The very first recipe I ever made from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was Soupe Au Pistou.
I was 25 years old, in grad school trying to be a filmmaker, grading hopelessly ungrammatical papers for an advertising professor, juggling a cranky boyfriend with the endless demands of Ulysses, my family’s beloved Hungarian vizla who had come to live with me. Somehow, between obsessively watching Jules et Jim and every other film Francois Truffaut ever made and rounding up actors and crew to make my own 16mm masterpieces, I had to eat.
Now this was before the glorious days of takeout—in Austin, it scarcely existed. So anything I cooked at home had to be fast, easy and delicious. Also cheap. I gobbled hundreds of warm corn tortillas, oozing with Monterrey Jack, ripe diced tomato and fiery jalapenos in escabeche, standing up in the kitchen. A friend survived on pimento cheese sandwiches, and red beans and rice made in his mom’s old pressure cooker.
But Soupe au Pistou was on another level altogether. I didn’t know how to cook, and wouldn’t have dared to try a soufflé or a terrine. Vegetable soup, though, I could handle. Julia’s version of this Provencal classic was simple, but alluring, and even though it is an early summer soup (best made “when fresh basil, fresh white beans and broad mange tout beans are all suddenly available, and the market women shout in the streets, ‘Mesdames, faites le bon piste, faites le pistou!’) her practical substitutions gave me the confidence to tackle it in January: You can make it with not much more than potatoes, onions and carrots simmered in water, and fresh green beans, canned kidney beans and a handful of broken spaghetti.
What made the soup sublime was the pistou—a fragrant Provencal paste of garlic, basil, Parmesan cheese, tomato and lots of fruity olive oil. It is very similar to Italian pesto, without the pine nuts. You pound these ingredients together in the bottom of a tureen. Then you ladle over the boiling soup, stirring rapidly so that the pistou swirls into the liquid. The heat releases the vibrant scent of garlic and basil, the cheese and olive oil enrich the thickened vegetables in the soup, and, well, it's fabulous, especially on a gloomy winter day after six disastrous hours in the editing room.
I can’t remember how I made the pistou. I probably beat the ingredients with a wooden spoon, doubtless used dried basil, and surely left out the pinch of saffron Julia recommends. What I do remember is what a feast it was, especially with toasted rounds of “French bread” drizzled with olive oil. I even sat down to eat it.
I thought of this the other day when I was testing mortars and pestles and wound up with a generous cup of good, garlicky pesto. What to do with it? Naturally you can toss pasta with the pesto, spread it on a ham and tomato sandwich, or slather it on grilled chicken or steamed vegetables, both of which need as much perking up as they can get. But I was captivated by memories of the Soupe au Pistou I made as grad student. With all that lovely pesto and a certain surfeit after the holidays, vegetable soup seemed like a wonderful idea.
The soup recipe is basically Julia’s. I substitute chicken broth for the water, and use a can of cannellini beans instead of pinto or navy beans, but otherwise, the recipes are just about the same.
As for the pistou, you can do it Julia’s way, pounding together garlic, tomato puree, fresh basil, Parmesan cheese and olive oil. Or you can make a classic Italian pesto, whisk in some tomato paste and swirl that into the soup. I prefer the latter because I love the fragrance of the extra (nearly 4 cups) of basil and the richness of the pine nuts—and because I will have 1/2 cup left over to use as I please.
But either way, the soup is fragrant and nourishing—a hungry film student’s dream.
Soupe au Pistou
(adapted from Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking)
To serve six:
Ingredients for the soup:
3 quarts chicken broth (fresh is better, but canned is OK)
2 cups diced potatoes
2 cups diced carrots
2 cups diced onion or white of leek
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups canned cannellini beans
1/3 cup broken spaghetti
1 slice stale white bread, crumbled
2 cups fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of saffron
Croutons (baguette, sliced, toasted in the oven and drizzled with olive oil)
Ingredients for the pistou:
4 cloves crushed garlic
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 to 1/2 cup fruity olive oil
Or, make a pesto with the following ingredients:
4 cloves garlic, cut in half, green sprout removed
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups fresh basil leaves, stems removed
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fruity olive oil
4 tablespoons tomato paste
Method for the soup:
1. Bring the chicken broth, potatoes, carrots and onions or leeks, and salt to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes.
2. While the soup is simmering, make the pistou or the pesto:
For the pistou: Place the garlic, tomato puree or paste, basil and cheese in the soup tureen. Pound to a paste with a wooden spoon, then beat in the olive oil, drop by drop.
For the pesto: In a mortar and pestle, smash the garlic and salt to a paste. Little by little add the basil leaves, gently bruising and crushing them. Add the pine nuts and grind them into the pesto, then add the cheese, stirring to blend. Gradually beat in the olive oil. Place 1/2 cup of the pesto in the bottom of the tureen and beat in the tomato paste. Reserve the remaining pesto for another use.
(You can also buy ready made pesto and add the tomato paste and more olive oil, if desired.)
3. Add the cannellini beans, broken spaghetti, bread, pepper and saffron to the soup and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the green beans and simmer 5 to 10 minutes more, until they are cooked through but still crunchy. Taste and correct the seasonings.
4. Pour a cup of hot soup into the tureen and whisk in the pistou or pesto. Add the rest of the soup and stir well to combine. Serve at once with the croutons.