Summer-Vegetable Surplus? Try a Warm-Weather Italian Stew

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I have two related problems, but bear with me, because they are about as first-world as problems come.

The first is too many vegetables. I take my daughter to the San Mateo farmers market every Saturday morning, and despite repeated advice to the contrary, I usually do it on an empty stomach. Bad mistake. I wind up buying far more produce than our small family can eat within a week, which means I'm constantly trying to figure out ways to pack more vegetables into a single meal.

The second is too much bread. My neighbors down the road run a bakery called Backhaus and my wife and I have a delivery subscription. Every Thursday, there's a new loaf of incredible bread waiting for us on the doorstep. We eat it fresh for the first few days, but figuring out what to do with the remaining chunk of stale bread after that is a weekly problem that I'm constantly trying to find creative ways to solve.

Then Daniel went ahead and solved both of those problems for me. The solution? An Italian soup called ribollita. Actually, it's an Italian stew. Or actually, an Italian pancake. It's all three of those things, depending on how long you cook it.

In Daniel's recipe, he makes the hearty soup by sautéing aromatic vegetables, then simmering squash, kale, and cannelini beans in some water before adding in chunks of stale bread and cooking it all down until the bread thickens up the broth. But there's absolutely no reason to stick with squash, beans, and other winter vegetables. In fact, Daniel spells it out for us in his article:

Let me stop here to point something out: In my recipe, I give a precise list of ingredients and quantities. Please, please don't make the mistake of thinking you need to adhere to that list. This kind of soup is practically begging for variation. Add vegetables that you like, add vegetables that are in season, make it up, invent, improvise: You really, really can't go wrong. I always try to use some combination of the most basic aromatics, such as onion and/or its close relatives, like leeks and shallots, plus garlic, carrot, maybe celery. But beyond that, go wild! (And frankly, if you hate garlic, carrots, or celery, by all means leave them out.)

Taking his advice to heart, I decided to make a more summery version with one of my farmers market hauls.

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I start the same way he does, by sautéing garlic, onions, leeks, carrot, and celery, along with a few stems of rosemary or thyme in a good amount of olive oil. And by "good amount" I mean "an amount appropriate for sautéing a whole lot of vegetables," not good in any calorie-counting sense of the word. A few tablespoons at least to start off, and a drizzle here and there if the pot ever starts to look dry or the vegetables stick at all. You can remove the leaves from the rosemary and thyme and chop them up, but I find it much easier just to throw the sprigs in whole and worry about fishing out the stems before serving. To punch up the flavor a little, I also add a spoonful of tomato paste.

Next I top it all off with water, then dump in my vegetables—summer squash, zucchini, green beans, and spinach—along with a couple bay leaves, a handful of chopped fresh basil leaves, and a Parmesan rind to help deepen the flavor. After simmering the vegetables until tender, I add my cubed bread.

Incidentally, there's no reason to wait for your bread to stale before making this soup. I happen to always have some stale bread on hand so it makes sense, but if you want that ribollita right now, a fresh loaf from the shop will work just fine and will actually shave a few minutes off of cooking.

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Now comes the easiest part: simmer everything until it's done. How do you know it's done? Well honestly, it doesn't matter. It's totally up to you.

You wanna talk about foolproof recipes? Ribollita's about as foolproof as they come. It's okay if you don't use all the ingredients. It's okay if you add other vegetables. It's okay if you undercook it. Heck, you can't even really overcook it. Cook it down past soup stage and it becomes a delicious stew. Cook it past stew stage and you can transfer it to a skillet and fry it up like a pancake (really!). Don't want a pancake? That's ok, just add a little more liquid and it's still good to serve.

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I finish it all off with some grated Parmesan, more extra-virgin olive oil, and freshly ground black pepper before serving.

By the way, if you want to make sure your farmers market trips are a little more frugal, I heartily recommend eating a bowl of ribollita before you go, because it certainly won't leave you hungry.