Joni Woolf — Pesto transforms ordinary soup: Try it

Published 11:09 am Saturday, February 16, 2019

“When I was sick and lay abed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.”
That’s according to the little boy in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic poem “The Land of Counterpane.”

That may have worked for a child in the late 19th century, but when I am feeling poorly (I currently am a pitiful shut-in, coping with bronchitis), I gather ‘round me cookbooks of all kinds, food magazines, old hand-written recipes that bring back a hundred memories: it is food that restores my body AND my spirit. So when I read J.M. Hirsch’s story in Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street magazine about a recent trip to Provence and his search for a “taste of Marseille beyond the Provencal clichés,” I thought: this recipe is for me. It will heal my body and spirit.
Hirsch took an unexpected turn and ended up in the kitchen of a “Harley-driving nurse who teaches country dancing.” I thought those were certainly diverse talents to bring to a pot of soup, but I read on. Her cooking is as bold as her lifestyle and her bean and vegetable soup is transformed by the addition of something I would have not thought of adding to soup — pesto! She calls it pistou, not pesto, but it is the same thing, as the recipe will illustrate. So here is her recipe and her method (though she makes her pistou in a mortar and I make pesto in a small food processor, as this version calls for).

Soupe au Pistou
8 ounces (1 ¼ cups dried pinto beans, soaked overnight before)
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 medium leek, white and light green parts only, quartered lengthwise and sliced
1 medium head garlic, top ½ head cut off and discarded plus 5 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 ounce (about 2 cups lightly packed) fresh basil
1 ounce Parmesan, without rind, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons pine nuts
4 ounces small pasta, such as ditalini or elbows
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 small zucchini, cut into ½ inch pieces
In a large bowl, combine the beans with 8 cups water and 1 tablespoon salt. Stir, then let soak at room temperature for at least 12 hours or up to 24 hours. Drain the beans and add them to a large pot along with the tomatoes, leek, garlic head, bay, thyme, and 9 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium-high, then reduce to medium and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally and adjusting the heat to maintain a simmer until the beans are tender, 45 to 55 minutes. Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine the basil, Parmesan, 2 tablespoons oil, smashed garlic cloves, pine nuts, and ½ teaspoon salt. Process until the mixture has a spreadable consistency, 30 to 60 seconds. Transfer the pistou to a small bowl and set aside.
In a small saucepan over medium, heat the remaining olive oil until shimmering. Add the pasta and cook, stirring often, until toasted, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
To the beans, add the carrot, 4 teaspoons salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are barely tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the toasted pasta and zucchini, then continue to cook until the pasta and zucchini are tender, 6 to 10 minutes. Remove and discard the bay. Using tongs, remove the garlic head from the pot and squeeze the base of the head to release the cloves into the pot. Then squeeze the tomatoes that are still whole until they burst. Taste the soup and adjust seasonings. Ladle the soup into bowls; swirl 1 tablespoon pistou into each.
Add a loaf of French bread and a bottle of wine (red or white) for a complete meal. I feel better already!’

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at