Cooking as comfort: Ribollita

I wasn’t sure whether or not to write a post this week but silence didn’t feel right. I don’t have words that might inspire or illuminate, but I do want to acknowledge the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. I have lived a long life of safety and comfort; I was born to caring parents, taught by generous teachers, and have been in a loving relationship for forty years. I have no idea how it feels to worry about what might happen to my son when he leaves the house, or to understand the the accumulated rage it takes to light a car on fire. I do feel sadness, despair, and the imperative to recognize lost lives and share the pain. I will try to be kinder and vow to work toward seeking leaders who will unite us with compassion.

On a much less important and more mundane note, I am currently on my second day of the dread colonoscopy preparation—leading to a procedure that ranks with having a root canal or watching The Bachelorette. Included in the complicated, four-page, particularly severe set of gastroenterological instructions, is the mandate to stop eating solid food two days before the day of the event. Seems unnecessarily unkind to me. 

I am surprised how often I think about food. What no cream in my coffee? No peanut butter toast after my morning walk? No afternoon Dorito snack? No dip into the pickle or olive jar? Not even a rice cake? Food marks time, rewards my efforts, celebrates the end of the day. Countless times I think, “time for a snack” only to remember.

I also miss the ease and focus I experience when I cook. I can remember working behind the line in restaurant kitchens when time disappeared in a dance of effort, practiced skill, and teamwork. In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named this state of mind “as being in the zone—the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” 

Stepping into the routine of cooking is always a stress reliever for me. For the most part I can control what happens: the water will boil, the onions will caramelize, the pork shoulder will become tender, and something eatable will emerge. Just throw in the occasional scorched peppers, salty potatoes, and overcooked salmon to keep my pride in check. 

So, if I could go into the kitchen and cook something to eat, would it be scalloped potatoes, sweet potato panang curry, a tuna melt? Maybe I’d try Mark Bitman’s recipe for Ribollita.

Ribollita 

  • 5 tablespoons olive oil 
  • 1 small onion, chopped 
  • 1 carrot, chopped 
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped 
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic 
  • Salt and ground black pepper 
  • 2 cups cooked or canned cannellini beans 
  • 1 15-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes 
  • 4 cups vegetable stock or water 
  • 1 fresh rosemary sprig 1 fresh thyme sprig 
  • 1 pound chopped kale or escarole 
  • 4 large, thick slices whole-grain bread, toasted 
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced 
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan 

Put 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it’s hot, add onion, carrot, celery and garlic; sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft, 5 to 10 minutes.

Heat the oven to 500 degrees.

Drain the beans; if they’re canned, rinse them as well. Add them to the pot along with tomatoes and their juices and stock, rosemary and thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat so the soup bubbles steadily; cover and cook, stirring once or twice to break up the tomatoes, until the flavors meld, 15 to 20 minutes.

Fish out and discard rosemary and thyme stems, if you like, and stir in kale. Taste and adjust seasoning. Lay bread slices on top of the stew so they cover the top and overlap as little as possible. Scatter red onion slices over the top, drizzle with the remaining 3 tablespoons oil and sprinkle with Parmesan.

Put the pot in the oven and bake until the bread, onions and cheese are browned and crisp, 10 to 15 minutes. (If your pot fits under the broiler, you can also brown the top there.) 

Divide the soup and bread among 4 bowls and serve.

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