Provencal Vegetable Soup (Soupe au Pistou)

Soupe au Pistou is a classic French dish; it’s popular in spring and early summer when fresh shell beans and great bunches of basil make their way into the markets.  In her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” Julia Child describes the market women of France shouting out “Mesdames, faites le bon piste, faites le pistou!” As with any regional dish it has variations:  some cooks add pasta as well as beans to the soup, some add the pistou (similar to Italian pesto) directly to the soup, some use water for the liquid, others use white chicken stock.  My Cordon Bleu recipe calls for salt pork, sauteed and added at the end to impart a salty, meaty quality to the soup.  I have taken components of several recipes and combined them to make my own version of Soupe au Pistou.  For me it is a light, vegetable-filled broth; fresh with the flavors of tender young green beans, zucchini, peas, carrots, and leeks.  The pistou adds a punch of herbal, garlicky goodness that I prefer to add to each serving.  There is no cheese or nuts in my version of pistou.  I add tomato to the herb mixture and today I took license with tradition and added mint, along with the basil.  In place of salt pork a little crumble of crunchy pancetta tops the bowl for a salty hit, without the smoke flavor of bacon.  It lets the vegetable goodness shine through.  And because there are no fresh shell beans here in Wisconsin, I substituted cooked white beans.  They make the soup a little more substantial. Feel free to conjure up your own version of spring vegetable soup; but don’t skimp on the herbal goodness of the pistou.  It tastes like spring.

Provencal Vegetable Soup (Soupe au Pistou)
(serves 4 to 6)
(*The soup is more attractive if each vegetable is cut about the same size)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 cup small-dice carrots
3/4 cup small dice turnips
1/2 cup diced leek
1 cup small-dice potato
1/3 cup diced onion
1/2 cup cooked white beans (navy beans are good here)
1/2 cup small-dice fresh green beans
3/4 cup small-dice zucchini
a small handful of peas (thawed if frozen)
6 cups water or white chicken stock
a large sprig of fresh thyme
a small bay leaf
kosher salt
freshly ground white pepper
2 small cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
2 small bunches fresh basil, or a combination of basil and mint leaves, rinsed ( a little less than an ounce altogether)**
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
1 small tomato, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
kosher salt
Crispy cooked pancetta for garnish, if desired

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a 4 quart, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven.  Add the onion and carrots, with a good pinch of salt, and sweat the vegetables for about 5 minutes.  Add the leeks and the turnip and continue cooking another 5 minutes.  Add the liquid, thyme sprig, bay leaf, and another pinch of salt.  Simmer gently for about 10 to 15 minutes, then add the potatoes.  After an additional 10 minutes add the green beans, the zucchini, and the peas.  When the vegetables are just tender add the cooked white beans  and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.  Do not over cook the soup or the green vegetables will lose their bright color.  While the soup is simmering, make the pistou.  In a small food processor mix the garlic, basil leaves, and a little salt.  Process until coarsely chopped, then stream in the olive oil and blend well.  Add the chopped tomato and mix again, you will have a medium-thick paste that will mound slightly on a spoon.  Ladle the hot soup into bowls and swirl a teaspoon or two of the pistou atop the soup.  Sprinkle on the crispy pancetta, if using.
**I used 2 cellophane packets of fresh herbs, each weighing 1 ounce from a local source called The Herb Farm in Colgate, WI.  Once I had removed the stems, my basil and mint leaves weighed just under an ounce.
(inspired by and adapted from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child and The Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Insitute )


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