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Ribollita, the Classic Tuscan Winter Dish

With the first cold days, Tuscan restaurants start serving ribollita, the classic bread soup with beans and kale, substituting the summer favourite, pappa al pomodoro. This is our recipe for this warm comfort food, sign of the Tuscan winter.

Ribollita: understanding the name

Ri-bollita in Italian means re-boiled, re-cooked. This very name is the secret to the dense and satisfying consistency of this soup that often becomes a meal. It’s part of the tradition of “poor cooking” in Tuscany’s countryside (cucina povera), low in fat and made exclusively with seasonal ingredients – essentially with whatever was growing in the kitchen garden or that could be found as a spontaneous green. Ribollita toscana is much more than a soup and even more filling than a “minestrone”.

The main ingredients of ribollita

Ribollita is a soup made of vegetables, bread and beans, cooked multiple times so that it becomes so dense you can almost cut it with a knife. There are various recipes for ribollita, with more or less traditional ingredients, but there are three elements that simply make the dish.

Stale or day-old Tuscan bread is what gives ribollita its consistency and structure. Like panzanella and pappa al pomodoro, this recipe was created to make use of bread that was no longer fresh. Sometimes this soup is called zuppa di pane – bread soup – due to the fact that, after starting out life as a vegetable and bean soup, it is layered with the stale bread. The bread absorbs the soup and all its aromas, it becomes soft while adding structure to the dish. This combination is what makes ribollita an extremely economical dish, one to make on Friday and reheat as many times as necessary until the last drop is consumed.

The second important element is cavolo nero, Tuscan kale or curly kale, which is a staple of the Tuscan wintertime. This vegetable is best picked right after the first freezing nights, when its frizzy leaf gets softened and sweetened by the frost. Cavolo nero is the base of so many dishes: served on bread with beans to celebrate the first pressed, tangy olio nuovo; in farinata con le leghe, a dish specific to the hills of Pistoia; and even in a Tuscan winter version of pesto you can often find at Dievole’s restaurant – kale pesto.

The third and final thing that can’t be missing in a ribollita is beans, preferably cannellini or toscanelli. These have to be real dry beans that have been cooked at home, not come from a can. You simmer them slowly the day before you’re going to cook your soup so that they are ready in advance. Remember to hang on to the cooking water as that will be used for the soup, while the beans go in partially blended, and some whole. They make the ribollita both creamy and nutritious.

Other ingredients may enrich your ribollita; some, for my grandma, are absolutely essential. To add a richer flavour but in keeping with the cucina povera recipe, you can add the bone of a prosciutto or a piece of pork rind at the beginning of the process, in the soup. Finally, my nonna always reminds me to add either a bit of baby tomatoes or – more easy to find in winter – a spoonful of tomato paste in order to make the soup a bit more colourful.

Ribollita, boiled the next day

Bread soup with beans and kale is the first phase of ribollita. We’ll first make the soup, combine it with bread, and then the next day you re-cook the soup to get your ri-bollita. Some Florentine homes and restaurants don’t just warm up the soup the next day but they cook it in a hot pan or bake it in an oven-safe dish to create a crunchy crust.

Ribollita recipe

Here is my grandmother’s bread soup recipe. Once you’ve made it, you can put it aside until the next day, at which point it becomes a real ribollita.

Ingredients for 4 people

  • 250 g dry canneloni beans
  • 2 sage leaves
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 red onions
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 medium sized potato
  • 150 g cavolo nero (kale)
  • 150 g verza (cabbage)
  • 1 tsp concentrated tomato paste
  • 8 slices stale tuscan bread
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Salt
  • black pepper

How to make the ribollita

  1. Soak the beans for one night and then boil them – this activity can be done the day before.
  2. To make the soup: finely chop the onion and sauté until golden in the bottom of a large pot with olive oil and a bit of salt to help it not burn.
  3. Add the carrots and potato, cut into cubes, to the onions.
  4. Clean the kale by removing the toughest parts and cut it into strips, then add it to the pot, along with the cabbage, also cut into strips.
  5. Cover these vegetables with the cooking water from the beans, add the tomato paste, salt and pepper, and bring to a slow boil for about an hour, adding water if necessary.
  6. Take two thirds of the beans and make them into a paste in a vegetable mill, and then add this bean paste to the soup (having boiled the latter for an hour), and cook for another 30 minutes.
  7. In the final 10 minutes of cooking, add the whole beans, check the salt and pepper, keep at a simmer, and then remove from the heat.
  8. In a large soup dish, alternate layers of the stale bread and a few ladles full of the soup. Let sit for a few minutes and serve it hot or lukewarm.

To create the truly classic ribollita, put the soup in the fridge until the next day, then reheat it at medium heat, adding some more olive oil and mixing it so that it doesn’t stick. Serve this with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh pepper, and optionally a few rounds of fresh onion.