When green is delicious

Soupe au Pistou, the not so particularly photogenic Provençal French soup, is breathtakingly good


Soupe au Pistou. Photo: Pamela Timms
Soupe au Pistou. Photo: Pamela Timms

While idly scrolling through Instagram recently, glazing over slightly at all the fabulously-filtered and artfully-styled shots, I stopped suddenly at an image of a not particularly photogenic plate of food. It had been posted by London chef Alex Jackson, who I met a few years ago when I took him out to sample the street food of Old Delhi. Back then he was especially interested in watching the tandoors in action and on his return to London set about experimenting with tandoor cooking at the restaurant he was then working in.

He has now ventured out on his own with a restaurant called Sardine and has chosen to focus on the home-style cooking of southern France. If I’m honest I was a little disappointed at first that he hadn’t chosen something more India-related. But mostly I was surprised because French food has been so out of vogue for so long—even in parts of France. Recently, we all seem to have been more intent on admiring (and photographing) beautifully assembled plates of ingredients (local, seasonal and preferably foraged) than savouring great big bowls of delicious food that speak to our hearts and souls.

The dish Alex had posted on Instagram was Soupe au Pistou and the caption read: ‘Soupe au Pistou, a murky green broth with soft, slowly cooked courgettes, sweet alliums and haricot beans, tiny pieces of pasta and a trail of bright green basil pistou across the top. It is breathtakingly good.’

I was instantly transported back to the years I lived in France and devoured everything, especially the food. And the years that followed when I returned to London clutching my precious copy of La Cuisine Pour Tous, determined to become a serious cook.

I immediately dug out my 1970 edition of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, made pot after pot of Soupe au Pistou and quickly came to the conclusion I could eat it every day. It is indeed breathtakingly good.

Then last week I lost a fair chunk of an afternoon following up Provençal-related links on Twitter. This resulted in me abandoning all other plans for the day and making a Tian (a gratin of aubergine and tomatoes) and an apple Clafoutis. I’m not even slightly embarrassed to admit I was the only one home that evening but I ate the lot.

I have a feeling Alex is onto a winner and hope fervently that un-photogenic but fabulous French country cooking is about to have another moment in the sun, maybe a few. I also hope to spend some of those moments in Sardine.

Soupe au Pistou

Serves 8-10

This recipe for Soupe au Pistou is based on Elizabeth David’s and anyone keen to explore the cuisine of France should look no further. I used to make a lot of French dishes when I was first in Delhi. David’s was one of about the three cookbooks I managed to find at the British Council library and many of the dishes worked very well because so many of the core ingredients (tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes etc.) grow so happily in India).

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions (about 300g), finely sliced

500g tomatoes, peeled and chopped

2 litres of hot vegetable stock

300g green beans, topped and tailed and chopped into 1cm pieces

400g courgette, cut into small dice

150g broad beans or seim

300g potato, peeled and chopped into small dice

300g cooked haricot beans

50g small pasta eg macaroni or broken pieces of spaghetti

For the pistou/ basil sauce:

50g basil leaves

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon, course sea salt (half teaspoon of fine table salt)

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Lots of grated Gruyère or Parmesan to serve

Method:

Heat the olive oil in a large pan, add the onions and cook over a medium/low heat until the onions are soft but not browned. Add the tomatoes and cook over a medium heat until they’re quite mushy. Pour in the vegetable stock then add the green beans, courgette, broad beans, potato and haricot beans. Bring everything to the boil and then simmer for 10 minutes. Add the pasta and simmer until the pasta is cooked.

Meanwhile, make the basil sauce. Put the basil leaves, garlic, salt and 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil into a blender. Blend until the basil leaves are very finely chopped. You could also do this in a pestle and mortar as Mrs David did.

When the pasta is cooked, stir in the basil sauce. Serve hot with plenty of grated Gruyère or Parmesan and crusty bread.

This soup is actually better if made earlier in the day then reheated later, giving the flavours more time to get to know each other.

The Way We Eat Now is a fortnightly column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains. Pamela Timms tweets at @eatanddust and posts on Instagram as Eatanddust.

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