When autumn is barreling down on you like hurricane Irma it comes with an uneasy sense that the bounty of summer we are still enjoying will soon disappear. We may have grown tired of zucchini and green beans but we will miss them when they are gone.
Like many people, I suffer from an overwhelming sense of nostalgia when the light begins to change toward the end of August. The golden light of late summer, while particularly beautiful, is also acutely melancholy. Soon the garden that was humming with pollinators all summer will grow deadly still. The last of the corn and tomatoes and zucchini will be picked and one day soon, we will have our last meal of summer until next year.
In many ways, I love the changeover to fall fare like squashes, cauliflower, sweet potatoes and all manner of braising greens. But before I give up on summer completely I want one last good taste of it—a final hurrah—that will lead directly into autumn.
My bridge into fall dishes is soup and there is no better use of the last of the summer bounty than that quintessentially summer soup, soupe au pistou. It is an everthing-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of soup that the good housewives of Provence must have invented back in the days when there was always a soup pot going on the hearth (I’m talking way, way back). Throw in a bit of this and that and you’ve got supper. (In fact, in French, the verb souper, meaning to supper, is derived from those big pots of soup hanging over the embers day and night.)
Of course, like bouillabaisse—or even corn chowder in the U.S—one person’s soupe au pistou is not another’s. That’s the beauty of home cooking. A loose recipe is the gateway to your own creation. Green beans, zucchini, diced potato, tomatoes, legumes, a bit of pasta, maybe some corn, whatever strikes your fancy. Some cooks put bits of diced ham in it, others not. Make it with vegetable stock, chicken stock or just water. You’re the cook. The finishing touch is the pistou, the French version of pesto.
My first experience making soupe au pistou was in Provence just a couple of years ago. It was one of those experiences ripe for nostalgia the moment it was over. It wasn’t just the place, or the ingredients, or even the authentic recipe (although they played an important role). Like most memorable cooking experiences, it had to do with friendships.
Anita and I have been friends since high school. We had exactly one year together in school to establish a bond that has seen us through more years than I care to admit. She was a senior whose father was transferred to Chicago from California during her final year of high school. I was a mere sophomore. Our common link was that we played clarinet together in band. That and our mutual love of French was what cemented our friendship.
When she went off to college we kept up a correspondence and met up during her winter and summer breaks. We both ended up majoring in French and each spent time studying abroad. We never lived in the same town again after that one year we overlapped in high school and yet I still count her among my dearest and closest friends. We have forged a long-distance relationship punctuated by brief, shared experiences that have been just enough to keep us going.
Two years ago, we met up for a couple of days in Provence while we were vacationing separately in France. My husband and I invited Anita and her husband to join us for a couple of nights at the cottage we were renting in the Luberon. Since we all had been to Provence before, the usual tourist stops were no longer high on our agenda. A languorous pace centered on food, wine and friendship was the reason we settled on spending a morning together making soupe au pistou based on a recipe that Anita had procured earlier on her trip.
In fact, the entire two weeks my husband and I spent on that vacation to Provence two years ago were one long, glorious stretch of languor. I kept a journal to chronicle those deliciously lazy days, including an entry on the day we made our soupe au pistou:
July 1, 2015
When you cook in Provence, everything tastes better and nothing is too much trouble—even in a kitchen that is minimally equipped. A soupe au pistou with all the authentic ingredients would be a laborious affair at home, but here in the Luberon, it comes together as if by magic.
With a shopping list in hand, a trip to a local farm at 10:30 a.m. for a lunch that will be served at 1:30 p.m. stretches out the morning as if we had all the time in the world.
4 pommes de terres moyen
500g haricots coco blancs
500g haricots coco rouges
500g haricots verts
un bouquet de basilic
une tranche épaisse de jambon coupé en dès
“Are you making soupe au pistou?” the farmer’s wife asks. “Yes,” I reply. She smiles approvingly and eagerly helps me choose tomatoes that are the exact ripeness for the soup.
With friends to shell the beans while you cut up the ham and get the soup base going, the work progresses at a pace that allows you to appreciate the quality of each of the ingredients and build up the soup bit by bit.
The pistou is made by hand—no Cuisinart here—nor a mortar and pestle. I mince the new, green garlic (oh what a delicious smell) and then form a kind a paste with salt, using the flat of my knife. The basil I mince as well, add it to the garlic paste along with olive oil, parmesan and finally, the finely diced tomatoes and their juices, creating more of a slurry than a thick pesto-like paste.
The pot of soup in an old farmhouse kitchen with the cigales (cicadas) singing outside is the essence of Provence.
My husband cuts the bread, brings the pot of soup to the table on the terrace and with a glass of good, cool rosé we toast our good fortune and swallow another languorous Provençal day whole.
Days of languor, like soupe au pistou, should only be shared with those your love.
When I got my soupe au pistou going on my stove this year, I took a photo and immediately sent it to Anita with the caption “Just got this pot of soupe au pistou going on the stove. Wish you and Dick were here to enjoy it with us.” “That is too funny,” she replied. “Just before I got this message I was remembering our soupe au pistou adventure!”
You see? Summer may be coming to a close and our friends may be far away, but we’ll always have soupe au pistou. (I tucked some away in the freezer.)
Soupe au Pistou
Serves 6 – 8
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours
What I love so much about this particular soupe au pistou recipe is the addition of the ham which gives a richness to the broth. I also like the addition of the finely diced tomato to the pistou which, in most recipes, is not included. You decide whether you want to include it or not.
2 thick slices country ham, diced (about 1 pound)
A small piece of salt pork (I usually skip this)
1 lb fresh white shell beans*
1 lb fresh cranberry beans*
1 lb green string beans, cut into 1-2-inch pieces
1 celery stalk, diced
3 ripe tomatoes (medium), peeled, seeded and diced
3 medium zucchini, diced
8 smallish potatoes, diced (I like the red-skinned Norland potatoes for this)
5 oz. elbow pasta
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 large bunch of basil
4 oz. grated parmesan
10 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium, very ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and diced into small dice.
*I can never find the fresh shell beans in the U.S. so either use 1 Cup total dried white beans, soaked overnight and cooked separately, or just open a can or two of Cannellini beans, garbanzo beans or whatever you like. Drain and rinse them and then add them to the pot.
- Fill a large soup pot with 12 Cups of water, add the ham and bring to a boil then simmer for 30 minutes.
- Add the vegetables, return to the boil, then simmer for 1 hour.
- Meanwhile make the pistou in a food processor. Whirr the garlic first, then add the basil, cheese and olive oil. Scoop it into a bowl and stir in the tomato and its juices.
- Add the pasta just before serving and cook for 10 minutes
- Ladle soup into bowls with a generous spoonful of pistou in each. Serve with crusty bread and a chilled rosé from Provence of course!