The summer I turned 16, teenage drama led my mom to send me with my grandmother on her annual journey back home to Florence, Italy. I spent many days writing angsty journal entries and hanging out only with her cousins, doing septuagenarian Italian lady things. This is how I learned about the culinary life cycle of bread.
In Italy, bread comes in a round rustic loaf, bought every few days at the bakery, where it is not expensive. Bread buying and getting the paper were the bulk of our lifestyle outside of coffee, smokes, soaps and brooming away pigeons on the patio. At mealtime, the ladies would take a piece of bread and set it on the table at the upper right side of the plate. It would be used like a utensil to move food around and sop up oil. Leftover bread always became something else. It might be mixed with razor-thin red onions, tomatoes, torn basil and a vinaigrette to make panzanella, or bread salad. Sometimes, it would go into soup.
Bread soup, also known as ribollita, is a simple vegetable soup you ladle over a slice of bread that has been toasted in olive oil. I make it with a little kale when I’ve eaten too much rich food or when I feel broke, as it needs only a few cheap pantry staples. It’s best when you use part of a stale rustic loaf, like homemade sourdough. Sometimes I make it with a light, cheap, grocery store baguette because that’s what I can find. You can toast the bread simply in olive oil, or you can rub the slices with garlic, drizzle with oil and sprinkle with cheese before putting in the oven. The fresh rosemary can be subbed out for dried and the parsley is optional, just for a little extra green. If you want a gluten-free bread soup experience, try toasting Against the Grain baguettes, which you can usually find at Fred Meyer and Natural Pantry in the freezer section.
Italian Bread Soup, aka ribollita
For the soup:
2 tablespoons olive oil
One small yellow onion, diced
Two large carrots, sliced (roughly 3/4-1 cup)
Two ribs of celery, diced (roughly 1/2 cup)
Two cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Pinch of red pepper flake
A teaspoon of fresh rosemary, minced
Salt and pepper
One 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
One 15-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice
Four cups chicken or vegetable stock
One bunch of kale, stems removed, chopped into bite sized pieces
For the bread:
8 slices of stale rustic bread, each small enough to fit in a soup bowl
One large clove of garlic
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
About 1/3 cup of olive oil
Extra Parmesan, chopped fresh parsley (optional) and olive oil to serve.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lay the slices of bread on a sheet pan, rub them with garlic, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with cheese. In a soup pot, heat oil over medium heat and add onions. Saute briefly until they begin to soften. Add carrot, celery, garlic, rosemary, red pepper flake and some salt and pepper. Saute for 3 or 4 minutes. Add beans, tomato and stock, bring to a boil and then turn down to simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, until carrots are no longer toothsome. Stir the kale into the soup, put the top on and turn off the heat but leave it on the burner. Slide the toast into the oven. Set a timer for 6 minutes. When the timer goes off, check the toast, it should be golden and the cheese should be melted. If it’s not quite there, leave it for another minute or two. By the time the toast is done, the kale in the soup should be cooked. If it’s not done to your liking, turn the soup back on and simmer a minute or two more. To serve, place one slice of bread in the bowl, ladle soup on the bread and, if desired, place a second toast on top. Sprinkle it with extra parm, chopped parsley and a little drizzle of olive oil.