Hands-off cooking is something most of us think of when it comes to multicookers, Instant Pots, and slow cookers—you know, the “set it and forget it” genre of cooking appliances. But I live in a modest Brooklyn apartment, so I have to be judicious in which cooking appliances I keep around. Even if I love it, if it’s a gadget I won’t use more than once a month, it doesn’t stay around. That’s why instead of pots with plugs and cords coming out of them, I’m pretty old school. My Dutch oven and I go way back, and let me tell you, I’m loyal.For this soup, my idea was to rumble through my fridge, gather up odds and ends, throw them in a pot, walk away while they roasted and their flavors intensified, then puree, and—shazam—soup! My first stab at this was dismal. Unfortunately I had dinner guests that night, too—and even though they ate the soup with smiles on their faces (why in the world did I think a puree of parsnips, beets, and tomatoes sounded good?), I knew in my heart that the soup stank.But I don’t give up easily. The next time, I approached the idea with intention. Rather than going for the rando odds and ends huddling in the corners of my vegetable bin, I purposefully chose vegetables I knew would be nice together after a good long roast in the oven: red bell peppers, carrots, onions, and kabocha squash. I wanted the soup to taste deep and rich without using a stock, so I turned to my umami arsenal of flavor boosters: miso, soy sauce, canned tomatoes, and a dash of smoked paprika. How could the soup not be delicious?I tossed the veg with a miso-oil paste and then roasted them just shy of an hour, until they were caramelized, tender, and sweet. Then I added the spices, tomatoes, and other liquids and simmered for just a bit more than an hour. My apartment smelled phenomenal! A quick blend later and I had a hearty, robust, totally complex soup that was incredibly healthy—and vegan, too. And I didn’t have to risk making my trusty Dutch oven jealous by sneaking around with an Instant Pot. Loyalty is a beautiful—and sometimes delicious—thing indeed.
I chased the flavor of a proper Tuscan ribollita for 17 years until I ate the genuine article again, finally, at Leonti, chef-owner Adam Leonti’s swanky new Italian restaurant in New York City. Leonti’s deeply savory version of the Tuscan bread and bean porridge was even better than the one I remember from a small hillside restaurant in Siena, Italy, so many years ago. (And that ribollita, which I ate on my first visit to Italy, was so perfect and nourishing that it made me forget for an hour that I was wearing my girlfriend’s puffy sweater because the airline had lost my luggage.) Leonti learned how to make ribollita from a restaurateur from Lunigiana, a three-hour drive northwest of Siena, paying close attention to the porridge’s humble elements: grassy-green, peppery olive oil; earthy, rustic bread; small, thin-skinned white beans; and most importantly, sofrito, the finely chopped, slow-cooked mixture of carrots, onions, and celery that gives ribollita its extraordinary flavor.At Leonti, sofrito is the foundation of ragù, and of the hot broth served to guests upon arrival—and it’s such a crucial ingredient that his cooks make about 75 quarts of it a week. Leonti used to laboriously chop his sofrito with a knife by using a rocking motion. “Then I watched Eat Drink Man Woman, and the best part is the beginning, with the Chinese chef chopping with big cleavers,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s the move!’”So, Leonti bought some large cleavers in Chinatown and a wood butcher block and set up a sofrito station in the kitchen, where today his cooks rhythmically chop and break down the whole vegetables into rubble using the same kind of chopping technique I saw a barbecue cook use at Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, North Carolina, to break down the meat of whole smoked hogs into a fine mince. The size of the mince matters—the smaller the better—Leonti says, because you’re multiplying the surface area of the vegetables by a thousand-fold. More surface area to caramelize in the pan equals more flavor.When I made Leonti’s ribollita at home in my Birmingham, Alabama, kitchen, I tried the double-cleaver technique but quickly switched to an efficient, two-handledmezzaluna after too many stray bits of onion, carrot, and celery fell to the kitchen floor. I followed his advice and sweated the vegetables in olive oil in a Dutch oven, slowly cooking the mixture, stirring almost as often with a wooden spoon as you would with a roux. After 30 or so minutes, I turned up the heat until I heard that rapid sizzle, signaling that the sofrito was beginning to caramelize, creating a massive amount of flavor. When you build flavor from the bottom of the pot like this, the flavors continue to transform, concentrating even further when you add then reduce aromatic liquids— in Leonti’s case, adding crushed tomatoes and white wine, which cook down to a tomato-wine-sofrito jam full of umami. That flavor base then gets rehydrated with water, then cooks down again with the kale, potatoes, and bread—the latter adds tangy flavor and disintegrates into the soup to add texture. Finally, cooked beans—both whole and pureed—go in, thickening and tightening the soup into a porridge.Leonti serves many of his courses in gold-rimmed Richard Ginori china to frame his food in the Tuscan context. His food is big city fine dining meets cucina povera, the Italian cooking tradition born of necessity that elevates humble ingredients into dishes fit for a king. I asked him about the restaurant’s tightrope walk between high and low. “What is luxury? Luxury to a few is foie gras or truffles,” he says. “But the ultimate luxury is time and space. Those are the two most expensive things on the planet. Ribollita is such an expense of time. It’s the ultimate luxury.”Especially when you’ve spent 17 years searching for a proper recipe. —Hunter LewisCook’s note: Decent bread and canned beans work fine here, but if you shop for the best rustic loaf baked with freshly milled flour you can find, and cook your beans in extra sofrito a day ahead—especially white beans sold byRancho Gordo—your ribollita will go from good to great.
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