Autumn is the time for warm soups. Hearty, comfort food. Ready for dunking crusty white bread or sprinkling with croutons. The perfect antidote to the rainy day blues.
Having said that, we are having one of the warmest autumns on record. So there is still basil growing in my garden in mid-November. So how do I salvage the sad-looking basil and bring some warmth to my table? Nothing comes as resplendently to my mind as pistou soup – warm, nutritious, and packed with the last of the summer veg, then finished with a large dollop of oh-so-flavoursome pistou.
Pistou is a bit of a revelation for me. I got told off for calling it pesto. It originates from the south of France; simpler than its more famous Italian near-namesake. Just three ingredients are needed, basil, garlic (lots of it), and good olive oil. Proof that sometimes less is more. Bright green, fresh and garlicky. Just one spoonful transforms a simple vegetable soup. It takes me back to the sweltering heat of summer with the scent of my herb garden and va va voom of pungent garlic.
In this recipe, I’ve added some croutons made from cubes of firm-cooked polenta. And to give the soup a little extra body I’ve added a handful of orzo pasta because in our house soup tends to be eaten as a main course. It’s also a great way to get my daughter interested in soups – she does like fishing such little treats out of her bowl.
Anyway, here’s the recipe, loosely based on one from a favourite chef of mine, Raymond Blanc. Unlike Monsieur Blanc I cannot claim any authority on French cuisine, I hope I have done justice to the classic Provençal version. I can certainly promise you, c’est magnifique! I was genuinely gutted when I discovered that there was none left for a second helping.
Pistou SoupCourse: Main, starterCuisine: FrenchDifficulty: Easy
- For the pistou
40g fresh basil (blanched)
4-5 fat cloves of garlic chopped roughly
80ml good olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to season
- For the polenta croutons
100g quick cook polenta
400ml boiling water
Olive oil for frying
1 clove of garlic
- For the soup
1 onion (finely chopped)
1 fennel bulb (finely chopped)
1 medium courgette (chopped)
1 medium carrot (diced)
80g broad beans (double podded)
60g frozen peas
80g french beans (chopped)
1 large tomato (finely diced)
60g orzo (or similar small pasta)
1 litre light veg or chicken stock (or water)
40g parmesan cheese (grated)
Freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
- Serve with
- You’ll need to make the polenta in advance and leave it for at least 4 hours in the fridge to set. Cook the polenta in a saucepan over a low heat with the boiling water whisking continually for about 8 minutes (or follow the instructions on the packet). When cooked, spread it out on a flat bowl or a cake tin. Leave it covered in the fridge for 4 hours or overnight.
- Prepare the pistou by blending the garlic, basil, and olive oil together. Season generously and keep aside.
- Dice the polenta into 1cm cubes and fry in the olive oil along with the crushed garlic over a medium flame, stirring and shaking the pan occasionally to stop them from sticking. Remove the garlic as it starts to brown. When crispy, set the croutons aside on a kitchen paper-lined plate.
- In a separate pan boil the orzo until almost cooked. Drain and set aside in a bowl. Stir in a glug of olive oil to stop it from sticking.
- Heat up the stock or water in a deep pan.
- In another heavy-bottomed deep pan, fry the onions, fennel, courgette, and carrots over medium flame until almost cooked (about 5 minutes). Add the french beans and fry for a further 2 minutes.
- Tip in the warm stock from step 5 and add the cooked orzo from step 4, broad beans, and peas. Simmer for about 2 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper.
- Stir in half of the pistou and the tomato. Simmer for a couple of minutes. Adjust the seasoning, if needed.
- Portion into warm bowls. Garnish with a few croutons, grated parmesan, and an extra spoonful of pistou in each bowl. Serve with the remaining croutons and some baguette or crusty white bread.
- Most recipes for pistou soup use plain water rather than stock. Personally, I love the flavour I get from a good stock.
- Broad beans always taste better to me when double-podded. If they are not in season frozen beans will do but it’s worth the trouble of double podding them. Just cook in boiling water for 2 minutes and then blanch in cold water before squeezing the kernels out of their skins.
- You can put all sorts of different vegetables in this soup. Feel free to experiment.
- If you are rushed then you can skip blanching the basil, but be warned that once pureed it is likely to lose its lush green colour. How to blanch the basil? Simply throw the basil into boiling water for 25 seconds. Remove it using a slotted spoon and pop it into ice-cold water for a minute
- This soup can be easily vegan. Simply use veg stock instead of chicken and skip parmesan.