Over croissants and coffee at a bakery in downtown Manhattan, lauded, legendary chef Michel Roux — behind Le Gavroche and The Waterside Inn, one of England's three Michelin-starred establishments — was telling me that his ideal meal at home was soup. Momentarily struck by his regal demeanor and intense presence, I missed exactly how he'd said it. "Soup?" I asked, hoping he would repeat himself.
"I like to make myself soup for lunch, sometimes dinner. Soup and a piece of good bread and butter. That's all I need."
Roux has come out with another cookbook (his 17th!), The Essence of French Cooking, it is a lush ode to the agriculture, viniculture, and cookery of France. "I spent two months crisscrossing France," he says, "as a little gentle reminder, to see in the field, the different species of cow, to see the wine, the cheese. I'm talking about quality, not only the volume... The meat, the fish, the game, it goes on. This is a land full of nutritious soil, rivers, waters, fields. Good ingredients are harvested and collected and grown in every region, in every corner. If you don't have the best ingredients you can't make good food. France would be pretty dumb if they couldn't produce some good food."
Roux's new cookbook is full of essential techniques, precise instructions, and like his other books, his elegant and yet comfortable style. As Roux talks I am imagining him at a country table, eating soup and a crusty loaf of bread. A glass of wine nearby. It sounds pretty nice, actually.
The thing about soup is that it's a distillation of flavors; it's a sauce and a meal in one. It's also really hard to make great soup because it requires a lot of tweaking, a good palate, a good base. Fortunately, chef Michel Roux has laid out a number of soup recipes that can be tweaked and adapted without losing their soul. Here's an example, a minestrone that doesn't even call for stock. Though Roux makes his minestrone in the spring, he's adapted the recipe (see the variation, below) for fall and winter. Skip the favas and peas and use any mild green vegetable you have on hand. Let the garlicky pistou do all the flavoring for you.
Minestrone au Pistou
This delicious soup can be served throughout the seasons, even in the height of summer. The pistou, or pesto introduces Mediterranean flavors—reminiscent of Nice for some, or of Italy, specifically Genoa, for others. It's not practical to make the pistou in a smaller quantity, but you can store the rest in the refrigerator and use it for another meal—serve with pasta, risotto, or simply on slices of beautifully ripe tomatoes.
Serves 6 to 8
7 oz [200 g] tender fava beans in small pods (see variation, below)
3 ½ oz [100 g] tender peas in small pods (see variation, below)
3 ½ oz [100 g] carrot
3 ½ oz [100 g] potato
3 ½ oz [100 g] turnip
1 small leek, well washed
1 tender celery stalk
3 ½ oz [100 g] zucchini
4 ¼ qt [4 L] water
1 medium onion, peeled and studded with 2 cloves
1 bouquet garni
3 ½ oz [100 g] green beans
7 oz [200 g] plump tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
3 ½ oz [100 g] elbow macaroni
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Just under 1 cup [75 g] Parmesan, freshly grated, to serve
4 garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup [50 g] pine nuts
40 basil leaves
Just under 1 cup [75 g] Parmesan, freshly grated
13 Tbsp [200 ml] olive oil
Pod the fava beans and peas and set aside separately. Peel the carrot, potato, and turnip. Cut these and the leek, celery, and zucchini into 1⁄8 to 1⁄3 in [5 to 7 mm] dice; keeping each vegetable separate.
Pour the cold water into a large pan, salt lightly, and add the clove-studded onion and the bouquet garni. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then lower the heat and simmer 20 minutes.
Add the carrot, leek, and celery dice to the pan and cook over gentle heat 15 minutes. Add the potato, turnip, green beans, fava beans, and diced tomatoes and cook 15 minutes over medium heat. Finally, add the zucchini, peas, and macaroni and cook until the macaroni is done. Remove the bouquet garni and onion and keep the minestrone hot, if you intend to serve it imminently.
To make the pistou, put the garlic, pine nuts, and a pinch of salt in a food processor or mortar and process or crush with a pestle to a purée. Add the basil and process or grind to a purée again. Add the Parmesan and process or stir in for 30 seconds. Finally, pour in the olive oil in a thin, steady stream, with the food processor on the slowest speed or whisking constantly with a balloon whisk in the mortar, as you would for mayonnaise, until the oil is completely absorbed. Season generously with pepper.
Serve the minestrone in a large tureen with the pistou and grated Parmesan on the side.
> In winter, you can use more root and seasonal vegetables, such as celery root, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, etc. Fava beans and peas are more appropriate for spring and summer.
Reprinted with permission from Michel Roux and Quadrille Publishing.