Thursday, 1 November 2012

Au pistou

Some of the greatest meals start with the most humble of ingredients. ‘Chop and fry an onion’ – the beginnings of a rich coq au vin, a wholesome cassoulet, or any number of countless recipes that set off on the same promising foot.

A pan full of these humble ingredients along with some herbs creates a key staple used across the board as a base of substance – vegetable stock.  An excellent example of an often overlooked but fundamental component of many dishes.

A vegetable stock in its traditional form is a mass of liquid that has taken on the flavour of the vegetables and herbs that have been gently simmered in it.  Other ingredients are then cooked in the stock to provide them with a base of flavour that can then be built upon. 

But I do have an issue with this:

‘Strain the liquid’.

After the vegetables have been simmered, the liquid is strained and reserved – this is the stock.  There is no longer a need for the vegetables – they’ve given you their clean and fresh flavours and you are now expected to turn them out to the cold.  And why not – a carrot, a stick of celery, an onion – they’re two a penny.  Who cares? 

I do.

I take the straining of the liquid personally.  You’ve got the flavours you’re after. There is no real necessity to discard all that fibre.  And so, I often don’t.

This is a great one-pot wonder recipe that lets the flavours get on with their job.

Bean and Vegetable Soup au Pistou

Makes about 3 portions

300g dried beans of your choice (my favourite are butter beans)

For the veg stock
2 sticks of celery thickly sliced
2 carrots thickly sliced
1 white onion chopped into chunks
3 cloves of garlic 
3 bay leaves
3 sprigs of rosemary
10 whole peppercorns
Olive oil

For the pistou / pesto
A pistou is a cold sauce made of garlic, basil and olive oil and is the French version of pesto - the main difference is it doesn’t contain pine nuts like pesto.  It’s more traditionally stirred into soups but you could absolutely use pesto as a replacement. If you do however, I urge you to make your own – it’s so incredibly easy, much cheaper than buying a jar of it ready made, and the freshness will fight its way through and have a dance on your tongue.  

Basil leaves
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

As above, but with toasted pine nuts.

Soak the beans in plenty of cold water over night. Rinse well and drain.

Place into a large heavy based pan, add plenty of cold water and bring to a simmer.  Remove the scum that will appear on the surface as it comes up the boil.

Once the water is boiling, add all the vegetables, herbs, a good glug of olive oil and a decent amount of salt.  Bring back up to the boil and then reduce the heat so you are left with a comforting and very slow simmer – blip blip.

Keep it like this for 1.5-2 hrs giving the beans a stir now and again to prevent them sticking to the bottom of the pan.  It’s ready when the beans are tender and have no resistance to a bite.

To make your pesto / pistou, mash all the ingredients in a pestle and mortar or wazz it with something electrical – I often use my stick blender. Then add a little oil at a time until you have the required consistency.  It’s that easy.

You’ll notice I haven’t specified how much of each of the sauce components to add as it’s completely down to your taste.  My advice would be to start with 1 clove of garlic, a heaped tablespoon of toasted pine nuts, a small handful of basil leaves, a little pile of parmesan gratings, a good glug of oil and a big pinch of black pepper.  Then adjust according to your taste.

Once your soup is ready, pour into a bowl and dollop a tablespoon of your delicious home made sauce and stir through.  Serve with a crusty roll.

This is a simple, wholesome and nutritious soup with the delicate and fresh flavours of the vegetables taking centre stage.  The buttery and creamy consistency of the beans provide a wonderful texture, and the pungency of the garlic sauce with salty cheese will give every mouthful a little song to sing about.

Making these for work lunches as I did, may have been a little misguided. Raw garlic and afternoon meetings don’t marry as well as one might think. Just as well I have considerate colleagues.

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