On most Saturdays, a fresh, crusty loaf of sourdough bread appears in my kitchen. With it comes the promise of thick slices of toast slathered in jam, crusty bases for a golden array of scrambled eggs or a platform for melting cheese. It seems impossible, given these options, that I don’t devour it entirely in a day. But sometimes, the weekend comes and goes and leaves behind a hard heel of bread, recoiling in a crumpled paper bag at the end of the bench. This is when I’m most excited, because it means I have a key ingredient that cannot be purchased in a store: stale bread.
A frugal kitchen finds a use for all odds and ends, with ends turning into beginnings of new meals. Stale bread makes excellent croutons for soups or salads and breadcrumbs that can be stored in an air-tight container for up to a month. But on these mid-winter days that are only briefly acquainted with sunlight, and are quickly enveloped in dense fog or frost, I like to turn my stale bread into soup.
The Tuscan name for this soup is Ribollita, which certainly sounds more appetising than “stale bread soup” until you translate it to English and find yourself eating “reboiled”. Name aside, it is a soup that mops up left over ingredients, extending their life by turning them into something hearty, satisfying and ever so tasty. And it’s one of those dishes, like Bolognese and curry, that taste better the next day.
A traditional soup base is transformed into something surprising with the addition of 2 cups of stale bread. The chunks of bread melt into the soup slightly, their texture becoming similar to gnocchi. A parmesan rind, that was stashed away in the freezer after the rest of the parmesan was enjoyed, adds a rich flavour that belies this soup’s humble beginnings. Adding a bunch of greens is an excellent way to clear out the crisper draw in the fridge. Don’t balk at the amount of olive oil. One cup seems too generous, but I assure you that it brings all the ingredients together without looking or tasting like an oil spill.
Serve this soup with a grating of fresh parmesan over the top (knowing that the rind of this cheese is an excuse to make this soup again in the future) and a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper. No bread roll required, it’s a meal unto itself.
Stale Bread Soup
Serves 6, perfect for leftovers and freezing
- Olive oil
- 1 medium onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 stalks celery
- 1/2 cup fresh parsley and rosemary, roughly chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
- 2 x 400g tins of tomatoes
- 1 bunch of leafy greens like kale or swiss chard, stemmed and chopped
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 cups cooked cannellini beans or chickpeas
- 2 cups stock (or water, or broth from cooking the beans if you did those from scratch)
- 1 piece of Parmesan rind
- 2 cups good, stale bread without fruit or nuts or seeds, crusts removed, torn into rough 1/2-inch pieces
Heat 1/4 inch olive oil in a large pot. Cook the onion, garlic and celery, salting them as soon as you add them to stop them browning. When they’ve begun to soften, add the herbs and chile flakes. Add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes.
Add the chopped greens and water. Cover the pot and cook over low heat until greens are wilted. Add the beans, broth and parmesan rind. Bring it to a simmer, then add the bread and 1/2 cup of olive oil.
Cover the pot and turn the heat as low as it will go, and cook for half an hour, checking occasionally to make sure it’s not burning, and adding a little stock or water if it seems to dry. The bread must cook, and absorb everything it can, and then melt into the soup a bit.
Stir in another 1/2 cup olive oil (yes!), taste and remove the cheese rind. Serve warm, topped with freshly grated Parmesan and freshly ground pepper.
Recipe slightly adapted from one of my all-time favourite cookbooks, An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler