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Today, soupe au pistou: The French answer to minestrone, and the cold-weather answer to pesto.
It's hard to explain why we love our favorite colors, but we do: Mine is green. It's part of the reason I get so excited whenever I head to the farmers market, especially in the spring and summer (when everything is green) and part of the reason I have filled my apartment with plants. Green is the color I associate most with my landscape-designer mother (who maintains a whole grove of houseplants and a booming garden of flowers and herbs in the yard of my childhood home)—and so it's in the fall, when green gives way to orange and brown and gray, that I always become homesick.
In the summer, my mom collects and freezes extra herbs—especially basil, green gold for her very Italian culinary repetoire—so that she can use it all year. I think about this as I buy bouquets of basil from the farmers market in New York and bring them back to my gardenless, yet lovable, apartment, prop them up in a jar of water, and race against their inevitable wilting to use the leaves as quickly as I can. For whatever reason, I always forget to stash any of the leftovers in the freezer until summer is over, and that's when I realize that there is only a week (or two) of fresh basil left.
My mom's cookbook collection includes the full suite of Moosewood cookbooks, remnants from her mother's vegetarian years and her own hippie-ish upbringing; they're some of the first cookbooks I learned to cook from. Mollie Katzen's Winter Pesto—a recipe I've gratefully borrowed and adapted—is very forgiving when I forget to freeze my basil. The pesto gains its brightness from spinach, lemon juice, and fresh parsley, and its familiar pesto character from Parmesan cheese, nuts, olive oil, and dried basil. The result isn't quite identical to a classic pesto, but it's excellent on pasta or in soup. Soupe au pistou is the French answer to and my own version of Italian (and my mother's) minestrone. It is hearty and simple and warming; spoonfuls of pesto unite the soup, and this cold-weather sauce from dried basil means I can have something green all year round.
Makes 3 cups of pesto; 6 servings of soup
For the winter pesto (adapted from Mollie Katzen):
3/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup dried basil
4 cups fresh spinach, firmly packed
Juice of 2 lemons
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
2 to 3 garlic cloves
Handful fresh parsley
For the soupe au pistou:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
1/4 cup fresh fennel (or celery), chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small waxy potato, chopped into 1-inch cubes
One 14-ounce can whole tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 cups vegetable stock
3 cups water
1 can cannellini beans, drained
1/2 pound small pasta (like ditalini)
1 handful fresh spinach
Winter pesto, for serving