For a Tuscan cook, talking about ribollita is like telling a family story, like chatting at the table, talking by the fireplace or confiding in a friend. It’s something simple, but very important.
Ribollita is a serious matter.
A traditional, representative and iconic dish, which is almost modern in its antiquity, even new vegan cooking trends can count on ribollita as one of its masterpieces. Like all great country recipes, it relies on simple, local and seasonal ingredients that use up leftover produce.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Ri- bollita means boiled more than once. The base is a rich winter vegetable soup featuring the usual carrots, celery and onion, as well as beets, Tuscan kale, potatoes and cannellini beans (other winter vegetables are optional), with a cooking time of no less than three hours over low heat, better still on a wood-burning stove. (My dad, a ribollita “know-it-all”, believed in an entire day’s cooking.) Once it’s reached the right consistency, set aside to cool and add a generous amount of thyme.
Take a bowl suitable for the refrigerator and start to layer the soup and day-old Tuscan bread (I’ll talk about that later) until all the ingredients have been used. As soon as it’s cooled, refrigerator for 12 hours.
Go ahead with the “ri-bollitura” with good extra-virgin olive oil over high heat, mixing well to achieve a creamy and amalgamated consistency. Finish with a drizzle of quality olive oil and a generous grind of pepper. Serve in a dish or an earthenware bowl.
Explained so simply, we wonder: what makes this recipe so special and what makes it so good?
The answer pretty much sums up all Tuscan cooking. It’s all about choosing the ingredients, the preparation and cooking, as well as how it’s served.
It all begins with cavolo nero, the star ingredient of ribollita. Strictly Tuscan, the kale is as loved in our region as it is overlooked elsewhere. It should be picked just after the frost when it’s soft and has a more mellow flavor. The wrinkled leaves must be removed. Then there’s Savoy cabbage and beets, one’s sweeter, the other more austere, in their supporting roles alongside Tuscan kale as leafy vegetables. The potatoes and beans cook in the soup, giving that necessary binding effect as they release starch and create a creamy consistency.
The fried base calls for red onion, celery and carrot. The thyme is equally essential as it helps to craft that unmistakable ribollita aroma.
Bread is another key ingredient in our dish. Unsalted Tuscan bread – better still if baked in wood-burning stove, better again if made using flour that has something to say, set aside to harden for a few days – will soak up all the flavors of the vegetables and amazing broth.
Given that this recipe is also aimed at people who live outside of Tuscany, here are 5 basic rules for successful ribollita:
1. Ribollita without good cavolo nero is like a sea without water. Which means that YOU CAN’T MAKE IT IN THE SUMMER.
2. If you don’t have good bread that’s at least 3 days old, YOU’RE BEST MAKING SOMETHING ELSE.
3. If the COOKING, RESTING AND REFRIGERATION times aren’t observed, it won’t be a great ribollita.
4. If you can’t devote a day (24 hours) to making ribollita, don’t even try.
5. If you don’t use QUALITY EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL, for the “ri-bollitura” and to serve, it won’t be delicious.
I hope that helps to explain what ribollita means to Florentines. Alongside bistecca, it’s the recipe that best represents our city. There are thousands of recipes, books and treaties, but for me there’s no such thing as a catalogued ribollita. I’ve not given any weights or measurements for the ingredients because you have to “feel” ribollita, not weigh it. Interpret and not list: is that hard?
I’d say it was demanding. But it takes commitment and dedication to achieve a culinary masterpiece!