I don’t think there is anything in Provence (southeast of France) like a bowl of pistou soup to celebrate the arrival of summer. This traditional soup has been made for centuries and each family has its own recipe, which can slightly vary (mine definitely does). The smell of basil, the taste of garlic, all the ripe vegetables, beans AND pasta, it all combines to make one heck of a comforting soup . I know it’s not summer yet but the weather has been so nice lately, it practically feels like summer so I started craving pistou soup. As I pretty much indulge all my cravings and as the veggies at my local grocery were looking riper and riper by the day, there was no way I was going to wait two more months before getting to eat this bowl of sunshine. So here you go!
This recipe comes to me from my mamie (grandma), so as controversial as it may be (not restricting myself to summer veggies, cheese in the pistou sauce), it’s my favorite version and I hope you’ll like it too. Every year we would take our summer holiday in France, and every year my grandma would be waiting for us, a cherry clafoutis in the oven and a big pot of pistou soup on the table. It was such a welcoming sight after an 8h+ flight (and having been apart for 11 months). My grandma was a caring and gentle woman but a tad shy and her love and attention were definitely manifesting through her food. She is the one who taught my dad how to cook, and who in turn taught me.
WHAT’S A PISTOU?
Pistou soup takes its name from the pistou sauce that is served along with the soup. Pistou, in turn, takes its name from the Provencal or Occitan (regional languages in France) verb pistare (= crush/pound). In Provence, pistou is sometimes used as a synonym for basil. It’s a sauce made by pounding basil, garlic and olive oil together, and it’s prepared mainly to add to this soup. This sauce (like pesto sauce) should never be heated, that’s why it’s added at the end when the soup is ready.
Traditionally, you would make your pistou sauce using a mortar and a pestle instead of a blender. I find the blender so much more convenient but if you want to use the traditional method: first crush the garlic in the mortar, then add the basil leaves and pound with a rotary movement, add the cheeses and keep mixing with the pestle. When it reaches a creamy consistency, slowly pour the olive oil and mix well.
USING THE BEST VEGGIES (AND HAVING PATIENCE) IS KEY
Simple food requires good quality ingredients because the ingredients really are what’s gonna make this soup shine. Obviously I am far from making pistou soup with vegetables taken from my own garden (like my grandma and now my dad), but I try to only use ripe vegetables, full of flavor and sunshine. If your basil is looking a bit sad and wilted, your pistou is simply not going to taste amazing. Maybe you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to get vegetables at their peak, and this soup really is worth the wait. You can use fresh tomatoes instead of canned tomatoes. Swap the tin for 2 medium peeled tomatoes.
I had never observed anyone making pistou soup, so when I first moved out and decided to make some I was all like ‘Let’s chop this and this and that, cover it with water, let it simmer awhile, easy-peasy, so simple’. Yes, simple, but oh my god it takes so long to actually chop this and this and that. I understood why my dad would migrate to a table to sit down while cutting everything. Okay, it doesn’t take as long as stuffing 130 sarmas but it does take half an hour (more if you’re like me and you get distracted by whatever podcast you’re listening), so beware. However, after cutting every vegetable into 1 cm (½ inch) pieces, this recipe is a breeze, promise.
There are so many arguments around pistou soup. Some would tell you that only using summer vegetables is acceptable (goodbye carrots, turnip et tutti quanti), while others would say that carrots are fine because you should start the soup with a soffrito (like you would for a minestrone soup). This week my dad kept reminding me to add red beans to my pistou soup recipe (it’s not that I forget, I’m just not crazy about red beans but never had the heart to tell him). So for him, red beans are essential (basically you could add as many types of beans as possible), but for me not so much. My dad also puts a leek instead of a celery stick, which must be heresy to some (winter veggies -> bad, bad, bad). Celery isn’t really a summer vegetable, but it is used in a soffrito, so it kind of makes it okay (at least, that’s my reasoning).
I’m not a core believer in ‘authentic’ recipes. To me, pistou soup is the embodiment of the ‘make it with whatever you have in your garden/fridge and your own taste’ recipes. Don’t sweat it, your soup will turn out delicious, whatever you put inside, as long as you serve it with pistou sauce. As a child I was grossed out by having big pieces of vegetables in my soup, so my dad was mixing them for me (DISGRACE) with an immersion blender. And even mixed, the pistou soup tasted great.
