This is a soup (soupe) from the region of Provence in southern France. It is generally made in August and September when kitchen gardens are at their peak, producing vegetables typical of the Mediterranean area such as tomatoes, onions and courgettes (zucchini). Pistou in the Provençal dialect means pestle as in “mortar and pestle” and refers to the practice of crushing the fresh basil leaves into a paste mixed with olive oil and other ingredients. This paste has come to be known as pistou when served with a vegetable soup.
The one ingredient that is absolutely necessary is fresh basil, lots and lots of it. Do not try to make it without the basil, do not try to make it with dried basil, and please do not add or substitute other herbs. If you want to do so, fine, but if you do this please do not call it “Soupe au pistou”.
The following recipe serves four amply. In Provence a family will make its entire meal of this soup; if you intend to serve it as a first course, it will easily serve six or more.
This will take roughly 40 minutes to prepare and an hour to cook. It keeps perfectly well overnight; I often prepare most of it one day, store it in the fridge, then the next day I add the green beans and finish cooking it while I prepare the pistou.
For the soup itself, you will need:
4 white potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
2 large courgettes, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 pound of fresh broad beans, shelled
1 large white onion, peeled and minced
1/2 pound fresh runner beans, topped and tailed, cut into 1” sections
and the following for the pistou:
A WOODEN MORTAR AND PESTLE
If you don’t have this, you can try using a steel mixing bowl and something that approximates a pestle.
It might work.
2 large, very ripe tomatoes, skin and seeds removed, finely chopped
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 very large bunch of fresh basil, stems removed, leaves roughly chopped
1/3 cup of olive oil
A small bowl of freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
Wash and prepare all the vegetables. Set aside the runner beans, tomatoes, garlic, and basil. In a large pot bring six quarts of salted water to a boil. Toss in the potato, courgettes, onion, and broad beans. When the water comes to a boil again, lower the heat and simmer. Add the runner beans after 45 minutes and continue cooking for another 15 minutes.
Prepare the pistou by putting the garlic and basil in the mortar and pounding with the pestle until it begins to break up a bit. Add the tomato one large spoonful at a time, continuing to pound. Once this is halfway to a smooth paste, add the oil several drops at a time, still pounding. Finally, sprinkle cheese into the mixture and beat it into a stiff paste.
Serve the soup very hot and pass around the pistou. Everyone adds as many spoonfuls as desired and blends the paste into the broth. Bon appétit!