Ribollita, Italian Peasant Stew.

We went to Xela (Quezaltenango) last weekend. It was a lovely end to a nice, long break from work. In the 22 months I have lived in the country, I had yet to make it there. It seemed a bit far (although now the highway has improved and it is barely a three hour drive now!), and I never had any business out that direction. But my visa renewal was coming up and I was looking for a cheap way to leave the country. So Mexico it was. Mexico really isn’t close, but from Xela it was a day trip, so we took advantage of the trip. I won’t go into details, my passport is now renewed, and Xela is a beautiful beautiful place I hope to visit again very soon. Hidalgo, Mexico — not a town I’ll recommend.

Whenever I travel someplace new I like to indulge in the culinary treats typical of the town. In Xela it is Shecas…a sweet bread often flavored with anise. We bought half a dozen from a bakery in town, and although they were delicious we were disappointed they had no anise. Oh well, we though. Then, on our way out of town in Quatro Caminos, there were venders at the stoplights selling bags of them. Impluslively I rolled down my window, asked if they contained anise (“si, si” , he responded), and we traded a 10Q bill for a bag of 10 shecas before the light turned green. I ripped open the bag and tore off a bite, and immediately disappointed. Not only was there no trace of anise, they were dry and tasteless. Ugg, I thought. I pondered “what am I going to do with 9.75 dry and tasteless pieces of bread?!”

Then, instantly, an image of old useless bread brought a rush of fond culinary memories. I rummaged through my bookshelf until I found the mini “marble memo” notepad where I scratched down the recipe.
Lets jump back 5 years to November 2004. My junior year in college, study abroad in Rome, Italy. My parents visited for a couple weeks. We toured the country side, including a few days in Florence (Firenze!). We went to the museums, shopped on Ponte Vecchio, and ate delicious Tuscan cuisine. I’m not sure how we discovered the tiny restaurant in that little village tucked in the mountains surrounding Florance. (I should have done proper research here, but in my emotion I didn’t have the time…Mom, do you remember? Do you still have that little ceramic ashtray the restaurant owner gave us?).

I remember very clearly it was very very cold. We took a bus about 20 minutes up the twisted mountain roads and were dropped off on the main street of an empty town. We ate the most delicious**, tender whole chicken, butterflied and grilled to perfection with that crusty blackened skin. We had a tomato stew thickened with day old bread, and we had Ribollita, a white bean stew also thickened with day old bread. There was no one in the tiny place. It was dark outside, but candles surrounded us in every direction giving an old-fashioned glow to the place. I felt like I was back in the 1800s. The owner chatted with us (and now I forget if it was in my broken Italian or his broken English). He explained the preparation of the dish in enough detail that I was successful in my online search at the internet cafe the next day (I don’t think I knew about Google back then). He gave us a little ceramic ashtray that I think my Mom uses for coins.

Good memories. I would like to go back. I wonder if it is still there. In the past 5 years, on and off I remember the stew and thought on making it, but the timing was never right. But finally it happened and it was magic. The white bean are great. It’s loaded with veggies full of vitamins. It’s healthy. And letting chunks of day old bread absorb the broth and disintegrate completely thickens the stew and creates a hearty, delicious texture. And it’s cheap and easy to make, although a bit of chopping is required. I just ate a bowl and my belly is warm and satisfied. I will sleep well tonight.

Ribollita. Italian White Bean Peasant Stew.

Ingredients:
1 cup dried white beans*
8 cups water
1 red onion, diced
1 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (optional/more or less to taste)
2 stalks celery, finely diced
2 medium carrots, diced
1 potato, diced (optional)
2 roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 bay leaves
3 springs thyme (dried or fresh)
3 sprigs rosemary (fresh)
salt and pepper to taste
4 cups red cabbage, 1/2″ pieces
2 cups savoy cabbage, 1/2″ pieces
1 bunch kale or swiss chard, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 can chicken broth
1 loaf day old bread (traditioanlly “italain peasant bread”, but you can use whatever you have).

Directions:

1) Soak beans overnight. Cook in 8 cups water according to directions (I do it in my slow cooker on low for about 5 hours). Once cooked, reserve all the liquid. Puree half of the beans while keeping the rest whole. The pureed beans will add a nice thick texture to the soup, while the whole beans let you know they’re still there!

2) Meanwhile, cook onions and garlic until soft. Add celery, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper. Cook until veggies are softened, about 10 minutes.

3) Add cabbages. Cook until softened and flavors combine.

4) Add tomato paste, still well to combine.

5) Add the liquid from the beans, the pureed beans, the chicken broth, and swiss chard/kale. Let simmer on medium heat about 30-45 minutes until potatoes are cooked and the flavors well blended.

6) Add the whole beans, and let warm through.

7) Meanwhile, toast up the old bread. Rub a clove of peeled garlic over each piece. Place a piece in each bowl, crumbling it well.Once stew is cooked, and seasoning adjusted if necessary, spoon a serving over the bread. Mix to integrate the crumbled bread into the stew. Let sit for 5 minutes before serving.

8)Serve with a drizzle of olive oil, and grated parmesean, pecorino, or assiago cheese if desired. Enjoy!

*You may use canned beans instead. Make sure to use water or broth to replace the cooking water from the beans.

**I stated in my last post that the chicken I made was the most delicious chicken I have ever had. I take that back…it is the second most delicious chicken I had ever had. The one I had in Italy was hands down the best!

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2 Responses

  1. Yes, I still have the little ash tray he gave us. The name of the restaurant is Ristorante Perseus, located in Fiesole, kind of a suburb of Florence.

    I agree – it was the best chicken I’ve ever eaten. Later that trip Tom and I also had very delicious chicken prepared in a similar fashion in a little town in Tuscany, as well as the most delicious roasted vegetables. I’ve been a fan of roasted vegetables ever since.

  2. […] never cooked with cabbage much. Besides the Japanese Pizza, and the Ribollita, I never really use it. As a child it made an appearance every New Year, alongside a pork roast and […]

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