Whenever I can I read the New York Times "Portraits of Grief," a daily series of personal glimpses of the victims of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. I am not aware of anyone I know having been there. I am instead searching for a common connection, bonds of brotherhood, perhaps-- and the need for putting names and faces to my nameless, faceless grief. Last week, the headline "a Fearless Cook" caught me unawares and I found my heart beating as I searched the photographs and word portraits.
Every cook’s most asked question is, “What is your favorite dish,” and most of us answer something different each time -- according to the weather, the company, the occasion, our mood, and the ear of the inquirer. In truth, most of us do want to be remembered for some special food, something that will be spoken of when memories are shared about us. And we wish that every meal could make its mark, could reach for the sky in its perfection. In the South, women are known for the specialties they bring to funerals and church suppers -- Aunt Ruth’s carrot cake, orMaMa Dupree’s caramel cake-- without which an occasion would not be complete.
Ribollita is just such a fitting memorial for Lydia Estelle Bravo, who died at the World Trade Center. The mention of it brings up memories of comforting food shared by large groups of laughing people, whether in a café or sitting around a long table in a Tuscan farm house. Ms. Bravo loved cooking, even taking cooking lessons at Peter Kump’s (Sic) New York Cooking School. Her fiance said she cooked Ribollita in their New York apartment the night before she died , accompanied by some Sangiovese wine.
A specialty of Tuscany in Central Italy and the heart of the Cianti region, Ribollita varies every time you eat it, tomatoes dominating in their season , and a special Italian green leafy vegetable (“Cavelo Nero”)and cabbage as it heads into the fall. (I use a mixture of collard greens and cabbage and it works just fine.) It is, simply put, vegetable soup, reboiled (“Ribollita” means just that , with the additional caveat of "cooked a long time" built into its definition) and served over the traditional unsalted Tuscan bread in the bottom of a dish, then sprinkled with an extra virgin olive oil, and perhaps Parmegiano Reggiano, the unique cheese from Parma, Italy. Usually ribollita is eaten with Tuscan’s special wine, Chianti Classico, which by Italy's legal definition is primarily made from Sangiovese grapes. Since many of the vineyards that grow the Sangiovese grapes for Chianti Classico also grow olives and bottle their own olive oil, the whole meal - the wine, the extra virgin olive oil and the cheese, makes a completely compatible experience. The best of everything.
Sometimes the bread breaks up enough to make a thick soup eaten with a fork. Other times, its vegetable broth reigns, and a spoon is used. Nothing else is needed, except good friends and loved ones.
Now, as I recall the number of times I ate Ribollita in Tuscany , another face comes into my mind, that of a stranger, a women who so loved life that she cooked the food she loved and God gave the grace to cook it the night before she died. May I make every meal for my loved ones as memorable as this one was . And when I cook, as I will today, I will bless the food as I cook it, rather than at the table, and think of her.
This recipe is not meant to be followed exactly – omit or add as you like, including water, to get the flavor and texture you like with the ingredients you have at hand. Leftovers refrigerate well for several days, or freeze.
¼ - ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 finely chopped onion
1 medium leek (optional)
1-2 finely chopped garlic cloves
8 ounces red cabbage, shredded
8 ounces Savoy cabbage or collard greens , shredded
1-2 peeled chopped carrots. optional
1-2 peeled celery stalks (minus leaves), optional
2-4 cups drained canned cannellini or white northern beans
1 cup canned peeled tomatoes, coarsely chopped, with their juice
Freshly ground pepper
1 slice good crusty Italian bread for each serving
1-2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmgiano-Reggiano for each serving
Basil, parsley or other fresh herbs, chopped
Heat a heavy casserole or soup pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when hot add the onion, leek and garlic. Cook until soft. Add the cabbage, collards, carrots, celery, drained canned beans, and tomatoes with their juice. Season with pepper and salt. Add 5 cups of water and bring to the (sic) boil. When it is boiling, reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 1-2 hours, according to your taste. (Many Italians like it almost creamy. Others like it when you can tell the beans are beans.)
Lightly toast or grill the bread, or use stale bread, and tear into big pieces, some in the bottom of each soup bowl. Ladle the hot soup over the bread and let it stand for about 5 minutes. Just before serving, drizzle a little of the olive oil over each serving and sprinkle with the Parmiagiano-Reggiano cheese and fresh herbs if desired..