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Marsielle Style Soupe au Pistou

The Provençal counterpart to the Pesto of Genoa, Pistou (pees TOO) is an intensely-flavored, uncooked, fresh herb and vegetable sauce composed of crushed garlic, basil, tomato and olive oil. This unique sauce’s moniker comes from the French verb “Pista”, meaning to crush or pound, and refers to a pestle, the instrument used to macerate its ingredients into a homogenous, creamy paste. French Pistou differs from its Italian cousin, Pesto, in that a heftier dose of garlic, a bit more salt, and the addition of a hard cheese, such as Parmesan or Gruyere, is an optional, regional variation rather than a stock ingredient (Towns near the Alps favor Gruyere, while Parmesan is the cheese of choice in areas bordering Italy). And, pine nuts never make an appearance in this classic, southern French cold sauce – pignolias are switched out for vine-ripened tomatoes. This ubiquitous Provençal condiment seasons soups (added 10 minutes before serving or stirred into the soup at the table), is used as a smear for breads, or acts as a sauce stirred into hot pasta dishes. Pistou also makes a great topping for grilled fish, a healthy alternative to butter in baked potatoes or mixed into scrambled eggs!

The classic method for creating Pistou involves layering its ingredients in a specific order—garlic, salt, basil, cheese (optional) and tomatoes – as you grind it by hand in a marble pestle into a paste. The upside to this traditional method, rather that using a blender, is that the sauce retains a vibrant, bright-green color and a more intense, basil flavor (macerating basil with steel blades and knives discolors it, creating a darker green color in the finished sauce). However, it’s a labor-intensive process that requires a large-sized mortar and pestle (not readily available to the American kitchen) to accommodate the requisite 4 cups of fresh basil leaves and 3 plum tomatoes.

This quick-and-easy updated version starts out using the traditional culinary technique of initially macerating the chopped garlic with salt in a pestle to create a paste, a crucial step which releases more oil and flavor, softens its texture and dissolves the salt, then finishes it in the blender by adding the garlic paste, torn basil leaves, chopped tomatoes and olive oil. The ratio of basil leaves is reduced while the amount of chopped tomatoes is increased to avoid the problem of an unappealing, dark green color without sacrificing taste. Pistou not only enhances the flavor, but also deepens and enriches the color, of this fresh, summer-based vegetable soup.

Provençal Vegetable Soup with Pistou
Serves: 4-6
Image of Soupe au pistou
5 cups filtered water
4 cups homemade chicken stock (can substitute Swanson’s chicken stock)
4 Mexican spring green onions
1 bunch green onions (scallions)
1 /2 tsp. celery seed
1 /2 tsp. black peppercorns
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. Kosher salt
2 bay leaves
4 carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
4 large plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into ½-inch dice
1 /2 cup canned white kidney beans (cannelloni), rinsed and drained
3 medium zucchini, cut into ½-inch dice
1-1/2 cups cooked macaroni, room temp.
6 Tbsp. of Pistou

Makes: 2 cups

7 cloves garlic, smashed, peeled and minced
1 tsp. Kosher salt
30 basil leaves, washed and air dried on paper towels
6 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
6 Tbsp. olive oil

Place garlic in pestle and sprinkle with salt. Smash garlic into a paste and add to blender. Place tomatoes, basil into blender and purée. Drizzle olive oil into blender at a low speed until incorporated; then set aside Pistou in a bowl and cover.

Soup Preparation:
In a stockpot, place water, chicken stock, Mexican green onions, scallions, garlic, bay leaves, black peppercorns and celery seed and maintain at a a low simmer for 1 hour. Strain stock, remove vegetables and place strained stock back into pot. Throw out cooked vegetables. To the broth, add carrots and simmer for 8 minutes, Add zucchini, cannellini beans and tomatoes, cook until just tender, about an additional 10 minutes. Add macaroni and Pistou, cover, take off stove and allow soup to sit for 10 minutes. Serve Soupe au Pistou with a side dish of Pistou at the table.

Notes from the Author:
Pistou should never be cooked—add it to soup after it has been taken off the heat, and let it sit for no longer that 10 minutes before serving.
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