The ideal would be to use a terracotta pot, but a non-stick pot or saucepan will be fine as well. Soak the beans for at least 12 hours in cold water and then cook them for 1 to 1½ hours with 2 cloves of peeled garlic, a few sage leaves, 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Check them from time to time, to see when they are cooked. Lightly sauté the finely chopped onion and garlic in the remaining oil, then gradually add all the other vegetables cut into pieces, half of the beans put through a food mill (with the water they were cooked in) and the peeled tomatoes with all their liquid. Pour in enough vegetable broth to cover everything and cook over a low heat for 1 to 1½ hours. Half way through the cooking time, taste the soup and season with salt and pepper if necessary. Add the whole beans and stir well. Now take a large bowl and put a layer of thin slices of bread in the bottom, pour a few ladles of the soup on top, cover with another layer of bread, ladle in some more soup… and so on until have used up the ingredients. Leave to rest for around an hour before serving.
“Bread Soup” becomes… “Ribollita”.
To make real homemade Ribollita (which literally means re-boiled), proceed as follows: when you’ve finished making the “bread soup” and let it cool down – or if you have some left over – put it in a terracotta pot, scatter thin slices of onion on top, add some freshly ground black pepper and 3-4 spoonfuls of good extra virgin olive oil. Put it in the oven and let it cook until the onion is a light golden colour. Serve hot, but not boiling.
Old farmers in this area tell of the days in which, as children, they would watch the ritual every Friday. It was the day when farmers’ wives cooked a substantial, and excellent, first course – bean soup. The following day, Saturday, bread was prepared and baked for the whole week and the entire family (even some of the men stayed at home rather than going out to the fields, in order to help with this tiring and important task). The “stale”, leftover bread (a certain amount was intentionally set aside) was used for the soup. The other ingredients were seasonal vegetables from the kitchen garden, together with potatoes and beans, which keep well all year round. The next morning, what was left over from the abundant bean soup was seasoned with olive oil and “ribollita” (= re-boiled) in the wood burning oven (still hot from Friday’s baking), to become breakfast for people used to facing the day head-on.
Today that “leftover and re-boiled” soup, once our grandparents Saturday breakfast, is one of the most famous Tuscan dishes, along with “Pappa al Pomodoro” and the “Fiorentina” T-bone steak. It can be found in every restaurant or trattoria between Siena, Florence and Arezzo (sometimes good and even fantastic, others leaving much to be desired). Around here, especially in Florence, there’s also the slightly snobbish habit (either for its humble origins or, above all, because it fits perfectly with the most up-to-date tips for a healthy, balanced diet) of serving Ribollita at sophisticated dinners; as a first course or transformed – in minimalist style – into individual portions, morsels on spoons or salad leaves (finger-food, shall we say?), in the company of aperitifs and appetizers (an idea that would horrify the farmers’ wives of olden days, who would also object and say “…what about the slices of onion!?”).