In the food counterculture, the well-heeled cabal that militates against fast food and overprecious chefs, Frankenfoods and pesticides, and antibiotically treated meat, ribollita is the poster dish. What more could Slow Foodies ask for than a peasant soup “reboiled” from yesterday’s leftovers? Devotees of cucina povera, the cooking of the poor, could hardly invent anything “poorer” than this celebrated and adored member of a whole, hearty Italian family of “poor” soups and peasant minestre. And there is the added touch of poignance that this is a Tuscan peasant soup, now that rural Tuscany is mostly populated by expatriate Germans and by Brits who jokingly call it Chiantishire.
Far be it from me, however, to vie with my betters over who is more down to earth. I like a peasant soup as much as the next college graduate, and ribollita is a great peasant soup, but it has inspired the kind of dogfight over authenticity among its nonpeasant fans that peasant food so often does.
After all, the point of getting back to a preindustrial, uncontaminated style of eating has to be that we decadent urbanites can find a path back to a Rousseauian simplicity, to a real, viz., an authentic, country table. No microwaves need apply. And the ingredients must be precisely the ingredients traditionally used for each dish in the age of horsedrawn plows.
If you scan the list of ingredients below, you will be struck by one item that you didn’t grow up with in Akron. Cavolo nero, literally “black cabbage, ” is the equivalent for this recipe of what mountain climbers call the crux of a climb, the one place on a pitch that has to be overcome if you are going to succeed in moving upward to the next pitch or finish the ascent. Put simply, no cavolo nero, no ribollita.
I had been told by dyed-in the-homespun ribollitistas practicing their religion in Manhattan that cavolo nero was unavailable on this side of the Atlantic. I’d have to rent a villa in Radda in Chianti near them if I wanted to make ribollita myself. Then I opened Benedetta Vitali’s Soffritto, Tradition and Innovation in Tuscan Cooking (2001) and discovered that cavolo nero was actually sold in the New World as elephant kale or lacinato kale.
Although Ms. Vitali is a real Tuscan and runs a restaurant in Florence, she took the trouble to find out how American readers could find what they needed to duplicate her food. No longer did I have to decide whether to cross the Atlantic or make do with ordinary kale if I was going to purify my toxic soul with ribollita.
But don’t get me wrong, I will be happy to make this soup with the traditional crux (and cruciferous) ingredient, but I’ve tried it with kale and even plain green cabbage, and the idea was strong enough to survive the substitution. This is life in the big city. Get used to it. But eat more ribollita.