Amidst this last Wednesday's projects--to plan a food writer's group and a cooking class, write an essay on Point Reyes, and remember all the 'epiphanies' I had the night before as I was falling asleep--I also did two things: receive ashes for Ash Wednesday, and make ribollita, the famous Tuscan bread soup.
Both of the latter tasks were easy, and both were intrinsically tied to a pestering inclination I have to observe Lent this year. Before you click away in fear of a brow-beating on the holy wonders of self-flagellation or starvation or repentance--or worse, a heart-felt homily meant to persuade the reader to re-think the Church at large, let me assure you, neither is my subject matter nor my intent.
The matter at hand is the spirit of Lent. I know religiously there is quite a bit of talk in Lent about prayer, helping the poor monetarily, and fasting, but it seems that source of all the odd practices--giving up meat or smudging your forehead with ashes--is a fairly natural, a-religious need: to be reminded of our collective humanity, a humanity that is not only spirit or body, but both. Hence the giving money to the poor and the fasting. These are physical actions (or preparations as the case may be) that work on us and the world spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically. At least, that's the idea. Lent's foci claim we are not what we believe, or what we eat, after all. Rather, we are what we do. I often don't believe much of anything--whether it be love of spouse or self, or belief in a deity, or trust in religious structures, so for someone like me, identity though action is completely freeing. Hence, the ribollita.
Ribollita is an earthy, homely soup that happens to taste heavenly. It is made of simple ingredients that vary from household to household and from soup session to soup session. The usual suspects include: olive oil, Parmesan rinds, herbs, tomatoes (if you remember them), aromatics like onions, garlic, leeks, and celery, a bunch of greens, a bowl of beans, broths or water, and, of course, stale bread. This mixture is simmered well but not very long--sweated, softened, and soupified--and eaten with a clear conscience, knowing that you have utilized what good still exists by saving the odd, inedible bits of meals past.
What results is a soup that somehow tastes delicious at the moment but develops with time. At first it may tend toward brothy, but if cooled, kept, and reheated, or otherwise neglected at the back of the stove, the ribollita will become thickened to the point of confusion. Is it solid? Is it liquid? It depends. I hear leftovers can be made into cakes and fried, but I haven't had the pleasure.
The recipe I used is from Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace (we've spoken of this before once or twice). She is, as I have said, brilliant, and actually appreciates fats as much as I do. This is rare. In fact, she might even love them more. In her ribollita recipe, she calls for such copious amounts of olive oil I couldn't bring myself to put it all in. This rarely happens. I trusted her, and yet, I didn't.
I still added quite a bit of oil. Apparently this is not in line with Orthodox Lenten tradition. I was on some Lenten website (or was it Wikipedia?) and found that not only is it customary in the Orthodox church to fast from meat every day (as compared to the Catholic Friday fast), but also from any animal product, olive oil, wine, beer, and sugar. Please correct me where I am wrong, but this was the gist of the article. In other words, one is supposed to fast from the passions, all the good things in life, half of which I'm not really supposed to indulge in anyway.
I'm not quite mentally prepared for such strictness, and I do not have a community around me to give body and soul to the cause. This is probably my protestant upbringing coming out and my current Episcopalian ties. I didn't do Lent as a child. It was Christmas and then it was Easter. There were no ashes, no confessions, and certainly no fasting. It was just one extravagant feast to the next. Episcopalians, on the other hand, do observe Lent, but the extent of fasting is a little willy-nilly.
But Easter! That is always a big deal. Triumph! Whiteness! Celebration! (And don't forget the ever-present vestiges of the pagan origins--bunnies and eggs and treats.) It is the biggest feast day of them all. After I grew out of the lacy sock stage I tended to just feel bombarded on Easter with what I saw as excessive frivolity and happiness. I never really got into it or understood it, even when I believed it all. Surely someone with my personality came up with Lent in the first place, because although the idea of Lent is "joyful purification", observing the season, with all its somber undertones, seems the only way to make Easter palatable and anything but obnoxious.
