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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