Soupe au Pistou with Pancetta

June 4, 2009

 

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Pancetta. Pan. Cet. Ta. The word smacks on my lips, across my teeth, a fine, smokey, salty sound. It almost sounds like chewing. Or like something a busty Italian would sing over a sizzling, steaming skillet, “Pancet-ta!” Its chewy texture and long lasting flavor is the stuff great meals are made of. Never again will I consider a pot of vegetables without this versatile manifestation of pig.

It started with a pot of soup that I’m long overdue in recounting. I’ve been busy fawning over a graduate for the last week–amid many tears and half-packed valises–so it’s not for lack of longing: I would do anything, anything to relive my first affair with pancetta. The implication is true, I’m ashamed to say. Before last week, I’d never cooked with this miracle ingredient. I’ll admit, am generally pretty wary of cooking with pork products, and for no good reason.

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I enjoy the once-yearly Polish sausage served at my family’s Easter table, and I indulge in the occasional bacon-accompanied pair of eggs, or a prosciutto-wrapped slice of melon in summer. These are things I like, nay, love, but haven’t adopted as daily indulgences. There’s something really, well, meaty about pork. Even veal has a softer, subtler flavor. Pork is really right there, smack on the tip of your tongue, assaulting your taste buds (forgive the pun) with its savory, fleshy flavor.

In general, pork has always been a side-dish, a garnish to enhance a plate of something else. Even though this classic vegetable soup could hardly be called a meal of pancetta, the rich, salty flavor comes through in every bite, wrapping itself subtly around each piece of potato, every bean and wilted leaf of spinach. A mere 4 oz of chopped pancetta rendered more than 12 quarts of the most spoonable–dare I say addictive–vegetable soup I’ve ever tasted. After having almost single-handedly slurped the entire batch myself, I vowed to make another as soon as possible.

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The soup began with a handful of browning pancetta, popping and browning dutifully at the bottom of a pot. When it was crisp and golden, I added a series of spring vegetables, each one stirring the smell anew. Sweet fennel and onions; bright squash and carrots; the aromatics of a bay leaf. Somehow, the pancetta offered itself to each one, enhancing them as individual ingredients and as a lot…oh, sweet miracle food. After all the flavors had mellowed together, it was truly a perfect spring meal and the ideal resting place for an abundance of seasonal produce.

The vegetables I included in this recipe are by no means the only ones that could be used in such a soup. Play around with your favorites or with what you have on hand, but keep sizes, textures and consistencies the same. For example, use winter squash in lieu of potatoes or kale instead of cabbage. One caveat: don’t expect the same results without a sweet pancetta broth to start with.

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Soupe au Pistou with Pancetta

adapted from Gourmet Magazine

SOUP

  • 1/4 lb sliced pancetta, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 fennel bulb, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1 white onion, chopped–use a large or small onion, as per your preference
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 small, white cabbage, cored and chopped (about 2 cups)
  • piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (2-4 inches, and optional)
  • 3 yellow summer squash or zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 c small red potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves (not California)
  • 9 cups water
  • 1 (10-oz) package frozen baby lima beans
  • 1/2 lb haricots verts or other thin green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 (15-oz) can white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 5 oz baby spinach (about 5 cups)
  • salt and pepper
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PISTOU


  • 3 large garlic cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1/4 extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 c grated parmesan (1/3 cup)

* You can also make this pistou with the addition of ground pine or walnuts, as it is pretty much just a simple pesto. Adding parsley or roasting the garlic beforehand would also nicely enhance the dish.

FOr SOUP:

Cook pancetta in oil in a large heavy pot (at least 7 quarts) over moderate heat, stirring occasionally until slightly browned–about 7 minutes.

Stir in fennel, onion, carrots, and cabbage and cook, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is wilted, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add cheese rind, squash, potato, thyme sprigs, bay leaf, 1.5 tsp salt and water and bring to a boil.

Lower heat and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes.

Add all beans and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes more.

Discard cheese rind, thyme sprigs, and bay leaf.

Just before serving, stir in spinach and stir until wilted.

While soup is simmering, MAKE PISTOU:

Mash garlic into a paste with salt using the back of a knife or with a mortar and pestle.

Blend with basil in a food processor until finely chopped.

Add oil and cheese (and any additions) and purée.

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