In summer so many vegetables beckon from the garden it’s hard to choose, so I make soupe au pistou. Every country has its multiple-vegetable soup. In Italy you’d make minestrone. What makes this French Provencal one a treat is the last-minute addition of basil, garlic and olive oil, pounded into a paste in a mortar. The pounding implement, the pestle, is what gives pistou its name.
If the ingredients in pistou sound familiar it’s because they’re just like the ones in Italian pesto, which also includes pine nuts and parmesan cheese. Both are fine additions, and if you must be authentic you can substitute a French cheese such as gruyere. But it’s hard to gauge authenticity in a dish that began in Genoa, then crept along the French coast. By the time it gets to your kitchen, anything might happen to it.
To construct the recipe, walk out into the garden and pick what is fresh and ripe. This is the best way to cook from the garden, and many traditional dishes have formed around clusters of ingredients that are all in their glory at the same time. The moment for soupe au pistou is when basil is abundant, garlic is freshly harvested and there are lots of beans — both snap beans and shell beans. Summer squash, new potatoes and tomatoes are frequent players, but rarely brassicas like broccoli. Those are part of the fall and winter flavor complex and tell a different story.
Some cooks add pasta such as macaroni, and the inclusion of meat makes this a robust one-pot meal. Alice Waters puts lamb shanks in hers. I sometimes use small chunks of slab bacon. But vegetables, sautéed or simmered with a light touch to highlight their freshness, are the main attraction. My rainy-day version of this soup starts with a long-simmered vegetable broth, which is then strained, and the pesto is pounded by hand. But in reality, I tend to make the sunny-day version, which starts with veggies picked an hour before the meal. Tomatoes, peeled and cut in biggish pieces, go in at the very end. The pistou sauce is made by stuffing as many basil leaves as I can into the food processor with garlic and chunks of parmiggiano-reggiano. This whirrs for a minute while I dribble in olive oil. After mounding the vegetables, along with their cooking liquid, in each person’s bowl, I spoon a big dollop of pistou into the center so they can admire its bright green color, inhale its heady fragrance, then stir it in. The whole garden seems contained in that bowl.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”