A few years ago I spent some time studying in Italy, and one wintry afternoon, I stumbled across a place called Nerbone in the markets in Florence. In between going to school in the morning and going to bars for aperitivo in the evenings, I would usually just wander the streets until dusk, taking in the magic of this historic city and hoping to find new places to inspire me. Sometimes it would be a gallery, more than often not, a hole-in-the-wall ‘paninoteca’ (sandwich shop).
On this afternoon, it was Nerbone, a bustling stand in the middle of the food markets, where they have been serving up some of the best roast beef panini and lampredotto (traditional tripe sandwich – although I could never bring myself to eat this one!) as well as an ever-changing menu of rustic, no fuss Florentine dishes since 1872. Wine served in tumblers, communal tables and a whole lot of chaos – it was probably my most visited lunch spot. If you were lucky, Ribollita was on the menu.
Literally meaning ‘reboiled’, Ribollita is a traditional hearty Italian soup that utilises classic Tuscan ingredients like pancetta (which can be omitted if you’re a vegetarian), bread and cannellini beans – it’s certainly robust and not for the faint-hearted. It’s even better the next day, and is my go-to comfort food on a chilly evening. The key to making this soup super tasty, is in the sweating off of the aromatics. You want to have the pot on a really low heat and take your time (I normally allow fifteen minutes to ensure the soup has really nice base flavours). Also, crusty day-old bread and good quality olive oil is equally important to ensure your Ribollita has the right texture from the bread, and an unmistakable spikey freshness which a nice extra virgin olive gives.
Ingredients (Serves 6-8)
Extra virgin olive oil
120g flat pancetta, cut into lardons
1 carrot, finely diced
2 sticks of celery, finely diced
1 onion, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
4 fresh bay leaves
½ tsp dried chilli flakes (or to your liking)
500ml chicken stock
800g tinned whole or crushed tomatoes
1 bunch cavolo nero
425g tinned cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
½ loaf day-old crusty bread
Parmesan cheese, grated
Extra virgin olive oil
Heat a few lugs of olive oil in a large pot over a medium heat. Add the pancetta, carrot, celery, onion, garlic, bay leaves and chilli flakes and sauté for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. You want them to be translucent and soft, but not coloured.
Add the stock, 500ml water and the tomatoes. Leave to simmer for 20-30 minutes.
Meanwhile you want to begin to prepare the cavolo nero. Only the leaves and very young stems will go into the soup, so trim the cavolo nero, discarding the woody large stems. Wash the leaves really well (the curly leaves are perfect hideaways for little critters) and chop roughly. Add the cavolo nero and the beans to the soup and cook for a further 15 minutes.
Roughly tear the bread and place in the soup, making sure the pieces are covered. At this point, the soup will be really thick, so if you like it with a bit more liquid, add some more stock or water. Cook for just a few minutes or until the bread has softened. Check for seasoning and add a little sea salt and/or pepper.
Serve into bowls with parmesan cheese and lashings of extra olive oil.