors of garlic and basil. Overall, delightful, simple/light-ish yet rich and fulfilling in spirit, much like the pistou itself.
Secondary Pairing – Corsican Rose
With the breadth of pistou being produced between various regions in SE France, far Northern Italy, and some Islands between them, it feels fun to go to one of the areas that connect these two countries: Corsica. Located right off the Mediterranean coast, this French Island has some deeply Italian culinary roots, and is known for really one particular style of wine: Rose. Now, I have no damn clue what Buzzfeed was thinking with their ‘Rose or Red’ suggestion for this; there is absolutely NO reason to drink a red with this, even if one did maybe mix in some prosciutto or something. There’s no meat and nothing else that creates a chew to justify the needed tannins in the accompanying wine; heck, even a rose is pushing it, but the heartiness in various regional dishes here bring it into acceptable play. White or Rose would be the better suggestion, and this warm island should provide some nicely savory, herby pink-tinged glasses that would support this soup greatly with their structure.