Ribolata: Medieval Italy's Brilliant Answer To Shephard's Pie

Friday, July 27, 2012

I love dishes like this....

The history, the story behind them is so rich and recognizable that you can't help but feel and taste the love and necessity and connection to their makers. Ironically, what we consider most as "comfort food" happen to rise from the humble beginnings of peasants, "lower class" poor people who had to rely on their skills and imagination to transform simple ingredients they could forage for themselves or whatever scraps were left from their lords or masters, into sustainable and nurishing food for themselves and their families. They had to make use out of leftovers to stretch meals to feed not one day but three or even four. They had to scrounge around the forests and marshes for ingredients to bolster their diet. And as the example of ribolata's humble beginnings, use the scraps of medieval lords to prepare their own dinners.

Ribolata is a hodgepodge of vegetables and sometimes meats, cooked together into a hearty stewlike consistency and often served either with pasta cooked inside or bread inside or out. The original ribolatas used the leftover main courses of the Tuscan lords the night before -- scraps of meat and primarily vegetables that were not consumed at the table and the next day thrown into a pot with perhaps inexpensive cuts of proscuitto ends or beef tips if they were lucky enough, and cooked with the stale bread left not eaten or whatever was left of the unused pasta dough.

What begins as a "what the hell is in here" type of meal ends up being a rich, hearty stew of absolute goodness. And the best part is, it's a great way to use those leftovers or do as a make-in-advance meal for it does taste better the next day! And using stale bread really, really makes the dish, I swear it!

"Purists" will argue that a ribotala should consist of only vegetables, beans, and maybe the occasional sprinkling of parmesan. I disagree completely and confidently. Ribolata is not so much about a specific dish, but rather a concept; sitting and keeping down to each and every ingredient goes againt the very definition of how ribolata came into being! It's about using what you have, what you have left over, what you need to get rid of, and making it all go together as harmoniously as you can. And a little sprinkling of parmesan cheese didn't hurt nobody!

This recipe below is a nice, balance example for the modern ribolata I think. In the spirit of using on hand and just mixing in all the craziness, I begin with some sausage. Add pancetta if you have it instead, or even Amererican style bacon. Or leave out the meat completely! Onion, carrot and celery along with onion are a must -- back then and for today -- for a base of any stew or meal really that will be authentic and have any sort of base of flavor. Go heavy on the garlic, for it's how they kept healthy and away from infection back then and today. Tomatoes offer sweet acidity while broccoli rabe adds a nice balance of savory-bitterness. Use kale, mustard greens, or collard greens instead if you've got 'em. Bay leaf adds depth of flavor while oregano gives a gently brightness. I add grains of paradise because it would have been a spice they used back then. Chicken and beef broths offer richness and flavor to the soup, and are totally within the spirit of "throw it all in." Beans and pasta are optional but tasty, and I splurged on the fresh crusty bread this time, but feel free to use stale! I love chiabatta the best!

Enjoy this soup. It's nourishing, healthy, fun and meant to be low-maintenance. Get the kids involved and talk about the history of the soup. Let them (and yourself!) remember the humble beginnings we all came from. And make a toast with that wine we're so fortunate to enjoy in today's times.

Bon appetito!

1/4 lb mild italian sausage
1 Tbp olive oil + 1 Tbsp for vegetables
1 large white onion, chopped small
2 celery sticks, ends trimmed and chopped small
2 carrots, peeled and chopped small
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 cup chopped broccoli rabe (about 1/4 of a bunch; the amount chopped should be around 1 cup total)
2 cups chopped tomatoes with juices (fresh or 1 (12 oz) can of chopped tomatoes)
1 bay leaf
1 tsp dried oregano (or 1 Tbsp fresh)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 tsp ground grains of paradise (optional)
4 cups beef broth
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup canned beans -- kidney, canneloni, etc. -- drained and rinsed under cold water
1 cup ditalini pasta or other small shaped pasta
fresh parmesan cheese for garnish
fresh crusty bread for serving

Heat the one tablespoon of oil in a large pot. Add the sausage and brown, rendering the fat. Using a slotted spoon, remove the meat from the pot and reserve to the side. In the same oil add the onion, celery, and carrots all at once. Add the other tablespoon of oil if the sausage didn't leave enough fat to cook the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook on medium-low heat until softened, 10 minutes. Add the garlic and broccoli rabe and cook another two minutes. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, oregano, and both broths, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom with the juices as you go. Mix well to combine and bring soup up to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat down to low and cover with lid. Let cook for 30 minutes for flavors to develop.

Now add the beans and pasta. Cook uncovered until pasta is cooked through -- about 10 minutes -- and the beans are tender.

To serve, simply ladle out generous portions of hearty soup into bowls and add a generous sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan cheese on top. Garnish with the fresh bread, or conversely for real authenticity, cube the bread and mix it right into the soup before serving.

Can serve hot, warm at room temperature, or even slightly cool.

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