I have never met a Mediterranean home cook who did not impress me with her soups.
When I lived in France, I spent a fair amount of time at Domaine Tempier, a winery in Bandol that is famous for its wines but also renowned in food circles for the cooking of its proprietress, Lulu Peyraud. I spent the harvest there in 1981, helping Lulu prepare lunches for the grape pickers every day and learning everything I could about Provencal food and Bandol wine.
Lunches were hearty meals that would sustain the workers through the long hot afternoons (I, on the other hand, required a post-prandial siesta). In the evenings Lulu always made a soup; sometimes it was a very light garlic soup or tomato soup with pasta; other times it was a more robust soupe au pistou, the Provencal vegetable and bean soup that is embellished before serving with a basil pesto (called pistou in Provencal).
Soupe au pistou is the signature spring/summer soup of Provence, particularly along the Riviera, where basil is abundant (and is often referred to as “pistou”). As you move east into Italy the name changes to minestrone, which is just an emphatic word for minestra, the Italian word for soup. On hot summer days cooks make minestrone in the morning, let it cool and serve it cold at midday.
There are many minestrones-winter versions and summer versions, minestrones based on something simple like cabbage or lentils or beans, or more elaborate combinations of beans and vegetables. The one thing all minestrones have in common is the fact that they are always a thick and filling mixture of vegetables, beans and pasta or rice. And they taste better with time.
Meat stock can be used for a more robust-tasting soup, but it is not a requirement. In the spring and summer, when the vegetables are so sweet and fresh, I prefer using water to get a broth that is the essence of vegetables. I have never met a French or Italian home cook that did it any other way. The one item that is essential to a richly flavored broth, and it is used in soups on both sides of the French-Italian border, is a rind or two of Parmesan cheese, which is included in the bouquet garni.
When I was researching Provencal soupe au pistou in France, each person I spoke with, and each cookbook author I read, was sure that his or her version of the dish was the true, authentic soup, la vraie. Many cooks insisted that the real soup could only be made in spring and summer, when fresh cranberry beans, green beans and tomatoes were available; they would never use dried beans. Still others used dried beans for the soup. I find that dried beans are an important ingredient, because their savory broth contributes much to the flavor of soupe au pistou. If I can find fresh beans, I am delighted for the addition, but their lack of availability does not mean I’m not going to make the soup.
Italian minestrones invariably begin with a long, gentle simmer of aromatic vegetables-onion, carrot, celery, garlic-in olive oil; sometimes a small amount of pancetta or butter is added. The amount of olive oil varies widely, from a couple of tablespoons (which is what I use) to half a cup. Once the aromatics have cooked down, the remaining vegetables and water or broth are added, the mixture is brought to a boil, the heat reduced and the soup simmers for an hour or more. Cooked dried beans are added toward the end of cooking, along with the pasta or rice that will enrich the soup.
In Provence, on the other hand, I found that most cooks simply throw all of the ingredients into a pot, let the mixture simmer for an hour or two, add pasta, and serve the soup when the pasta is cooked, adding the enrichment at the end, in the form of the heady pesto. This is a very relaxing way to make a soup. You can prepare the vegetables one at a time, adding them to the pot of water as they are ready.
I do one thing differently than traditional cooks. To have a more colorful soup, I hold back half of the green vegetables-the green beans, peas, zucchini-and blanch or steam them separately, adding them just before I serve the soup so that they can heat through, but still retain their bright green hue.
Not all great spring soups require as much time and effort as a minestrone or soupe au pistou. The easiest soup on earth is garlic soup, and this is a great time of year for it, because you can use fresh garlic and embellish it with bright peas, sugar snap or English, green beans or favas.
So just because the weather is turning warm and the days are lengthening, don’t forget about soups. Spring markets offer up a gold mine for light soups and robust minestrones, sparkling with produce, their broths the sweet outcome of a long slow simmer of many aromatic vegetables.