CHEESE OR NO CHEESE?
Which brings me to another pistou soup controversy, cheese or no cheese? Traditionally, there is no cheese in pistou sauce (it’s not a pesto sauce after all), end of story. BUT I love cheese, as do unsurprisingly a lot of French people. So deviating from the original recipe, many started to add fromage râpé (grated cheese) to their pistou sauce. It brings it closer to its ‘cousin’ the Ligurian pesto sauce, making some people in Provence really really mad. I understand their point of view, nevertheless, cheese is very tasty, it makes pistou soup extra tasty and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I stick close to the pesto influences with pecorino and parmesan. I know a lot of French people who use grated Emmental, you do you.
* For a more classic cheese-less pistou sauce, follow the same instructions but only using: 2 garlic cloves, 2 bunches of basil (leaves only) and 4 to 5 tbsp of olive oil.
➝ What’s the difference between pistou and pesto? Pistou sauce comes from pesto sauce so they are fairly similar. However, there are no pine nuts in the French version and adding cheese is optional.
➝ Can I use store-bought pesto sauce for this pistou soup? Yes! You couldn’t find basil, you don’t feel like making your own pistou sauce, I get you, I’ve been there! You can use store-bought pesto, since it’s so similar to pistou, but if possible buy one made with olive oil and pine nuts (not the knockoff made with canola oil and macadamia nuts). And don’t reheat it, spoon a big dollop in your soup when it’s served.Print
Eating Provençal pistou soup in the summer is like eating a bowl of sunshine! Ripe veggies, beans AND pasta, the smell of basil, the taste of garlic, it all makes one heck of a comforting soup.
For the pistou sauce*:
- 15g – 2 bunches of basil, leaves only (around 50 leaves)
- 3 big garlic cloves
- 2 tbsp pecorino, freshly grated
- 4 tbsp parmesan, freshly grated
- 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
For the soup:
- 2 carrots
- 1 turnip
- 1 celery stick
- 350g green beans (2 ⅓ cups)
- 1x480g tin of plum tomatoes (17 oz)
- 1 big potato
- 2 zucchinis
- 120g white beans (⅝ cup)
- 120g red beans (optional) (⅝ cup)
- 100g dried short pasta (I use spaghetti that I break into tiny pieces ) (1 cup)
- 3 tsp salt
For the pistou sauce:
- Put all the ingredients in a blender and pulse, using the lowest speed, until the pistou reaches a spreadable consistency. Stop often to let it cool down because hot oil would change the taste of basil.
- If the pistou sauce is too thick, you can add a splash of olive oil to loosen it.
- Cover with plastic wrap and keep in the fridge until the soup is ready.
For the soup:
- In a large bowl, cover the beans with water by 5cm (2 inch), add 1 tsp of salt and let them soak overnight.
- Wash your vegetables thoroughly. Peel the carrots, turnip, potato and zucchinis.
- Cut the carrots, turnip, celery stick, green beans, plum tomatoes, potato and zucchinis into 1cm (½ inch) pieces. Set the chopped potato and zucchinis aside.
- Drain and rinse the beans. Place in a large saucepan or a Dutch oven, along with the chopped vegetables (except for the chopped potato and zucchinis) and 2 tsp of salt.
- Cover with 1.5L (6 ¼ cup) of water, stir with a wooden spoon and bring to the boil over medium heat. Then cover with a lid, reduce the heat to low and let simmer gently for 1h.
- Add the chopped potato and zucchinis, stir with the wooden spoon, put the lid back on and let simmer for 30 min.
- Add the pasta, put the lid back on and cook for a further 15 min. When ready the pasta should be soft enough to eat but still have a bite to it. If the soup is too thick, add a splash of water to loosen.
- Stir well and serve with the pistou sauce, and more grated cheese and some good quality slices of bread if desired.
Pistou sauce can keep for up to 1 month in the fridge if it is always covered with olive oil to maintain its freshness.
Pistou soup freezes very well; ladle any leftover cooled soup into a large freezer bag and freeze. It will last 3 months (or more but it’ll taste better eaten within 3 months).
- Serving Size: 1 plate
- Calories: 781
- Fat: 36.2g
Keywords: pistou soup, pistou, pistou sauce, French soup, soup, French recipe