Ribollita – a Tuscan Comfort Food

The events in our country on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany no less, have distressed me greatly as so many around the world. The images of the assault on the U.S. Capitol, the swarms of thugs overcoming an otherwise peaceful sanctuary and symbol of our democracy, and nightmarish visions of raging adults acting like out-of-control teenagers sickened me. Stunned and paralyzed, I sat transfixed in front of the television. Many commentators have equated the insurrection to that of 9/11. But at that time I had a family to wake up and care for, a classroom to lead, and students to surround me in solidarity. Here I was alone with the end of the world collapsing before my eyes. To draw myself out of such sorrow, cooking something warm and satisfying, even healthy could do wonders to restore the spirits! I was working on a blog post about the Italian traditional feast on New Year’s Day when I was sidetracked by the sad events in D.C. Somehow the blogpost seemed trivial and I’ve flipped to a recipe that I think can give you hope and warmth.

Ribollita meaning “boiled again” is a traditional Tuscan soup known for this name because it is usually made in great quantities, then reheated or “reboiled”as needed. Also known as bread soup or “zuppa di pane” because it is served over slices of rustic bread, it is a typical rustic soup from the central part of Tuscany or Maremma, although it is common to find it throughout the region in different forms. The star ingredient is black or lacinato kale and then whatever vegetables you have available in your refrigerator (I included in some diced zucchini) or garden depending on the season. Throw together a pot tonight and see it simmer, simmer, simmer your woes away!

Ingredients

1 medium onion chopped

2-3 carrots chopped

1 celery stalk chopped

1/4 of a small cabbage head

2-3 leaves of kale roughly chopped (does not have to be black kale. I have used other types, even spinach in a pinch). Depending on the size of the kale you have, you may want to increase or decrease it. Yield 4 cups of chopped kale should suffice.

1 large potato diced

1 8 oz can of cannellini beans

1 8 oz can of diced tomatoes

3-4 tbl. olive oil, salt to taste

rustic bread sliced

Instructions

Prep all the vegetables so that when you need them, you can add them quickly to the mix. In a large soup pot, warm the olive oil, then add the onions and cook them until translucent and fragrant. Add the celery and the carrots and cook them briefly for a few minutes. Add the greens including the cabbage, then stir. Next, add the tomatoes and the potatoes. Season with salt. After one or two big stirs, add water to cover the vegetables and then some (about an inch or two above the line of vegetables). You can use chicken or vegetable broth, but I find it is not necessary. Some cooks like to add a fresh bouquet of fresh herbs (basil, sage, thyme) – but I prefer to keep it simple. Allow the pot to come to a slow boil, then reduce to a simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half. I went swimming for an hour in the meantime and came back to find the soup just right for the next step. I add the cannellini beans at the very end because they are coming from a can. I barely drain them and toss them in the pot.

Correct the seasoning! If the soup seems too tasteless….add salt! Be aware that the soup on standing will acquire more flavor as it sits from day to day in the fridge and every time you reheat it, “ribollire,” the flavors will meld and strengthen. The texture of the vegetables will soften and blend.

Prepare the bowls by either toasting slices of good rustic bread (or baguettes) or frying them in a bit of vegetable oil, my favorite way. Put the slices on the bottom or sides of the bowls and pour the soup over the slices. The liquid will absorb a bit, but continue to pour more soup. Add a big dash of parmigiano over it all.

I know life delivers many sadnesses, but the joy of a steaming bowl of ribollita, maybe with a chunk of parmigiano thrown into it, saves the day. May this new year be good to you…Stay safe and be well!

What to do with a can of tuna?

Yellowfin!
Yellowfin!

The humble can of tuna does not always inspire great culinary adventures, but I am here to tell you that many a delicious dish can result from this common pantry item. How many uses can you come up with at the drop of a hat? Tuna salad sandwich, tuna noodle casserole, next..? Well, I spent some time thinking, researching, and cooking about this very same question. I set some ground rules: the recipes had to have an unusual, creative, or original element (not the usual tomato-stuffed-with-tuna-salad). They had to have wide appeal (children should like it too), relatively easy and quick to make, and didn’t necessarily have to be a main meal. I ruled out tuna as dessert, that was going too far.

