Do we say pistou or pesto? It depends what region of the world you come from. In Italy, pesto is made with fresh basil leaves, fragrant olive oil, garlic, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and pine nuts. My Italian pesto features sliced almonds, a combination of fresh basil and Italian parsley, lemon zest — and a bit of honey to offset the briny herbs.
The traditional French version leaves out the nuts but sometimes adds a fresh tomato. Somewhere in the path of becoming a worldwide condiment, pesto has become a universal name for anything herby thrown into a blender. But pesto or pistou should be more than just fresh basil suspended in olive oil. It should taste fresh — as if the basil is still on the vine with its green leaves reaching toward the sun for warmth. It is impossible to reproduce the same flavor every time you make pesto. The resulting taste is a reflection of the freshness and selection of the ingredients. This French-inspired pistou recipe covers all the perfect ingredients that make fresh basil come alive, including tomato and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. You can use this pistou as a sauce for pasta or as an extra flavoring for vegetables. I like a few dollops on grilled fish or chicken.
Choose a fruity olive oil such as my favorite, California Olive Ranch. You can also use any hard grating cheese such as Grana Padano, Romano or even Gruyere. Fresh basil can range from green to reddish to purple in color, depending on the variety. There are many varieties of basil, each with its own distinct flavor and hints of lemon, thyme, jasmine, clove, cinnamon and anise. Sweet basil and Genovese basil, with fragrant dark green glossy leaves and distinctive mild anise flavor, are ideal for making pesto. This variety is easy to grow in your garden and is also the most common found in the local markets. Choose fresh, vibrant green leaves with no dark spots. Do not wash or dampen them until you are ready to use them. Store them between layers of paper towels inside a plastic bag, refrigerating for up to 4 days.
What about the soup? Think minestrone with a swirl of pesto. Why didn’t the Italians think of this combination, as all the ingredients are already Italian in origin? Leave it to the French to cleverly create a fresh taste combination. Chock-full of vegetables, beans and fresh green beans, this soup is a blank canvas. Simply add the ingredients you have on hand. I like to add cooked pasta and a sprinkle of grated Parmigiano cheese on top. This lovely vegetable soup will comfort and warm you on a chilly day and nourish your body and soul. Just what we really need right now.
Provencal Vegetable Soup With Pistou
1 cup tightly packed fresh basil leaves, no stems
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 whole garlic cloves
1 cup coarsely chopped plum tomato
½ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups carrots, peeled and sliced ½ inch thick
2 cups leeks, sliced ½ inch thick, white and light green parts only
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2 cups russet potatoes, peeled and sliced ½ inch thick
1 cup celery ribs, sliced ½ inch thick
1 cup sweet onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
4 fresh thyme sprigs, tied with twine
Rind of a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)
1 teaspoon each fine sea salt and ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1 cup cored and seeded plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
8 cups vegetable or chicken stock (two 32-ounce cartons)
1 cup haricot verts, ends removed, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 cup cooked short pasta
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Make the pistou/ pesto: Add all the pistou ingredients to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse just until coarsely chopped and some pieces of herbs are still visible. Set aside in the refrigerator while the soup simmers. Makes about a heaping cup.
Make the soup: In a large stockpot on medium heat, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Stir in the carrots, leeks, potatoes, celery, onion, garlic, thyme sprigs, Parmigiano rind, if using, salt and pepper. Saute just until softened, about 8 minutes. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and cannellini beans, sauteing another 5 minutes.
Stir in the stock, bring to a slow boil, reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until all the vegetables are tender. Skim the foam off the top of the soup. Taste and add more salt and pepper as needed.
Add the haricot verts and simmer for another 15 minutes. Remove and discard the tied thyme sprigs and Parmigiano rind. Off heat, stir in the cooked pasta.
Just before serving, stir ¼ cup of the prepared pistou into the soup. At the table, serve with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and more pistou.
Makes about 8 servings.
Lorraine Fina Stevenski is a self-taught baker and award-winning recipe contest addict. This column features recipes that have been entered in contests across America and updated for readers who love to bake. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.