Since I personally have a bit of an issue letting foods languish in the refrigerator or go stale and hard on the counter, I've decided a spirit of resourcefulness is my clearest calling this season. Perhaps that is why ribollita seemed like the perfect way to start off Lent. It is, after all, a time as much about being thankful for what we do have--and using it well--as it is about giving things up. So my little job here for the next month or so is to utilize and to cleanse, to not fast from the fancy so much as feast on simplicity. Simplicity is "the state of being without complication," and fasting is just one way to employ this. It makes room in one's day and life for other things. For me, this means using what masses of food we already have, which happens to be a lot of beans, grains, and meats.
Maybe this 'observance' of Lent doesn't sound quite right to some of you. Doesn't everyone use the food they have to make dinner? Well, apparently not me. I'm a food pack-rat, and although you won't find me shopping for clothes or shoes or purses very often (if at all), I have a weak-kneed response to trips to the grocery store or farmer's market. Buying food makes me feel cared for, even when it means something else at home goes bad. Buying food is my therapy, my prayer, and my indulgence. Now this is confession, and making ribollita is my act of repentance.
What I like about this soup is how it mirrors the Lenten spirit. What draws me to the idea of Lent is the initial appearance of melancholy. What drew me to ribollita was its economy. But neither is supposed to be dominated by such attitudes. Lent is not supposed to be morbid and gloomy (both of which I unfortunately like) but joyful and purifying. On one hand, ribollita appears to be only a poor-man's soup, but because you don't buy anything for ribollita, you have it, and because you can't buy stale bread anyway, you wait for it, the soup holds a certain edge of intrigue and mystery. It is elevated. It takes patience and utility to prepare for it and to make it.
According to Tamar, ribollita is thus amongst those philosophically stabilizing dishes which, though humble in origin and economical in nature, should never feel depressing. It is a gift that simple food tastes so good. It is a gift that we can use the whole loaf, the whole block of cheese, the whole pot of beans, and not feel stinted. Just because we have little doesn't mean we cannot eat greatly; just because we have much doesn't mean we should devalue the valuable. In other words, see the economy, see the sobriety, but see the grace, too.
RibollitaAdapted from An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler
This version of Tamar's original is appropriately adapted. I didn't have herbs (travesty!), but I had celery. I was absentminded and forgot the tomatoes. I was cautious and used only half the oil. I was lazy and didn't slice off the crusts. What resulted was delightful. I could see how tomatoes would be nice, so I included them here, but really. Please keep in mind the spirit of ribollita (and Lent) and use what you have when you have it, and just make sure to add enough of the tasty bits--olive oil, salt, pepper, onion-y things--to bring the simple and the homely into the heavenly realms. With good ingredients and a bit of thankfulness, it isn't hard.
1 medium onion, diced
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
big handful or two of celery leaves, OR 1/2 cup fresh parsley, OR 1/4 cup rosemary, OR a mixture
3 whole tomatoes, peeled (optional)
1 big bunch greens (kale, chard, collard greens), ribboned, or about 2 cups cooked greens
1/4 cup water (if cooking greens)
2 cups cooked beans (I used a mix of Flor de Mayo and Sugar beans, but other good ones include:
cranberry, cannellini, chickpeas, or any other random beans kicking around in your fridge)
2 cups bean broth or combination of liquid odds and ends: chicken or vegetable stock, juice from canned
tomatoes, and/or water
1 rind of hard cheese like Parmesan (I used an orange, unidentified rind, probably Mimolette?)
~2 cups good, stale bread without nuts, seeds, or other additions. Crusts removed for complete
breakdown, crusts intact for utility and 'dumpling' like textures.
lemon zest and wedges, for serving
black olives, chopped (optional)
Coat the bottom of a large pot with a lot of oil, about 1/4-inch, and heat. Add the onion, celery, and garlic and a three-finger pinch of salt and cook over a medium flame until they start to soften, then add the celery leaves and/or herbs.
At this point a lot depends on your resources. If you have raw greens, add them and a large glug of water, then cover and cook over a low flame until wilted. If you use fresh tomatoes, add them too and break them apart a bit as they cook. If both your greens and tomatoes are cooked (or canned, or absent, as they were with me) add them, half a cup of olive oil, and everything else but the lemons. Stir well, cover, bring to a simmer, and cook low and slow for about a half hour, adding more water if it starts to stick.