Updated: Dec 22, 2018
by Ippolita Douglas Scotti:
Ribollita is the symbol of the Florentine poor's cuisine. It is a comfort dish, typically eaten during the chilly winter days, and its origin dates back to the Middle Ages. Among the servants of feudal lords, this dish was made from the leftovers that remained of the “offa”—a kind of simple flat bread that the lords used as a dish and never consumed. The offa and the leftovers were wrapped and boiled with water to make a thick soup that was gradually flavored with other vegetables. This soup was reboiled (ribollita) and would feed large families for days.
This ancient recipe made from leftovers has evolved and refined over time and is now universally coded with three typically Tuscan ingredients: stale bread (without salt), cannellini beans, and black cabbage. Italian soups without these ingredients do not have the right to be called a "Ribollita"—they are simply soups with bread—which is a whole other thing entirely.
You may ask, "Black cabbage? What is that? And why?!" Cavolo Nero Cabbage is basically the Lacinato kale found in most markets these days. It is a hearty leaf, full of nutrients and fiber. In Italy, it is important that this "black cabbage" gets at least one icy night during its growing season. Below zero temperatures, harmful for other vegetables, are necessary to break down and tenderize the fibrous leaves for the ribollita, which enhances the flavor.
Fresh thyme (in Florence it is called "pepolino") is always added to ribollita to achieve the traditional flavor. Another indispensable step is to "re-cook" the soup each day by gently boiling it again after it sits. This allows all the ingredients to blend properly, obtaining the typical consistency of this excellent recipe. A final drizzle of raw extra-virgin olive oil and a dash of black pepper finish the dish.
In Florence, there is no typical trattoria that does not proudly feature this very traditional dish on their menu, but to taste the real ribollita, you need to be invited into a Florentine kitchen to discover the traditional secrets of preparation. The recipe follows a very long ritual that, by necessity, takes at least two days to properly prepare, starting with the creation of the "bread soup" (minestra di pane). The final miracle takes place, and the ribollita, full of many healthy flavors of the Tuscan countryside, achieves its true, full-bodied and delicious identity from the past.
1 cup dried cannellini beans
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 yellow onions, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup cavolo nero (lacinato kale), chopped
4 cups water
Whole wheat, rustic, stale bread (unsalted)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Soak beans overnight and cook until tender.