The French have imposed their own pronunciation on the Italian minestrone to describe a hearty soup of boiled vegetables and pasta. The Provençal pistou is a garlic, fresh basil, grated cheese, and olive oil pomade, descendant of the Genovese pesto, which contains pounded pinenuts and most often sauces pasta. A soupe au pistou is a minestrone into which, at the moment of serving, a pistou is incorporated. Beyond that point of definition, no two are alike and, despite Italian antecedents, all are jealously Provençal.
Some people prefer to cut all the vegetables into tiny cubes and boil them rapidly for about 20 minutes; others cut them into chunks, adding certain at different times and cooking until the potatoes begin to disintegrate and the squash has melted to near dissolution. Some add chopped tomato to the soup and none to the pistou. The Varois consider white beans and squash essential to a smooth body (fresh basil and large squash, from which slices are cut, are stocked in all the local shops for 6 months of the year, both destined only for use in soupe au pistou); in the Alpes-maritimes, white beans are rarely added and the use of squash is either unknown or thought to be heretical.
Soupe au pistou has been fairly widely popularized in American kitchens—and American friends never fail to be astonished at the goodness of a pistou that has been patiently pounded in a mortar rather than violently emulsified in a blender . . .
The thing, in itself, is like some unleashed earth force, sowing exhilaration in its wake—but, in that wake, nothing else may be savored, for it has a distinctly paralyzing effect on the palate; one may as well make it in quantity and plan to make a meal of it . . . And it is a sure wine-killer, so one may as well settle for a well-chilled, light-bodied, dry rosé.
The pistou is most often mixed into the soup before its arrival at the table, but, not only is it kinder to those guests who are shy of garlic to serve the fearful paste apart, but also the ritualistic aspect of each person’s serving himself from the mortar deepens the joy and the group involvement; soupe au pistou creates an atmosphere that deserves to be pampered.
Add leeks, onion, carrots, potatoes, squash, white beans, and the bouquet garni to salted, boiling water and cook, covered, at a light boil for about ½ hour; test the beans for doneness and, if necessary, cook a bit longer, or until they may be crushed with little resistance while remaining still completely intact. Add the green beans, the zucchini, and the macaroni and cook another 15 minutes (depending on the quality of the macaroni—it should be well cooked, but not falling apart—and on the tenderness of the green beans).
While the soup is cooking, prepare the pistou: Pound the garlic, basil, salt, and pepper to a paste in a good-sized mortar (a quart-sized marble aïoli mortar is perfect—use a wooden bowl if nothing else is available), using a wooden pestle and alternating between pounding and turning with a grinding motion. Work in some cheese until you have a very stiff paste, then add about one third of the tomato, pounding and grinding to a paste, more cheese, a bit of olive oil, more tomato, and so forth, the final addition of cheese bringing the consistency to that of a barely fluid paste. Add the remainder of the olive oil slowly and progressively, turning the while. It will not produce a genuine emulsion—and should not—and should be thoroughly mixed each time it is served out.
Serve the soup boiling hot, the mortar of pistou at the table. Each guest stirs a small ladleful (
Copyright © 1974 by Richard Olney. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.