So, first…what tuna to use? The good ol’ Chicken of the Sea packed in water works well in all these recipes, but I decided to return to my Italian roots because after all, canned tuna is a popular food choice in Italy and part of a very important industry as well. Moreover, the flavor of the Italian brand tuna is more intense and saporito (“tasty”), better for dishes in which you want an ingredient to stand out. In my quest for the most practical can of tuna to use I came across two brands at my local market:

image_20133011461_o

And another brand, Tonnino, which comes in a can ($4.99) or in a jar at a whopping $7.99. These are all packed in oil…and yes, I understand this may be a drawback (I too use water-packed for most common everyday use), but the olive oil packed tuna is more flavorful.  The olive oil should be drained, but not all of it so that the tuna remains moist. Which do I prefer? Luckily, they are all very good. The Genova brand is my choice for all purpose use. The Coalma is quite delicious, but  more costly at $3.99 for a small can of 5 oz.

And how about this: what is the relationship between tuna and the organization Greenpeace? In my quest to know more about tuna, especially the fishing of yellowtail tuna in Italy which is in crisis, I came across this page on the Greenpeace site which rates various canned tuna products according to the company’s fishing and production practices. Take a look – this is fun: http://www.greenpeace.it/tonnointrappola/rompiscatole/  The term “rompiscatole” means literally to break a box (or can in this case), but colloquially means annoying troublemaker. So Greenpeace is scrutinizing the tuna industry’s sustainable fishing practices and transparency to the public. While none of the brands I listed above appear on the Greenpeace page, they all claim to line fishing and good practices. Phew! Also on the Greenpeace page are recipes for tuna dishes which I thought not only sounded delicious, but also practice “green” methods of cooking. Here is the link to tuna eggplant polpette  (or “meatballs”) resting on a bed of pesto sauce: http://www.greenpeace.it/tonnointrappola/ricette_polpette.html

With that lengthy introduction to canned tuna, here are some ideas you may not have considered, but would like to try.

Here is one of my favorite summer salad or side dish, romano beans cooked in tomato sauce and tuna added at the end.

Romano Beans and Tuna in a Tomato Sauce

Fagiolini al tonno e pomodoro
Fagiolini al tonno e pomodoro

I wrote a post years ago in my other blog. Here is the link:

http://buonatavolaefantasie.blogspot.com/2012_08_01_archive.html

Speaking of green beans, the following is another favorite. This is a wonderful addition to a buffet as a different kind of salad. refreshing and oh so good!

Green Bean Salad with Tuna and Red Onion

Insalata di fagiolini can cipolla rossa.
Insalata di fagiolini can cipolla rossa.

Lightly steam a pound of green beans, cool, and add a can of drained tuna, half  a thinly sliced red onion. Add olive oil and vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.

Here is another favorite, a salad with white cannellini beans. Same idea as the green beans. I was having a little fun with this by putting it in a cocktail glass.

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Insalata di cannellini e tonno

Or maybe a pasta is more to your liking! This was a favorite of my family’s – a good “go-to” meal when the pantry looked spare and many mouths to feed! This dish especially reminds me of my years in Pisa at my aunt’s house, helping her cook noon day dinners. She was a busy professional with a big household, so this dish came in handy, especially on Fridays during Lent.

Spaghetti with Tuna

Spaghetti con Tonno
Spaghetti con Tonno

Put a pot of water to boil. While the water is coming up to a boil, prepare the sauce. In a small saucepan,   place 1-2 cloves (or more if you like) of whole garlic in 1/4 cup of olive oil and 1/2 cup of butter. Drain a can of tuna and place it in the pan with 3-4 anchovy filets (drained from their oil). I like to throw in some red pepper flakes as well. Cook gently for about twenty minutes until the sauce is smooth, almost creamy. Add a little of the pasta water if the sauce appears to be dry. Cook a pound of spaghetti (not the thin kind), drain and add the sauce. Sprinkle with a little parsley and serve.

This recipe can be made with tomato as well. Just add a can of peeled tomatoes (crush them in a food processor so they aren’t too chunky) to the garlic and anchovies, cook for a few minutes, then add the tuna. Add a little water, then cook the sauce down until thick.

I can think of a few more ideas using canned tuna…one is perhaps the most special of all,  vitello tonnato (or veal in tuna sauce). In fact I have the meat cooking on the stove as I write this. But because it is the “king” of all tuna inspired dishes, I will dedicate a separate post just to it…so stay tuned! What ideas using tuna do you have to share? Please don’t hesitate to drop me a note in the comment box!